Mere Christianity | Study Guide

C.S. Lewis

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Mere Christianity | Book 4, Chapter 9 : Beyond Personality: Or First Steps in the Doctrine of the Trinity (Counting the Cost) | Summary



Lewis interprets the biblical injunction "Be ye perfect" as an indication of precisely what Christ offers to help us achieve. It is not an ultimatum that we must be perfect before He will help us. Because this perfection means He will remake us entirely, we must be aware of what we are signing up for when we turn to Christianity. Paradoxically, while God moves us into perfection and nothing less, He expects our constant failure and is delighted by our whole-hearted attempts that end in failure. Each time we fail he sets us aright. It is not our failure, but only our refusal to accept His help, that stops this process of Him making us perfect.

It is common to resist the full transformation once a few of our more bothersome traits have been remedied. We should, however, be concerned with what God wants us to be, not what we want to be. We can think about this resistance in terms of an unborn human who passes through stages of development that resemble ever more advanced life forms until it is born as a human infant. We are like the fetus, resisting the transformation into something more than "ordinary people."

As one walks the Christian path, tribulations arise and one might feel put out as to why difficulty should come now. This is God's way of stretching our capabilities and ensuring our continual growth. Paraphrasing the words of author George MacDonald, Lewis says it is as if God comes into our house to repair what is broken. Then, once he has finished, he knocks the whole thing down, for he is building a new house. In fact he is building a palace in which He will live. This demolition and rebuilding is "long and in parts very painful, but that is what we are in for."


Having established that the point of Christianity is to make us into little Christs or perfect reflections of God, Lewis asks us to consider the process by which this happens. This chapter has a tone of warning. It is meant to convey that this process is not blissful or comforting. Nor is it an easy, gradual improvement. It is not moral cosmetic surgery but complete destruction. We must have faith that we will not be left demolished but that we will indeed be rebuilt. Still, because we are attached to ourselves, we are not going to like it while it's happening.

Drawing on familiar motifs, Lewis uses the concepts of craftsmanship and evolution to illustrate the process. The metaphor of the fetus has a parallel meaning to that of the metaphor of the obstinate tin soldiers who resent their transition from tin to flesh. But with the fetus metaphor, Lewis is attempting to borrow some of science's credibility for his own purposes.

The idea Lewis is referencing when he describes the development of the fetus is popularly known as "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny." This theory, now discredited, was advanced by a scientist named Ernst Haeckel in the late 19th century. It claims that the entire evolutionary history of life is mimicked in the developmental stages of an embryo. The metaphor is a clever one but for the fact that it holds no scientific weight whatsoever.

Lewis's entire conception of the process of evolution is one that had already been scientifically discredited in his own lifetime. His conception is not that put forth by Charles Darwin, who posited natural selection as the mechanism underlying species differentiation and change. Instead, Lewis adheres to the conception of evolution advocated by Darwin's predecessor, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744–1829). Lamarck believed evolution was a continuous process of striving toward the perfection that the individual has most closely approximated. Lamarckian notions of evolution are unscientific because they project anthropocentric (human-centered) value judgments onto a natural process. Lewis reveals his Lamarckian sympathies when he refers to a person as the highest of the animals and to Christianity as the means by which evolution proceeds to a point of perfection beyond the human state.

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