Chapter three, “Social Morality,” in C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity has so far been the chapter that I agree with the most. But that by no means suggests that I agree with the chapter as a whole. There are still a number of problems with it.
Lewis begins by stating that “The Golden Rule of the New Testament (Do as you would be done by) is a summing up of what everyone, at bottom, had always known to be right.” A number of different cultural groups have a similar rule, but that by no means that it is known by everyone to be right. My biggest problem with me is it’s simplicity. I know how I want to be treated, but does that mean that everybody wants to be treated the same? Of course not. The golden rule suggests that everybody wants to be treated how I want to be treated, but that’s a dangerous assumption to make. Different cultures have different beliefs about proper treatment of others. In some cultures it’s considered rude to show up at a meeting early, but, in my culture, we’re encouraged to show up 5 minutes early. And even within one culture I can’t assume that everybody wants to be treated the same. Some people like to hug. They like to hug as a greeting and as a good-bye. But should I go around hugging everybody I know as a greeting? No. Not everybody considers that appropriate, even if they know you well. This suggests that the golden rule isn’t really all that accurate. It’s a useful tool for teaching manners and empathy to children, but it doesn’t transfer into adult society very well.
Lewis then goes on to discuss the Bible’s role in society. He says “And, anyhow, that is not how Christianity works. When it tells you to feed the hungry it does not give you lessons in cookery. When it tells you to read the Scriptures it does not give you lessons in Hebrew and Greek, or even in English Grammar. It was never intended to replace or supersede the ordinary human arts and sciences: it is rather a director which will set them all to the right jobs, and a source of energy which will give them all new life, if only they will put themselves at its disposal.” I agree with the first part of the last sentence. The Bible was written to reflect the accepted moral code of the time, it wasn’t written to supersede it, and it definitely wasn’t meant to put morals where there were none before. But I don’t agree with the second part. The Bible may help make certain moral codes more understandable to some people, but it doesn’t direct them.
He then goes on to discuss religion and politics. He states that “People say, ‘The Church ought to give us a lead.’ That is true if they mean it in the right way, but false if they mean it in the wrong way.” I really wish he’d quite stating that things should be meant “in the right way” as if that were a meaningful statement. He then says “By the Church they ought to mean the whole body of practicing Christians.” Can every Christian be said to belong to one church? Yes, Christians do all believe in the God of the Bible and Jesus Christ in one way or another, but that’s it. Every Christian has about as much in common with every other as every atheist has with every other. That is to say, not a lot. So how can anybody say “the Church”and mean every Christian alive? He then argues “And when they say that the Church should give us a lead, they ought to mean that some Christians-those who happen to have the right talents-should be economists and statesmen, and that all economists and statesmen should be Christians, and that their whole efforts in politics and economics should be directed to putting ‘Do as you would be done by’ into action.” This bit scares me. I don’t care if their are Christians in economics and politics. I don’t even care if they use their religion to support the decision to be in those fields. But I do care if they cannot put their religion aside long enough to consider how their actions will affect society as a whole and not just other Christians. And I certainly care when someone tries to say that all of societies leaders should be Christians. The only way they should all be Christians is if every member of a given society is Christian. Everybody deserves to be supported by their government, not just one group of people. He finishes this idea by saying “most people mean they want clergy to put out a political program. That is silly.” I agree, it is silly. What does the average clergy person know about politics?
Lewis then discusses the idea of charity and social welfare. He argues “It tells us that there are to be no passengers or parasites: if man does not work, he ought not to eat.” This is a very cold idea. There are people who can’t work. People with disabilities, both mental and physical. There are people who are injured and need to take time off for medical purposes. Should they starve because they happen to have suffered a misfortune? What happened to all humans having the right to life? And of course Lewis was ignoring women in this statement. Women weren’t expected to have jobs (other than motherhood of course). Why is it that men have to work while, in Lewis’s time, women weren’t supposed to? That is a very problematic idea. Lewis then claims that in a Christian society “Everyone is to work with his own hands, and what is more, everyone’s work is to produce something good: there will be no manufacture of silly luxuries and then of sillier advertisements to persuade us to buy them.” Again, only men are expected to work in this world. Personally, I don’t think I could do nothing but raise kids. I’d be very happy in a society where we produced what was necessary and traded good for good, and I’d happily give up a world of advertisements, but I don’t think giving up all luxuries is a good idea. We know that have time to do things just because they are fun is good for us. Music, books, even video games shouldn’t be given up just because they aren’t necessary. Lewis argues “To that extent a Christian society would be what we now call Leftist.” That society sounds more like Ayn Rand’s dream civilization to me, actually. It takes more than growing your own food and giving up luxuries to be considered leftist.
Lewis continues discussing his Christian society by stating “Thirdly, it is to be a cheerful society: full of singing and rejoicing, and regarding worry or anxiety as wrong.” Does this sound very Stepford Wives to anyone else? Wouldn’t that be a creepy place to live? And what’s with the shame aimed at negative emotions? They’re only bad if felt too often, or too extremely. Negative emotions in moderation are healthy. Nobody can be happy all the time, and anyone who tries to be is only going to do themselves harm. He then states “If there were such a society in existence and you or I visited it, I think we should come away with a curious impression. We should feel that its economic life was socialistic and, in a sense, ‘advanced,’ but that its family life and its code of manners were rather old fashioned-perhaps even ceremonious and aristocratic.” Anybody else thinking “Duggars”? I wonder if Lewis would think that they had created this Christian utopia that he’s talking about, because what he’s talking about sounds very much like their lifestyle. He goes on to say “We have all departed from that total plan in different ways, and each of us wants to make that his own modification of the original plan is the plan itself. You will find this again and again about anything that is really Christian: everyone is attracted by bits of it and wants to pick out those bits and leave the rest.” I think this is very true. I wonder how many Christians stand back and think “am I sure that I have the truth?” when they find themselves debating the meaning of some piece of scripture with another Christian. It seems like everybody claims to have the truth, but everybody’s truth is different, and nobody seems willing to consider that they may be wrong.
Lewis then begins to discuss charity. He claims that “In the passage where the New Testament says that everyone must work, it gives as a reason ‘in order that he may have something to give to those in need.’ Charity-giving to the poor-is an important part of Christian morality: in the frightening parable of the sheep and the goats it seems to be the point on which everything turns.” Wait…if everybody is supposed to work, and we’re all supposed to produce what’s necessary, why would we need charity? Charity assumes that people either cannot work or cannot make enough by working to support themselves.
He then argues that “Most of us are not really approaching the subject [scripture] in order to find out what Christianity says: we are approaching it in the hope of finding support from Christianity for the views of our own party.” This matches very well with something that a lot of atheists believe: Christians seem to quote the scripture that supports their beliefs and say that any scripture that goes against their beliefs is being taken out of context. This seems especially true when discussing things like gay marriage. Why is it that only what they agree with should be taken literally and the rest is just a metaphor? How does that make sense?
Lewis ends by saying “I may repeat ‘Do as you would be done by’ till I am black in the face, but I cannot really carry it out till I love my neighbour as myself: and I cannot learn to love my neighbour as myself till I learn to love God: and I cannot learn to love God except by learning to obey Him.” Love is not the same thing as obedience. I love my parents, but I certainly didn’t always obey them growing up. In fact, if you want to make your children hate you, force them to be perfectly obedient to you at all times. This idea that love and obedience are synonymous is one of the scariest things about certain Christian beliefs. Beating your children for disobeying, demanding that they do as they’re told without asking questions, trying to wipe out even the smallest signs of rebellion, it all sounds like an attempt to create slaves, not people who will one day be expected to think for themselves and be active members of society. And slaves seem to be what the God of the Bible wants. It’s creepy, and I can’t understand why anyone would think it’s a good thing.