Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Mere Christianity?

In the Preface to Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis writes:

I hope no reader will suppose that “mere” Christianity is here put forward as an alternative to the creeds of the existing communions – as if a man could adopt it in preference to Congregationalism or Greek Orthodoxy or anything else. It is more like a hall out of which doors open into several rooms. If I can bring anyone into that hall I shall have done what I attempted. But it is in the rooms, not in the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals. The hall is a place to wait in, a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to live in. For that purpose the worst of the rooms (whichever that may be) is, I think, preferable…and, of course, even in the hall, you must begin trying to obey the rules which are common to the whole house.

I have been thinking lately of mere Christianity – not just the classic by C. S. Lewis, but the notion behind the work, the notion that there is an essential Christianity that may be abstracted from the various culture-laden and denominational-bound expressions of the faith, a “hall” of faith as distinct from the rooms. Call it minimal Christianity, pure Christianity, mere Christianity or whatever you will. That is what Lewis sought to express; that was his project.

I suspect—the greatness of his work notwithstanding – that such a project is bound to fail. It requires a neutral place in which an objective observer may stand outside the faith to judge what is essential in the faith. If Postmodernism has taught us anything useful at all it is this: there are no neutral places and there are no objective observers. We are all storied people; we all stand within a story and we are all formed by that story. I can only say, “To me this element of the faith is essential and that one is not,” but you have every right to contradict my opinion. If an Orthodox writer had attempted Mere Christianity, for example, there surely would have been a chapter on icons; they are an essential element of the Orthodox faith. And yet many other faithful view them as optional sacred art – at best – and as “graven images” – at worst. One man’s mere Christianity is another’s cultural accretion.

It probably does little good to appeal to St. Vincent of Lérins dictum here either: That which has been believed always, everywhere, and by all. This does not codify mere Christianity – what must be in the essential faith. It merely says what we cannot include in the faith. We cannot claim as the faith of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church that which lacks antiquity, ubiquity, and unanimity. Even those tenets of faith and rituals of worship that are ancient and universally accepted also originated in a cultural setting. Simply because they persisted across cultures does not mean that they are therefore essential.

So, I think it may not be possible to define mere Christianity except, perhaps, to explain to non-Christians – or even “new” Christians – some of the things that most Christians tend to believe and practice. This seems a worthwhile task of communication – many writers, ancient and modern, have attempted it – provided the limits of the task are clearly stated, much as Lewis does in his preface. Mere Christianity may provide a textbook synopsis of the faith, but not a description of a faith that may be lived.

The task that I do not find worthwhile – and even find antithetical to the faith – is that of creating and practicing a mere Christianity designed to appeal to the prevailing culture through accommodation to that prevailing culture, when, in short, the church turns over to the culture the task of determining what is truly essential in the faith. The result is a minimalist faith that seeks to eliminate everything intrusive or offensive from the gospel. And the result is predictable – and observable in many churches. A primitive worldview that embraces spiritual forces, miracles, virgin birth, etc., is not truly essential; a rationalist and deistic approach will suffice. A social morality that addresses how and with whom we have sex, how we earn and spend money, how we relate to rich and poor and to allies and enemies is not truly essential; an ethic of tolerance will suffice. A kingdom loyalty that prophetically speaks truth to power, that proclaims Jesus – and not any earthly Caesar – as Lord is not truly essential; patriotism and a voter’s registration card will suffice. And when the culture has stripped all nonessentials from the faith, when culture has defined mere Christianity, the church has been reduced to just another civic club that is useful for service projects and for sanctioning the public exercise of cultural religion.

Instead of mere Christianity, we need the fullness of the faith – everything the faith has to offer: the Church, the Scriptures, the creeds, the councils, the patristic texts, the ancient hymns and prayers and liturgies, the sacraments, the ascetic teaching and practice. In mere Christianity less is not more; less is merely less.

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