Did you know that when C.S. Lewis was on his deathbed he was worried that his brother and his step sons would have nothing on which to live because all his books would go out of print? Now, nearly fifty years after his death his books go on and on being read by millions. Millions more are captivated by his enchanting children’s books, his science fiction, essays, sermons and lectures.
C.S.Lewis is perhaps most famous for his little book Mere Christianity. It is still a classic introduction which has brought thousands of people into a better understanding of Christianity. I am an ardent admirer of C.S.Lewis and his work, and the idea of ‘Mere’ Christianity has much to recommend it. Lewis’ wanted to follow and commend a form of Christianity which was simple and basic. “Let’s forget about all the persnickety arguments and denominational quarrels!” he might say. “Let’s put on one side all the debates about dogma, liturgy and minute theological points and focus on the basic beliefs and simple practice of the Christian religion. Let’s do what most Christians do and believe what most Christians have always believed. Let’s be ‘Mere’ Christians. This is certainly an attractive idea, however, there are a couple of problems with ‘Mere’ Christianity.
First of all, it’s not easy to decide just what that ‘Mere Christianity’ is. Who decides what is the essential core of Christianity and what is not? An Evangelical Christian may say all that matters is an individual’s ‘personal relationship with Jesus’. A charismatic will insist that they are also ‘baptized in the Spirit.’ A Presbyterian or Lutheran may say that Baptism in necessary while an Anglican will argue that two sacraments are necessary to salvation, while Catholics will have an even longer list. It’s nice to want ‘mere’ Christianity, but it’s only a theory because no one can actually define what that ‘Mere’ Christianity consists of, and where the borders lie. As a result many Christians want to put all those questions on one side as if they don’t matter. The problem is, living Christ’s life is complicated, and before too long anyone who really takes their Christian faith seriously will have to think these questions through.
There’s another problem with C.S.Lewis’ famous concept: too often ‘Mere Christianity’ becomes the lowest common denominator rather than the highest shared factor. What I mean is that Lewis wanted ‘Mere Christianity’ to be that body of belief and practice which united Christians of all denominations. Unfortunately, what results with those who seek ‘Mere Christianity’ is that in their attempt to agree with others, they end up with a sort of watered down, bland religion which no one can really practice because it is too wishy washy. In an attempt to avoid points of difficulty and disagreement, everything that has bite is omitted. What remains is a passionless, lukewarm, theoretical sort of religion which goes nowhere because it has run out of fuel.
Finally, there is a problem which Lewis himself hints at in his introduction, but then neatly steps around. In the introduction he 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 the hall I will have done what I have attempted to do. 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.”
In other words, ‘mere’ Christianity is only a starting place. It is Christianity for Beginners. C.S.Lewis himself expected people to move from ‘mere’ Christianity to something more. My own Christian journey has been a search for that ‘more’ the Lewis hints at. I was brought up in a loving, fervent Evangelical home in Pennsylvania. Our family were sincere Protestant believers. While attending the fundamentalist Bob Jones University I visited England a couple of times, and being entranced by C.S.Lewis and J.R.R.Tolkien and other Christian writers, became an Anglican. Feeling the call to ministry, I went to England, studied theology at Oxford. (for Lewis fans like me Oxford was a dream come true!) and was ordained as an Anglican priest.
Ten years later my search for more and more and even more Christianity led me to be received into full communion with the Catholic Church. Along that journey I never felt I was denying or abandoning the traditions I had within Evangelicalism and Anglicanism. Instead I felt I was simply adding to them. Now I serve as a Catholic priest. I’m the pastor of a parish and serve as a high school chaplain in Greenville, South Carolina. In this column, and in my blog (called Standing on My Head) and through my homilies and books and articles and radio work I wish to share with as many people as possible the joy I have of seeking not just ‘Mere’ Christianity, but ‘More Christianity’. The Catholic Church is often perceived as a joyless, ritualistic, legalistic, oppressive and out of date religion. I have not found it so. Instead it has become the bedrock and foundation point from which I have been able to embark on the greatest adventure of all–the adventure of following Jesus Christ.
I hope through this column that many more will come to see that Catholicism is the radiant fullness of the Christian faith. I won’t be arguing much and I don’t want to slam other Christians or be negative about anyone. Life’s too short for that. Instead I want to share with readers the mystery and the marvel of Catholicism. I want to share the power and the glory of our faith as well as the humor, humanity and humility of Catholicism. I’ll be discussing the whole breadth of our Catholic faith–doctrines and devotions, art and architecture, literature and liturgy, trends and traditions, saints and sinners.
I hope you’ll join me whenever you can, and that, if you like what you read you will share it with others, so that they too can move on from Mere Christianity to more and more and more Christianity.