Sunday, August 17, 2008

"Mere Christianity": Origins and Meaning

C.S. Lewis is known for his book Mere Christianity, published in 1952, but first spoken on the BBC beginning in the early 1940s. Lewis, however, did not originate the phrase "mere Christianity."

The phrase, as referenced by Lewis, goes back to 1680 in a work called Church History of the Government of Bishops by Richard Baxter (1615-91), a Puritan. In this work, Baxter wrote:
I am a Christian, a Mere Christian, of no other Religion; and the Church that I am of is the Christian Church ... But must you know what Sect or Party I am of? I am against all Sects and dividing Parties ...

Lewis sought deliberately to stay within the bounds of "mere Christianity" in his writings. As he wrote in the preface to Mere Christianity, "Ever since I became a Christian I have thought that the best, perhaps the only, service I could do for my unbelieving neighbours was to explain and defend the belief that has become common to nearly all Christians at all times."

Lewis likened "mere Christianity" to a hall with various doors leading to different rooms. Douglas Gresham, stepson of C.S. Lewis, once explained to me that Lewis had in mind the great hall of a home, perhaps something like Americans might think of as a living room, with doors leading to other rooms. In other words, Lewis did not have in mind a typical hallway. Thus Lewis writes, "If I can bring anyone into that hall I shall have done what I attempted."

In a BBC broadcast that first aired in January 1942, Lewis spoke the following words on the air, but they were omitted from the later printed version:
One thing I can promise you. In spite of all the unfortunate differences between Christians, what they agree on is still something pretty big and pretty solid: big enough to blow any of us sky-high if it happens to be true. And if it's true, it's quite ridiculous to put off doing anything about it simply because Christians don't fully agree among themselves. [cited in C.S. Lewis: Companion & Guide, p. 307]

In other words, throughout the centuries, Christians have always agreed on a core set of essential beliefs. There are differences, to be sure, which of course result in different Christian traditions and denominational squabbling, but the core remains and it is crucial.


WILL VAUS said...

I'm not sure about the hall being like a living room. The Kilns has a hall, as do most homes in the British Isles, and it is not like a living room. At best, as Lewis says, the hall is a place to wait in. "But it is in the rooms, not in the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals." I think if we picture the kind of hall Lewis had at The Kilns we shall have the right picture in our minds. There used to be a photo of it on the web site.

Also, I think it important to ask, where can we find a brief summary of this "mere Christianity" Lewis talks about? I think the answer is in The Apostles' Creed.

Robert Velarde said...

Thanks for the insights, Will. Here's the description Douglas Gresham offered of a great hall in some homes:

"To take the analogy of The Hall to its conclusion one has to know a bit about the society in which Jack lived and wrote. Every 'Great House' traditionally had a hall. This was the area into which newcomers to the house or visitors were welcomed and made comfortable. The Hall was often like a large sitting room, and from it there led off in many directions doors which led to to other parts of the house."

In this sense, I do think it is rather like an American living room, though most American homes are not designed in this manner.

And yes, the creeds are excellent starting points for getting a sense of "mere Christianity."