Mere Christianity

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Themes and Colors
Morality, Religion, and Reason Theme Icon
Good, Evil, and Free Will Theme Icon
Christianity and Practice Theme Icon
Faith, Works, and Salvation Theme Icon
Christianity and the Two Kinds of “Life” Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Mere Christianity, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Christianity and Practice Theme Icon

In the third and fourth parts of his book, Lewis moves from an analysis of the logical bases for Christianity to a discussion of how a Christian lives—i.e., how to translate God’s teachings into one’s day-to-day existence. Lewis emphasizes the importance of Christian “practice: rituals, ceremonies, and other religious behaviors (e.g., praying, going to church, giving money to charity, etc.) that must be repeated again and again, sometimes against the Christian’s own will. It is not enough, Lewis argues, to merely believe in God and Christ; one must “exercise” this belief in the real world through the various forms of practice (an interpretation of Christianity that arguably reflects Lewis’s Anglican faith).

Lewis offers many different reasons for the importance of practice in the Christian religion. One of his most intriguing and controversial points is that Christianity is a religion of “the body as well as the mind.” At various points in the book, Lewis argues that Christianity is unique among world religions in glorifying the human body and encouraging its followers to respect their own bodies. Lewis even suggests that when good Christians worship Jesus Christ, they “feel” his presence in their bodies, not just their thoughts. While Lewis admits that he doesn’t know how, exactly, the human body can experience faith, he cites the religious importance of the body as a reason for such Christian rituals as Holy Communion, the act of ingesting wafer and wine that, according to Christian theology, either literally or symbolically become Jesus Christ’s blood and body. Lewis does not argue that all Christians must take Communion. However, he defends the practice of Communion on the grounds that it puts mankind’s entire being—body and mind—in touch with God. As a general rule, he argues that all Christians, regardless of their sect or denomination, must participate in some forms of practice as a way of engaging their bodies with God.

Another reason for the centrality of practice in Christianity is that practice is a vital reminder of the strength of Christian tradition. All Christians, regardless of their piety or passion, go through periods where they question their faith. In such times of crisis, Lewis argues, practice can be an important reminder of such doubters own religious belief. By praying in church, celebrating Christian holidays, etc., a reluctant Christian reminds herself that, while her own belief may be weak, the Christian religion itself remains strong.

The final—and perhaps most important—reason that Christianity requires practice, not just belief, is that practice and repetition are the best ways to foster genuine religious belief and passion. Lewis argues that Christianity requires various forms of practice and ritual in order to teach its adherents how to love God and Jesus. It is very difficult to start out loving God; however, humans simulate the love of God in the act of prayer, among other rituals. Gradually, the act of pretending to love God encourages genuine love for him. The notion that affected love leads to genuine love is one of the most famous ideas in Mere Christianity. Indeed, Lewis argues that when people pretend to like one another, they slowly begin to like one another. Thus, while it may be easy to make fun of arbitrary-seeming Christian practices like prayer, Communion, or Mass, Lewis argues that these practices, far from being arbitrary or absurd, are vital parts of the religion. By exercising one’s body and mind in praise of God, a good Christian can be reminded of the strength of the church and develop a sincere love for the almighty.

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Christianity and Practice Quotes in Mere Christianity

Below you will find the important quotes in Mere Christianity related to the theme of Christianity and Practice.
Book 2, Chapter 5 Quotes

There are three things that spread the Christ-life to us: baptism, belief, and that mysterious action which different Christians call by different names—Holy Communion, the Mass, the Lord's Supper. At least, those are the three ordinary methods […] I am not saying anything about which of these three things is the most essential. My Methodist friend would like me to say more about belief and less (in proportion) about the other two. But I am not going into that. Anyone who professes to teach you Christian doctrine will, in fact, tell you to use all three, and that is enough for our present purpose.

Related Characters: C. S. Lewis (speaker)
Page Number: 61
Explanation and Analysis:

Lewis claims that a Christian needs to believe in God, be baptized, and engage in some kind of concrete ritual, such as Communion or Mass, in order to truly be considered a Christian. His definition of a “true Christian” is both rigorous and loose: he insists that all Christians must be baptized (a rigorous interpretation of Christianity that many Christian sects would disagree with), and yet he also suggests that different religious sects can take different approaches to worshipping God, as long as they’re clear on the three main points he’s outlined in the passage.

In some ways, the passage is a good example of Lewis’s liberal, accommodating interpretation of Christianity. Unlike many Christian thinkers, Lewis believes that many different Christian sects worship Christ in meaningful ways (in other words, just because Lewis is an Anglican doesn’t mean he wants everyone else to be an Anglican). But at the same time, the passage is a good example of Lewis’s own specific interpretation of Christianity, which contradicts that of many other theologians. Many Christian thinkers have argued that faith in Jesus Christ (“faith alone”) is sufficient for salvation; Lewis seemingly disagrees with such a point of view, arguing that most Christians must engage in Christian practice, not just believe in Christian ideas.

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Book 3, Chapter 1 Quotes

Morality, then, seems to be concerned with three things. Firstly, with fair play and harmony between individuals. Secondly, with what might be called tidying up or harmonizing the things inside each individual. Thirdly, with the general purpose of human life as a whole: what man was made for: what course the whole fleet ought to be on: what tune the conductor of the band wants it to play.

Related Characters: C. S. Lewis (speaker)
Page Number: 72
Explanation and Analysis:

Lewis offers a three-part definition of morality: to be “good,” people must 1) cooperate and get along with one another; 2) be good and moral as individuals; and 3) remember the goal of life and for humanity in general—to achieve salvation in Heaven.

One interesting implication of the passage, which Lewis will explore in the rest of Book Three, is that it’s possible to abide by only one or two of the three elements of morality. For example, Lewis suggests that modern politicians and political scientists have largely given up on the second and third aspects of morality and focused their efforts on helping people get along with one another—a necessary but insufficient part of morality. Similarly, Lewis will show that it’s possible to focus too exclusively on parts one and two of morality; in other words, it’s possible to be a good person and get along with other people, and yet lack faith in the possibility of divine salvation.

The passage is important because it provides the framework for the remainder of Book Three of Mere Christianity. Lewis will use his three-part division of morality to talk about many different kinds of sin and immoral behavior.

Book 3, Chapter 3 Quotes

The application of Christian principles, say, to trade unionism or education,

must come from Christian trade unionists and Christian schoolmasters: just as Christian literature comes from Christian novelists and dramatists—not from the bench of bishops getting together and trying to write plays and novels in their spare time.

Related Characters: C. S. Lewis (speaker)
Page Number: 83-84
Explanation and Analysis:

Historically, there has been a lot of controversy over the proper way for Christians to run a society. At various times, Christian thinkers have argued for theocracies—in other words, societies in which holy leaders are responsible for deciding all matters of state—and at other times, theologians have argued that church and state should be separated very strictly. In this passage, Lewis offers an interesting compromise between these two points of view. He rejects the notion that a society’s religious leaders (bishops, priests, etc.) should be that society’s political leaders. However, Lewis does not advocate for the total separation of church and state. Instead, he argues that a society’s political leaders should be godly, pious people—but also well-trained in matters of state. Lewis makes an analogy—just as we should leave writing to the writers and teaching to the teachers, we should leave politics to the politicians, even if we would still expect them to be good, Christian people.

Book 3, Chapter 4 Quotes

Most of the man's psychological makeup is probably due to his body: when his body dies all that will fall off him, and the real central man, the thing that chose, that made the best or the worst out of this material, will stand naked. All sorts of nice things which we thought our own, but which were really due to a good digestion, will fall off some of us: all sorts of nasty things which were due to complexes or bad health will fall off others. We shall then, for the first time, see every one as he really was.

Related Characters: C. S. Lewis (speaker)
Page Number: 91-92
Explanation and Analysis:

In this interesting chapter, Lewis addresses the practice of psychoanalysis, which was in vogue in England at the time when Lewis was writing Mere Christianity. First pioneered by the Viennese psychologist Sigmund Freud, psychoanalysis presupposes that all human beings have an unconscious mind with its own independent thoughts, feelings, and desires. Moreover, Freud argued that human beings’ decisions reflect their conscious decision-making process, but also their unconscious, irrational decisions.

It’s understandable that Lewis would devote an entire chapter of his book to psychoanalysis (even though, in the 21st century, the scientific basis of psychoanalysis has been largely debunked), since Freud’s ideas could be interpreted to clash with the Christian doctrine of free will; if one’s decisions are subject to irrational, unconscious influences, then humans arguably can’t be held fully accountable for their own decisions. Lewis’s response is that a human being’s psychological makeup isn’t truly a part of that human being’s “self.” For Lewis, the existence of an unconscious mind doesn’t interfere with the concept of free will—unconscious mind or not, a human being still has the power to choose between good and evil. Therefore, the existence of an unconscious mind doesn’t preclude humans from being held morally accountable for their actions and being rewarded in Heaven or punished in Hell.

Book 3, Chapter 5 Quotes

Now suppose you come to a country where you could fill a theatre by simply bringing a covered plate on to the stage and then slowly lifting the cover so as to let every one see, just before the lights went out, that it contained a mutton chop or a bit of bacon, would you not think that in that country something had gone wrong with the appetite for food? And would not anyone who had grown up in a different world think there was something equally queer about the state of the sex instinct among us?

Related Characters: C. S. Lewis (speaker)
Page Number: 96
Explanation and Analysis:

In this controversial chapter, Lewis vigorously defends the Christian doctrine of chastity—in other words, refraining from sex before marriage (and, a little less controversially, engaging in nothing but monogamous intercourse afterwards). Chapter 5 is one of the most dated in Mere Christianity, not only because of the arguments Lewis presents, but because of the prim, evasive tone that Lewis adopts while making them; one has the uncomfortable sense that even writing about sex makes Lewis feel dirty.

Lewis offers the following analogy as “proof” that something is wrong with modernity’s conception of sexuality: imagine a hypothetical country in which people fetishized food. If there were a “strip-tease” in which someone slowly raised up a dish with a piece of bacon on it, it would be reasonable to say that there was something deeply wrong with that society. By the same logic, Lewis concludes, there must be something deeply wrong with Western society, in which the strip-teases involve actual human bodies instead of pieces of bacon. (Lewis seems not to consider the possibility that coyness, fetishization, and theatricality could all be aspects of the sexual instinct, not perverse corruptions of it.)

It’s important to keep in mind that Lewis does not argue that sexuality is evil; his point is that society celebrates sexuality to excess. From a contemporary perspective, it’s a little amusing to read Lewis’s critiques of 1940s British society—which was practically Victorian by comparison with 21st century America. Nevertheless, even if Lewis is too quick in his condemnations of the “celebration of sexuality,” perhaps he’s right to suggest that sex and sexuality should be enjoyed in reasonable moderation.

Book 3, Chapter 6 Quotes

Let the thrill go—let it die away—go on through that period of death into the quieter interest and happiness that follow—and you will find you are living in a world of new thrills all the time. […] It is much better fun to learn to swim than to go on endlessly (and hopelessly) trying to get back the feeling you had when you first went paddling as a small boy.

Related Characters: C. S. Lewis (speaker)
Page Number: 111
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, Lewis discusses the Christian practice of marriage, and argues that marriage is one of the most moral acts a human being can engage in. In this passage, Lewis defends marriage from one of its most persistent criticisms: that it’s impossible to stay “in love” with one’s partner for a lifetime. Lewis’s response to this criticism is to agree with it—of course it’s impossible to retain the same passion for one’s lover for decades. However, this doesn’t mean that marriage is flawed. Rather, Lewis argues, the beauty of marriage is that unites together young, passionate lovers, and slowly replaces their passion with a different kind of love—a love based on respect, friendship, and loyalty as much as lust or passion. Lewis compares the difference between love and being in love to the difference between swimming as an adult and learning to swim as a child. One could argue that swimming is more fun when you’re a child than it is when you’re an adult—but perhaps adults experience a sense of calmness and peacefulness while swimming that a child could never feel, and they can also swim farther and faster. By the same token, a couple that’s been married for fifty years might not feel the same passion that they felt when they were getting married—but that certainly doesn’t mean that their marriage is a failure, or that they don’t continue to love one another.

Book 3, Chapter 8 Quotes

That raises a terrible question. How is it that people who are quite obviously eaten up with Pride can say they believe in God and appear to themselves very religious? I am afraid it means they are worshipping an imaginary God. They theoretically admit themselves to be nothing in the Presence of this phantom God, but are really all the time imagining how He approves of them and thinks them far better than ordinary people.

Related Characters: C. S. Lewis (speaker)
Page Number: 124
Explanation and Analysis:

In Chapter 8, Lewis tackles the sin of pride—arguably the most dangerous and seductive sin of all. Lewis defines pride as the self “raising itself up.” A prideful person believes herself to be superior to others, perhaps even God. The great danger of pride is that it can “infect” even the most pious Christians. Indeed, it could be argued that the better Christian you are, the more likely you are to feel pride with your own piety.

Lewis is harsh in his condemnation of pride, recognizing that pride is a horrible sin. There are too many so-called Christians who profess to worship God, but in fact worship an imagined God who seems to approve of them and elevate them above others. Christians who think that their faith makes them better than everyone else aren’t really Christians at all.

Book 3, Chapter 9 Quotes

Do not waste time bothering whether you 'love' your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him.

Related Characters: C. S. Lewis (speaker)
Page Number: 131
Explanation and Analysis:

This is another famous passage from Mere Christianity; in it, Lewis offers up the controversial theory that by pretending to love other people, Christians can gradually teach themselves to love other people. With this idea, Lewis is arguably ahead of his time. The psychology of “positive thinking” and “positive reinforcement” hadn’t yet come into vogue when Lewis was writing Mere Christianity, but its premises are essentially the same as the argument Lewis makes in this chapter: if we imagine ourselves doing things, we’ll be able to do them in real life.

The passage also reiterates the importance of ritual and practice in the Christian faith. While some Christian thinkers have argued that “faith alone” will redeem mankind, Lewis offers a much different assessment of the religion; he claims that good Christians must engage in ritual, prayer, etc. One reason why Christian practice is so important is that it helps to make us better Christians—for instance, by affecting a love for God in prayer, we come to love God sincerely.

Book 3, Chapter 10 Quotes

Crowns are mentioned to suggest the fact that those who are united with God in eternity share His splendor and power and joy. Gold is mentioned to suggest the timelessness of Heaven (gold does not rust) and the preciousness of it. People who take these symbols literally might as well think that when Christ told us to be like doves, He meant that we were to lay eggs.

Related Characters: C. S. Lewis (speaker)
Page Number: 139
Explanation and Analysis:

At the end of Chapter 10, Lewis offers a brief discussion of the traditional tropes of Heaven—clouds, harps, crowns, etc. As in Book Two (see quote above), Lewis argues that the Biblical imagery of Heaven isn’t meant to be taken literally. For example, the “crowns” that souls are said to wear in the afterlife aren’t really crowns at all; they represent the majesty and splendor with which virtuous souls are rewarded in Heaven.

The passage is notable because it reiterates one of Lewis’s key points: Christianity isn’t always meant to be taken literally, and therefore there is some inevitable ambiguity in human understanding of religious doctrine. But even if we don’t know exactly what Christianity denotes (for example, what, precisely, awaits us in Heaven), it’s possible for us to be good Christians. The passage is also notable because it reiterates Lewis’s attack on atheism—that it’s too simplistic. It’s all-too easy for a smug atheist to ask, “Who wants to spend eternity sitting on a cloud, playing a harp?” Lewis’s point here appears to be that atheists’ attacks on the Christian faith are often as simple-minded as they believe Christianity itself to be.

Book 3, Chapter 12 Quotes

What matters is the nature of the change in itself, not how we feel while it is happening. It is the change from being confident about our own efforts to the state in which we despair of doing anything for ourselves and leave it to God.

Related Characters: C. S. Lewis (speaker)
Page Number: 146
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, Lewis makes one of his subtlest points. He is discussing the true meaning of the word “faith,” and argues that, sooner or later, any good Christian will reach a point of doubt or despair. A Christian will despair because they realize that no matter how loyally they obey God’s laws, they cannot help but behave sinfully—humans are by their very nature sinful creatures, meaning that, technically speaking, nobody “deserves” to go to Heaven. Many people who reach this point of despair abandon their faith, certain that nothing they do will lead them to salvation. Some Christians, however, will continue to have faith in God’s salvation—in a word, they will find the courage to believe that God will bring them to Heaven, in spite of their sinful natures.

In all, Lewis suggests that faith is an act of supreme humility—the recognition that one’s own abilities are always insufficient for achieving salvation. It could be argued that Lewis’s claim that a good Christian should “leave it to God,” means that good Christians don’t have to try to achieve salvation—they can simply put their feet up and wait for God to save them. However, Lewis isn’t saying that salvation doesn’t take any work. In the end, good Christians must leave it to God—but in the time leading up to this act of total submission, they must work hard to obey the Christian law.

The Bible really seems to clinch the matter when it puts the two things together into one amazing sentence. The first half is, 'Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,—which looks as if everything depended on us and our good actions: but the second half goes on, 'For it is God who worketh in you'—which looks as if God did everything and we nothing.

Related Characters: C. S. Lewis (speaker)
Page Number: 148
Explanation and Analysis:

In this interesting passage, Lewis offers his own interpretation of a famously ambiguous Bible verse—“Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who worketh in you”—and in the process, he attempts to bridge the gap between the two main branches of Christianity, Catholicism (which traditionally emphasizes the importance of good works and moral actions) and Protestantism (which traditionally emphasizes the importance of faith and belief in Christ). As Lewis sees it, salvation is largely out of human hands—it is almighty God who decides whether or not humans will be saved. And yet, humans must endeavor to achieve their own salvation by working hard to obey the moral law. Although humans are ultimately judged by their faith in God, they’re unlikely to have any genuine faith in God unless they exercise this faith through good deeds.

As Lewis acknowledges in this chapter, both Catholicism and Protestantism have been caricatured for the way they present salvation. Catholicism, with its emphasis on good works, has been attacked as a corrupt religion in which rich people can essentially buy their way into Heaven. Similarly, it’s been suggested that, if Protestantism (with its emphasis on “faith alone”) were true, anyone could go to Heaven, provided that they claimed to believe in God just before dying. Lewis argues that neither criticism is strictly fair—faith and good works are important for salvation; in a sense, they’re two sides of the same coin, and one is impossible without the other. Bridging the divide between Protestantism and Catholicism is an important part of Lewis’s overall project in Mere Christianity, and in this passage, he arguably takes a big step toward doing so.

Book 4, Chapter 3 Quotes

You never supposed that your actions at this moment were any less free because God knows what you are doing. Well, He knows your tomorrow's actions in just the same way because He is already in tomorrow and can simply watch you. In a sense, He does not know your action till you have done it, but then the moment at which you have done it is already 'Now' for Him.

Related Characters: C. S. Lewis (speaker)
Page Number: 170
Explanation and Analysis:

In this short chapter, Lewis tries to address one of the most common and nagging criticisms of Christian doctrine—the apparent contradiction between free will and an all-knowing God. The notion that human beings can choose freely whether to embrace good or evil is one of the most basic Christian beliefs. But how, some theologians have wondered, can we say that humans’ choices are “free” if God knows everything? For example, how could it be said that Adam and Eve” “chose” to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, given that God knew what they were going to do? On some level, it might seem, their choice was forced or pre-determined.

To respond to these apparent contradictions, Lewis cites the philosophy of the late classical thinker Boethius, whose book The Consolation of Philosophy is often taken to be one of the first great works of Christian philosophy. Boethius posited that God exists outside time and space, meaning that he can perceive humanity’s past, present, and future at the same time. Thus, there is never a moment when God knows “in advance” what choices humans are going to make; that moment is always “now” from his perspective. In short, Lewis suggests, there’s no real contradiction between God’s omniscience and humans’ freedom—any apparent contradiction arises from humans’ inability to conceive of God as a being outside of time.

Many notable thinkers have attacked Boethius’s theory of omniscience, and Lewis doesn’t offer a robust defense against these attacks here. His tone is light and hypothetical—he never claims that his theory of free will is the truth; he just suggests that it might be a convenient way to think about free will for people who are having trouble understanding Christianity.

Book 4, Chapter 5 Quotes

And the present state of things is this. The two kinds of life are now not only different (they would always have been that) but actually opposed. The natural life in each of us is something self-centered, something that wants to be petted and admired, to take advantage of other lives, to exploit the whole universe. And especially it wants to be left to itself.

Related Characters: C. S. Lewis (speaker)
Page Number: 178
Explanation and Analysis:

In the final part of Mere Christianity, Lewis offers an intriguing theory for how human beings move from Earth to Heaven. He posits that there are two distinct kinds of life—one which is material and self-centered (bios), and one which is spiritual, infinite, and heavenly (zoe). As Lewis sees it, good Christians spends their lives learning how to transition from the first form of life to the second. The problem with doing so is that bios is, by its very nature, difficult to change. By default, human beings live selfish, materialistic lives—they don’t think about other people or try to help those in need. The only way for humans to overcome their own fundamental selfishness is to lose themselves in love for Jesus Christ.

Lewis’s theory of the two kinds of life is necessarily weakened by the fact that it’s easier for him to speculate about bios than zoe—he has lots of experience with earthly, selfish life, and much less with spiritual life. So perhaps it’s inevitable that Lewis’s observations about bios are more insightful and specific than his observations about zoe. Whether or not one believes in Christianity, one can agree with Lewis’s diagnosis of human existence—by default, humans want to survive and protect themselves.