Mere Christianity: 6. The Rival Conceptions of God

- The Author. (I’ve started using my own photography in my posts as an excuse to practice).

At a snail’s pace, we move on to book two: What Christians Believe. We have transitioned now from Lewis’ proof of God’s existence, called the moral argument, to the book’s heart, namely a summary and a case for Christian doctrine. The first part of the book is remarkable in its own right, and I think provides the argument for God’s existence that is most useful in a normal conversation with a layperson, but I have a special fondness for this section. Were it not for Lewis’ explanation of doctrine, presented to me first via the CS Lewis Doodle youtube channel, I would likely not have accepted the full truth of Christianity and had the conversion experience that I did. It is one thing to begrudgingly accept doctrine because God has commanded it, but it is another thing entirely to see the goodness and necessity of God’s laws and to recognize how following them has materially improved my life.

Chapter 6 begins with a discussion of how a Christian should view other religions. Lewis writes that Christians “do not have to believe that all the other religions are simply wrong all through,” but an atheist has to believe that “the main point in all the religions of the world is simply one huge mistake” (35). A Christian is perfectly free to believe that all religions hold “at least some hint of the truth” (35).

This question is one that the Church has dedicated a lot of time to in the last 100 years or so. Much of this discussion comes out of the Vatican II conference, which produced writing such as Nostra Aetate, or the Church’s declaration of her relation to non-Christian religions. Paul VI writes:

From ancient times down to the present, there is found among various peoples a certain perception of that hidden power which hovers over the course of things and over the events of human history; at times some indeed have come to the recognition of a Supreme Being, or even of a Father. This perception and recognition penetrates their lives with a profound religious sense.

Religions, however, that are bound up with an advanced culture have struggled to answer the same questions by means of more refined concepts and a more developed language. Thus in Hinduism, men contemplate the divine mystery and express it through an inexhaustible abundance of myths and through searching philosophical inquiry. They seek freedom from the anguish of our human condition either through ascetical practices or profound meditation or a flight to God with love and trust. Again, Buddhism, in its various forms, realizes the radical insufficiency of this changeable world; it teaches a way by which men, in a devout and confident spirit, may be able either to acquire the state of perfect liberation, or attain, by their own efforts or through higher help, supreme illumination. Likewise, other religions found everywhere try to counter the restlessness of the human heart, each in its own manner, by proposing “ways,” comprising teachings, rules of life, and sacred rites. The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men. Indeed, she proclaims, and ever must proclaim Christ “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), in whom men may find the fullness of religious life, in whom God has reconciled all things to Himself.(4)

The Church, therefore, exhorts her sons, that through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions, carried out with prudence and love and in witness to the Christian faith and life, they recognize, preserve and promote the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values found among these men.

In other words, what Lewis writes here is basically in agreement with the Magisterium: Christianity alone contains the full Truth of the Creator, man’s place in the world, and his life in the next, but certainly all major religions contain some pieces of the truth. The great East Asian religions, for example, all have a strong sense of the moral law, which they call the Dao (a motif adopted by Lewis himself in the Abolition of Man), while the other Abrahamic religions retain much of the good in the old Mosaic law.

We do not even just have to look to the Magisterium for this view. Consider St. Paul’s appeal to the Greeks in the book of Acts:

“You Athenians, I see that in every respect you are very religious. 23 For as I walked around looking carefully at your shrines, I even discovered an altar inscribed, ‘To an Unknown God.’ What therefore you unknowingly worship, I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and all that is in it, the Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in sanctuaries made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands because he needs anything. Rather it is he who gives to everyone life and breath and everything. He made from one the whole human race to dwell on the entire surface of the earth, and he fixed the ordered seasons and the boundaries of their regions, so that people might seek God, even perhaps grope for him and find him, though indeed he is not far from any one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being, as even some of your poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’ Since therefore we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the divinity is like an image fashioned from gold, silver, or stone by human art and imagination. God has overlooked the times of ignorance, but now he demands that all people everywhere repent because he has established a day on which he will ‘judge the world with justice’ through a man he has appointed, and he has provided confirmation for all by raising him from the dead.”

Acts 17:22–31

Paul here echoes Lewis in recognizing the kernel of truth in Greek paganism. The Greeks recognized an Unknown God, who created the world and was father of all — a partial truth. Like with the Magisterium, however, Paul recognizes that God permitted this partial truth to take hold that the Greeks might accept the full Truth when it was revealed to them. God overlooked the ignorance of the pagans before the Resurrection, but now that the Truth has been proclaimed He demands that all who hear it repent.

That last part is important, as we will see. If Paul had only said, “you recognize an Unknown God, and this much is true,” he would at best be a quasi-gnostic who sought to keep the Truth to himself, or at worst would have wished to see his audience damned. None of the three sources I have cited so far — not the book of Acts, not Vatican II, and certainly not CS Lewis, is a universalist. I’ll touch on universalism again in just a moment, but I would like to say one thing before moving on. That there is truth in the other religions and that investigating them can prove fruitful is immensely useful for understanding the world. Whereas an atheistic view as described — all of these books are poppycock and have nothing of value to teach us — cuts off any possibility of gaining understanding from them, any sincere religious perspective grounded in the full Truth can compare across traditions and uncover deep truths in that way. For instance, a psychoanalyst (granted, not the best example as many of them aren’t exactly Christian), can do a comparison between the Gospels and a Greek play to discover an important subconscious archetype embedded in all of us. In a better example, a literary figure seeking to understand the poetry of the Bible, (Northrop Frye, an actual believer, does this) has the whole world of the study of literature opened up to him by this one assumption.

As I said though, a Christian cannot be a universalist. Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, (John 14:6) He is the Logos made flesh, (John 1:14) and He is the one who will judge us on the last day (John 6:40). If you were to replace any one of those thes with an ‘a,’ then I would cease to be a Christian and so should you. If Christ is merely a way, a truth, and a life among many, then why should I bother following him at all? It would make the most sense rationally for me to become a moralistic therapeutic deist, because I would get saved with 1% of the work. And Lewis would agree with me: “being a Christian does mean thinking that where Christianity differs from other religions, Christianity is right and they are wrong” (35). The Daoist does, I’m sure, have a great understanding of the moral law, and that could absolutely be a firm basis for an ecumenical conversation. However, that does not mean I can entertain the idea that he is right in his dualism.

Lewis proceeds in calling the division between atheists and people of all religions the “first big division of humans,” with the vast majority believing in a “God or gods” (35). On this point, “Christianity lines up with the majority,” agreeing with the “ancient Greeks [see St. Paul 😛] and Romans, modern savages, Stoics, Platonists, Hundus, Mohamedeans, etc., against the Western European materialist” (36).

I tend to disagree with Lewis on this point, but it seems something of a petty and semantic disagreement. Christ tells us that “No one can serve two masters,” that we “will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other,” and that we “cannot serve God and mammon” (Matthew 6:24). Implicit here I think is that everyone has one master, and if it is not God then it is something else. In the point Christ was making, He used money as his example, (for he was making a different point than I am, that we should not love things of the world more the God) and for many of the Western European materialists which Lewis describes this is their master. However, down the ages, many of those who reject Christ and His Church have had other ‘gods,’ whether that be Luther’s individualism, JS Mill and Thomas Paine’s freedom, Marx’s communism, or the modern secularist’s progress, abandoning Christ and His Church often turns our ideas into gods. This is Jordan Peterson’s reading of Milton’s Satan too: the devil is a warning of the capacity of the rational mind to fall in love with his own productions — in Satan’s case, deifying himself. And equally implicit in Christ’s warning and the examples I’ve listed is this: when you substitute anything for God, you are on the wide road to both literal and metaphorical Hell.

Nevertheless, in a literal sense Lewis’s point here is correct. If we liken understanding to a form of a test, Secularism assumes the rest of the world got an ‘F,’ and the only ones who have any idea of what is truly going on are themselves (or some portion of themselves). The Christian perspective would say that most people got somewhere between a B and a D, but Christians alone got an A (and of them the Catholic Church walks away with an A+ (;).

Lewis proceeds to define another division: the differences in the sorts of gods people believe in. There are “two very different ideas on the subject” (36). The first is that God is in some way “beyond good an evil,” a view called Pantheism, which was held by “Hegel and… the Hindus” (36). The second is held God is “good” and “righteous,” which is held by “Jews, Mohamedeans, and Christians” (36). Pantheists “usually believe that God… animates the universe as you animate your body; that the universe almost is God, so that if it did not exist He would not exist either, and anything you find in the universe is a part of God” (36–37).

This idea necessarily leads us to a number of notions about God. First and foremost, it sets up God as something of a contingent being. I don’t intend to go too deep into philosophy here, as that is not the intention of this blog, but the idea that God would not exist without the universe begs the question of where God Himself came from. If God is not eternal, existing independently of the universe, then He must be a created being, which means that He can no longer be God. I am sure the pantheists have an answer there, but based on my understanding it all falls apart like a house of cards once you introduce the idea of causality to their creation.

A far more problematic idea is that if the universe is God, then everything bad that happens in it is His explicit will. Every child that dies of cancer dies because God takes control of her cells and causes them to mutate, and every tsunami happens because God commands a wave to annihilate that patch of the world. This is the God that atheists parody when talking of the so-called problem of evil, and it is a conception of God that I reject.

Thankfully, the Christian idea is a contrasting one: God “invented and made the universe — like a man painting a picture or composing a tune. A painter is not a picture, and does not die if his picture is destroyed” (37).

The Christian God is neither contingent — He is ipsum esse, being qua being — nor is He personally responsible for all evil in the world. God wills that cancer and tsunamis exist, but He does not point them at people in the same way that an angry Poseidon would. Lewis says as much:

Confronted with a cancer or a slum the Pantheist can say, ‘If you could only see it from the divine point of view, you would realize this also is God. The Christian replies, ‘Don’t talk damned nonsense’ (37).

A God that is neutral about a child afflicted with cancer or thousands languishing in a slum is not one that I would want to follow any more than a Christ who is merely a truth among many. God has also striven to make it abundantly clear that He is no fan of either of these things Himself; in the face of cancer, He often works miracles, as he did in the life of St. Peregrine Laziosi. He raises up healers, both of the ordinary sort (doctors, nurses, and so on) and of the miraculous kind (Br. Andre Bissette is a personal favourite of mine). He commands His faithful to pray for the afflicted child, and He sent his only Son to suffer for her. In the face of a slum, God raises up St. Teresa of Calcutta. God is not neutral in questions of good and evil, but rather always and everywhere on the side of the good against the evils of this world, most of them put there by us.

When Lewis was an atheist, his argument against God was that “the universe seemed so cruel and unjust” (38). But for Lewis to have the notion of just and unjust someone or something would have to have put them there! “A man does not call a line cooked unless he has some idea of a straight line” (38).

And that is the true message of this chapter. God is not neutral on the question of justice: God is Justice. God does not want us to follow one truth among many, He is Truth. God is not a being in the universe, He is Being itself. God is not just good, He is Goodness, and nothing good can exist except by Him and through Him. That is the true conception of God.