Ten Books That Changed My Life #3: Mere Christianity

Mere ChristianityMere Christianity
C.S. Lewis
Changed my life in October 1996

It’s probably safe to assume that some readers will simply shut the door on this blog right now because I dare to mention the “C” word, especially on a personal finance site. After all, given the political climate in America for the past twenty years, anyone who dares call themselves a Christian should be tossed in a dungeon with Pat Robertson and locked up for good for the safety of us all, right?

To address this, I’m going to make two statements. First, I’m a Christian, but in today’s political landscape, I would be hesitant to ever call myself a conservative, because I don’t agree with a whole lot of what conservative politics in America stand for today. Second, I have no interest in converting anyone to Christianity via this blog, and this is probably the only time there will be a significant discussion of a single religion on this site.

When I first read this book, I was a pretty strong atheist. I believed that the default position for comprehending the world was that there was no God at all, and I couldn’t see any sort of logical argument that would lead me to believing in a God of any kind. It was an issue that I basically thought was settled until one lazy afternoon in a college dormitory, where I was asked about my beliefs, and an astute young man named Ben asked me if I had ever read an actual solid Christian apologist. When I confessed I had not, he loaned me his copy of Mere Christianity.

At this point, my exposure to Christians had been almost wholly negative. My parents were nominally Christian, but spent a great deal of time criticizing churches and pointing out their hypocrisies. In my school days, most of the Christian children stuck together closely in their own social group that I was aware of and friendly with, but I made it clear to them I wasn’t interested in their religious views, particularly towards a few of them who were quite open and loud about their beliefs. I had also witnessed the blathering evangelists on television, most of which were preaching a Gospel that an intelligent twelve year old could punch holes through.

Anyway, I took the copy of Mere Christianity and read the whole thing in a single Saturday afternoon. I remember thinking before I started reading it that I fully expected it to be tripe. When I closed the back cover, though, I was deeply shaken, and it sent me on a long journey of figuring out who I was and what I believed. Today, I would \describe myself as a Christian, but I wouldn’t say that I was converted by this book alone (there were many factors). I would merely say that it provided the first serious exposure I had to a well thought out and intelligently described discussion of Christianity from the perspective of a follower of the faith, and to see the religion laid out in such a sensible fashion really shook my belief structures to the core.

What’s it about?

Mere Christianity is a Christian apology; in other words, it seeks to explain the belief structure of Christianity in a way palatable to both believers and nonbelievers. Thus, he focuses on only those elements of Christianity that have been part of the belief structure in almost all times and all places, and thus avoids the differences between denominations and also issues with Christian history. This book is about the foundations of Christianity, not the details.

Rather than starting off by reiterating Christian doctrine (which would cause a nonbeliever to shut the book), Lewis begins with morals and ethics. From the Wikipedia entry:

Lewis bases his case for Christian belief on the existence of a Moral Law, a “Rule about Right and Wrong” commonly known to all human beings. This “law” is like mathematical laws in being real, not just a matter of convention, contrived by humans. But it is unlike mathematically expressed laws of nature in that it can be broken or ignored by humans, who possess free will.

Using this as an underpinning, Lewis goes on to lay out the basic tenets of Christianity, including the role of Jesus and the reasons behind atonement for sins. The entire book moves in a rather logical fashion, which is often unexpected to people who have not been exposed to a strong, intelligent discussion of Christian beliefs.

How did Mere Christianity shape the person I became?

It made me respect the beliefs and belief structures of others. This book was the first one that ever thoroughly destroyed a strongly-held belief structure of mine. I basically believed that all Christians were deluded fools, and to see a rational, well-constructed argument in favor of Christianity, even if I didn’t agree with it, altered my perspective on Christians as a whole.

It sent me on my own spiritual journey. In the ten years since I first read this book, I’ve read countless books on countless religions. I’ve spent hours upon hours considering difficult questions about my own beliefs and my own place in the universe. I wound up reading a lot of works from theological schools and other sources, including a few that really altered my viewpoint on various things, but none were capable of making that fundamental shift like Mere Christianity did.

It taught me that I didn’t have to simply accept the dogma of others. After reading this book and thinking about things for a while, I began to realize that a big part of my atheistic perspective wasn’t from my own thought process. I merely bought into what everyone else was saying around me without really thinking about it too much. Many people might expect that a book that would lead me to Christianity would cause me to think less; the truth is that Mere Christianity made me think about my beliefs and ideas more. In fact, that’s a big reason why this site exists: so many people in my generation accept that money works in a certain way, when the truth of the matter is that it works entirely differently.

It started me down a path of redefining my own moral rights and wrongs. I had some seriously skewed views during my college years about what constituted right and wrong, but as time went on, I found myself listening more and more to the little voice inside me. Eventually, I began to completely trust that voice, and it hasn’t led me wrong in a very long time.

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