Saturday, January 21, 2006

Mere Christianity Book III Chapter 2-3

Mere Christianity
Book II Chapter 2
The “Cardinal” Virtues

Traditional Christian moral philosophy taught that there were seven virtues: the four cardinal virtues and the three theological virtues.

From my essay “The Green Witch and the Great Debate: Freeing Narnia from the Spell of the Lewis-Anscombe Legend” in The Chronicles of Narnia and Philosophy: The Lion, the Witch and the Worldview (Chicago: Open Court, 2005) pp. 268-269.

Lewis, following an old Christian tradition, identifies the Four Cardinal Virtues as Prudence (sometimes called Wisdom), Temperance, Fortitude, and Justice, to which he adds the Three Holy Virtues of Faith, Hope, and Love. He defines Prudence as “practical common sense, taking the trouble to think out what you are doing and what it likely to come of it,” and reminds us that Christ taught us to be not only “as harmless as doves” but also “as wise as serpents.” He continues:

He wants a child’s heart but a grown-up’s head. . . . The fact that you are giving money to a charity does not mean that you need not try to find out whether that charity is a fraud or not. . . . It is, of course, quite true that God will not love you any less, or have less use for you, if you happen to have been born with a second-rate brain. He has room for people with little sense, but He wants every one to use what sense they have. . . . God is no fonder of intellectual slackers than of any other slackers. If you are thinking of becoming a Christian, I warn you, you are embarking on something which is going to take the whole of you, brains and all.

I continued: Like many passages in Lewis, this one has tremendous contemporary relevance. Many people in the Christian community (and outside of it) have been slack in their intellectual responsibilities, and the results have been disastrous. The mass suicides in Guyana and the suicide of the Heaven’s Gate cult in California are grim reminders of what happens when religious people give up on thinking critically and simply follow what a leader says. Or to take less dramatic examples, but ones closer to home, think about how millions of Christians get caught up in spiritual fads like the recent “prayer of Jabez” phenomenon or the sensational eschatology of the Left Behind series. How many people have given money they can hardly afford to television evangelists, only to find out that the money went for air-conditioned dog houses and visits to sleazy motel rooms? The Christian community suffers greatly whenever it is intellectually lazy and careless.

Lewis does not consider the exercise of faith, properly understood, to conflict with this requirement to be rational. “I am not asking anyone to accept Christianity if his best reasoning tells him the weight of the evidence is against it.”

Temperance is controlling the impulse for pleasure. Temperance does not mean teetotalism. He says that Islam (He calls it Mohammedanism, but don’t say that in front of a Muslim unless you can run really fast. They don’t worship Muhammad, he’s just a messenger) is the teetotal religion. Jesus turned water into Welch’s grape juice, right? “One of the marks of a certain type of bad man is that he cannot give a thing up himself without wanting everyone else to give it up.” But you can be intemperate about a lot of things: golf, cards, the Internet---oops, he didn’t mention that one, for some reason.

Justice is fairness in general, not just what is understood in the law courts: honesty, give and take, truthfulness, keeping promises, etc.

Fortitude is a) willingness to face danger and b) “sticking it” under pain. You can’t practice any of the other virtues unless you practice this one.

Lewis places the emphasis on what type of person you are, not what acts you perform. Of course these go hand in hand, but traits of character are the right place to focus. There is a difference between doing a good act and having a good character. Even a bad tennis player gets a good shot in now and again.
1) Not only should you do the right thing, but it matters why you did it.
2) “We might think that God wanted simply obedience to a set of rules: whereas he wants people of a particular sort."
3) Virtues aren’t just necessary in this life. ”There may be no need for brave acts in heaven, but there will be every occasion for being the sort of people that we can become only as a result of doing such acts here.” Not that God won’t let you into heaven if you lack certain virtues; but rather you won’t be the kind of person who will enjoy God’s presence forever if you lack these traits of character.

Book 3, Chapter 3
Social Morality
1) Christ did not preach a brand new morality. Johnson: “People need to be reminded more often than they need to be instructed.:
2) Christianity has no political program for applying “Do as you would be done by” to a particular society at a particular moment.

People say, “The Church ought to give us a lead.” But the people who know best how to represent Christ in the political sphere are not clergy, but laypeople who try to apply their faith to the political sphere. (Pat Robertson, James Dobson, please take note).

NT gives us an idea of what a Christian society would be like.
1) No passengers and parasites. If you don’t work you don’t eat.
2) Nothing spent on silly luxuries and sillier advertisements to get people to buy them.
3) No putting on airs—in this sense he says it’s Leftist.
4) It practices obedience from all to appointed magistrates, from children to parents, (this won’t be popular) wives to husband. (He knew this was unpopular some 25 years before the rise of “Women’s Lib.”
5) It is a cheerful society, it is courteous, and free of busybodies.

Some people will like parts of this more than others and will fight to get it.

The Ancient Greeks, the Jews of the Old Testament, and the great Christian teachers of the Middle Ages all taught that it was wrong to lend money at interest. This was called “usury.” In fact, in Scripture, lending money at interest is sometimes found on a list of sins alongside homosexuality. In Dante’s Inferno, the homosexuals and the usurers are in the same circle of hell. Lewis doesn’t say that we should get rid of lending (which would be very tough to do in our culture), but he does take note of the problems that these three groups of people have had with the practice. (Some things money can’t buy. For everything else, there’s MasterCard.)

Giving: Lewis does not say we have to give 10%. (I’d just note that 10% of $20,000 annual income is a pretty demanding chunk; 10% of $2,000,000 is chump change, even though it is a larger amount of money. However, he says that if our charitable giving does cause us to reduce our amusements, we can be sure that we are not giving enough.

A Christian society will never arrive until we really want it: and we are not going to want it until we become fully Christian. Although Lewis does not say so, it’s clear he would oppose the attempt to make society Christian through legislation.

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