The previous post concluded by finding that if “mere” Christianity means merely what all or almost all who call themselves Christians have believed, there is nothing left of it. Lewis’s book would seem to be demolished. But it isn’t. It is a great book.
What saves the book is that although Lewis says he is defending what all or almost all who have called themselves Christians have believed, he isn’t really; he only thinks he is. He is actually defending a particular conception of what is truly most central to the Church founded by Christ. A very particular conception.
In fact, it is a high-church Anglican conception, of roughly the sort held by John Henry Newman before he became Catholic. This type is rare among actual Anglicans, perhaps because so many of those who hold it end up joining Newman on the other side of the Tiber. It looks remarkably like Catholicism with a few pieces missing -- just enough of them to allow putting off the decision to convert. As Newman discovered, the difficulty is that these missing pieces want to be replaced; the holes cry out to them, “Return!”
For example, although Lewis stops short of a full-blown Catholic account of the sacraments, he clearly defends the Catholic view that they are more than mere symbols; they are symbols plus, symbols through which God is actually bringing about the thing symbolized. Baptism is not just a symbol of new birth but a new birth, marriage is not just a symbol of joining but a joining, and so on.
Whatever Lewis thought it was, this view is far from mere. Granted, one can hold it without being Catholic, but it is far more characteristic of Catholicism than of Protestantism. It is especially alien to Evangelical Protestantism, which is curious, because Evangelicals are probably the book’s most enthusiastic readers. If you wanted to draw Evangelicals to the Catholic Church, you could hardly do better than to have them read Mere Christianity, then point out how Catholic many of their favorite passages are.
But I wish to propose a larger point, which is not about Lewis’s book, and not about Protestantism and Catholicism, but about minimalism.
It is simply this: Every minimalism is some minimalism.
Lewis’s minimalism turns out to be almost Catholic, but if it hadn’t been almost Catholic, it would have been almost something else. The mere fact that one avoids certain questions does not make one neutral about their answers.
Lewis closes his preface with the hope that no reader will take what he calls mere Christianity to be a kind of Christianity, as though someone could be a mere Christian rather than, say, Congregationalist or Greek Orthodox. He says it is “more like a hall out of which doors open into several rooms,” emphasizing that “the hall is a place to wait in, a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to live in.” For living in, he thinks, even the worst of the rooms would be preferable to the hall.
But if the hall is defined, not by what is truly most central to the Church founded by Christ, but only by what all or almost all who call themselves Christians have believed, then if the hall exists at all, it is tiny, and some of these doors may not open into rooms at all, but into the street.
Must we then oppose every sort of minimalism? No. Every conversation must begin somewhere. Since one cannot talk about everything at once, one must begin with something that one’s conversational partner is willing to concede.
But this can never last for long. The mind, like the stomach, desires a meal. Just as some foods are digestible and delicious only in combination with other foods, so also some beliefs are helpful and plausible only in combination with other ideas. In order to stand firm they must have context, as the single stone requires the arch.