Motivations for (Un)belief: Another ‘Sermon’ by C. S. Lewis

In one of his essays, originally published as a pamphlet by the ‘Student Christian Movement in Schools’ around 1946, C. S. Lewis inveighs against the tendency many have, when enquiring about Christianity, not to ask whether or not it gives a true account of reality, but to try and find out what they can get out of it – particularly whether or not it will help them lead a good life. In the essay (entitled Man or Rabbit?) Lewis compares Christianity to the philosophical materialism that was almost as common in his day as it is in ours (though back then it still perhaps had something of the feeling of novelty about it, whereas today it is virtually assumed), pointing out that they both make claims about the way the world is, and our role in it.

Having done this, and dismissing as too base a motive to be worth considering the enquiry of one who only asks about these things to find out what is the bare minimum they can get away with, Lewis then moves on to this issue of what purely practical use becoming a Christian might be, and the hypothetical inquirer’s persistent query as to whether one can be good without believing in Christianity. What he uncovers in doing so is highly relevant to unbelief in our own age, as similar motivations still exist – from the ‘I’m perfectly capable of being “good” without religion’ line to the person who is very careful to ignore anything that might expose their conscience to the truths claimed by the Christian faith.

It seems that, looking back to Lewis’ time, popular arguments in support of unbelief might change form slightly throughout the ages, but the essential motivations underpinning much of it remain the same, as do the protests made in its defence. The resulting analysis leads to another remarkably sermon-like series of passages (c.f.; my previous post on Lewis) which, as well as providing a clear and forceful exposure of the evasive motives underlying unbelief, also offers a commanding reminder and corrective to those of us who do believe, regarding the true end for which we are made:

The question before each of us is not “Can someone lead a good life without Christianity?” The question is “Can I?” We all know there have been good men who were not Christians; men like Socrates and Confucius who had never heard of it, or men like J. S. Mill who quite honestly couldn’t believe it. Supposing Christianity to be true, these men were in a state of ignorance or honest error. If their intentions were as good as I suppose them to have been (for of course I can’t read their secret hearts) I hope and believe that the skill and mercy of God will remedy the evils which their ignorance, left to itself, would naturally produce both for them and for those whom they influenced. But the man who asks me “Can’t I lead a good life without believing in Christianity?” is clearly not in the same position…

…He is really asking, “Need I bother about it? Mayn’t I just evade the issue, just let sleeping dogs lie, and get on with being “good”? Aren’t good intentions enough to keep me safe and blameless without knocking at that dreadful door and making sure whether there is, or isn’t, someone inside?”

To such a man it might be enough to reply that he is really asking to be allowed to get on with being “good” before he has done his best to discover what good means. But that is not the whole story. We need not enquire whether God will punish him for his cowardice and laziness; they will punish themselves. The man is shirking. He is deliberately trying not to know whether Christianity is true or false, because he foresees endless trouble if it should turn out to be true. He is like the man who deliberately “forgets” to look at the notice board because, if he did, he might find his name down for some unpleasant duty. He is like the man who won’t look at his bank account because he’s afraid of what he might find there. He is like the man who won’t go to the doctor when he first feels a mysterious pain, because he is afraid of what the doctor may tell him.

The man who remains an unbeliever for such reasons is not in a state of honest error. He is in a state of dishonest error, and that dishonesty will spread through all his thoughts and actions: a certain shiftiness, a vague worry in the background, a blunting of his whole mental edge, will result…

…to evade the Son of Man, to look the other way, to pretend you haven’t noticed, to become suddenly absorbed in something on the other side of the street, to leave the receiver off the telephone because it might be He who was ringing up, to leave unopened letters in a strange handwriting because they might be from Him – this is a different matter. You may not be certain yet whether you ought to be a Christian; but you do know you ought to be a man, not an ostrich, hiding its head in the sands…

…Here is a door, behind which, according to some people, the secret of the universe is waiting for you. Either that’s true, or it isn’t. And if it isn’t, then what the door really conceals is simply the greatest fraud, the most colossal “sell” on record. Isn’t it obviously the job of every man (that is a man and not a rabbit) to try to find out which, and then to devote his full energies either to serving this tremendous secret or to exposing and destroying this gigantic humbug? Faced with such an issue, can you really remain wholly absorbed in your blessed “moral development”?

All right, Christianity will do you good – a great deal more good than you ever wanted or expected. And the first bit of good it will do you is to hammer into your head (you won’t enjoy that!) the fact that what you have hitherto called “good” – all that about “leading a decent life” and “being kind” – isn’t quite the magnificent and all-important affair you supposed. It will teach you that in fact you can’t be “good” (not for twenty-four hours) on your own moral efforts. And then it will teach you that even if you were, you still wouldn’t have achieved the purpose for which you were created. Mere morality is not the end of life. You were made for something quite different from that. J. S. Mill and Confucius (Socrates was much nearer the reality) simply didn’t know what life was about…

…Morality is indispensable, but the Divine Life, which gives itself to us and which calls us to be gods, intends for us something in which morality will be swallowed up. We are to be re-made. All the rabbit in us is to disappear – the worried, conscientious, ethical rabbit as well as the cowardly and sensual rabbit. We shall bleed and squeal as well as the handfuls of fur come out; and then, surprisingly, we shall find underneath it all a thing we have never yet imagined: a real man, an ageless god, a son of God, radiant, wise, beautiful, and drenched in joy…

…Morality is a mountain which we cannot climb by our own efforts; and if we could we should only perish in the ice and unbreathable air of the summit, lacking those wings with which the rest of the journey has to be accomplished. For it is from there that the real ascent begins. The ropes and axes are “done away” and the rest is a matter of flying.

Essay Collection: Faith, Christianity and the Church (2002), pp.354-356, Harper Collins.

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