A Church of Mere Christianity?
My friend David Mills posted a critique of C.S. Lewis' book Mere Christianity on the First Things website (which you may find here), and asked me to join in the comments. The part that David Mills wrote about was the analogy of Christianity as a house with many rooms. Part of his essay says:
"The problem is that image of the house with the rooms, illustrating what Lewis meant by 'mere Christianity.' It appears in the preface to Mere Christianity. 'I hope no reader will suppose that ‘mere’ Christianity is here put forward as an alternative to the creeds of the existing communions—as if a man could adopt it in preference to Congregationalism or Greek Orthodoxy or anything else,' Lewis writes.
It is more like a hall out of which doors open into several rooms. . . . It is in the rooms, not in the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals. The hall is a place to wait in, a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to live in. For that purpose the worst of the rooms (whichever that may be) is, I think, preferable.
It sounds irenic and ecumenical, but it is a Protestant image for a Protestant doctrine. It makes the Catholic Church a room like any other room. It is a way of saying that the differences between Protestants and Catholics would be solved very easily . . . if Catholics became Protestants."
"These Catholics have to think of the Church as a denomination like any other, and they should stop putting on airs. From the Protestant point of view, the Catholic who insists that his church is the Church is a lot like the old codger in 4B coming round demanding the rent or imposing a curfew on the other apartments. He may be the oldest and wealthiest and most learned person in the building, but still, he’s just the old codger in 4B."
Then James Kushiner, the Executive Editor of Touchstone, wrote a friendly critique of the critique (which you may find here). Part of James Kushiner's essay says,
"My puzzlement at this point comes from my thinking that Lewis does not seem to be suggesting the Mere Christianity as any sort of solution at all for the differences between Protestants and Catholic. After all, he insists that it doesn't even suffice for an individual Christian to use on the level of a creed or in place of an affiliation with, to use what I believe is common Roman Catholic language, 'ecclesial bodies.' If it isn't able to serve in that way, how would it serve to unite Christians? Perhaps Lewis entertained hopes elsewhere in his writings that it could, but I do not recall such sentiments. I don't recall them in his ecumenically-minded correspondence with the Catholic priest Dom Giovanni Calabria. Now it is certainly the case that some or many who have adopted Lewis's Mere Christianity have crafted their own version of it and think that if Catholics and Protestants could just agree on MC, progress toward Christian unity could be made. They also have used Lewis here to fill in their own notion of what the church really is like, given the multiplicity of denominations. This is understandable, and David is correct that this is a Protestant image by and large. But is it Lewis' idea?
"Where I think I disagree with the blog is where the mere metaphor of a house and hallway for a something-less-than-a-defined-creed but something-substantial-all-the-same is put in the dock to field the question What Exactly is the House? The question of What is the Church, which is what is meant, is an extremely important question. But I do not believe Lewis himself is suggesting that his metaphoric house is meant to stand for the House of the Church. (Perhaps I am wrong about this. I don't claim to be a Lewis scholar.) Moving from Lewis's house to Church is what I question. [If] I am right, then I do not think criticizing the metaphor for its ecclesiological flaws works. Since ecclesiology is one of those things that we do not and cannot agree on, would Lewis have it in mind as part of Mere Christianity or include it as part of his metaphor? Is his use of 'house' innocently divorced from an idea of 'church'?"
For many years David Mills was a fighter for orthodox reform in the Episcopal Church, and was associated with the Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry (TESM). In 2001 he became a Roman Catholic. James Kushiner is a member of the Antiochene Orthodox Church, in fact a member of All Saints Parish in Chicago where Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon is the Pastor (former Roman Catholic, and former Episcopal priest, who taught at both Nashota House and TESM, a current Senior Editor at Touchstone). My association with Touchstone is well known, as is my brother David Bentley Hart's popularity as a regularly featured writer for First Things (who declined the offer to be the Editor). So, this group of writers is my other circle (i.e. other than ACC priests).
The issue that stands out is one that both men, David Mills and James Kushiner (both of whom I count as friends), have mentioned; that is, a Protestant image, or Protestant notion, of the Church. This idea, one that David Mills himself put forward, is that C.S. Lewis presented a "Protestant" notion of the Church by his analogy. This, however, begs the question, What is a Protestant notion of the Church? It begs another question, and that is, what would C.S. Lewis have written if, in fact, his purpose had been to write about the Church?
First of all, I agree with James Kushiner: "But I do not believe Lewis himself is suggesting that his metaphoric house is meant to stand for the House of the Church." Indeed, the purpose of the book, Mere Christianity, was pre-evangelistic, to help modern thinkers overcome objections to Christianity itself, especially the sort of objections most common to the modern (and, if you prefer, post modern) era. One fact that is obvious to everyone, and therefore to everyone who is undecided about Christianity, is outward and organizational division. C.S. Lewis wanted to establish a common, creedal, Christianity that shares the most basic beliefs, an idea that is true enough indeed. It is why, for example, that I as an Anglican priest can write in glowing terms my praise of Billy Graham, and at the same time publicly reveal my admiration for the theological writing of Pope Benedict XVI.
But, to mention something called a Protestant image of the Church is like punching the Tar Baby, and doubly so when considering the ideas of the very Traditional and sincere Anglican, C.S. Lewis. What is a "Protestant" image? If we mean simply ideas put forth in modern times, it can mean almost no concept at all. Or, it can refer to a Presbyterian construct, or to the closely related Genevan Discipline that is even more authentically Calvinist. Or, it may refer to a semi-episcopal structure such as the Lutherans have. Or, it may refer to the Congregationalism that has grown up in America, or to the various notions that have been created by loose, wild and uneducated attempts to be "biblical," such as the many kinds of churches we see in Pentecostalism. Finally, it can mean the Episcopal structure we have held to as Anglicans all along, which Richard Hooker defended so thoroughly in The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity.
If we think in terms of classic Reformation teaching, whether German (Lutheran), Swiss (Calvinist) or English, we always find something that reads very much like the first portion of our Article XIX.
However, that description, which is not only a Protestant description, but a genuinely authentic one, has in it nothing about the Church that is not also thoroughly Catholic, and frankly quite compatible with both Roman Catholic and Orthodox belief about the Church.
And, to deal honestly with the specific church body of which C.S. Lewis was a faithful member, requires recognition of the Episcopal structure as distinct from most Protestant paradigms. Lewis lived and died in a Church that had a very clear polity, one that many other Protestant churches rejected then and now, and that is consistent rather with the beliefs of Roman and Eastern Orthodox Catholicism. Lewis did not hold to Mere Church, but to the Church of the Creeds and to Apostolic Succession as described in the Preface to the Ordinal in the Book of Common Prayer, including such things as the three Orders of Ministry.
To mention something called a Protestant image of the Church, and to contrast that image against something called a Catholic image, is far too simplistic. It is especially so when writing about an Anglican, and trying to summarize his views by using the neat and tidy categorizations of modern linguistic usage. It merely drives home the distinct nature of Anglicanism, both Catholic and Protestant, as defiant of simplistic categorization as our noble mascot for this blog, the Duck-Billed Platypus.