Mere Christianity 24: Let’s Pretend

We are now in the middle of “Beyond Personality”, the final section of Mere Christianity in which Lewis discusses what a God who is “beyond personality” looks like and how we as human beings can enter into that life of God which is beyond personality.  In previous chapters Lewis explained that this life is transmitted by getting near that which has it, through a sort of “good infection” if you will.  But that life is completely and totally opposed to the natural, biological life which we currently possess and everything which is in the nature of that life.

So how do we get around that?

Lewis starts off this chapter with an example from Beauty and the Beast, in which the girl kisses a beast as if he were a real prince and he turns into a real prince, and another example of a man with an ugly face who wore a mask to conceal it, and over time his face grew to fit the mask.  These two illustrations start us off in moving toward the main point of this chapter, which is that the Christian life is all about this kind of pretense.  We are nothing like Christ, but we pretend that we are, and in time we find ourselves to have become like Christ.

As we become like Christ, we find that Christ is at our side (in a way), telling us what we would do and how we would live if we were like Him.  Sounds like conscience, but it is really something completely and totally different.  Notice this: Lewis started off the book talking about that thing inside of us which knows that some things are right and some things are wrong (conscience) and how it can lead us to God; but now that we are in the process of becoming like Christ, conscience is no use to us whatsoever.

If you simply ask your conscience, you get one result:  if you remember that you are dressing up as Christ, you get a different one.  There are lots of things which your conscience might not call definitely wrong (specially things in your mind) but which you will see at once you cannot go on doing if you are seriously trying to be like Christ.  For you are no longer thinking simply about right and wrong; you are trying to catch the good infection from a Person.  It is more like painting a portrait than like obeying a set of rules.  And the odd thing is that while in one way it is much harder than keeping rules, in another way it is far easier.

The real Son of God is at your side.  He is beginning to turn you into the same kind of thing as Himself.  He is beginning, so to speak, to “inject” His kind of life and thought, His Zoe, into you; beginning to turn the tin soldier into a live man.  The part of you that does not like it is the part that is still tin.

At this point Lewis addresses what is probably a common objection for many of us; namely that we have never had any experience of actually being helped by a Christ that we cannot see, while we have been helped by other human beings.  This is challenging for me, because right now I am in a place where it is far easier for me to trust human beings whom I can see than to trust a God that I cannot see.  Lewis addresses this by saying that if there were no help from Christ, there would be no help from other human beings.  God works in a variety of ways, many of which have nothing to do with what we would call our religious or spiritual life.  And as we grow in maturity as Christians, we must recognize that behind the other people who are helping us, it is really Christ helping us.

At first it is natural for a baby to take its mother’s milk without knowing its mother.  It is equally natural for us to see the man who helps us without seeing Christ behind him.  But we must not remain babies.  We must go on to recognize the real Giver.  It is madness not to.  Because, if we do not, we shall be relying on human beings.  And that is going to let us down.  The best of them will make mistakes; all of them will die.  We must be thankful to all the people who have helped us, we must honour them and love them.  But never, never pin your whole faith on any human being:  not if he is the best and wisest in the whole world.

All of this talk of “putting on Christ”, of trying to be like Christ, has nothing to do with reading what Christ said and trying to carry it out, like we would do for Plato or Marx.  The Christian life is not about trying to imitate a good man who died 2,000 years ago.  It is about the living Christ working with us, doing things to us, killing the old natural self and replacing it with His.

As we get into the business of trying to be like Christ, one of the first things we notice is that we are sinful–not that we do sinful actions, but that we are sinful creatures.  For instance, suppose you say something unkind to someone.  A likely defense would be that you were caught off guard and you just said the first thing that popped into your head.  But the fact that the first thing that popped into your head was something unkind illustrates that unkindness is part of who you really are deep down.  You didn’t have time to put up a front, and so your real self showed through for a moment.  Kind of like when you go down to your basement and suddenly turn on the light, and see rats scurrying for cover.  Your suddenness did not create the rats in your basement; they were there all along and your suddenness simply exposed them.  In the same way, whatever occasion prompted you to say something unkind did not create the unkindness in you; it simply exposed the unkindness that was already there.

Lewis closes out the chapter by saying that we really don’t do anything.  God does everything and we simply allow it to be done to us.  So, after starting off the chapter talking about us pretending that we are like Christ even though we are not, Lewis comes around to say that it is really God who is pretending.

The Three-Personal God, so to speak, sees before Him in fact a self-centred, greedy, grumbling, rebellious human animal.  But He says “Let us pretend that this is not a mere creature, but our Son.  It is like Christ in so far as it is a Man, for He became Man.  Let us pretend that it is also like Him in Spirit.  Let us treat it as if it were what in fact it is not.  Let us pretend in order to make the pretence a reality.”  God looks at you as if you were a little Christ:  Christ stands beside you to turn you into one.  I daresay this idea of a divine make-believe sounds rather strange at first.  But, is it so strange really?  Is not that how the higher thing always raises the lower?  A mother teaches her baby to talk by talking to it as if it understood long before it really does.  We treat our dogs as if they were “almost human”; that is why they really become “almost human” in the end.