As it happens, starting last night I reached the point in the audiobook that began a reading of C.S. Lewis’ classic Mere Christianity, a work that (along with many other books by C.S. Lewis) is a part of my library in Florida but not a part of my library here in the Pacific Northwest. It has been a few years, therefore, since I have read the book, and find it worthwhile to have the book read out, even if it’s a bit slow and the voice actor has a British accent that is likely to easily bleed over into mine, which might make me sound a bit more pretentious than I would naturally. Occasionally, there is a striking sense when one reads (or hears) material and then independently comes across the same sort of issues in other aspects of life. As someone who fairly frequently has such happy, or terrifying, coincidences, I tend to take it very seriously when life and one’s reading coincide, especially when the matter is an important one.
In listening to the reading of Mere Christianity, I was taken a bit aback by how grim it was. I don’t say this as a bad thing; I tend to be a fairly grimly realistic person myself, or at least I fancy myself to be one, and the book was very blunt about the state of mankind at least insofar as we can understand God from the universe we live in and from our own behavior. In it Lewis reasons, quite soundly, that the facts that are readily available from our examination of the nature of the universe and our own human nature demonstrate both that God cares a great deal about goodness and that we woefully and continually fall short of that standard. The end result is that there is a being who constructed a universal standard of morality that all people, even very bad people, feel it necessary to appeal to that urges us to behave in ways that we do not naturally behave in. The end result is that we must face God’s power, while knowing we act against His ways continually, something that ought to create in us a sense of deep unease. Those who are comfortable with the idea of God’s power are the sort of people that do not know themselves very well.
Yet we do not often know ourselves very well, or at least present that sort of self-knowledge very well in our dealings with others. It is a painful matter to examine ourselves, and few of us, if any of us, tend to like what we see when we put our behavior and motives and thoughts under the microscope. Yet I wonder who we tend to think that we are really fooling, even when we do not show recognition of our true spiritual states. Most of us know when others behave in a shabby manner towards us, or when people show double standards or are harsh with us and generous with their own shortcomings, or hypocritical and so on. We may deceive ourselves as to our own state and think ourselves better than we are, but few others are fooled, especially if those others have run across our bad side over and over again. Nor are we slow to recognize the mistakes of others, and to play them up if necessary in a vain attempt to counteract our own. We justify our meanness to others by pointing to how difficult they are to get along with, as if their misdeeds somehow justified our own, as if we were somehow judges of the behavior of others instead of co-defendents seeking in vain for a better verdict if we snitch and squeal on those who stand in judgment alongside us. Yet nothing in the nature of God would suggest that He wishes for us to throw each other under the bus to save ourselves; quite the contrary, in fact.
What are we to do? Our own pride gets in the way of us being honest about ourselves, even if our nature is transparently obvious to those who observe our conduct, or who suffer from it. And they are in the same boat we are, afraid to admit any sort of fault that would in their eyes deny them the right to censure our conduct. And yet because we are trying to save our own skins, we tend to lack the sort of fellow feeling with our fellow evildoers that makes it enjoyable to be in the same boat as others. We are quick to justify ourselves, but slow to see that others can justify themselves as easily as we can. So concerned as we are with ourselves, we are slow to recognize what it means that others are like ourselves in terms of fundamentals, because we do not stop to examine ourselves enough to realize what that means about everyone else. And yet we are in this boat together, whether we like it or not, so the best that we can do is to get to know our fellow passengers as best as we can, and enjoy the ride. We’re not going anywhere for a while, after all.