First, the obligatory opening caveat: I’m not a Christian. Nor am I an expert on Christianity. But I have read more than a superficial bit about it, and I know and deeply respect Christians generally.
But one person who has always puzzled me is C. S. Lewis. Maybe “puzzled” isn’t exactly the right word, but I’m not sure what would be a more accurate way to describe my reaction to him. I’ve read lots of his works, at least in part; I can’t always bring myself to finish them because they just don’t resonate with me. I know he’s speaking English, I know he’s a very important writer who moves and convinces many people, but something about him doesn’t speak to me. I don’t even like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, so that tells you something.
The reason I bring Lewis up is a famous quote of Lewis’ that commenter “Frog” offered today in the Pope Frances thread:
Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important.
I’ve seen the quote before. I’ve thought about it before. And it doesn’t make sense to me.
It seems to me that the question of the “importance” of Christianity—or any other religion, for that matter—must be defined in terms of what realm you’re talking about. To the believer in Christianity or in any other religion that posits an afterlife, particularly an eternal afterlife, of course that religion (be it Christianity or any other such religion) is of “infinite importance.”
I don’t quarrel with that—although it also depends whether the religion is one which also posits that it is the only path, the only way, to an eternal afterlife. Some religions say that, some say that all religions (or most) lead the way to an afterlife, and some don’t really focus on the afterlife piece of it all that much. So, to a religion that considers itself the only way to an afterlife, that particular religion is of “infinite importance,” whereas to a religion that says there are many ways to heaven, all such religions would be of “infinite importance.”
It is my understanding that Christians are somewhat divided on the issue of whether Christianity is the only way, but that generally they think it is. At any rate, it’s not something I know much about and in any event isn’t all that relevant to the “infinite importance” discussion. Christianity would be of “infinite importance” either way—particularly if it is the only religion that leads to an eternal afterlife in some sort of heaven, but also if it is one of several or even many religions that do, because they all would then be of infinite importance.
It’s the rest of the Lewis quote that gives me particular trouble: the idea that if this isn’t true—that is, let’s say, if atheists are correct about Christianity—then Christianity is of no importance and that it cannot be of moderate importance. For example, even though I am not a Christian, I believe Christianity to be of great importance and I am pretty sure that even if I were an atheist (I’m not) that I would continue to think so. That’s because I would be looking at the question of “importance” in terms of life on earth and in particular of human history both macro and micro.
Christianity has had an enormous influence on the history of the Western world and therefore of humanity. It has had and continues to have enormous influence on people’s lives and how they live them in the personal sense as well. It has also been responsible for vast quantities of art, music, and literature, at least as the inspiration for so many works of genius. It has even, in some cases, inspired many scientists (for example, Kepler).
Perhaps it can be argued that this influence is hardly “moderate.” But it’s certainly not “nothing,” and it’s certainly not “infinite,” so in that sense it would have to be “moderate” (that is, something in-between “nothing” and “infinite”). Did Lewis’ statement come from a belief that the only sphere to be considered was the infinite vs. non-infinite one, and that human history should be discounted in the equation? I suppose in contrast to eternal life, human history seems small. But it’s not nothing, and to non-believers it’s a lot (perhaps everything).
It seems to me that in Lewis’ statement he was really preaching mainly to the choir—almost literally.
So I would revise Lewis’ statement to go something like this:
Christianity, if false, is nevertheless of some importance, in its influence on people’s lives and on history. If true, Christianity is of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is of no importance—unless you think that human beings’ lives on earth and human history are of no importance.