In 2005, I wrote this is relation to C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity.
One of the things which occurs when one becomes a Christian is that all past sins come back up to hit one in the head like a hammer. All of the terrible stuff that you had blocked out and had no intention of ever thinking about again breaks through that mental wall behind which it was imprisoned. I call that wall the Wall of Forgetfulness and of Rationalization. Accepting Jesus Christ as your Savior bulldozes that barrier and crushes it to powder.
“Oh yes. Remember when you did that? And that? And what about that?” I was a particularly heinous person in that I did what was right for me first and foremost and to hell with who it hurt.
Have I changed? In a sense, no. My first inclination is to still do what’s right for me first and all others second (a particularly strong trait in the first-born). My second inclination, however, now is to remember what that can lead to—becoming the type of person who not only sees truth as relative, but whose method of thinking always makes her desires equivalent to what is good and real and makes the opposite true as well: what she doesn’t want becomes wrong and false.
The Bible says that Satan is the Father of Lies; these progeny include the lies that you tell yourself. And once you get into the habit of lying to yourself about yourself, it becomes almost instinctive. But when reality butts against your instinct, it interrupts the play of the little DVD of self-serving scenarios running in your head and you scream “no!” and try to turn your “truth” into reality…if you’re really far gone into self-delusion, that is.
A genuine conversion to Christianity throws cold water on all of that fantasy and shows you what you are and were on your way to becoming and points you in the opposite direction. You still fall short sometimes but you know you have broken the rules and you don’t try to cover it up or rationalize it away. Simply becoming a Christian doesn’t put Big J’s approval on everything an individual Christian does. We still sin and, if the conversion is true, we feel the sting of guilt even more keenly because we know what the rules are.
But also we know that we are incapable of sticking to the rules perfectly. And, most importantly, we know that our adherence to the rules isn’t what has saved and will save us anyway.
But what happens to the person—especially the one who calls herself a Christian—who continues to willfully take the wrong turn, who consciously makes the choices dictated by her appetites? Or her pride?
There’s a reason that one’s Christianity is referred to as a “walk of faith.” Every step of the way is still fraught with choices; “Do I take the road of faith or the road of sin?” is a question that has to be, a choice that has to be made every single day—every single moment.
Lewis is ever mindful of the fact that Christians believe in eternal life; that the soul lives forever. In one of the chapters of Mere Christianity, “Morality and Psychoanalysis,” he estimates how a person’s morality affects the soul’s composition and its eventual fate.
People often think of Christian morality as a kind of bargain in which God says, “If you keep a lot of rules I’ll reward you, and if you don’t I’ll do the other thing.” I do not think that is the best way of looking at it. I would much rather say that every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a heavenly creature or into a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with its fellow-creatures, and with itself. To be one kind of creature is heaven: that is, it is joy and peace and knowledge and power. To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage impotence and eternal loneliness. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state or to the other.
That explains what always used to puzzle me about Christian writers; they seem to be so very strict at one moment and so very free and easy at another. They talk about mere sins of thought as if they were immensely important: and then they talk about the most frightful murders and treacheries as if you had only got to repent and all would be forgiven. But I have come to see that they are right. What they are always thinking of is the mark which the action leaves on that tiny central self which no one sees in this life but which each of us will have to endure—or enjoy—for ever.
To me, this seems to be a particularly Catholic way of thinking–Catholics, feel free to argue–and though I have no intention of converting, it makes a lot of sense to me. If you’re going to be stuck with ‘you’ forever, it behooves you to try to become the type of person that you want to be stuck with for that long. After your threescore and ten are done (plus change, if you’re lucky/unlucky), all opportunities for modification will be past. To put it in geek-speak, in the eternal life realm, you’ll have all the features and bugs that you’re ever going to have. Apart from radical change, a person is always headed in one direction or the other; therefore the time to make changes is now.
Life is short. Well, this one is.
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