“Can’t I lead a good life without believing in Christianity?” That’s the question posed by many people. Is it an honest question or one that simply seeks to avoid truth? C. S. Lewis deals with it in his short, yet insightful, essay, “Man or Rabbit?” It can be found in God in the Dock.
Lewis clears away the unhelpful underbrush of the query and reveals the path such a person asking the question is attempting to follow. As he does so, he sheds light on the essential dishonesty in what at first appears to be an honest question.
Anyone who asks this question already knows about Christianity and is really saying, “Need I bother about it? Mayn’t I just evade the issue, just let sleeping dogs lie, and get on with being ‘good’? Aren’t good intentions enough to keep me safe and blameless without knocking at that dreadful door and making sure whether there is, or isn’t someone inside?”
Lewis is blunt: “The man is shirking. He is deliberately trying not to know whether Christianity is true or false, because he foresees endless trouble if it should turn out to be true.”
Pulling no punches, Lewis continues,
He is like the man who deliberately “forgets” to look at the notice board because, if he did, he might find his name down for some unpleasant duty.
He is like the man who won’t look at his bank account because he’s afraid of what he might find there.
He is like the man who won’t go to the doctor when he first feels a mysterious pain, because he is afraid of what the doctor may tell him.
This avoidance of truth gets to the heart of what is behind the question of whether one must be a Christian to be good. Someone who asks that may be looking for an “out.” At bottom, it’s not genuine honesty at all; the question is not a real question but a hope that one doesn’t have to hear the actual answer.
The man who remains an unbeliever for such reasons is not in a state of honest error. He is in a state of dishonest error, and that dishonesty will spread through all his thoughts and actions: a certain shiftiness, a vague worry in the background, a blunting of his whole mental edge, will result.
He has lost his intellectual virginity.
Lewis knows that God will forgive anyone who has mistakenly rejected Christ and then repents of that rejection. But that’s not the kind of person he is addressing here.
But to evade the Son of Man, to look the other way, to pretend you haven’t noticed, to become suddenly absorbed in something on the other side of the street, to leave the receiver off the telephone because it might be He who was ringing up, to leave unopened certain letters in a strange handwriting because they might be from Him—this is a different matter.
You may not be certain yet whether you ought to be a Christian; but you do know you ought to be a Man, not an ostrich, hiding its head in the sand.
Even if you can get a person to acknowledge his avoidance of finding the truth, there is another issue that Lewis says is an indication of the lowering of intellectual honor: the plaintive cry of “Will it help me? Will it make me happy?” Lewis challenges that approach with more bluntness:
Here is a door, behind which, according to some people, the secret of the universe is waiting for you. Either that’s true, or it isn’t. And if it isn’t, then what the door really conceals is simply the greatest fraud, the most colossal “sell” on record.
Isn’t it obviously the job of every man (that is a man and not a rabbit) to try to find out which, and then to devote his full energies either to serving this tremendous secret or to exposing and destroying this gigantic humbug?
Faced with such an issue, can you really remain wholly absorbed in your own blessed “moral development”?
What’s needed, Lewis explains, is the realization that we can’t ever be “good” in the sense that God intends for us. “Mere morality is not the end of life. You were made for something quite different from that.”
What, then, is that “something quite different”?
We are to be re-made. All the rabbit in us is to disappear. . . . We shall bleed and squeal as the handfuls of fur come out; and then, surprisingly, we shall find underneath it all a thing we have never yet imagined: a real Man, an ageless god, a son of God, strong, radiant, wise, beautiful, and drenched in joy. . . .
Morality is a mountain which we cannot climb by our own efforts; and if we could we should only perish in the ice and unbreathable air of the summit, lacking those wings with which the rest of the journey has to be accomplished.
For it is from there that the real ascent begins. The ropes and axes are “done away” and the rest is a matter of flying.
I don’t know about you, but I would like to fly.