In his recent essay, A Thicker Kind of Mere, Timothy George reminded us that the kind of faith C.S. Lewis argued for in the last century is not necessarily the same thing suggested by similar terminology today. As George noted, Lewis borrowed his famous phrase from Richard Baxter, a Puritan minister who preceded Lewis by three centuries. According to George:
Baxter’s “mere Christianity” was not “mere” Christianity in the weak, attenuated sense of the word mere. Both Lewis and Baxter used the word mere in what is today—regrettably—an obsolete sense, meaning “nothing less than,” “absolute,” “sure,” “unqualified,” as opposed to today’s weakened sense of “only this,” “nothing more than,” or “such and no more.” Our contemporary meaning of the word mere corresponds to the Latin vix, “barely,” “hardly,” “scarcely,” while the classical, Baxterian usage corresponds to the Latin vere, “truly,” “really,” “indeed.”
As he spoke out for what he called “Mere Christianity,” which was at some points beautifully thick and at others drably thin, Lewis was clearly willing to accept a flimsy version of marriage, at least as a civil institution. “There ought to be two distinct kinds of marriage,” Lewis stated in his most influential book, “one governed by the State with rules enforced on all citizens, the other governed by the Church with rules enforced by her on her own members. The distinction ought to be quite sharp, so that a man knows which couples are married in a Christian sense and which are not” (p. 112). He went so far as to say that Christians should not “try to enforce their views of marriage on the rest of community,” either as voters or legislators. This personal belief was evidenced by his marriage to Joy Davidman at the Oxford’s Register Office in April 1956.
Lewis’s stance on marriage, as noted by Alister McGrath, was a major contributing factor to a “wide gulf” which opened between Lewis and one of his closest friends, J.R.R. Tolkien. “For Tolkien,” notes McGrath, “this amounted to a betrayal of any Christian notion of marriage” (p. 229). Several generations have followed suit in this betrayal, even among those who, like Lewis, bear the name of Christian. Tolkien’s Catholic sensibility gave him the conviction that marriage, nor society, could stand after being divided. Marriage is either thick, or not marriage at all.
The Supreme Court’s June 26th ruling on the way states must deal with marriage highlights our cultural confusion about marriage’s definitive characteristics. Secular ideology has stripped marriage of its foundational “thickness,” leaving behind only bits and pieces of its superficial constitution. Auxiliaries like feelings, acceptance, and financial benefits have come to be seen as the things which qualify a relationship to be a marriage, and liberals fight nail and tooth to make sure everyone acknowledges it, in all times and places. This “thin,” and thus false, version of marriage was first demanded to be given equal treatment. When equal treatment is given to the counterfeit, however, the authentic version becomes seen as antiquated and unnecessary. When we accept the thin view of marriage proposed by seculars, marriage in its full thickness is squeezed out; there is no longer room for it in the postmodern worldview. Marriage takes its place in the long line of the “thinning out” of definitions of realities that used to be quite substantial and weighty: religion, citizenship, human life, even truth itself.
The Supreme Court’s declared preference for the thin view of marriage highlights the false notion that religion adds unnecessary responsibilities to civic life. Religion may be tolerated by some seculars, but it is always disdained as something superimposed upon the essential features of freedom. In this case, marriage has been defined in minimal terms, affording the option of tacking on religious connotations to those who choose to add them, as if they were an afterthought.
Those who adhere to this concept fail to see that the religious view of marriage, requiring promises made between one man and one woman before God and the community, is in fact the simplest understanding of marriage that has ever been held in human history. Simple marriage is that which is most basic; free of distraction and corruption. The most simple definition of marriage is that which is most pure and free from complication. The fundamental bond between a man, his wife, and his children simplifies life in society. Government sanctioned sexual relationships between people of the same gender makes life in society much more complicated, to say the least.
By the end of his life, C.S. Lewis was convinced that interest in his writings would be slowly drowned out by the rising tide of secular ideology in the 1960s. Some would find this assumption ironic, considering the popular resurgence of not only his works, but the genre of Christian literature as a whole, that has been witnessed by recent generations. A further irony though, I might note, is that despite the heightened enthusiasm for faith that we enjoy in some sectors, religious fervor has often been paralleled by a distancing from political life, rather than the comingling between faith and society we would hope to find.
Has a widely held thin understanding of “Mere Christianity” led to the thin understanding of “Mere Marriage” prominent today? Though he seemed to desire a robust understanding of faith, in general, his particular theological notions show us a thinner vision for the future of Christian and civic life than he himself may have realized. A modern generation of Christians and non-Christians alike that has celebrated Lewis (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was recently voted second on the BBC’s list of the “Best Children’s Book of All Time”) seems, more times than not, to prefer vix over vere.
As Catholics we are fighting for mere marriage. But in defending marriage, as in defending Christianity, we must start by defining the terms of the battle, and always fight for more against those who would give us less.