Spiritualizing Words — “Who are you…?”

Clive Staples Lewis

Peo­ple ask: “Who are you, to lay down who is, and who is not a Chris­t­ian?”: or “May not many a man who can­not believe these doc­trines be far more tru­ly a Chris­t­ian, far clos­er to the spir­it of Christ, than some who do?”

Now this objec­tion is in one sense very right, very char­i­ta­ble, very spir­i­tu­al, very sen­si­tive. It has every ami­able qual­i­ty except that of being use­ful. We sim­ply can­not, with­out dis­as­ter, use lan­guage as these objec­tors want us to use it. I will try to make this clear by the his­to­ry of anoth­er, and very much less impor­tant, word.

The word gen­tle­man orig­i­nal­ly meant some­thing recog­nis­able; one who had a coat of arms and some land­ed prop­er­ty. When you called some­one “a gen­tle­man” you were not pay­ing him a com­pli­ment, but mere­ly stat­ing a fact. If you said he was not “a gen­tle­man” you were not insult­ing him, but giv­ing infor­ma­tion. There was no con­tra­dic­tion in say­ing that John was a liar and a gen­tle­man; any more than there now is in say­ing that James is a fool and an M.A.

But then there came peo­ple who said — so right­ly, char­i­ta­bly, spir­i­tu­al­ly, sen­si­tive­ly, so any­thing but use­ful­ly — “Ah but sure­ly the impor­tant thing about a gen­tle­man is not the coat of arms and the land, but the behav­iour? Sure­ly he is the true gen­tle­man who behaves as a gen­tle­man should? Sure­ly in that sense Edward is far more tru­ly a gen­tle­man than John?” They meant well. To be hon­ourable and cour­te­ous and brave is of course a far bet­ter thing than to have a coat of arms. But it is not the same thing. Worse still, it is not a thing every­one will agree about. To call a man “a gen­tle­man” in this new, refined sense, becomes, in fact, not a way of giv­ing infor­ma­tion about him, but a way of prais­ing him: to deny that he is “a gen­tle­man” becomes sim­ply a way of insult­ing him. When a word ceas­es to be a term of descrip­tion and becomes mere­ly a term of praise, it no longer tells you facts about the object: it only tells you about the speaker’s atti­tude to that object. (A ‘nice’ meal only means a meal the speak­er likes.) A gen­tle­man, once it has been spir­i­tu­alised and refined out of its old coarse, objec­tive sense, means hard­ly more than a man whom the speak­er likes.

As a result, gen­tle­man is now a use­less word. We had lots of terms of approval already, so it was not need­ed for that use; on the oth­er hand if any­one (say, in a his­tor­i­cal work) wants to use it in its old sense, he can­not do so with­out expla­na­tions. It has been spoiled for that pur­pose. Now if once we allow peo­ple to start spir­i­tu­al­is­ing and refin­ing, or as they might say ‘deep­en­ing’, the sense of the word Chris­t­ian, it too will speed­i­ly become a use­less word. In the first place, Chris­tians them­selves will nev­er be able to apply it to any­one. It is not for us to say who, in the deep­est sense, is or is not close to the spir­it of Christ. We do not see into men’s hearts. We can­not judge, and are indeed for­bid­den to judge. It would be wicked arro­gance for us to say that any man is, or is not, a Chris­t­ian in this refined sense. And obvi­ous­ly a word which we can nev­er apply is not going to he a very use­ful word. As for the unbe­liev­ers, they will no doubt cheer­ful­ly use the word in the refined sense. It will become in their mouths sim­ply a term of praise. In call­ing any­one a Chris­t­ian they will mean that they think him a good man. But that way of using the word will be no enrich­ment of the lan­guage, for we already have the word good. Mean­while, the word Chris­t­ian will have been spoiled for any real­ly use­ful pur­pose it might have served.

We must there­fore stick to the orig­i­nal, obvi­ous mean­ing. The name Chris­tians was first giv­en at Anti­och (Acts 11:26) to ‘the dis­ci­ples’, to those who accept­ed the teach­ing of the apos­tles. There is no ques­tion of its being restrict­ed to those who prof­it­ed by that teach­ing as much as they should have. There is no ques­tion of its being extend­ed to those who in some refined, spir­i­tu­al, inward fash­ion were ‘far clos­er to the spir­it of Christ’ than the less sat­is­fac­to­ry of the dis­ci­ples. The point is not a the­o­log­i­cal or moral one. It is only a ques­tion of using words so that we can all under­stand what is being said. When a man who accepts the Chris­t­ian doc­trine lives unworthi­ly of it, it is much clear­er to say he is a bad Chris­t­ian than to say he is not a Chris­t­ian.

— C.S. Lewis, Mere Chris­tian­i­ty, Pref­ace