C.S. Lewis’s Conversions: Atheist to Theist, Theist to Christian

Rare early picture of CS Lewis, on the cover of “All My Road Before Me” — from his early and agnostic or atheistic days.A Christian Conversion Experience:  C.S. Lewis

Contemporary apologetics so often focus on the issues of biblical reliability and understanding in relation to science, and on the question of evil, as these are the currently contested concerns.  One apologetic that points towards the existence of God, however, is one that is generally not “scientific” enough, and that is a changed life.  Not a temporary change, which can indicate a simple excitement of a person’s will, but a permanent change evidenced by the long term.   So let’s look at the conversion experience of a well-known person, C.S. (Jack) Lewis.  Lewis was an Oxford and Cambridge Professor (English and Philosophy) and the well-known author of both fictional works like The Chronicles of Narnia and of highly valued scholarly works.

To anyone who comes in contact with atheistic thought, what Lewis wrote to his best friend in 1916 (below) will seem quite familiar.  What made him come to that conclusion, and what made him change his mind?

“I believe in no religion.  There is absolutely no proof for any of them, and from a philosophical standpoint Christianity is not even the best.  All religions, that is, all mythologies to give them their proper name, are merely man’s own invention” (Hooper p. 9).

Lewis, or Jack, was brilliant from early age, having been tutored at home until he was nine, when his mother died.  As if this great sorrow was not enough, Lewis’ dad sent him away to school, from their home in Ireland to England.  Lewis’ older brother, Warnie, attended the very small school with him, but Jack hated it, and with good reason.  The headmaster, a Reverend, was abusive and eventually deemed insane.  At his next school, Lewis experienced an occultist head matron.

One can see the progression of Lewis’ road to apostasy from his parents’ Anglican faith:  God did not heal his mother, one school leader was a cruel and crazy believer, and the other was a non-believing occultist.  By the time Lewis attended his third school, he was an atheist.  Hating this school as well, Lewis’ father sent him to learn under a distinguished tutor, who happened to be an atheist also.  Lewis was superb at languages and translating.  As his tutor wrote, Jack had “a sort of genius for translating . . . .  He is the most brilliant translator of Greek plays I have ever met” (Gromley p. 36).

He went on to learn and teach at Oxford, with WWI service (and related injury and recovery) sandwiched in.  After the war he lived with his adopted family, a much older atheist woman and her daughter.

So what would cause Lewis to stray from his atheism?  A couple of strongly held ideas played their parts.  One was the concept and experience of what Lewis termed “joy” – a pang of intense bliss and longing, followed by a strong desire to experience it again.  The other was his concern, from an early age, that if Christianity were true it could be shown that paganism prefigured it, or that Christianity fulfilled paganism.  Indeed, Lewis felt his pangs of “joy” when reading the northern pagan mythologies that he loved so much.

Jack Lewis wanted to be his own man; he did not want to acknowledge a power or diety that demanded loyalty.  Through the years, however, seeking truth and being drawn to authors and friends who helped him with answers to his search for “joy” as well as his concern over God’s communication with the pagan world, Lewis’ heart and mind opened enough to hear God give him a choice.

“. . . a fact about myself was somehow presented to me.  I became aware that I was holding something at bay, of shutting something out. . . .  I felt myself being, there and then, given a free choice. . . .  I could unbuckle the armor or keep it on. . . .  The choice appeared to be momentous but it was also strangely unemotional.  I was moved by no desires or fears.  In a sense I was not moved by anything.  I chose to open . . . .  Then came the repercussion on the imaginative level.  I felt as if I were a man of snow at long last beginning to melt.  The melting was starting in my back – drip-drip and presently trickle-trickle.  I rather disliked the feeling” (Lewis p. 123).

This experience of Lewis’ happened in 1929, and it was “conversion” to belief in God, not in an afterlife or in Jesus Christ.  Lewis still thought that parts of Christianity were a kind of myth, yet he wanted to know the truth and to live truth.  God gave Lewis many nudges, even via an ardent atheist who thought that it really did seem as though God made the pagan myths come true through Jesus Christ.  This atheist’s admission shocked Lewis.  Jack’s good friend J.R.R. Tolkien helped him with this issue, too, as did Hugo Dyson, on a pivotal walk in September 1931:

“Tolkien was convinced that myth, such as the Norse myth of the death of Balder, or the Greek myth of Psyche and Eros, was not the opposite of fact.  These stories were a way of expressing truths deeper than fact. . . .  [Tolkien declared that] not only did the truth in myths come from God, but a writer of myths could be doing God’s work in the world.1 As Tolkien talked, there was a sudden rush of wind out of nowhere, as if to underline the message.  The three men held their breath, feeling the importance of the moment” (Gormley p. 95).

Later that month Lewis had a second, more subtle, conversion experience.

“As I drew near the conclusion, I felt a resistance almost as strong as my previous resistance to Theism. . . .  Every step I had taken, from the Absolute to ‘Spirit’ and from ‘Spirit’ to ‘God,’ had been a step toward the more concrete, the more imminent, the more compulsive.  At each step one had less chance ‘to call one’s soul one’s own.’ . . .  I know very well when, but hardly how, the final step was taken.  I was driven to Whipsnade [Zoo] one sunny morning.  When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did.  Yet I had not exactly spent the journey in thought.  Nor in great emotion. . . .  It was more like when a man, after long sleep, still lying motionless in bed, becomes aware that he is now awake” (Lewis pp. 129-130).

So, finally, Lewis found that myth had become fact (that is, Jesus was “the god that died”) and that the pangs of “joy” had been sign posts to God.

As Lewis had written in Surprised by Joy, “all” is required of a person who acknowledges and worships his maker, and Lewis gave his all.  He is considered to be the greatest apologist of the 20th century, having written Mere Christianity, The Problem of Pain, The Screwtape Letters, and more.  In addition, he was a very popular layman preacher in Oxford.  As a “secular” scholar and author, he wrote poetry, the highly regarded “A Preface to Paradise Lost,” The Discarded Image, and others.   Lewis was the president of Oxford’s Socratic Club from 1942-1955; this was a philosophy group that delved into the pros and cons of the Christian faith.

As if the schedule demanded by all that was not enough2 – don’t forget that he taught as well – Lewis was kind enough to answer all his letters (as he became “popular” he had the help of his brother, and then his wife).  He always helped those in need–in a very personal way when the opportunity arose–and in a more general way through significant monetary giving.  His apologetics show a concern and love for the common man, being theological and philosophical explanations open and accessible to all.   Jack’s life was one humanly lived and beautifully lived.

_____________

Notes

  1. Indeed, as probably all of you readers know, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote the great “modern myth,” The Lord of the Rings.   It’s likely that many fewer are aware of Lewis’ re-told myth of Psyche and Cupid (or Eros) in Till We Have Faces.
  2. Lewis had a truly unbelievable photographic memory, easily quoting pages from books that someone happened to mention.  This gift was obviously a very great help to his studies, writing, lectures, etc.

____________

Sources

Gormley, Beatrice. C.S. Lewis: Christian and Storyteller. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 1998.

Hooper, Wlater. C.S. Lewis: A Complete Guide to His Life & Works. New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996.

Lewis, C.S. “Surprised by Joy.” In The Inspirational Writings of C.S. Lewis, by C.S. Lewis, 1-130. New York: Inspirational Press, 1994 (1955).

© Vicki Priest 2012 (this is an edited version of my article at Examiner.com, published 2011)

 

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