October 5, 2010

"All Find What They Truly Seek" (p.2): Journey to Christianity

Part two of “'All Find What They Truly Seek': C.S. Lewis, Latter-day Saints, and the Virtuous Unbeliever” (Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 43, no. 3 [Fall 2010]: 21–62). This one follows Lewis's conversion from atheism to Christianity. See part one here

In retrospect, Lewis summarized his religious journey as moving “from materialism to idealism...to pantheism...to theism to Christianity.”9 His early materialism contained a good deal of contempt for religion. “You ask me my religious views,” seventeen-year-old Lewis responded to Arthur Greeves on October 12, 1916. “You know, I think, that 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. . . . Superstition of course in every age has held the common people, but in every age the educated and thinking ones have stood outside it, though usually outwardly conceding to it for convenience” (1:230–31). Almost fifteen years later on October 1, 1931, he confessed, also to Arthur: “How deep I am just now beginning to see: for I have just passed on from believing in God to definitely believing in Christ—in Christianity” (1:974). Lewis’s gradual conversion heavily influenced his later religious views, concerns, and apologetic method.

Religious conversion is a complex and delicate issue.10 Susan Kwilecki has described conversion as development: a “gradual unfolding . . . something vague or indistinct becom[ing] definite or articulated.” This unfolding occurs in the “thought, emotion, [or] will—directed towards whatever the individual takes to be divine or ultimately significant.”11 Though I believe this description is accurate for Lewis’s own conversion, he would have disliked the ponderous vocabulary: “Any fool can write learned language,” he wrote. “The vernacular is the real test. If you can’t turn your faith into it, then either you don’t understand it or you don’t believe it” (3:1,007; emphasis his). Because of his own conversion experience, Lewis was sympathetic to seeing conversion as a process rather than an event. Perhaps Lewis would have preferred this description from one of his favorite theologians, Scottish minister George MacDonald: “To give us the spiritual gift we desire, God may have to begin [to work] far back in our spirit, in regions unknown to us....For our consciousness is to...our being...as the flame of the volcano to the world-gulf whence it issues: in the gulf of our unknown being God works behind our consciousness. With his holy influence...he may be approaching our consciousness from behind, coming forward through regions of our darkness into our light, long before we begin to be aware that he is answering our request.”12

This is the process Lewis described in his 1955 autobiography, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Life (3:645). In his letters Lewis referred to the book as “SBJ,” and one friend teased that he planned to write a companion volume for Lewis using the same initials; he’d call it “Suppressed By Jack” (3:750). Lewis tended to emphasize different aspects of his loss and rediscovery of faith, depending on the audience. Bits of what influenced his conversion are strewn like bread crumbs throughout the personal letters, allowing later birds to follow the trail in further detail.

Lewis reports intellectually becoming an atheist around age fourteen when he saw how modern editors of Latin and Greek poets “always assumed that the ancient [pagan] religion was in pure error. Hence...came the obvious question ‘Why shouldn’t ours [Christianity] be equally false?’” (2:702). Lewis “pretended to believe for fear of my elders,” but this initial doubt grew to include problems with the efficacy of prayer and the problem of theodicy made acute by the death of his mother when he was nine years old. It was further cemented by a “‘Rationalist’ tutor,” W. T. (“the Great Knock”) Kirkpatrick, whom Lewis called the only “pure agnostic” he had ever met and whom he credited with teaching him “to think” (2:444, 702). Lewis’s youthful letters are often egotistic and antagonistic toward religion, though he was careful to maintain a facade of belief under certain circumstances.13 Contrast his formal letters to his father (then unaware of his atheism) with letters to Arthur, whom he often poked in the religious eye. He quoted the Bible regularly—to his father as consolation or as advice to “study the lilies of the field” (Matt. 6:28) but to Arthur in teasing about his “precious Jehovah,” the “old Hebrew thunder spirit” (1:82, 206).14

Despite such confidence, Lewis began doubting his empirical worldview as he felt a certain other-worldliness encroaching from behind. In 1916 Lewis eagerly wrote to tell Arthur about a “great literary experience.” He had picked up “by hazard” George MacDonald’s “Faerie Romance for Men and Women,” Phantastes, and urged: “You simply MUST get this at once” (1:169–70).15 He would later credit the book with doing him “much good” before his conversion, “when I had no idea what was behind it.” He recommended it to a friend: “This [book] has always made it easier for me to understand how the better elements in mythology can be a real praeparatio evangelica [preparation for the gospel] for people who do not yet know whither they are being led” (2:453).16

Soon after recommending Phantastes to Arthur, Lewis wrote to tell him of another “great find”: an “increasing tendency towards philosophy,” which he had begun studying at Oxford. “All other questions really seem irrelevant till its [questions] are solved. I think you should take it up—its probings would at least save you from the intellectual stagnation that usually awaits a man who has found complete satisfaction in some traditional religious system.” He was impressed by alternate views of morality—for example, that morals can be regarded “as a kind of art...to be pursued for its own beauty” (1:341–43).17 His contempt for “religious systems” was tempered by a fellow student named Leo Baker. One late-night conversation in 1920 turned to “shadowy subjects— ghosts and spirits and Gods.” Baker described “seeing things” as a child, which led him to dabble in hypnotism and automatic writing. He’d given it up, but now “‘things’ were coming back of their own accord.” Lewis became “dazed and drunk in all he said.” Everything seemed “incredibly real.” The conversation left Lewis with a splitting headache. He felt “tired and nervous and pulled to pieces.” He concluded, “Perhaps [Baker] is a bit mad” (1:473). A few months later, Lewis wrote Baker to report an interesting development. Studying philosophy had led him to “postulate some sort of God as the least objectionable theory” accounting for the existence of matter. “But of course,” he hedged, “we know nothing.” Jettisoning his confident atheism, he said, “I have no business to object to the universe as long as I have nothing to offer myself—and in that respect we are all bankrupt” (1:509).18

Increasingly enamored with a spiritual side of life, though now agnostic on the question of God, Lewis continued discussing religion with Baker—at one point revisiting his former problems with petitionary prayer.19 He described the conversation to his brother Warren: “[I told Baker] the trouble about God is that he is like a person who never acknowledges one’s letters and so, in time, one comes to the conclusion either that he does not exist or that you have got the address wrong.” He admitted that it was “of great moment” whether God was really there or not, “but what was the use of going on dispatching fervent messages—say to Edinburgh—if they all came back through the dead letter office....His cryptic reply was that it would be almost worth going to Edinburgh to find out” (1:555). This possibility intrigued Lewis as he felt an ever-increasing “Something Else” mysteriously leaking into his life. Still, he doubted: “Whatever else the human race was made for, it at least was not made to know” (1:640).

Early in 1923 when he was twenty-four, Lewis was living with Janie King Moore, the mother of a deceased friend. Moore’s brother, John Askins, a psychologist, came to visit. He had dabbled in spiritualism and, during his visit, experienced an “attack of war neurasthenia” which Lewis described to Arthur: “[Askins] endured awful tortures....[H]e had horrible maniacal fits—had to be held down” by Lewis and Mrs. Moore for several nights in a row. He “had the delusion he was going to Hell.” Lewis advised Arthur to “keep clear of introspection, of brooding, of spiritualism, of everything eccentric. Keep to work and sanity and open air—to the cheerful and matter of fact side of things. We hold our mental health by a thread” (1:605). In Surprised by Joy he cites this experience as one reason for “a retreat, almost a panic-stricken flight, from all that sort of romanticism which had hitherto been the chief concern of my life” (1:606 note 6). Shortly after this experience Lewis wrote his father to explain his related flight from the “solitude” of philosophy to English:

I am glad of the change. I have come to think that if I had the mind, I have not the brain and nerves for a life of pure philosophy. A continued search among the abstract roots of things, a perpetual questioning of all that plain men take for granted, a chewing the cud for fifty years over inevitable ignorance and a constant frontier watch on the little tidy lighted conventional world of science and daily life—is this the best life for temperaments such as ours? Is it the way of health or even of sanity? There is a certain type of man, bull necked and self satisfied in his “pot bellied equanimity” who urgently needs that bleak and questioning atmosphere. But what is a tonic to the Saxon may be a debauch to us Celts....I am not condemning philosophy. Indeed in turning from it to literary history and criticism, I am conscious of a descent: and if the air on the heights did not suit me, still I have brought back something of value. It will be a comfort to me all my life to know that the scientist and the materialist have not the last word: that Darwin and Spencer undermining ancestral beliefs stand themselves on a foundation of sand; of gigantic assumptions and irreconcilable contradictions an inch below the surface. It leaves the whole thing rich in possibilities: and if it dashes the shallow optimism it does the same for the shallow pessimisms. But having once seen all this “darkness”, a darkness full of promise, it is perhaps best to shut the trap door and come back to ordinary life: unless you are one of the really great who can see into it a little way—and I was not. (1:648–49)20
Lewis was “hideously shocked”21 in 1923 when two of his closest friends converted to Anthroposophy, a spiritualist-materialist system involving concepts of reincarnation and karma.22 Their conversion initiated what Lewis called “the Great War” (3:1,596–1,645) between him and Owen Barfield.23 Their prolonged debate destroyed any remaining faith in what he called materialism, and years later he described the “kindly feeling” he had toward Anthroposophy for having “left the way open for Christianity” (3:198–99). Barfield had “failed to convert me to his own views...but his attack on my own presuppositions smashed the ordinary pseudo-‘scientific’ world-picture forever,” Lewis wrote (2:702–3). Looking back, Lewis attributed his appreciation and tolerance for non-Christian systems as being potential stepping stones to the ultimate truths of Christianity. He had developed strong reservations about the overriding (and in his view, overconfident) intellectual mood of his time.24 His distaste for spiritualism was tempered by his skepticism of empiricism.

Always the bookworm, Lewis spent time with the plays of Euripides, Alexander’s Space, Time, and Deity, G. K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man,25 and other works. Then in 1926, Lewis received another shock: “The hardest boiled of all the atheists I ever knew sat in my room on the other side of the fire and remarked that the evidence for the historicity of the Gospels was surprisingly good. ‘Rum thing,’ he went on. ‘All that stuff of Frazer’s about the Dying God. Rum thing. It almost looks as if it really happened once.’” Lewis felt that, if this man was not “safe,” what could he say for his own mental defenses?26

By 1929 the leak of “Something Else” was becoming a flow. Lewis kicked off one of his many walking tours with friends by visiting Salisbury Cathedral where they attended evensong to hear the reading of psalms. He was very unimpressed by the “four fat and spongy clergymen [who] scampered and simpered through the job in a way that really disgusted me. It is perhaps too much to expect any intense spiritual quality in the reading of men who have to do it every day (and yet why are they in the church if the thing means so little to them as that?) . . . I know I should be ashamed to read out a recipe as abominably as they read out the psalms” (1:795).27

Lewis expected something more sincere and intimate in religious experience than he felt as he listened to this reading of the psalms. This concern for sincerity pervades his later apologetic approach and his understanding of the process of conversion. He had been feeling something—God creeping up behind him—but the feeling did not come and go merely as a verse of scripture was read or as he attended a religious service. Would these clergymen understand that feeling?28 Though the exact date is unknown, it was during Trinity Term (from the end of April to the middle of June) in 1929 that Lewis discovered that he finally believed in God: “You must picture me alone in that room . . . night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet....I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.”29

“Terrible things are happening to me,” he wrote to Barfield in February 1930. “The ‘Spirit’ . . . is showing an alarming tendency to become much more personal and is taking the offensive, and behaving just like God. You’d better come on Monday at the latest or I may have entered a monastery” (1:882–83). He wrote Arthur at the end of January 1930 to tell him about the “beauties of coming...to an attempt at religion,” which included the many books on God he now read with interest. “One finds oneself on the main road with all humanity, and can compare notes with an endless succession of previous travelers. It is emphatically coming home: as Chaucer says ‘Returneth home from worldly vanitee’” (1:872–73). The changes kept coming; a few weeks later, he wrote to tell another friend that his outlook was now “definitely religious. It is not precisely Christianity, tho’ it may turn out that way in the end....[W]hereas once I would have said ‘Shall I adopt Christianity’, I now wait to see whether it will adopt me” (1:887).

It adopted him “one sunny morning” in September 1931 while riding to Bedfordshire’s Whipsnade Zoo in the sidecar of his brother’s motorbike: “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 a long sleep, still lying motionless in bed, becomes aware that he is now awake” (1:972).30

Lewis began writing about his conversion. His first published fictional work on the subject was The Pilgrim’s Regress (1933), a Bunyan-esque portrait of “John” traveling through a philosophical landscape before arriving at Christianity. Lewis used his own conversion to inform John’s travels; when one reader asked Lewis why the book seemed to end so abruptly, he replied: “The reason why John’s return journey is so simple in the book is that I hadn’t then begun traveling it and knew v. little about it—in fact ‘ignorance, Madam, sheer ignorance’” (2:492).31 His understanding of Christianity continued to grow. Soon he was pleased to experience yet another of his “delightful vernal periods when doctrines that have hitherto been only buried seeds begin actually to come up—like snowdrops or crocuses” (2:493; emphasis his). The doctrines, the beliefs, were coming to life in him. He often pointed out that as a new Christian he still had much to learn. For the rest of his life, he referred to himself as an “amateur theologian” and resisted systematizing his own thoughts.32 Still, he dug right in, looking for answers, encouraging other believers, writing apologetics, and making personal (and often frustrating) efforts to become more Christlike. The path he traveled into Christianity had a profound impact on the rest of his journey.

Lewis’s outlook should strike a responsive chord with Latter-day Saints who are admonished to seek “anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy” (Thirteenth Article of Faith), even in other religions. Lewis’s experience-based understanding of religious conversion resonates strongly with Mormon views of the process.

Attack of the over-long footnotes, but they're worth it:

[9] 2:145. This overview of Lewis’s conversion is not comprehensive, for which the reader should see Roger Green and Walter Hooper, C. S. Lewis: A Biography, rev. ed. (New York: Harvest Books, 1994); David C. Downing, The Most Reluctant Convert: C. S. Lewis’s Journey to Faith (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2002), and Alan Jacobs, The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C. S. Lewis (New York: HarperOne, 2005). Because I focus more on Lewis’s conversion as he understood it, I omit many important events in Lewis’s environment which deserve consideration, for example, the early death of his mother, estrangement from his father, early dislike of school, being injured as a soldier in World War I, losing friends in battle, a possible sexual relationship with an older woman, Mrs. Moore, and other influential experiences.

[10] Sociologists and psychologists have attempted to craft various “stages of faith,” many of which tend to play favorites regarding how one should be converted and to what. For one example, see James Fowler, Stages of Faith (New York: Harper & Row, 1981). An interesting response to such efforts (which also informed my interpretation of Lewis’s conversion) is Susan Kwilecki, “A Scientific Approach to Religious Development: Proposals and a Case Illustration,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 27, no. 3 (September 1988): 307–25.

[11] Kwilecki, “A Scientific Approach to Religious Development,” 310. In some faith traditions, such development is believed to be instantaneous; for example, some Evangelical Christians seek a vivid moment in which they are “saved” or “born again.”

[12] George MacDonald (1824–1905), Unspoken Sermons (1867–89; rpt. Whitefish, Mont.: Kessinger Publishing, 2004), 102. Clive Staples Lewis, ed., George MacDonald: An Anthology (New York: Macmillan, 1946), 18, said he regarded MacDonald as his “master”: “My own debt to [MacDonald] is almost as great as one man can owe to another. . . .Indeed, I fancy I have never written a book in which I did not quote from him. But it has not seemed to me that those who have received my books kindly take even now sufficient notice of the affiliation.”

[13] Upon reading these early letters years later, Lewis was most struck by their “egotism” and “priggery.” “I seem to be posturing and showing off in every letter....How ironical that the very thing wh. I was proud of in my letters then should make the reading of them a humiliation to me now!” (1:973). This mortification seems to have carried over into his reading of The Life and Letters of Lord Macaulay. Perhaps there was something autobiographical in his remark: “One can see quite clearly that having so early acquired the talk [Macaulay] found he could go on quite comfortably for the rest of his life without bothering to notice the things. He was from the first clever enough to produce a readable and convincing slab of claptrap on any subject whether he understood it or not, and hence he never to his dying day discovered that there was such a thing as understanding” (1:815).

[14] Lewis often quoted verses from both the Old and New Testaments. At times the quotations were straightforward with no positive or negative spin. His letters demonstrate an impressive early acquaintance with the Bible.

[15] Lewis and Arthur were clearly bibliophiles, often discussing books in great detail, including their physical dimensions, construction, and quality. They favored “Everyman” editions, which could be ordered with a custom color binding. In the letter mentioning Phantastes, Lewis reported that he recently purchased a volume in the chocolate binding he used to dislike. “So you see I am gradually becoming converted to all your views,” he teased. “Perhaps one of these days you may even make a Christian of me” (1:170–71).

[16] MacDonald greatly influenced Lewis’s later approach to writing fiction.

[17] Lewis was reading books on William Morris and later viewed this stage of his belief as something like “pantheism” or other “sub-Xtian beliefs” (1:342 note 146; 2:702).

[18] After his conversion, Lewis maintained that refuting should include replacing if possible. When Elizabeth Anscombe rebutted Lewis’s argument that “Naturalism is Self-Refuting,” he noted: “The lady is quite right to refute what she thinks bad theistic arguments, but does this not almost oblige her as a Christian to find good ones in their place: having obliterated me as an Apologist ought she not to succeed me?” (3:35).

[19] Some biographers have pointed to Lewis’s early discomfort with prayer as key in his loss of faith. See Downing, The Most Reluctant Convert, 44, 132. Significantly, Lewis later wrote a book on the subject: Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1964). Earlier, he had abandoned an effort to write this book (3:276, 428).

[20] Anglican New Testament scholar N. T. Wright, “Simply Lewis,” Touchstone Magazine, March 2007, complained: “I don’t know whether it’s Lewis or his republishers, but I am puzzled that such a great writer should have been so indiscriminate and seemingly muddled with his use of the colon and semi-colon.” From the letters, I am confident Lewis was responsible.

[21] Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 160. Lewis felt “deserted” by his friends following their conversion. Several collected letters contain advice to recent converts struggling with unbelieving loved ones. This idea later informed Lewis’s novel Till We Have Faces which he describes as “the story of every nice, affectionate agnostic whose dearest one suddenly ‘gets religion’” (3:590; see also 2:482–83).

[22] As an alternative to Madame Blavatsky’s “Theosophy” movement, Rudolph Steiner founded the official Anthroposophy Society in 1912. Goetheanum, the school of spiritual science and current seat of the society near Basel, Switzerland, currently claims 150,000 annual visitors. For Steiner’s works, see rsarchive.org.

[23] Lionel Adey, C. S. Lewis’s Great War with Owen Barfield (Victoria, British Columbia: Ink Books, 2000).

[24] Lewis told one worried writer to disregard charges that believers were suffering from a deluded “escapism,” calling such people “Turnkey critics: people who want to keep the world in some ideological
prison because a glimpse at any remote prospect wd. make their stuff seem less exclusively important” (3:418). Though not opposed to scientific investigation, Lewis was annoyed by “Scientocracy,” glossing Shakespeare: “There are more things in heaven & earth than are dreamed of in your science” (3:1104, 623–24). Christians should be especially wary of twisting the gospel into “one more of their high brow fads” (2:134). Pinning too much faith on any currently popular philosophical trend (in this case, Neo-scholasticism,) could be dangerous: “I mean, we have no abiding city even in philosophy: all passes, except the Word” (2:176).

[25] G. K. Chesterton was one of the Christian writers who seems to have impacted Lewis most. Before his conversion, Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 216, viewed Chesterton as “the most sensible man alive ‘apart from his Christianity.’” In 1947 after converting, he called Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man “the v. best popular defence of the full Christian position” he knew (2:823; 3:72). He often listed it in letters when asked for recommendations (2:375, 941; 3:363, 652, 1,264, 1,353).

[26] Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 216.

[27] Lewis later found some of the psalms troubling, especially those appearing to manifest vindictiveness and a “festering, gloating, undisguised” hatred. He wrote Reflections on the Psalms (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1958), 1, 22, to help readers understand these troublesome aspects, though he insisted he was not writing as a Hebraist or higher critic.

[28] Lewis would later urge patience with clergymen: “We have a very trying curate in our parish,” he explained. “Some say ‘the devil lives v. near the altar’, [and] I take it your Rector is just an instance of the brother one has to forgive unto seventy times seven.” He concluded, “If they have a bad priest they need good laity all the more” (3:463).

[29] Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 228–29. He noted that God’s willingness to accept him despite this attitude is a witness to God’s remarkable mercy. Notably, Lewis’s father passed away during this time.

[30] Lewis could not date “the ride to Whipsnade” (3:996). According to Walter Hooper, Lewis’s brother recorded the date in his journal as September 28, 1931 (3:996; 1:972). This revelation took place days after a very influential late-night conversation with friends Hugo Dyson and J.R.R. Tolkien. As a theist, Lewis had been puzzled by the “whole doctrine of Redemption: in what sense the life and death of Christ ‘saved’ or ‘opened salvation to’ the world.” Dyson and Tolkien convinced Lewis to view the story of Christ as he viewed other similar myths involving death, sacrifice, and propitiation. Lewis realized that “the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened...[,] the Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through what we call ‘real things’. Therefore it is true, not in the sense of being a ‘description’ of God (that no finite mind could take in) but in the sense of being the way in which God chooses to (or can) appear to our faculties....Does this amount to a belief in Christianity?” (1:976–77).

[31] He is quoting Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, which Lewis claims is the only biography he ever enjoyed reading. He quoted from it often; the ‘ignorance’ line was one of their running gags (3:26).

[32] See, e.g., 2:481, 975; 3:66, 562. In 1941 he thanked one reader for her kind letter, concluding, “Though I’m forty years old as a man I’m only about twelve as a Christian, so it would be a maternal act if you found time sometimes to mention me in your prayers” (2:263–64). To a priest who wrote Lewis in 1947 to ask for help in resolving denominational conflict, Lewis responded: “I am a layman, indeed the most lay of laymen, and least skilled in the deeper questions of sacred theology. I have tried to do the only thing that I think myself able to do: that is, to leave completely aside the subtler questions about which the Roman Church and Protestants disagree among themselves . . . and in my own books to expound, rather, those things which still, by God’s grace, after so many sins and errors, are shared by us” (2:801); translation from Lewis’s Latin original, and hence his title for Mere Christianity.