C.S. Lewis’ Rediscovery Of God – Alister McGrathOctober 24, 2013
Lewis’ writings of the early 1930s show him to have been searching for a fundamental principle of order in life – what ancient Greek philosophers might have termed an archē — that was not a human invention but was grounded in a deeper order of things. Where could such a unifying vision of reality be found? [For a discussion of the concept of archē, [read Anthony Esolen here.]
One of the reasons Lewis was drawn to study the literature of the Middle Ages was his sense that it witnessed to an understanding of the scheme of things that had been lost in the West through the trauma of the recent Great War. For Lewis, medieval culture offered an imaginative vision of a unified cosmic and world order, expressed in poems such as Dante’s Divine Comedy. There was a “big picture” of reality which was able to embrace its fine detail. Works such as the Divine Comedy, Lewis argued, demonstrate that “medieval art attains a unity of the highest order, because it embraces the greatest diversity of subordinated detail.”
We see here the literary expression of a fundamentally theological idea — namely, that there is a certain way of seeing reality that brings it into the sharpest focus, illuminating the shadows and allowing its inner unity to be seen. This, for Lewis, is a “realizing imagination” of seeing or “picturing” reality that is faithful to the way things actually are.’°
Lewis’ literary reflections here resonate with his own inner personal quest for truth and meaning. In part, Lewis’s deep love for the best literature of the Middle Ages reflects his belief that it had found something that modernity had lost — and that he himself yearned to recover. Could the disruption of unity and continuity revealed by the Great War be healed? Might there be a way of bringing things back together again? Was there a way of reconciling his reason and imagination?
Gradually, the pieces of this jigsaw puzzle began to fall into place, eventually to come into sharp focus in a devastating moment of illumination. In Surprised by Joy, Lewis sets out the series of moves which led him to faith in God, using a chessboard analogy.” None of these is logically or philosophically decisive; all are at best suggestive. Yet their force not in their individual importance, but in their cumulative weight. Lewis portrays these, not as moves which he made, but moves which were against him. The narrative of Surprised by Joy is not that of Lewis’s discovery of God, but of God’s patient approach to Lewis.
What Lewis describes in Surprised by Joy is not a process of logical deduction: A, therefore B, therefore C. It is much more like a process of crystallization, by which things that were hitherto disconnected and unrelated are suddenly seen to fit into a greater scheme of things, which both affirms their validity and indicates their interconnectedness. Things fall into place. A fundamental harmony between theory and observation emerges, once things are seen in the right way.
It is like a scientist who, confronted with many seemingly unconnected observations, wakes up in the middle of the night having discovered a theory which accounts for them. (The great French physicist H Poincare once remarked, “It is by logic that we prove, but by intuition we discover.” It is like a literary detective, confronted with a series of clues, who realizes how things must have happened, allowing every clue to be positioned within a greater narrative. In every case, we find the saner pattern — a realization that, if this was true, everything else falls into place naturally, without being forced or strained. And by its nature, it demands assent from the lover of truth. Lewis found himself compelled to accept a vision of reality that he did not really wish to be true, and certainly not cause to be true.
Any attempt to tell the story of Lewis’s conversion has to try and relate the events of his outer and inner worlds. Lewis presents himself as doing this in Surprised by Joy, telling the story of two quite different yet interconnected — worlds: his external worlds of English schools and Oxford University, and his internal world of yearning for `Joy,” racked for so long by a tension between the rational and the imaginative.
On the one side a many-islanded sea of poetry and myth; on the other a glib and shallow “rationalism.” Nearly all that I loved I believed to be imaginary; nearly all that I believed to be real I thought grim and meaningless.
It is not, however, always easy to correlate events in Lewis’s inner world with the historical events in the world outside. For example, in the external world, Lewis travelled on a bus up Headington Hill, on his way from Magdalen College to his home in the former village of Headington (recently incorporated into the city of Oxford); in his internal world, he experienced the collapse of his mental defenses against the approach of a God whom he never wanted to acknowledge, let alone meet. Two quite different journeys thus converged on that single bus trip.
One of the chief difficulties in reading Surprised by Joy lies in attempting construct a map of Lewis’ development which adequately and accurately links the events in his inner and outer worlds. Lewis’ own account of the relationship between these worlds, to the extent that it can be verified, is not always accurate. As we shall argue in this chapter, rediscovery of God is almost certainly not to be dated from the sum-r of 1929, as Lewis himself suggests in Surprised by Joy, but from the late spring or early summer of 1930.
Yet the subjective reality of Lewis’ memories is not to be doubted. Lewis is quite clear about the rearrange-it of the furniture of his mind, and the factors which led to this; the difficulty lies in the historical timing of that rearrangement
The process of crystallization around belief in God appears to have taken place over an extended period of time, culminating in a dramatic moment of decision. His resistance to what he increasingly realized to be true could not be sustained. This was not something he sought, but something that seemed to seek him.
Lewis’ prose here recalls Blaise Pascal’s famous distinction between the anodyne, disinterested “God of the philosophers,” and the fiery, living “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” What Lewis had thought to be at best an abstract philosophical idea proved to have a life and will of its own:
As the dry bones shook and came together in that dreadful valley of Ezekiel’s, so now a philosophical theorem, cerebrally entertained, began to stir and heave and throw off its gravecloths and stood upright and became a living presence. I was to be allowed to play at philosophy no longer.
A close reading of Lewis’ correspondence confirms what this passage in Surprised by Joy suggests — a previous dabbling with divinity that has not been fully acknowledged. In a 1920 letter to his Oxford friend Leo Baker, Lewis remarked that, while reflecting on the philosophical question of the existence of matter, he had come to the conclusion that the least objectionable theory” was to “postulate some sort of God.” Perhaps, he mused, this was a “sign of grace.” He had “stopped defying heaven.” Was this the “playing at philosophy” that Lewis had in mind?
The key point about this passage in Surprised by Joy is that Lewis now describes an assertive, active, and questing God, not simply a mental construct or philosophical game. God was pounding on the door of Lewis’ mind and life. Reality was imposing itself upon him, vigorously and aggressively demanding a response. `Amiable agnostics will talk cheerfully about `man’s search for God.’ To me, as I then was, they might as well have talked about the mouse’s search for the cat.”
One of the most powerful visual images in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is the melting of snow, signifying the breaking of the power and the imminent return of Aslan. Lewis applied this potent image to describe his own diminishing resistance to the divine advent in Surprised by Joy, as he reflected on his own conversion: “I felt as if I were a man of snow at long last beginning to melt. The melting was starting in melt. The melting was starting in my back drip-drip and presently trickle-trickle. I rather disliked the feeling.
Lewis’ 1916 “treaty with reality” was now in the process of collapsing around him, as he realized he could no longer maintain his old mental frontiers in the light of the superior forces mustered against him. “The reality which no treaty can be made was upon me.” The point that Lewis is making here is too easily overlooked. The image of a “treaty with reality” conveys a radical and comprehensive compartmentalization of thought that enables troubling and disturbing thoughts to be locked away so that they do not disturb everyday life.
We saw Lewis using precisely this strategy to deal with the horror of the Great War. Reality was subjugated to thought which was like a net thrown over reality, taming it and robbing its ability to take by surprise and overcome. What Lewis discovered was that he could no longer domesticate reality. Like a tiger, it refused to be constrained by its artificial cage. It broke free, and overwhelmed its former captor.
Lewis finally bowed to what he now recognized as inevitable. “In the Trinity term of 1929 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.” Lewis now believed in God; he was not yet a Christian. Nevertheless, Lewis tells us that as a public manifestation of this theistic belief, he then began to attend college chapel, and became a regular worshipper at his local parish church of Holy Trinity, Headington Quarry, not far from his home.
This change in behavior, which Lewis dates to Oxford’s Trinity Term of 1929 (that is, between 28 April and 22 June 1929), is of enormous importance, as it allows the correlation of Lewis’s inner and outer worlds. A change in the way Lewis thought led to a change in his public behavior – a something which marked a change in his habits and could be seen by others.
Lewis’ new and unexpected interest in chapel was the subject of much discussion and intrigue among other Magdalen dons in the early 1930s. The American philosopher Paul Elmer More, who visited Magdalen in 1933, later wrote of intense college gossip about Lewis’ new habit of attending chapel. Yet Lewis insists that, at this stage, this was “a merely symbolical and provisional practice,” which neither indicated nor enabled a specific commitment to Christianity” Yet it is a marker for the date of his conversion to theism. If we can identify when Lewis began to attend chapel, we have a clue to when he started to believe in God.
More important, Lewis began to see himself in a new way. “One of the first results of my Theistic conversion was a marked decrease, the fussy attentiveness which I had so long paid to the progress of my own opinions and the states of my own mind.” One practical outcome of this decision to break with this narcissistic introspection was inevitably having failed to keep up his diary since March 1927, Lewis abandoned any thought of taking it up again. “If Theism had done nothing else for me, I should still be thankful that it cured me of the time-wasting and foolish practice of keeping a diary.”
Having ceased to keep a diary since 1927, Lewis’ recollection of events after that date turns out to be somewhat unreliable. As he himself remarked in 1957, he could now “never remember dates.” His brother was more emphatic: Lewis had a “life-long inability to track of dates.” Surprised by Joy is primarily an account of changes in Lewis’ internal world, which are correlated — at times a little loosely and uncertainly — with events in the external world. It is “suffocatingly subjective,” an introspective piece of writing dealing primarily with the rearrangement of Lewis’ interior world of thought and experience.
The traditional dating of Lewis’ transition to belief in God, set out by Lewis himself, locates this shift in the early summer of 1929. Yet this dating raises some puzzling questions. For example, if Lewis really came to faith in God around then, why did his correspondence around the time of the death of his father, several months later, contain no hint whatsoever of a belief in God, however emergent, on his part? Might his father’s death instead have acted as a stimulus for Lewis to reflect more deeply on the question of God in the midst of the emotional turmoil that he experienced around this time?
In preparing for this biography, I read all of Lewis’s published works in their order of composition. At no point in Lewis’s writings of 1929 did I discern any signs of the dramatic developments that he describes as having taken place in his inner life that year. There is no hint of change in tone or tempo in any works written up to January 1930.
Furthermore, Lewis makes it clear that, as a result of his conversion, he began to attend church and college chapel. There is trace of such a significant — and publicly observable — change of habit, either as a topic of observation or discussion, in his correspondence of 1929. Even allowing for Lewis’s reluctance to self-disclose, his writings of this period do not point to any kind of conversion experience in 1929. As we shall see, however, his writings of 1930 tell a very different story.
So is Lewis right about the date of his own conversion as stated in Surprised by Joy? Might Lewis’s memory be faulty at this point? There is no doubt that Lewis recalled a conversion experience in his inner world, and describes its shape with some care. But how does this relate to the events of his outer world of years and months? Might Lewis have made a mistake? After all, there are other historical errors in the narrative of Surprised by Joy. (For example, Lewis recalls his first reading of George MacDonald’s Phantastes as taking place in August 1915, but this should actually be dated to March 1916.)
Given the importance of this question, it needs to be considered in greater depth. More on this in our next post…