Archive for the ‘Conversion Stories’ Category

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My Bright Abyss The Meditation of a Modern Believer — Christian Wiman

December 6, 2013
Christ’s repeated use of metaphor and story, Wiman asserts, is an effective way of asking people to "stake their lives on a story, because existence is not a puzzle to be solved but a narrative to be inherited and undergone and transformed person by person." And there is the rub, the necessity of a personal commitment to a particular faith, with its own specific language, rituals and traditions. "You can't really know a religion from outside,” Wiman writes, and no matter how much you learn about it, it remains “mere information, so long as your own soul is not at risk."

Christ’s repeated use of metaphor and story, Wiman asserts, is an effective way of asking people to “stake their lives on a story, because existence is not a puzzle to be solved but a narrative to be inherited and undergone and transformed person by person.” And there is the rub, the necessity of a personal commitment to a particular faith, with its own specific language, rituals and traditions. “You can’t really know a religion from outside,” Wiman writes, and no matter how much you learn about it, it remains “mere information, so long as your own soul is not at risk.”

A review by Kathleen Norris whom frequenters of these electronic pages have met before. Glommed from the NYT Book Review.

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THIS is a daring and urgent book, written after the author learned he had a rare, incurable and unpredictable cancer. But it is not a conventional memoir of illness and treatment. Beyond informing us that he received his dire news in a “curt voice mail message,” Christian Wiman says very little about his experience of the medical world. He is after bigger game.

More than any other contemporary book I know, “My Bright Abyss” reveals what it can mean to experience St. Benedict’s admonition to keep death daily before your eyes. As a poet, Wiman is more likely to quote a poet than a saint, and the many citations here from sources as diverse as A.R. Ammons, Robert Browning, Paul Celan, George Herbert, Eugenio Montale, Osip Mandelstam, Rainer Maria Rilke, Richard Wilbur and William Wordsworth  offer a rich encounter with literature.

But this book is much more than that, and Wiman is relentless in his probing of how life feels when one is up against death. In his desire to “speak more clearly what it is that I believe,” he recounts how, after long wandering, he sought to reclaim his religious faith. He understands that he is not recapturing the faith he had as a child, noting that “If you believe at 50 what you believed at 15, then you have not lived or have denied the reality of your life.

With both honesty and humility, Wiman looks deep into his doubts, his suspicion of religious claims and his inadequacy at prayer. He seeks “a poetics of belief, a language capacious enough to include a mystery that, ultimately, defeats it, and sufficiently intimate and inclusive to serve not only as individual expression but as communal need.” This is a very tall order, and Wiman is a brave writer to take it on.

Drawing on his position as someone facing a diminished life span, Wiman mounts a welcome, insightful and bracing assault on both the complacent pieties of many Christians and the thoughtless bigotry of intellectuals who regard Christian faith as suitable only for idiots or fools. Wiman has endured dull sermons from liberal pastors who seem embarrassed to mention Jesus, and he has heard from secular fundamentalists who attempt to dismiss his faith with facile reference to psychology.

He comments: “To admit that there may be some psychological need informing your return to faith does not preclude or diminish the spiritual imperative, any more than acknowledging the chemical aspects of sexual attraction lessens the mystery of enduring human love.”

Wiman is adept at making connections between the religious impulse and the need to create art. Like many artists, after shedding his early religious faith, he transferred “that entire searching intensity into his work. But eventually Wiman sensed that all those hours of reading, thinking and writing were leading him back into faith. He began to feel that “human imagination is not simply our means of reaching out to God but God’s means of manifesting himself to us.”

Wiman finds that the integrity of a poem, which is “its own code to its own absolute and irreducible clarity,” is similar to that of a God who lives “not outside of reality but in it, of it, though in ways it takes patience and imagination to perceive.” Both require the use of metaphor, “which can flash us past our plodding resistance and habits into new strange truths.”

Christ’s repeated use of metaphor and story, Wiman asserts, is an effective way of asking people to “stake their lives on a story, because existence is not a puzzle to be solved but a narrative to be inherited and undergone and transformed person by person.”

And there is the rub, the necessity of a personal commitment to a particular faith, with its own specific language, rituals and traditions. “You can’t really know a religion from outside,” Wiman writes, and no matter how much you learn about it, it remains “mere information, so long as your own soul is not at risk.” With so much at risk for him, he takes the plunge.

And in accepting that the words and symbols of Christianity say something true about reality but are also necessarily limited in their scope, he sees an analogue with poetry. “You can’t spend your whole life questioning whether language can represent reality,” he writes. “At some point you have to believe that the inadequacies of the words you use will be transcended by the faith with which you use them.”

Christianity scandalized the ancient world because it was for common people, open to anyone, rich or poor, slave or free. It offered no secret, specialized knowledge that could be acquired by a select few. Some contemporary readers may be scandalized by Wiman’s opting to be a common Christian, relinquishing the elite status of the artist in Western culture. The idea of the artist as heroic loner, he decides, is for him merely an anxiety that has become dangerously useful. Coping with his cancer has drawn him closer to other people, and also to the Jesus who suffered on the cross. “The point,” he writes, “is that God is with us, not beyond us, in suffering.”

In reflecting on the meaning of Christ’s passion for his own life, Wiman finds that it reveals that “the absolutely solitary and singular nature of extreme human pain is an illusion.” It is the resolutely incarnational nature of the religion that draws him in. “I am, such as I am, a Christian,” he writes, “because I can feel God only through physical existence, can feel his love only in the love of other people.”

His love for his wife and children, he realizes, is both human and entirely sacred. And here the poet comes to the fore, insisting on the right to embrace contradiction without shame. “I believe in absolute truth and absolute contingency, at the same time. And I believe that Christ is the .seam soldering together these wholes that our half vision — and our entire clock-bound, logic-locked way of life — shapes as polarities.”

This pithy and passionate book is not easy, but it is rewarding. Wiman’s finely honed language can be vivid and engaging. He describes his childhood home as “a flat little sandblasted town in West Texas: pump jacks and pickup trucks, .. . a dying strip, a lively dump, and above it all a huge blue and boundless void” that he admits, with typical acuity, “I never really noticed until I left, when it began to expand alarmingly inside of me.”

He exhibits a poet’s concern for precision, writing, for example, that “the sick person becomes very adept at distinguishing between compassion and pity. Compassion is someone else’s suffering flaring in your own nerves. Pity is a projection of, a”lament for, the self.

This is, above all, a book about experience, and about seeking a language that is adequate for both the fiery moments of inspiration and the “fireless life” in which we spend most of our days. It is a testament to the human ability to respond to grace, even at times of great suffering, and to resolve to live and love more fully even as death draws near.

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Lewis’ Belief in the Divinity Of Christ – Alister McGrath

October 28, 2013

Da Vinci’s figure of Christ in this painting holds a glass globe, symbol of the earth itself.The authenticity of this painting is being hotly debated. It may or may not be a genuine Leonardo da Vinci. The painting does not have the Mona Lisa’s smile, but the figure has a similarly steadfast gaze, and there is the same immediacy and slightly unnerving challenge in the eyes.

As a result of his conversation with Tolkien and Dyson, Lewis was able to grasp the imaginative appeal of Christianity. Yet this did not take the form in understanding of its individual elements — such as the core doctrines of the creeds. Rather, Lewis came to appreciate the comprehensive view of reality that he found in the Christian faith. Yet Lewis’ description of his journey of discovery specifically makes reference to wrestling with core doctrines, including the identity of Jesus of Nazareth. So when did this process of intellectual exploration take place?

Lewis recalled experiencing a process of intellectual clarification and crystallization, during which the more theological aspects of his faith finally fell into place. His account of this development in Surprised by Joy makes clear that it happened during a journey to Whipsnade Park Zoo, yet makes no reference to any specific dates:

I know very well when, but hardly how, the final step was taken. I was driven to Whipsnade one sunny morning. When we 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.

We see here the repeated pattern of Lewis’ using a journey to mull over things in his mind, the pieces naturally falling into place without undue mental effort on his part. But when did this “final step” take place?

Lewis biographers have traditionally dated this “final step” to 28 September 1931, when Warnie drove Lewis to Whipsnade Park Zoo in Bedfordshire on a misty morning in the sidecar of his motorbike. It is now the received wisdom of Lewis biographers that this date marks Lewis’ conversion to Christianity.”This is supported by Warnie’s remark that it was during this “outing” in 1931 that Lewis decided to rejoin the church.

If this interpretation is correct, the final stages of Lewis’ from believing in God to commitment to Christianity might be pieced together as follows:

  1. 19 September 1931: A conversation with Tolkien and Dyson leads Lewis to realize that Christianity is a “true myth.”
  2. 28 September 1931: Lewis comes to believe in the divinity of Christ while being driven to Whipsnade Zoo in a motorbike by his brother, Warnie.
  3. 1 October 1931: Lewis tells Arthur Greeves that he has “passed over” from belief in God to belief in Christ.

Following this scenario, Lewis’ process of conversion to Christianity is quite rapid, its critical elements having taken place over a period of ten days (19-28 September 1931). This is the traditional understanding of Lewis’ gradual rediscovery of Christianity, and it fits in well with the evidence of his writings.

Lewis’ conversation with Tolkien and Dyson allowed him to catch a glimpse of the imaginative potential of the Christian story, illuminating questions that had troubled him for some time. Having experienced the “imaginative embrace” of Christianity, Lewis began the rational exploration of its landscape. This rational exploration, expressed in terms of Christianity’s doctrines, follows on from the captivation of the imagination through its images and stories.

As has often been observed, Lewis sees theory as secondary to reality — in effect, as intellectual reflection that arises after something has apprehended or appreciated, primarily through the imagination. Lewis grasped the reality of Christianity through his imagination, and began to try and make rational sense of what his imagination had captured and embraced.

The traditional account of Lewis’ conversion suggests that this process was essentially complete within ten days. Yet Lewis’ correspondence suggests that it may have been a more extended and complex process, taking months rather than days. So how confident can we be that Lewis’ Christological insight took place on the way to Whipsnade Zoo in September 1931?

Lewis’ account of the significant visit to Whipsnade Zoo in Surprised by Joy is traditionally held to refer to 28 September 1931, when he was driven to Whipsnade Zoo by Warnie in the sidecar of his motorbike. There is no doubt that Lewis visited Whipsnade on this occasion. But is this the occasion on which Lewis’ views on Christ were resolved? It is important to note that the narrative of Surprised by Joy makes no reference to Warnie, nor to a motorbike, nor to September, nor to 1931. Furthermore, Lewis wrote a long letter to his brother shortly after that visit, briefly recalling their day at Whipsnade — but making no reference to any religious transformation or significant theological adjustment on his part.

A closer examination of Warnie’s recollections of that day in September 1931 also raises some doubts about the traditional interpretation. Warnie’s reflections on that day are clearly not based on any personal and privileged disclosures from his brother, but from his own corelation of that journey with the narrative in Surprised by Joy. What some have interpreted as Warnie’s memory of a conversation with Lewis is is clearly Warnie’s later interpretation of an event. And, as we shall see, this interpretation of that event is open to question. What if Lewis had been to Whipsnade on another occasion, when Warnie was not present? What if that was the occasion for his theological clarification?

Lewis’ memory of that critical day at Whipsnade Zoo, as set out in Surprised by Joy, includes a lyrical passage recalling “the birds singing overhead and the bluebells underfoot,” commenting that this scene at “Wallaby Wood” had been quite ruined by more recent construction at the zoo. Yet the English bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) blooms from late April into late May (depending on the weather), and its leaves wither and disappear by the late summer.

Bluebells flower later than usual at Whipsnade, due to the slightly colder climate on the elevated downs on which the zoo is located. There would have been no sign of “bluebells underfoot” at Whipsnade in September. But they would have been blooming in profusion there in May and early June. Perhaps the significance of this fact has been overlooked by some, or the English bluebell has been confused with its Scottish counterpart (Campanula rotundifolia, known as the “harebell” in England), which continues to flower into September. Lewis’ “Edenic” recollection of the birds and bluebells at Whipsnade Zoo recorded in Surprised by Joy is clearly a memory of a late spring or early summer day, not a day in early autumn.

Lewis’ heightened attention to the bluebells may well reflect their symbolic association with this moment of insight — after all, Lewis tell us that he had long been a self-confessed “votary of the Blue Flower” (page 16). The “Blue Flower” motif in German Romanticism has complex historical roots. It was first stated in Novalis’s posthumously published fragment of a novel Heinrich von Ofterdingen (1802), and came to symbolize a longing for the elusive reconciliation of reason and imagination, the observed world outside the mind and the subjective world within. The bright blue European cornflower is often cited as the inspiration of this symbol. It is easily extended to  bluebells.

Upon reflection, it is quite clear that this “Blue Flower” passage in Surprised by Joy refers not to the autumn of 1931, but to a second visit to Whipsnade, made in the first week of June 1932, when Lewis was again driven to the zoo — but this time in a car on a “fine day” by Edward Foord-Kelcey (1859-1934). On 14June, shortly after this trip, Lewis wrote to his brother, specifically noting the “masses of bluebells” he had seen t his visit to Whipsnade, and commenting on the state of “Wallaby Wood.”

The phrasing of this section of the letter is very similar to that critical passage in Surprised by Joy. Might this later date mark the occasion when Lewis finally came to believe in the Incarnation, perhaps as the apex of his exploration of the Christian faith? If so, it would clearly represent a deepened understanding of his faith from within, as Lewis had identified himself as a Christian by this time. This would require a revision of the traditional chronology of events, as follows:

  1. 19 September 1931: A conversation with Tolkien and Dyson leads Lewis to realize that Christianity is a “true myth.”
  2. 1 October 1931: Lewis tells Arthur Greeves that he has “passed over” from belief in God to belief in Christ.
  3. 7 (?) June 1932: Lewis comes to believe in the divinity of Christ while being driven to Whipsnade Zoo in a car by Edward Foord-Kelcey.

So did Lewis’ restless, questing mind finally bring everything together in a journey to Whipsnade Zoo in September 1931, a week or so after his conversation with Tolkien? Or was the process of reflection and crystallization more extended, only being completed during a later journey to Whipsnade in June 1932? Lewis’ letter of 1 October 1931 to Greeves, in which he speaks of now “definitely believing in Christ,” could certainly be interpreted as an embryonic realization of the significance of Christ that needed extended exploration and formulation, culminating in June 1932. Yet his correspondence of this later period — including a letter of 14 June 1932 to Warnie — makes no explicit reference to such a development.

Nor can we eliminate the possibility that Lewis may have confused individual aspects of these two visits to Whipsnade in writing Surprised by Joy. He may even have fused them in his memory, bringing together the imagery and themes of two different visits, and telescoping them into one. So which of these two visits marks the true moment of illumination noted earlier how Lewis was not totally reliable concerning dates, and it is possible that the narrative in Surprised by Joy involves blurring of the boundaries between similar events.

We are left here, as so often in relation to this most tantalizing of Lewis’ works, wishing for more, yet forced to work with what we have. The best solution at present is to allow the traditional date of Lewis’ conversion to Christianity — September 1931 — to stand, while noting ambiguities and uncertainties that surround it. Lewis’ letter to Greeves of 1 October 1931 makes most sense if a decisive Christological step has already been taken, even if the full unfolding and exploration of insight continued into the following year.

Yet whenever Lewis’ insight is to be dated, it is to be seen as bringing to a conclusion an extended process of reflection and commitment, which proceeded in a series of stages. We cannot seize on a single moment — such as this one — as defining or dating Lewis’ “conversion” to Christianity instead, we can trace an ascending arc of reflection, of which the conversation with Tolkien represents a critical imaginative transition, and the trip to Whipsnade Zoo its logical outworking.

One point on this ascending arc of Christian commitment merits special comment. Lewis attended a service of Holy Communion for the first time since his childhood at Holy Trinity Church, Headington Quarry, on Christmas Day 1931. In a long letter to his brother, Lewis briefly yet explicitly mentions attending the “early celebration” on that day at Holy Trinity, Headington Quarry — in other words, a service of Holy Communion. Lewis would have no doubt that his brother would have understood the significance of this development, given the tradition of the Church of England at this time.

What Lewis did not know was that Warnie had made a similar journey of faith, and had received communion for the first time since his childhood at the Bubbling Well Chapel in Shanghaialso on Christmas Day 1931. The two brothers, unknown to each other, had made a public expression of commitment to Christianity on exactly the same day.

In the end, it is not so much the precise date of Lewis’ conversion to Christianity as its implications for his future writings that is of ultimate importance. His conversion might, after all, have been an inner event of importance to Lewis, but without any obvious impact on his literary work. For example, T. S. Eliot converted to Christianity in 1927, generating much publicity in doing so. Yet many would suggest that Eliot’s subsequent writings were less shaped by this conversion than talk expected.Lewis is different. From the outset, Lewis seems to have realized if Christianity was true, it resolved the intellectual and imaginative riddles that had puzzled him since his youth. His youthful “treaty with reality” had been his own attempt to impose an arbitrary (yet convenient) order on a chaotic world.

Now he began to realize that there was a deeper order grounded in the nature of God, which could be discerned — and which once grasped, made sense of culture, history, science, and above all the acts of literary creation that he valued so highly and made his life’s study.Lewis’ coming to faith brought not simply understanding to his reading of literature; it brought both motivation and theoretical underpinning to his own literary creations — best seen in his late work Till We Have Faces (1956), but also evident in the Chronicles of Narnia.

It is simply not possible to make sense of Lewis’ work as a scholar and author without grasping the ordering principles of his inner world which — after a period of incubation and reflection — finally began to fall into place in the early autumn of 1931, and reached their final synthesis by the summer of 1932. When Lewis went to spend a holiday with Arthur Greeves between 15 and 29 August 1932, he was ready to map out his new and essentially complete vision of the Christian faith in the work that became The Pilgrim’s Regress. Although Lewis would continue to explore the relation of reason and imagination in the domain of faith, the fundamental features of his settled understanding of Christianity were now in place.

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Lewis’ Conversion: A Reconsideration – Alister McGrath

October 25, 2013
Magdalen College,1925.

Magdalen College,1925.

In Surprised by Joy, as we have just seen, Lewis dates the moment of his conversion to the Trinity Term of 1929. Lewis here refers to Oxford’s eight week teaching term, which is to be dated from 28 April to 22 June 1929 This date is accepted and repeated in every major biography of Lewis to date. The traditional chronology of Lewis’ conversion to Christianity is usually stated in terms of five landmarks:

  1. 28 April-22 June 1929: Lewis comes to believe in God.
  2. 19 September 1931: A conversation with Tolkien leads to realize that Christianity is a “true myth.”
  3. 28 September 1931: Lewis comes to believe in the divinity of Christ while being driven to Whipsnade Zoo.
  4. 1 October 1931: Lewis tells Arthur Greeves that he has “passed over” from belief in God to belief in Christ.
  5. 15-29 August 1932: Lewis describes his intellectual journey to God in The Pilgrim’s Regress, written at this time in Belfast

I do not believe that this chronology is the best explanation of the evidence contained in the primary sources, and propose a significant revision. Lewis’s spiritual journey, by my account, is a year shorter that traditionally been believed. The chronology which I propose, based on a close reading of the primary sources, is as follows:

  1. March June 1930: Lewis comes to believe in God.
  2. 19 September 1931: A conversation with Tolkien leads Lewis to realize that Christianity is a “true myth.”
  3. 28 September 1931: Lewis comes to believe in the divinity of Christ while being driven to Whipsnade Zoo.
  4. 1 October 1931: Lewis tells Arthur Greeves that he has “passed over” from belief in God to belief in Christ.
  5. 15-29 August 1932: Lewis describes his intellectual journey to God in The Pilgrim’s Regress, written at this time in Belfast.

What is the evidence for this proposed revision of the traditional view of the development of Lewis’ religious beliefs and commitments? To begin with, let us consider the date of Lewis’s conversion to theism – that is to say, when he began to believe in God. There is no evidence for any change of heart on this matter in any of Lewis’ writings dating from 1929, the time of his father’s death. But then things change in 1930. And only two people are allowed to know about it.

In a 1931 letter to Arthur Greeves, Lewis remarked on how he divided his acquaintances into “first class” and “second class” friends. In the former category, he placed Owen Barfield and Greeves himself; in the latter, Tolkien. If Lewis was to tell any of his circle about this new development in his life, it would have been his “first class” friends, Barfield and Greeves. Yet there is nothing in Lewis’s correspondence of 1929 with these two individuals which suggests that something significant had happened to him at any point during that year.

Yet things look very different in 1930. Lewis’ correspondence with Barfield and Greeves now points to a significant development, corresponding to the transition Lewis describes in Surprised by Joy, having taken place in (or perhaps slightly before) Trinity Term 1930 — about a year later that Lewis’ own account. In what follows, we shall examine one crucial letter from Lewis to each of these two “first class” friends. Both date from 1930, not 1929.

First, consider his very short, deeply introspective letter to Owen Barfield, dated 3 February 1930. In this letter, following a brief introduction, Lewis writes as follows:

Terrible things are happening to me. The “Spirit” or “Real I” 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.

At this point, Professor Henry Wyld came to visit Lewis and interrupted his flow of thought. Like Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “person from Porlock,” who disrupted the composition of his great poem “Kubla Khan” in 1797, Wyld prevented Lewis from saying anything more on this matter to Barfield. But what he says is enough. This is precisely the ,development that Lewis later described in Surprised by Joy, though he located it in Trinity Term 1929. God was becoming real to him, and taking the offensive. Lewis felt he was about to be overwhelmed by a greater force. As he put it in Surprised by Joy, he was being “dragged through the doorway.”

Lewis’ comments to Barfield must prefigure his conversion; they make no sense if they took place a year later, referring to an experience Lewis had already undergone. Barfield himself was clear about the importance of this letter in a 1998 interview regarding its significance it marked “the beginning of his conversion.” Yet Barfield’s interviewer at this point (Kim Gilnett) mistakenly assigned this letter to accommodating it within the framework proposed by Lewis in Surprised by Joy — despite the fact that the letter dates from the following year. This letter anticipates exactly the themes that Lewis described as converging on the devastating, imminent moment of conversion, which clearly lay ahead of, not behind, him.

The second significant letter was written to Arthur Greeves on 29 October 1930. As we noted earlier, Lewis explicitly states that he began to attend chapel at Magdalen College following his conversion. There is no hint of Lewis’ attending college chapel on a regular basis in his correspondence with anyone in 1929, or in the first half of 1930. Yet significant section of this 1930 letter to Greeves, Lewis mentions that he has now “started going to morning Chapel at 8:00am.” which meant that he had to go to bed much earlier than he had used to. This is clearly presented as a new development, a significant change in his routine, affecting his personal working habits, dating from the beginning of the academic year 1930-1931.

If Lewis’s own chronology for his conversion is correct, he would have begun attending college chapel in October 1929. There is no reference in his correspondence of that period to any such change of habit. Furthermore, the reference to attending college chapel in the letter of October 1930 clearly implies that Lewis was now doing something that was not part of his regular routine up to this point. If Lewis really was converted during the Trinity Term of 1929, why did he wait over a year before starting to attend college chapel? It makes little sense.

The traditional date of Lewis’ conversion would seem to require review. The evidence is best understood if Lewis’s subjective location of the event in his inner world is accepted, but his chronological location of the event is seen to have been misplaced. The nature or reality of Lewis’s conversion experience is not being called into question. The problem is that Lewis’s location of this event in the external world of space and time appears to be inaccurate. Lewis’s conversion is best understood as having taken place in the Trinity Term of 1930, not 1929. In 1930, Trinity Term fell between 27 April and 21 June.

Yet in rediscovering God in this way, Lewis had reached only a resting place, not his final destination. There was another milestone which had to be passed, which Lewis regarded as significant – a shift from a generic belief in God (often referred to as “theism”) to a specific commitment to Christianity. This appears to have been an extended and complex process, to which others were midwives. Some — such as George Herbert — spoke to Lewis as living voices from the past. Yet one person in particular spoke to Lewis in the present. In what follows, we shall tell the story of a nighttime conversation between Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, which totally changed Lewis’s outlook Christianity.

A Nighttime Conversation With Tolkien: September 1931
The final chapter of Surprised by Joy speaks briefly and tantalizingly of Lewis’s transition from “pure and simple” theism to Christianity. Lewis takes pains to make it clear that this conversion had nothing to do with desire or longing. The God to whom he surrendered in Trinity Term 1930 was “sheerly nonhuman.” He had no idea that “there ever had been ever would be any connection between God and Joy.” Lewis’s conversion was essentially rational, unrelated to his long-standing fascination with “Joy.” “No kind of desire was present at all.” His conversion to theism was, in one way, a purely rational matter.

Lewis’ rhetoric at this point can be understood as preempting a long standing atheist caricature of faith as “wish-fulfillment.” This idea, given expression in the writings of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), has an intellectual pedigree going back into the mists of time.

In this view, God is a consoling dream for life’s losers, a spiritual crutch for the inadequate and needy.” Lewis distances himself from any such idea. The existence of God, Lewis insists, was not something that he wished to be true; he valued his independence far too much for that. “I had always wanted, above all things, not to be `interfered with.” In effect, Lewis was confronted with something that he did not wish to be true, but was forced to concede was true.

The rational God bore little, if any, relation to Lewis’ world of imagination and longing on the one hand, and to the person of Jesus of Nazareth on the other. So how and when did Lewis make these deeper connections, so characteristic of his mature writing? The simple answer is that Surprised by Joy does not really tell us. Lewis pleads that he is now “the least informed” on this final stage of his spiritual journey from “mere Theism to Christianity,” and that he may not fully be relied upon to provide a complete or accurate account.

What we find instead is a paper trail of disconnected ideas and memories, leaving the reader with the task of trying to link these thoughts and episodes into a coherent whole. Yet it is clear from Lewis’ correspondence that one extended conversation was of critical importance in enabling him to transition from belief in God to acceptance of Christianity. In view of its importance, we shall consider it in detail.

On Saturday, 19 September 1931, Lewis hosted Hugo Dyson (1896-1975), a lecturer in English at nearby Reading University, and J. R. R. Tolkien for dinner at Magdalen College.” Dyson and Tolkien already knew each other, having been exact contemporaries at Exeter College, where they studied English together. It was a still, warm evening. After dinner, they went for an extended stroll along Addison’s Walk, a circular footpath following the River Cherwell within the college grounds, discussing the nature of metaphor and myth.

After a wind came up, causing leaves to fall to the ground with a noise like pattering rain, the three men retired to Lewis’ rooms and continued the discussion, which had now shifted to Christianity. Tolkien eventually made his excuses at 3.00 a.m., and headed home. Lewis and Dyson going for another hour. This evening of conversation with these two colleagues played a critical role in Lewis’ development. The imagery of wind seemed to him to hint at the mysterious presence and action of God.

Although Lewis now kept no diary, he wrote two letters to Greeves shortly afterwards, explaining the events of that night and their significance or his reflections on religious faith. In his first letter, dated 1 October, Lewis informed Greeves of the outcome of the evening’s discussion, but not its substance:

I have just passed on from believing in God to definitely believing in Christ — in Christianity. I will try to explain this another time. My long night talk with Dyson and Tolkien had a good deal to do with it.

Greeves naturally wanted to know more about this intriguing development. Lewis provided a more extended account of the evening’s events in his next letter, dated 18 October. Lewis explained that his difficulty had been he could not see “how the life and death of Someone Else (whoever he was) 2000 years ago could help us here and now.” An inability to make sense of this had been holding Lewis back “for the last year or so.”

Lewis could admit that Christ might provide us with a good example, but that was about as far as it went. He realized that the New Testament took a very different view, using terms such as propitiation or sacrifice to refer to the true meaning of this event. But these expressions, Lewis declared, seemed to him to be “either silly or shocking.”

Although Lewis’s “long night talk” involved both Dyson and Tolkien, it is Tolkien’s approach that seems to have opened a door for Lewis to a new way of looking at the Christian faith. To understand how Lewis passed from theism to Christianity, we need to reflect further on the ideas of J. R. R. Tolkien. For it was he, more than anyone else, who helped Lewis along in the final stage of what the medieval writer Bonaventure of Bagnoregio (1221-1274) describes as the “journey of the mind to God.”

Tolkien helped Lewis to realize that the problem lay not in Lewis’s rational failure to understand the theory, but in his imaginative failure to grasp its significance. The issue was not primarily about truth, but about meaning. When engaging the Christian narrative, Lewis was limiting himself to his reason when he ought to be opening himself to the deepest intuitions of his imagination.

Tolkien argued that Lewis ought to approach the New Testament with the same sense of imaginative openness and expectation that he brought to the reading of pagan myths in his professional studies. But, as Tolkien emphasized, there was a decisive difference. As Lewis expressed in his second letter to Greeves, “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 reader must appreciate that the word myth is not being used here in the loose sense of a “fairy tale” or the pejorative sense of a “deliberate lie told in order to deceive.” This is certainly how Lewis once understood myths — as “lies breathed through silver.” As used in the conversation between Lewis and Tolkien, the term myth must be understood in its technical literary sense if the significance of this exchange is to be appreciated.

For Tolkien, a myth is a story that conveys “fundamental things” other words, that tries to tell us about the deeper structure of things. The best myths, he argues, are not deliberately constructed falsehoods, but are rather tales woven by people to capture the echoes of deeper truths. Myths offer a fragment of that truth, not its totality. They are like splintered fragments of the true light.

Yet when the full and true story is told, it is able to bring to fulfillment all that was right and wise in those fragmentary visions of things. For Tolkien, grasping Christianity’s meaningfulness took precedence over its truth. It provided the total picture, unifying and transcending these fragmentary and imperfect insights.

It is not difficult to see how Tolkien’s way of thinking brought clarity and coherence to the jumble of thoughts that so excited Lewis’s mind at this time. For Tolkien, a myth awakens in its readers a longing for so thing that lies beyond their grasp. Myths possess an innate capacity expand the consciousness of their readers, allowing them to transcend themselves. At their best, myths offer what Lewis later termed “a real though unfocused gleam of divine truth falling on human imagination, Christianity, rather than being one myth alongside many others, is thus the fulfillment of all previous mythological religions. Christianity to a true story about humanity, which makes sense of all the stories that humanity tells about itself.

Tolkien’s way of thinking clearly spoke deeply to Lewis. It answered a question that had troubled Lewis since his teenage years: how could Christianity alone be true, and everything else be false? Lewis now realized that he did not have to declare that the great myths of the pagan age were totally false; they were echoes or anticipations of the full truth, which was made known only in and through the Christian faith.

Christianity brings to fulfillment and completion imperfect and partial insights about reality, scattered abroad in human culture. Tolkien gave Lewis a lens, a way seeing things which allowed him to see Christianity as bringing to fulfillment such echoes and shadows of the truth that arose from human questing and yearning. If Tolkien was right, similarities between Christianity and pagan religions “ought to be there.” There would be a problem only if such similarities did not exist.

Perhaps more important, Tolkien allowed Lewis to reconnect the worlds of’ reason and imagination. No longer was the realm of longing to be sidelined or suppressed, as the “New Look” demanded, and as Lewis feared belief in God might imply. It could be woven — naturally .and convincingly — into the greater narrative of reality that Tolkien had presented. As Tolkien later put it, God had willed that “the hearts of Men should seek beyond the world and should find no rest therein.”

Christianity Lewis realized, allowed him to affirm the importance of longing and yearning within a reasonable account of reality. God was the true “source from which those arrows of Joy had been shot … ever since childhood.” Reason and imagination alike were thus affirmed and reconciled by the Christian vision of reality.

Tolkien thus helped Lewis realize that a “rational” faith was not necessarily imaginatively and emotionally barren. When rightly understood, the Christian faith could ‘integrate reason, longing, and imagination.

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C.S. Lewis’ Rediscovery Of God – Alister McGrath

October 24, 2013
“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

“One of the first results of my Theistic conversion was a marked decrease of 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’ 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…

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A Most Reluctant Convert – Alister McGrath

October 23, 2013
C. S. Lewis is today remembered as a Christian writer. Yet the tone of his writings of the early 1920s is unquestionably atheistic, severely critical if not totally dismissive of religion in general and Christianity in particular. So how and why did he change his mind?

C. S. Lewis is today remembered as a Christian writer. Yet the tone of his writings of the early 1920s is unquestionably atheistic, severely critical if not totally dismissive of religion in general and Christianity in particular. So how and why did he change his mind?

Friendship with J. R. R. Tolkien
Lewis’ teaching responsibilities extended beyond Magdalen College at Oxford. He was member of Oxford University’s Faculty of English Language and  Literature, and delivered intercollegiate lectures on aspects of English literature — such as “Some Eighteenth-Century Precursors of the Romantic Movement.” He also attended meetings of the faculty which largely consisted of discussing teaching and administrative arrangements. These meetings were held at 4.00 p.m., following afternoon tea at Merton College, the home base of Oxford’s two Merton Professors of English, and were often referred to as the “English Tea.”

It was at an English Tea on 11 May 1926 that Lewis first met J. R. R. Tolkien — a “smooth, pale, fluent little chap,” who had joined Oxford’s English faculty as Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo- Saxon the previous year. Lewis and Tolkien would quickly find themselves embattled over the shape of the Oxford English curriculum. Tolkien argued for a curriculum closely focused on ancient and medieval English texts, requiring the mastery of Old and Middle English; Lewis believed English was best taught by focusing on English literature after Geoffrey Chaucer (ca. 1343-1400).

Tolkien was prepared to defend his corner, and worked hard to promote the study of forgotten languages. To advance his agenda, founded a study group he named the Kolbitar, aimed at fostering an appreciation of Old Norse and its associated literature. Lewis became a member. The curious term Kolbitar was adopted from Icelandic; it literally means “coal-biters,” and was a derisive term for Norsemen who refused to join the hunt or fight battles, preferring instead to stay indoors and enjoy the protective warmth of the fire.

As Lewis put it, the term (which he insisted is to be pronounced “Coal-beet-are”) refers to “old cronies who sit around the fire so close that they look as if they were biting the -coals ” Lewis found this “little Icelandic club” a massive stimulus to his imagination, throwing him back into “a wild dream of northern skies and Valkrie music.”

The relationship between Lewis and Tolkien is one of the most important of his personal and professional life. They had much in common — in terms of both literary interests and shared experiences of the battlefields of the Great War. Yet Lewis’ correspondence and diary make little save incidental reference to Tolkien until late in 1929. Then evidence of a deepening relationship begins to emerge. “One week I was up till 2.30 on Monday (talking to the Anglo Saxon Professor Tolkien),” Lewis wrote Arthur Greeves, “(who came back with me to College from a society and sat discoursing of the gods & giants & Asgard for three hours).”

Something that Lewis said that evening must have persuaded Tolkien to take the younger man into his confidence. Tolkien asked Lewis to read a long narrative poem he had been composing since his arrival in Oxford, titled The Lay of Leithian.

Tolkien was a senior Oxford academic with a public reputation in the field of philology, but with a personal and intensely private passion for mythology. Tolkien had drawn the curtains aside from his private inner self and invited Lewis into his sanctum. It was a personal and professional risk for the older man.

Lewis could not have known it, but at this point Tolkien needed a “critical friend,” a mentor who would encourage and criticize, affirm and approve his writing — above all, someone who would force him to bring it to completion. He had had such “critical friends” in the past, in the form of two of his old school friends — Geoffrey Bache Smith (1894-1916) and Christopher Luke Wiseman (1893-1987). However, Smith had joined the Lancashire Fusiliers, and died of wounds inflicted in the Battle of the Somme and Wiseman had drifted from Tolkien after his appointment in 1926 as headmaster of the Queen’s College, Taunton, in England’s West Country.

Tolkien was a niggling perfectionist, and he knew it. In. late story Leaf by Niggle — which deals with a painter who can never finish his painting of a tree because of his constant desire to expand and improve it — can be seen as a self-parodying critique of Tolkien’s difficulties in writing. Someone had to help him conquer his perfectionism. And what Tolkien needed he found in Lewis.

We may safely assume that Tolkien breathed a deep sigh when Lewis responded enthusiastically to the poem. “I can quite I say,” he wrote to Tolkien, “that it is ages since I have had an evening of such delight.” While we must pause the telling of this particular story as we move on to focus on other matters, it is no exaggeration to Lewis would become the chief midwife to one of the great works of twentieth-century literature — Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

Yet in a sense, Tolkien would also be a midwife for Lewis. It is arguable that Tolkien removed the final obstacle that stood in Lewis’s his rediscovery of the Christian faith — a complex and important story which I will present now…

Lewis is today remembered as a Christian writer. Yet the tone of his writings of the early 1920s is unquestionably atheistic, severely critical if not totally dismissive of religion in general and Christianity in particular. So how and why did he change his mind? In this chapter, we shall consider the slow conversion of Lewis from his early atheism, initially to a firm intellectual belief in God by the summer of 1930, and finally to an explicit and informed commitment to Christianity by the summer of 1932. It is a complex story, worth telling in detail both on account of its intrinsic interest and as a means of allowing us to understand Lewis’s rise to fame as a Christian voice in the quite different worlds of literary scholarship and popular culture.

The English Literary Religious Renaissance Of The 1920s
In 1930, the celebrity author Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966) — whose novel Vile Bodies had been hailed earlier that year as “the ultramodern novel” dropped a bombshell in literary circles. He announced that he had become Catholic. This development was so unexpected and significant that it immediately made the front pages of one of Britain’s leading newspapers, the Daily Express. How, its editor wondered, could an author best known for his “almost passionate adherence to the ultramodern” have embraced the Catholic faith? For the next week, the paper’s columns were filled with comment and reflection on this unexpected and baffling development.

Yet the cultural attention given to Waugh’s conversion was only partly due to his celebrity status as a fashionable young author of bestselling satirical novels. Waugh was the latest in a long line of literary figures to embrace Catholicism — such as G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936), who converted  in 1922, and Graham Greene (1904-1991), who converted in 1926. Some began to wonder if a Christian literary renaissance was under way.

Not all of the literary figures to convert to Christianity in this brief yet intense period of Christian revival adopted Catholicism. In 19, T. S. Eliot (1888-1965) — then best known for his poem “The Waste Land” (1922), still widely acknowledged as one of the finest and most discussed poems of the twentieth century — converted to Anglicanism. Although Eliot’s conversion did not make quite the same newspaper headlines as Waugh’s, Eliot’s huge reputation as a poet and literary critic ensured that his conversion was widely discussed and debated. Eliot found in Christianity a principle of order and stability located outside the human self, which allowed him a secure vantage point from which to engage with the world.

Some four or five years later, Lewis became a Christian. Like Eliot he chose to become a member of the Church of England. Yet nobody had ever heard of Lewis, and nobody paid any attention to this development — if they noticed it at all. Lewis, it must be appreciated, was almost totally unknown in 1931. He had published two cycles of poems under the pseudonym Clive Hamilton. Neither had been a critical or commercial success. Lewis’s rise to popular fame would not begin until 1940, with the publication of The Problem of Pain, which can now be seen to have set in motion a series of developments leading to his celebrity status as wartime apologist.

Where Evelyn Waugh drew attention to his religious faith on account of his fame as a novelist, Lewis’s faith would be the basis for the works that would eventually secure him popular acclaim. Nevertheless, Lewis fits into a broader pattern at this time — the conversion of literary scholars and writers through and because of their literary interests. Lewis’s love of literature is not a backdrop to his conversion; it is integral to his discovery of the rational and imaginative appeal of Christianity.

Lewis hints at this throughout Surprised by Joy. “A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading. There are traps everywhere.” Lewis’ reading of the classics of English literature forced him to encounter and evaluate the ideas and attitudes that they embodied and expressed. And to his chagrin, Lewis began to realize that those who were grounded on a Christian outlook seemed to offer the most resilient and persuasive “treaty with reality.”

Many leading writers came to faith around the same time through reflecting on literary issues. For example, Graham Greene criticized modernist writers such as Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) and E. M. Forster (1879-1970) for creating characters who “wandered like cardboard symbols through a world that was paper-thin.” There was, Greene argued, no sense of reality in their writings. To lose sight of “the religious sense,” as they had so clearly done, was also to lose any “sense of the importance of human act.” Great literature depends upon a passionate commitment to the real world — which, for Greene, demanded a foundation in a deeper order of things, grounded in the nature and will of God.

Evelyn Waugh made much the same point. Without God, an author could not give his characters reality and depth. “You can only leave God out by making your characters pure abstractions.” Good novels rested it plausible account of human nature, which, for Waugh, in turn rested on the remarkable capacity of the Christian faith to make sense of the world in general and human nature in particular. It provided a lens which brought the distorted world around him into sharp focus, allowing him to understand it properly for the first time.

Waugh spoke of his delight in discovering this new way of engaging reality in a letter Conversion is like stepping across the chimney piece out of a Looking-Glass world, where everything is an absurd caricature, into the real world God made; and then begins the delicious process of exploring it limitlessly.’

Similar concerns seem to have played a role in catalyzing Lewis’ growing interest in the Christian faith. In Surprised by Joy, Lewis comments on his discovery in the early 1920s of the surprising depth of the literature shaped by and grounded in the Christian faith. Modernist writers such as Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) and H. G. Wells (1866-1946) “seemed a little thin”; there was “no depth in them”; they were “too simple.” “The roughness and density of life” was not adequately represented in their works

The Christian poet George Herbert (1593-1633), in marked contrast seemed to Lewis to “excel … in conveying the very quality of life as we actually live it”; yet instead of “doing it all directly,” he “insisted on mediating it” through what Lewis then termed “the Christian mythology.”

By the early 1920s, Lewis had yet to conclude that Christianity was true, he was, however, gradually coming to grasp its potential impact for an understanding of the world and the self. But he failed at that stage to appreciate the implications of “the ludicrous contradiction between my theory of life and my actual experiences as a reader.”‘

Are we to see here a classic approach to the discovery of the divine so memorably described by Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) in the seventeenth century? For Pascal, there was little point in trying to persuade anyone of the truth of religious belief. The important thing, he argued, was to make people wish that it were true, having caught sight of the rich and satisfying  vision of reality it offered. Once such a desire was implanted within the human heart, the human mind would eventually catch up with its deeper intuitions.

The poets George Herbert and Thomas Traherne (1636-1674) did not persuade Lewis to believe in God; rather, they led him to think that such a belief offered a rich and robust vision of human life, making; him wonder whether there might, after all, be something to be said for their way of thinking.

To piece together the story of Lewis’s conversion is primarily to explore the development of an internal world, which is unfortunately not available for public inspection. Clues to these developments abound, but they need to be woven together into a coherent whole. We will continue this in our next posts.

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The Conversion Of John Henry Newman Part II – Fr. Louis Bouyer

June 1, 2012

Louis Bouyer was a priest of the Oratory, a convert to Catholicism from Lutheranism, which he had served as a minister, an eminent liturgiologist and historian of spirituality, an influential scholar of Newman (whose studies of Newman helped to pave the way for Newman’s eventual beatification), and, perhaps most importantly of all, one of the greatest Catholic theologians of the twentieth century.
Dr. Keith Lemna, Visiting Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at Saint Meinrad School of Theology

I would be deeply remiss if I did not point out that the author of this piece, Fr. Louis Bouyer,  is a giant of 20th century Catholic Theology and most of all a scholar of liturgy and spirituality. His book Newman: His Life and Spirituality  (from which this post was created) was recently reissued by Ignatius Press.

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How could Newman attach such importance to a conversion which he himself describes as doctrinal in its nature, if the very doctrine by which he was converted was soon, despite the terms in which he had just alluded to it, to fade, and at last totally to disappear, from his mind? The answer to this question is implicitly conveyed in the very page of the Apologia which gave rise to it. In order, however, to make this clear, we must interpret the words of the Apologia in the light of a passage contained in the Memoir. We have now once again to hark back to an earlier period — as far back, in fact, as 1826.

In the matter in question, that is conversion, my own feelings were not violent, but a returning to, a renewing of, principles, under the power of the Holy Spirit, which I had already felt, and in a measure acted on when young.

If we carefully bear that statement in mind, the passage from the Apologia which we shall now quote will need no explanation.

I received it [the doctrine of final perseverance] at once, and believed that the inward conversion of which I was conscious (and of which I am still more certain than that I have hands and feet) would last into the next life, and that I was elected to eternal glory. I have no consciousness that this belief had any tendency whatever to lead me to be careless about pleasing God. I retained it till the age of twenty-one, when it gradually faded away; but I believe it had some influence on my opinions, in the direction of those childish imaginations which I have already mentioned, viz, in isolating me from the objects which surrounded me, in confirming me in my mistrust of the reality of material phenomena, and making me rest in the thought of two and two only absolute and luminously self-evident beings, myself and my Creator; — for while I considered myself predestined to salvation, my mind did not dwell upon others, as fancying them simply passed over, nor predestined to eternal death. I only thought of the mercy to myself.

We have already adverted, in the course of our narrative, to an idea very strange in a small child — the idea, namely, that he thought he might be an angel and all this world a deception, his fellow-angels by a playful device concealing themselves from him and deceiving him with the semblance of a material world. That passage readily recurs to our mind when Newman himself tells us that in the spring of 1816, reading a book by Isaac Watts which spoke of Saints unrecognized by the world, he took it to be an allusion to that early notion of his, as if Watts was speaking of angels living in the world, but disguised.

The first of the two passages we have quoted seems to furnish the clue to the second, and to explain its apparent contradictions. If the 1816 conversion, all-important though it was, was but a return to beliefs which he had already held as a child, if, rather, it was a revival, a renewal of them, we may well understand how it was that Romaine’s doctrine took such a hold on him and affected him for so long, destined though it was gradually to fade and finally to disappear from his mind.

The truth is, as he clearly indicates, that Romaine’s doctrine merely acted as a catalytic, reviving in the mind of the adolescent a conviction, an idea prematurely implanted in the mind of the child. The sense of God’s immediate and sovereign presence had been obliterated by the consciousness of his own growing intellectual powers. But now, behold! into a mind rendered mysteriously receptive by the solicitations of divine grace, there comes, to resuscitate that conviction, a wholly different doctrine operating in a manner that none but Newman could perceive. It would not only reawaken; it would transform, what, in the child, was merely a passive impression, into a reasoned belief that was destined to remain an enduring factor in the life of the man.

How can this be explained? The truth is that, in some degree, we read into a book what we bring to it ourselves. This is especially the case with young people of exceptional endowments. The books they read, particularly the things that fire their liveliest enthusiasm, are as often as not misunderstood by them. But these misinterpretations bear rich fruit. These young people have within them riches which, to begin with, they are unable to realize, to take account of; but a sentence, even a single word, will often avail to bring them to light.

Thus it comes about that they think they have found something in a book which, later on, when they have had more experience of real life, they will, to their grievous disappointment, be quite unable to rediscover in it. The truth is that what they thought they had found in the book was something which they themselves had brought to it. The book and what it set forth was the steel which struck the spark from the flint; but the spark was theirs, and theirs alone.

So, no doubt, it was with Newman, and the call to a conversion conceived as the intuitive consciousness of an indefectible election was interpreted by him in his own way. Giving definite shape to a conception of the Universe hitherto vaguely floating in the subconscious imagination of the child, it suddenly projected it into the consciousness of the adult, now arrived at maturity.

The young man’s intellectual powers were displaying themselves in all their sovereign pride, notwithstanding the importance he ascribed to virtue. Disquieted, it may be, by the obscurity which overhung the destiny of man, he was soon to be still more deeply moved by the truly Christian witness of his master, which he found strangely in harmony with the memories of his far-off childhood.

Those memories needed but the touch of some external stimulus to bring them once more to the surface and to be interpreted in the light of his now maturer understanding. The young man, in the fullness of his intellectual pride and self-sufficiency, now becomes aware of something, of some power, which he had dimly guessed at, even when he turned away from it — Something, Someone, stronger and more wise than he, Someone who subdued him to His will, even in the proudest hour of his intellectual self-reliance. To that other Power, the mind, be it never so proudly confident, must needs defer. The very clearness with which he recognizes this is a token that he has already surrendered.

Interpreted thus, and we see no other way of doing equal justice to all the various views of it that he has given us, it is, to begin with, quite clear that his was no conversion after the Evangelical pattern. His association with an Evangelical of the milder type, his reading of Evangelical books may have been the means of bringing his conversion about, but, in its nature, it never really belonged to what was its occasion rather than its cause.

This break in the chain of logical sequence escaped the notice of hasty or superficial observers. The docility displayed by the boy Newman in adopting the characteristic mode of speech and thought of those to whom his conversion was due, may to some extent account for the error, an error which was his own to begin with, the rest merely following suit. But with him, and in spite of Bremond, an error it was, and as such it must be recognized [C£ Bremond, The Mystery of Newman, passim]

And in truth, much as he owed to the evangelical teaching, so it was, he never had been a genuine evangelical. The evangelical teaching, considered as a system and in what was peculiar to itself, had from the first failed to find a response in his own religious experience, as afterwards in his parochial. He had indeed been converted by it to a spiritual life, and so far his experience bore witness to its truth; but he had not been converted in that special way which it laid down as imperative, but so plainly against rule, as to make it very doubtful in the eyes of normal evangelicals whether he had really been converted at all.
Autobiographical Memoir, III, in Autobiographical Writings, Shoed & Ward, 1956

To put it briefly, what is principally notable about the conversion which thus robs him of his independence, is the independence which it nevertheless betrays. Just as it points, not so much to a change, as to a releasing, a rising to the surface, of something hidden in the profoundest recesses of his being, so too it shrinks instinctively from adopting all such fixed and definite forms as may suggest themselves or be suggested to him.

As a boy of fifteen most certainly would, he expresses his ideas and his feelings in the sort of terms he hears used by the people about him, at the same time adapting them to suit what he has in his own mind. As soon as experience shows him how inadequate they are, there will be nothing to prevent his dropping them. So far from that weakening his impression of what he has experienced, it will strengthen it. Let us now enquire more closely into the nature of that spiritual experience. What was it that was so personal about it, so peculiar to himself? And what rendered it so indifferent to the strongest influences brought to bear on it, even to those which were, or seemed to have been, its exciting cause?

But here a twofold snare awaits us. Either we may pass over the condensed and pregnant passage in the Apologia without fully penetrating to the precious metal within, or we may be tempted, as Newman himself may have been, to read into the experience of the boy all the things that entered into the maturer reflections of the man. This latter would be the lesser evil. There is no doubt that the extract in question, revealing as it does Newman’s striking originality, also exemplifies the continuity of personality, its normal concomitant.

Borrowing again from Wordsworth, he seems to have been an outstanding example of those of whom it is said, “The Child is father of the Man.” It is this independence, this pronounced individualism, which, before everything else, we must stress, and, if possible, define. Of all his various characteristics, is it not this that first demands our attention? It and it alone explains the mystery of his acceptance, so complete, so spontaneous, of Romaine’s Calvinism, an acceptance which was, in fact, much rather an unconscious annexation. Moreover, we have here our first opportunity of examining Newman’s undoubted individualism. If, taking it at its source, we succeed in avoiding any misapprehension of the goal at which it aimed, we may hope to avoid distorting it when, later on, we find it enriched but possibly subtilized [vocab: To render subtle] by experience.

In the story, or rather the balance-sheet, presented by the Apologia, one phrase stands out beyond all others: “Making me rest in the thought of two and two only absolute and luminously self-evident beings, myself and my Creator.”

“Myself and my Creator” — that theme, what elaborate variations Bremond composed on it! Variations that have found a responsive echo in the hearts of all who are unable to resist the spell of the enchanter. Alas! giving play to his gift for improvisation, Bremond began with the effect the words had on him, not, as he should have done, if he wanted to interpret them correctly, with the circumstances in which Newman came to utter them. If we now go back and take the only road permitted to the historian, we may find the enchanter vanished, and only a conjurer in his place. Still, the real Newman may even yet be disentangled from those verbal arabesques which were at least as well calculated to bury as to adorn him.

We do not hesitate to stress this point. The whole Mystery of Newman idea, which led Bremond to make of him a figure so engaging and so unreal, depends entirely on the interpretation put on those words. What he called in Newman “the Poet”, “the Voluntary Recluse”, and some others, less flatteringly, “the Misfit”, “the Incurable Egoist”, all arises from that interpretation. Were there any grounds for the idea, or did Bremond simply invent them?

The enquiry to which we propose to address ourselves will go some way towards elucidating that crucial question. The state of mind in which this fifteen-year-old youth found himself at the beginning of summer in the year 1816 shows us that this apparent emphasis on “Myself” and the implied disregard of others, far from being centered in his religious experience had, in fact, no connection with it. On the contrary, it was the outcome, gradually set free, of all that was purely natural and, in the last analysis, a-religious in his personality. That there was in Newman a strong notion of self, of independence, of self-reliance cannot be denied; but to confuse this basic characteristic with his religious experience is to condemn oneself a priori, to a misunderstanding of the latter.

This consciousness of self, more astonishing, when we come to think of it, in the child than in the adolescent, has, no doubt, something disquieting about it, but let us not call it irreligious or immoral. It comes under the category of the “natural” in the strict sense of the word. It is, perhaps, that which constitutes the peculiar genius of Newman, if genius be an exceptional concentration, a more than ordinarily intense glow, in something that is no more than a natural attribute, or faculty, of the human mind. But that there is in it, from the religious, the Christian, point of view, an element of danger, of temptation, particularly in the case of one such as Newman, there is no denying.

Let us remind ourselves of Goethe, who resembles him so closely in this respect. Was it not the firm resolve of his daimon to assert its independence and not to capitulate or bow to anyone or anything that at last drew him away from religion which, round about the year 1770, was attracting him so powerfully?

With Newman, things took a different course. What he found was that, when this independent spirit, this innate self-reliance of his, was brought into the presence of Another, of God, it meant nothing more nor less than the negation of meaning. How, then, did it come about that this “self”, so adamant in its nature, was suddenly projected into the “self” of that Other and became wholly obedient to Him? That no doubt is the crux, the mysterious element in this conversion. Still some gleams of light are thrown on it in what Newman tells us and always held.

Let us now picture to ourselves this boy of fifteen, strong in the possession of an intelligence that enables him to expose fallacies, to detect sophistries and faulty reasoning, all those specious arguments by which ordinary folk are impressed, but which lack the hall-mark of indubitable truth. It does not appear that he was now, or that he ever had been, in any danger of falling into scepticism. An instinctive conviction, but a conviction confirmed by his intelligence, put the claims of morality beyond all question. If for a time he thought he could dispense with God, it never entered his head that he could disregard the Good, or the True.

Now whence came this moral sense? Evidently it was the fruit of his training, of the way he had been brought up, and especially of that Biblical instruction which taught him to connect truth and goodness by connecting both with God, with God to whose Word he listened. But now his intellect took hold, as part of its own belongings, of this union of truth and goodness. This union was now one with his affirmation of self. It was at this time that he fell in with a man, and heard words and read books, in which this twofold union in God reappears. Its effect was to make him recognize that what belonged to his consciousness, belonged in the first place to God; to put it plainly, it was the presence of God within himself and this he realizes even when, though not denying Him, he turns away from Him.

Romaine speaks to him of predestination, of conversion, which implies the recognition that God is concerned with each one of us, and that from His purposes regarding us there is no escape. Little matters the system of which that is a part. What took hold of Newman and continued to hold him was the revelation that God was there, within him, in those very gifts (for they were His gifts, personal gifts, inseparable from the Giver), in those gifts which were his strength and support. It was as a ray of light amid the shadowy region from which his mind was emerging.

If it be true, as he was now beginning to feel that it was, that all complete consciousness of self is moral consciousness, he realized that moral consciousness is the consciousness, the awareness, of Someone, of God.

Let us ponder that well. Of that, even as a child, he had caught glimpses. Let us recall again the passage recently quoted, the passage about the child who suddenly became aware of religious truths on which he had been living without knowing it. Once more, as he himself bears witness, his conversion did not proceed from anything newly discovered. It was rather a rediscovery of something he had already known, something he thought he had left behind him, but which now, in the light of his maturer understanding, appeared as something fully, because freely and independently, thought out and established.

Thus the words “Myself and my Creator” imply no more than the recognition that the soul only escapes from what is harmful to it, from what has been vainly endeavouring to enslave it, by discovering that it belongs wholly to God, and that it is truly itself only in the light of God’s presence, God being its master, and the soul His, and His alone.

If this be a true account of what happened, if we may say of this unforgettable experience of this fifteen-year-old boy in a phrase which an old Oxford scholar applied to him some years later, in allusion to his love of solitude, Nun quam minus solus quam cum solus [never less alone than when alone], we shall see that Newman in no way claimed to have been vouchsafed any sort of incommunicable intuition of God.

On the contrary, the God who revealed Himself to him in solitude was the God defined by dogma in a course of teaching now for the first time fully understood, clearly recognized, the God of Holy Writ. With that Word he had been long familiar, though he had never been able to fathom its full meaning till he became aware of himself in the light of it. Thus it was not a mere discovery or rediscovery of God that he bore in remembrance. He tells us that God Took possession of him in this direct and intimate manner, personal in the fullest sense implied by the words “Myself and my Creator”, bringing him thus to realize and embrace defined dogma.

For it is as person to person that God reveals Himself.

It is as a person that God reveals Himself, it is in deeds in which He takes part, deeds which are destined to bring about a renewal of our own lives. It is as a duologue which enlightens us concerning our own existence by revealing on whom that existence depends. To discover God as the soul’s Creator is, then, for Newman to recognize that that revelation is visible to us in His Son, who is at the very heart of the Bible. It amounts to accepting, not as abstract ideas but as vital truths, the doctrine of the Incarnation and the Redemption, themselves dominated by the revelation of the Trinity. For it is thus that God becomes Someone for us, Someone to whom we belong, Someone who has given all, even His Son, to save us from our own disobedience.

As for the other concomitant of his conversion, the objective counterpart, without which the subjective considerations which have hitherto been engaging us would make the whole narrative seem like a dialogue with one of the speakers left out, there were the works of Thomas Scott. These provided him with something more lasting than the idea he got from Romaine. “To Scott,” he says, “humanly speaking, I almost owe my soul.”

Referring to his book, Force of Truth, which captivated him straight away, Newman enlarges better than we could do on all that he owed to this autobiography. It implanted in him the ineradicable conviction that fidelity to the living truth must naturally result in the acceptance of Christianity in all its gradually unfolding plenitude. Scott, in fact, tells us how, beginning as an unbeliever, he came to realize that without disobeying God and disregarding the dictates of conscience, he could not avoid traditional Christianity, the Church (which for him meant the Church of England), or belief in the Trinity.

Was it not all like a preliminary sketch, or adumbration, of that Odyssey, or perhaps we should call it that spiritual Æneid, that was to be Newman’s own story, when his guide and help were those prophetic words uttered by him during the illness that struck him down in Sicily, words to which before long we shall again recur — “I have not sinned against the light.”

On that same page of the Apologia, a page whose wealth of significance it is hardly possible to exhaust, Newman confesses that what attracted him in Scott and in his account of his eventual acceptance of a progressively integrating Christianity was what he calls his “bold unworldliness, and vigorous independence of mind”. It is curious to note how the dearest aspirations of the adolescent, and those the most spontaneous, found their echo in this book, as he interpreted it. Scott became his hero. Such a spiritual adventure fascinated him as offering an example of that virile independence of mind at which he himself aimed — that, and a standard of moral rectitude which was destined to remain with him all his days.

What exactly is it that he means by “this bold unworldliness”? It is precisely that intellectual freedom, on which his young mind had set such store, transferred to the ethical plane. It is the conviction, at once instinctive and reasoned, that the only way of maintaining complete spiritual and intellectual independence in this unintelligible and deceptive world lies in uncompromising fidelity to the voice of conscience.

How all things meet together and link up here! — the free and independent quest for truth, unhesitating obedience to the voice of conscience, acceptance of the teaching of Christianity. This helps us to understand his joy at finding himself in accord with the essential elements in Scott’s religion, as one by one he unfolded them.

They appeared to him, as to Scott himself, to be the pure and simple expression of the process which was destined to bring him also to the same religious goal: “Holiness rather than peace”, and “Growth the only evidence of life”.

In the sequence to which we referred just now — that is to say, the intellectual conscience, the moral conscience, and the recognition of God’s sovereignty over the ego — we have, in embryo, the whole of Newman’s apologetic. And now, in those two closely connected motifs of unworldliness and the search for perfect truth, as set forth under the twofold device, “Holiness rather than peace”, “Growth the only evidence of life”, we have something still better — we have, if not the whole, then at all events the kernel, of his spiritual being.

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The Conversion Of John Henry Newman Part I – Fr. Louis Bouyer

May 31, 2012

John Henry Newman, at age 23 when he preached his first sermon in Over Worton Church on 23 June 1824.

The year 1816 was one of bitter trial for the Newman family. One after effect of the economic and financial upheaval which followed the termination of the Napoleonic wars was to compel the Banking House of Messrs Ramsbottom, Newman & Co. to stop payment. Many years later, Newman, hearing his friend Bowden alluding somewhat tactlessly to what he called the Bank’s failure, reproved him rather sharply, pointing out that there had been no question of “failure”. The Bank did suspend payment; that, he agreed, was true enough, but only for a time. Eventually, all the creditors were paid in full. That gives us some idea of the moral trials the Newmans had to bear, not to mention the material anxieties which beset them all through that spring. The letters exchanged between Mrs. Newman and her sister-in-law Elizabeth afford eloquent testimony of the tribulations she had to endure.

Certainly, the creditors were quickly paid off, and the family, so far as money-matters were concerned, was soon on its feet again. At this juncture, however, Mr. Newman took it into his head to give up banking and become a brewer. That meant yet another change of houses, and so, from the lanes of Norwood, off they go to Alton, so as to be near the brewing works of which the paterfamilias was now to take over the management. One result of all this unsettlement was that the Newmans found it convenient to leave their son at his boarding-school all through those summer holidays. The void of that solitary vacation was to be filled by his conversion. How that came about he himself has described in the autobiographical memoir of which Anne Mozley availed herself in preparing his letters for publication. The passage runs thus:

On my conversion how the wisdom and goodness of God is discerned. I was going from school half a year sooner than I did. My staying arose from the 8th March. Thereby I was left at school by myself, my friends gone away. [Letters, vol. I, p.17 Anne Mozley has cancelled what follows.] That is, it was a time of reflection, and when the influences of Mr. Mayers would have room to act upon me. Also I was terrified at the heavy hand of God which came down upon me.

That last rather cryptic phrase is apparently the only piece of evidence there is to support a conjecture advanced by Maisie Ward. In her view, the words imply that Newman had been prepared for his conversion by the mental distress which the family misfortunes had caused him, and that, it must be confessed, seems to be the most plausible interpretation to put upon them, though there is nothing to corroborate it. At all events, what he himself considered most expressly providential about the whole affair was that it had resulted in his being left by himself at Ealing in close contact with Mr. Mayers, thus bringing him under an influence which, if things had taken a different turn, he would never have experienced.

The Reverend Walter Mayers, of Pembroke College, Oxford, was a master at the school. So far, all that had happened between him and his pupil was that the latter had collided rather sharply with the master’s Evangelical brand of Christianity in various discussions they had had together, discussions which were enlivened for the pupil by his somewhat mischievous satisfaction in putting a “poser”, when he could, to a master more pious than brilliant. Thoroughly to understand how, in the course of those lonely weeks, the clergyman came to be the means of bringing about so radical a change in the boy’s mind, we must go back and look a little more closely into Newman’s early religious training and endeavor to find out exactly where his own unaided reflections had brought him by the time with which we are dealing.

We have said that Mr. Mayers was an Evangelical, and it has sometimes been assumed that the Newmans belonged to the same party. Nothing could be farther from the truth. A few years later they became acquainted with a Miss Giberne, a young woman who at that time was a typical Evangelical. Throughout her life, and it was a long one, she was to remain a true friend of the future Cardinal. However, the sort of impression we get from her first encounter with the Newmans gives it vivid idea of the gulf there was between them and herself. This musical, literary, and, from her point of view, worldly family had nothing in common with her own ideals, notwithstanding the immediate liking she had taken to John, Francis, and their sisters.

What exactly are we to understand by the term `Evangelical”? To answer that question, we must try to get some sort of general idea of the Anglican Church as it was in the early part of the last century. From the seventeenth century onwards, it had been exposed to two divergent tendencies: the one, High Church; the other, Low Church. The High Church party set great store by Tradition — that is to say, by the Catholic, and by what, in those days, may have been still more important, the Royalist element which the term connotes. The others — the Low Church party — were all for the stark, uncompromising Protestantism of the Puritans and the Presbyterians, yet not going to the length of actually parting company with the Establishment.

When the Deists were at the height of their power, it looked as if both parties were going to fuse together into a sort of religion which was hardly more than a vague philanthropy, but which still adhered to those conservative ideas of which the Church of England seemed to be the natural stronghold. Athwart this atmosphere of stagnation and inertia the voices of Wesley and Whitefield rang like a trumpet-call to arouse the people from their slumber. Had it not been for them, all definite belief, all religion in the strict sense of the word, might well have disappeared from England, and with it the State Church itself. Perhaps the most conspicuous characteristic of Wesleyanism in its early days was the overwhelming conviction that Christianity implied a new life — hence the transcendent importance attached by the Methodists, as they came to be called, to “conversion”. But conversion, new life, might be taken to mean merely such a moral reform as a man might bring about by his own efforts.

What is distinctive about Wesleyanism is that it is concerned with an experience, a religious experience and one clearly recognizable from the nature of its onset. At a first glance, Methodism would appear to be a return to the Christianity of the Gospel as contrasted, not merely with rationalism but with the humanistic and philanthropical ideas then prevailing. Looked at from another angle, it reveals a close affinity with the sentimentalism that was so marked and so general a feature of the late eighteenth century. Still, it cannot be denied that in one way or another it links up with a Christian tradition dating back far earlier than the Reformation, with the love of the religious folk of the Middle Ages for the person of Jesus Christ.

Viewed against a Moravian background, compared with the German Pietists and certain manifestations of primitive Lutheranism, Wesley’s religion will be seen to have had more in common with Saint Bernard or with Saint Francis of Assisi than with the Scottish Calvinists or the English Puritans, for it is from a direct encounter of the soul with Jesus, with the Christ of the Gospels, that conversion is looked for. It was not a matter of a mere moral reform, which a man might claim to have brought about by his own efforts, but a gift bestowed by God. It is from Jesus, from Jesus acknowledged to be in the fullest sense the Son of God, the Savior of the world, that the gift is to proceed.

It cannot therefore be denied that, notwithstanding its intrinsic intellectual insufficiencies, there is a core of sound doctrine at the heart of Methodism. But this cannot be dissociated from a particular kind of spiritual experience characteristic of the period. It is in the contemplation of Jesus as loving us and as shedding His blood for us that the Wesleyan gives himself to Him, and it is during an intense and passionate outpouring of the emotions that he attains to what he calls faith, by which he means the certain conviction that the blood of Jesus was shed for him, that it has cleansed him from his sins and made him a new man.

It was partly by force of circumstance, partly from their indifference to everything save this spiritual experience, far rather than from any definite separatist resolve, that the Wesleyans, after Wesley, and in spite of his desires, eventually cut themselves off from the Established Church. This, however, they did not do without leaving their own indelible mark upon it. The Evangelical party within the Church were a lasting witness to the effect Wesley had had upon it, and Wesley’s influence still endures, albeit modified in various ways to bring it into closer harmony with the more traditional, less emotional, elements in Anglicanism.

For Evangelicals, conversion did not necessarily involve any of those violent paroxysms of emotion to be seen at the usual revivalist meetings. Emotion there was, but by conversion was generally signified the gradually growing conviction, the belief taking ever deeper and deeper root, that one hall been saved by Jesus Christ. Such had been the experience of Thomas Scott, with whose writings Newman was now shortly to become acquainted, and of whom he declared many years later that he almost owed him his soul. Such, too, was conversion as understood by Mr. Mayers, who was now to initiate his pupil into his own particular school of religious belief. Nothing, however, was more remote from the ideas in which Newman had been reared than this sentimental religiosity, even in the modified and milder form in which he was now to encounter it. How his family looked on the Christian religion he has described in a few words in the Apologia:

I was brought up from a child to take great delight in reading the Bible; but I had no formed religious convictions till I was fifteen. Of course I had a perfect knowledge of my Catechism.

If we want to get a clear idea of what was in Newman’s mind when he penned that brief resume, it is perhaps conveyed at least implicitly, in the following passage, which we take from the Grammar of Assent:

“Bible Religion” is both the recognized title and the best description of English religion. It consists not in rites or creeds, but mainly in having the Bible read in Church, in the family, and in private. Now I am far indeed from undervaluing that mere knowledge of Scripture which is imparted to the population thus promiscuously. At least in England, it has to a certain point made up for great and grievous losses in its Christianity. The reiteration again and again, in fixed course in the public service, of the words of inspired teachers under both covenants, and that in grave majestic English, has in matter of fact been to our people a vast benefit. It has attuned their minds to religious thoughts; it has given them a high moral standard; it has served them in associating religion with compositions which, even humanly considered, are among the most sublime and beautiful ever written; especially, it has impressed upon them the series of Divine Providences in behalf of man from his creation to his end, and, above all, the words, deeds, and sacred sufferings of Him in whom all the Providences of God centre.
Grammar of Assent, Bk. 56-57.

There we have without doubt the basis of Newman’s religion: a high moral standard, a standard hallowed by the idea of Providence — that is to say, as Newman understood the word, by the presence of God, the all-seeing Witness and sovereign Actor in every circumstance of our daily lives. But as that is drawn wholly from the Bible, the reading of the Bible lends it an atmosphere of light and color of a very special character, and what exactly that was we must endeavor to understand.

It is difficult for anyone who has never experienced it to form even a remote idea of what a religious training, founded wholly and solely on a study of the Bible, really is. For a thoughtful and imaginative child it results in a kind of supernatural humanism quite unique in its character. The world, human history, the life of mankind are bathed in a light that nothing henceforth avails to dim or extinguish. The presence of God, everywhere active, all-powerful, reigns over all things, animate and inanimate. Then there are those countless figures of Patriarchs, Prophets, Kings and Apostles, Saints and Sinners, or rather of sinners called to repentance, of Saints conscious of their sin, who, for such as are familiar with them, seem more real than the folk we meet every day.

Let us make no mistake about it; we have here the underlying stratum of Newman’s spiritual nature, the lasting soil from which its fairest blossoms, its choicest fruits were to spring.

However all this may be the case with Protestant children in general, Newman adds two important particulars regarding himself. It was not any sort of Bible in which he was taught as a child to take delight. His Bible was King James’s Bible, the celebrated Authorized Version, the outstanding landmark of English prose. He dwells on the grave majesty of its language, thus accounting for the incomparable and sacred charm which the Bible, merely as literature, never ceased to have for him from his childhood onwards. No doubt the Bible is the Word of God, and is always so, no matter into what tongue it is rendered.

Nevertheless, those golden periods were well calculated to make him see in them the confirmation of the Bible’s sacred character — hence for him, as for many another, the fusion of Christianity with that Biblical humanism of which the Latin countries have scarce a notion, but which is so natural and so real an experience for the Anglo-Saxon and Germanic peoples. Finally, Newman gives us this additional indication of what Bible-reading is for an Anglican; it is not confined to a few passages selected in the light of individual fancy, nor does it range haphazard over the whole of the sacred text without scheme or plan. Thanks to the Prayer-Book lectionary it is Scripture in its entirety gradually unfolded in harmony with the rhythm of the Christian year. From the Cradle to the Cross, from the Cross to the Celestial Abode, the scene unfolded itself to the child John Henry like a pageant of unforgettable splendor.

If, over and above this general view of the matter, we would learn something of the more particular manner in which Newman was affected by his experience, we may profitably take note of what Anne Mozley has to tell us in an essay of no little insight and delicacy. In all probability it was not without guidance from Newman himself that she went gleaning among his sermons for the passages to which she refers, passages every one of which is unmistakably the record of some personal experience of his own. It is not always easy to determine how far Newman’s sermons are to be regarded as the autobiography, or, shall we call it, the diary, of their author. Here, however, is a passage that can scarcely leave us in doubt:

At first children do not know that they are responsible beings; but by degrees they not only feel that they are, but reflect on the great truth, and on what it implies. Some persons recollect a time as children when it fell on them to reflect what they were, whence they came, whither they tended, why they lived, what was required of them. The thought fell upon them long after they had heard and spoken of God; but at length they began to realize what they had heard, and they began to muse about themselves.
Parochial and Plain Sermons, vol. VI, no. 8 (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1997),

Concerning this first discovery of the Divine Word, of the appeal it makes, is it not the child we hear speaking, though the words are the words of the man?

Let us consider this consciousness of self, which begins with a sense of being dependent on God, the sudden outcome of the patient pleading of God’s words, in which the child’s soul had bathed before its awakening. To the significant passage just quoted, Anne Mozley added another, and, in the whole of Newman, there is hardly one which we should be more inclined to describe as Proustian. It is of peculiar interest to us at this juncture because it shows us the belief which Newman was not only to retain, but steadily to develop, the belief in the spiritual treasure inherent in those childish experiences. From the mere contact with the Bible, the dawning soul, touched all unawares by grace, is enriched with a treasure which, as long as life shall last, it will never lose or exhaust. One’s thoughts revert, not only to Proust, as we ponder these things, but to Wordsworth and his Ode on Intimations of Immortality drawn from Recollections of Early Childhood. But with Newman the whole is set in a different key. For him, the invisible world is not substituted for the visible, but added to it, and hopes, hitherto vague and undefined, are now steadily focused on the expectation of the Divine Vision.

Such are the feelings with which men often look back on their childhood, when any accident brings it vividly before them. Some relic or token of that early time, some spot, or some book, or a word, or a scent, or a sound, brings them back in memory to the first years of their discipleship, and then they see, what they could not know at the time, that God’s Presence went up with them and gave them rest. Nay, even now perhaps they are unable to discern fully what it was which made that time so bright and glorious. They are full of tender, affectionate thoughts towards those first years, but they do not know why. They think it is those very years which they yearn after, whereas it is the Presence of God which, as they now see, was then over them, which attracts them.
Parochial and Plain Sermons, vol. IV, no. 17 (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1997)

We shall have occasion to return to this experience, so vivid in Newman’s case, of Memory and of the Presence of God through it perceived. For the moment, we would remark that Wordsworth’s sad lines about his passing from childhood to adolescence are equally applicable to Newman:

Heaven lies about us in our infancy,
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
     About the growing boy.

What, then, was it that had happened to this fifteen-year-old lad? The answer is precisely what was to happen or fail to happen again in the young man of ten years later. It was that the growth, the activity of his intellectual powers, had stifled his religious life. It was not that the intellect had seized on any particular argument against religion. It was rather a case of an intellectual attitude, a mental climate, inimical to that immediate sense of God as being Sovereign Lord of All, which afterwards came to be, and thenceforth always remained, an outstanding feature of Newman’s faith.

The youthful mind, confidently relying on its own powers, instinctively shrinks from the idea of any such dependence. The acceptance of a mystery beyond his comprehension, and that he feels, none more clearly, to be the whole of religion, strikes him as something he has grown out of, and left behind him. In the Apologia we read:

When I was fourteen, I read Paine’s Tracts against the Old Testament, and found pleasure in thinking of the objections that were contained in them. Also, I read some of Hume’s Essays; and perhaps that on Miracles. So at least I gave my Father to understand; but perhaps it was a brag. Also I recollect copying out some French verses, perhaps Voltaire’s in denial of the immortality of the soul, and saying to myself something like, “How dreadful, but how plausible.”

Be it noted that this semi-skepticism, which had taken hold of the young lad’s mind, was of a purely intellectual order. Morality was in no way questioned. Quite the reverse, in fact. The proud intellectual self-sufficiency, which thus put God out of the picture, seems to go hand in hand with a corresponding self-reliance on the moral side. The autobiographical memoir records a note of an earlier day which makes that point quite clear:

I recollect, in 1815 I believe, thinking that I should like to be virtuous, but not religious. There was something in the latter idea I did not like. Nor did I see the meaning of loving God. I recollect contending against Mr Mayers in favor of Pope’s “Essay on Man”. What, I contended, can be more free from objection than it? Does it not expressly inculcate “Virtue alone is happiness below”
Letters, vol. I, p. 19.

These entries are of the highest importance, not only as explaining the nature of his conversion, but for the light they throw upon his apologetical writings, from the Oxford University Sermons to the Grammar of Assent. When, sixty years later, Newman received the Red Hat, he summed up his life’s work in a single phrase, when he said he had always fought against Liberalism. What he meant by that term was the claim of man to do without God, to act by himself and for himself, whether it be a matter of comprehending the Universe or ordering his own life.

The “reason” which, in the University Sermons, is contrasted in so definite a manner with “faith”, is reason in which self-reliance amounts to pride, and which refuses, on principle, to rely on any power external to itself. It was reason in this sense of the word, and reason very much alive in the boy John Henry, that led him to turn away from Christ, not indeed in order to live a life of sensual indulgence, but rather to entrench himself in a virtuous independence that refuses to bow to anything or anybody.

How, then, are we to account for its bowing to the very ordinary intellectual gifts of the worthy ecclesiastic over whom, it is only too clear, the dialectical prowess of the child of genius scored some very easy victories. Newman has not explained (how, indeed, could he have explained?) the process by which his ideas, in this particular instance, underwent so complete a change. He does, however, give us to understand that it was not so much by his sermons or exhortations that Mayers influenced him, as by the books he gave him to read during those long weeks of inactivity in the year 1816.

We may take it, then, that Mayers impressed him more by his character than by his discourse, more by what he was than by what he said. Those victories which the pupil, doubtless too brilliant, too adroit for his master, had scored in their arguments, did not delude him. He who put virtue before religion must have recognized in a mind of a humbler order than his own, virtue of a different order from his own. And that probably is what led him to attach to Mayers’ words an importance that his arguments as such would certainly not have earned them. That it was, as well as the necessity of finding something to fill up the time that led the boy to tackle the somewhat austere books that were put into his hands. How these books of Mayers’ affected him, Newman in a few succinct and striking words tells us in the Apologia:

I fell under the influence of a definite Creed, and received into my intellect impressions of dogma, which, through God’s mercy, have never been effaced or obscured.

Those words whet our curiosity still more to learn what books these were that were thus offered to this young, enquiring mind. And now a paradox awaits us. Of the first of them, Newman tells us that the main doctrine contained in it struck him very forcibly and at once commanded his assent. But he adds that he came to discard it later on, and long before his conversion to Catholicism. A few lines farther on he adds that he retained it till he was twenty-one, when it gradually faded away. The book alluded to was by Romaine, one of the few rigid Calvinists that were still numbered in the Evangelical fold. It will not surprise us to learn that the doctrine in question was that of final perseverance, conversion being regarded as a sudden consciousness, on the part of the convert, of his predestined salvation.

If it was a doctrine that converted him, how came Newman, who stressed the doctrinal and dogmatic character of his conversion, to write of it — of his conversion, that is to say — a few lines farther on, “I am still more certain of it than I am of having hands and feet”? Here we have a problem which, up to now, does not appear greatly to have exercised his biographers. Nevertheless, it must be evident that the importance ascribed by Newman to this conversion, definite and permanent as it was, cannot be satisfactorily explained so long as this problem remains unresolved.

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I, Like the Thief — Leo Tolstoy

May 2, 2012

Tolstoy photographed at his Yasnaya Polyana estate in May 1908 by Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky. The only known color photograph of the writer.

A conversion story of such brevity, simplicity and plainness, it seems almost stunning in some way: what had previously seemed to me good seemed evil, and what seemed evil seemed good. Yes, that about does it…

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FIVE YEARS AGO I CAME TO BELIEVE IN CHRIST’S TEACHINGS, and my life suddenly changed; I ceased to desire what I had previously desired, and began to desire what I formerly did not want. What had previously seemed to me good seemed evil, and what seemed evil seemed good. It happened to me as it happens to a man who goes out on some business and suddenly decides that the business is unnecessary and returns home. All that was on his right is now on his left, and all that was on his left is now on his right; his former wish to get as far as possible from home has changed into a wish to be as near as possible to it. The direction of my life and my desires became different, and good and evil changed places…

I, like that thief on the cross, have believed Christ’s teaching and been saved. This is no far-fetched comparison, but the closest expression of the condition of spiritual despair and horror at the problem of life and death in which I lived formerly, and of the condition of peace and happiness in which I am now.

I, like the thief, knew that I had lived and was living badly. I, like the thief, knew that I was unhappy and suffering. I, like the thief to the cross, was nailed by some force to a life of suffering and evil. And as, after the meaningless sufferings and evils of life, the thief awaited the terrible darkness of death, so did I await the same thing.

In all this I was exactly like the thief, but the difference was that the thief was already dying, while I was still living. The thief might believe that his salvation lay there beyond the grave, but I could not be satisfied with that, because besides a life beyond the grave, life still awaited me here. And I did not understand that life. It seemed to me terrible. But suddenly I heard the words of Christ and understood them, and life and death ceased to seem evil, and instead of despair I experienced happiness and the joy of life undisturbed by death.

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Conversion Stories: My Bright Abyss

July 30, 2009
Christian Wiman

Christian Wiman

Christian Wiman is the author of Hard Night, a book of poems, and the editor of Poetry. His most recent book is a collection of his essays, Ambition and Survival. Conversion stories are a way for all Catholics to listen and reaffirm their own faith. When you have someone as gifted and intelligent as Mr. Wiman, the story can become an apologetic marker of sorts, a buoy in the water that all can relate to. You can find examples of Mr. Weiman’s poetry here  (which I really enjoyed) as well as Amazon links to his books. This essay was in the American Scholar back in March and deserves a longer play for attention – which is what we do here, pay attention.

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  My God my bright abyss
Into which all my longing will not go
Once more I come to the edge of all I know
And believing nothing believe in this:

And there the poem ends. Or fails, rather, for in the three years since I first wrote that stanza I have been trying to feel my way — to will my way — into its ending. Poems in general are not especially susceptible to the will, but this one, for obvious reasons, has proved particularly intractable. As if it weren’t hard enough to articulate one’s belief, I seem to have wanted to distill it into a stanza. Still, that is the way I have usually known my own mind, feeling through the sounds of words to the forms they make, and through the forms they make to the forms of life that are beyond them. I have always believed in that “beyond,” even during the long years when I would not acknowledge God. I have expected something similar here. I have wanted some image to open for me, to both solidify my wavering faith and ramify beyond it, to say more than I can say.

IN TRUTH, though, what I crave at this point in my life is to speak more clearly what it is I believe. It is not that I am tired of poetic truth, or that I feel it to be somehow weaker or less true than reason. The opposite is the case. Inspiration is to thought what grace is to faith: intrusive, transcendent, transformative, but also evanescent and, all too often, anomalous. A poem can leave its maker at once more deeply seized by existence and, in a profound way, alienated from it, for as the act of making ends, as the world that seemed to overbrim its boundaries becomes, once more, merely the world, it can be very difficult to retain any faith at all in that original moment of inspiration. The memory of that momentary blaze, in fact, and the art that issued from it, can become a kind of reproach to the fireless life in which you find yourself most of the time. Grace is no different. (Artistic inspiration is sometimes an act of grace, though by no means always.) To experience grace is one thing; to integrate it into your life quite another. What I crave now is that integration, some speech that is true to the transcendent nature of grace, yet adequate to the hard reality in which daily faith operates. I crave, I suppose, the poetry and the prose of knowing.

IF YOU RETURN to the faith of your childhood after long wandering, people whose orientation is entirely secular will tend to dismiss or at least deprecate the action as having psychological motivations — motivations, it goes without saying, of which you are unconscious. As it happens, you have this suspicion yourself. It eats away at the intensity of the experience that made you proclaim, however quietly, your recovered faith, and soon you find yourself getting stalled in arguments between religion and science, theology and history, trying to nail down doctrine like some huge and much-torn tent in the wind.

In fact, there is no way to “return to the faith of your childhood,” not really, not unless you’ve just woken from a decades-long and absolutely literal coma. Faith is not some remote, remembered country into which you come like a long-exiled king, dispensing the old wisdom, casting out the radical, insurrectionist aspects of yourself by which you’d been betrayed. No. Life is not an error, even when it is. That is to say, whatever faith you emerge with at the end of your life is going to be not simply affected by that life but intimately dependent upon it, for faith in God is, in the deepest sense, faith in life — which means, of course, that even the staunchest life of faith is a life of great change. It follows that if you believe at 50 what you believed at 15, then you have not lived — or have denied the reality of your life.

To admit that there may be some psychological need informing your return to religion does not preclude or diminish the spiritual imperative any more than acknowledging the chemical reactions of romantic attraction lessens the mystery of enduring human love. Faith cannot save you from the claims of reason, except insofar as it preserves and protects that wonderful, terrible time when reason, if only for a moment, lost its claim on you.

ON THE RADIO I hear a famous novelist praising his father for enduring a long, difficult dying without ever “seeking relief in religion.” It is clear from the son’s description that the father was in absolute despair, and that as those cold waters closed over him he could find nothing to hold on to but his pride, and drowned clutching that nothing. This is to be admired? That we carry our despair stoically into death, that even the utmost anguish of our lives not change us? How astonishing it is, the fierceness with which we cling to beliefs that have made us miserable, or beliefs that prove to be so obviously inadequate when extreme suffering — or extreme joy — come. But the tension here is not simply between belief and disbelief. A Christian who has lived with a steady but essentially shallow form of faith may find himself called to suffer the full human truth of God — which is the absence of God — may find himself finally confronted with the absolute emptiness of the cross. God calls to us at every moment, and God is life, this life. Radical change remains a possibility within us right up until our last breath. The greatest tragedy of human existence is not to live in time, in both senses of that phrase.

I DON’T MEAN TO SUGGEST that the attitude of stoic acceptance is not at times a worthy one. I don’t know what was going on in the mind of the novelist’s father, but what was going on in the mind of the novelist himself is quite clear: it’s the old fear of religion as crutch, Freudian wish fulfillment, a final refusal of life — which in order to be life must include a full awareness of death — rather than a final flowering of it. Christians love to point to anecdotes like that of Nietzsche, idolater of pure power, going insane at the end of his life because he saw a horse being unmercifully beaten; or Wallace Stevens, the great modern poet of unbelief, converting to Catholicism on his deathbed. But there are plenty of anecdotes to contrast with these: Freud’s courage when suffering his final illness, Camus’ staunch, independent humanism in the face of the utter chaos and depravity he both witnessed and imagined (“What we learn in time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise”).

There is not a trace of resignation or defeat in Camus. Indeed, there is something in the stalwart, stubbornly humane nature of his metaphysical nihilism that constitutes a metaphysical belief. If it is true — and I think it is — that there is something lacking in this belief, that it seems more like one man’s moral courage than a prescription for living, more a personal code than a universal creed, it is also true that all subsequent Christianity must pass through the crucible of unbelief that thinkers like Camus underwent.

IF GOD IS A SALVE applied to unbearable psychic wounds, or a dream figure conjured out of memory and mortal terror, or an escape from a life that has become either too appalling or too banal to bear, then I have to admit: it is not working for me. Just when I think I’ve finally found some balance between active devotion and honest modern consciousness, all of my old anxieties come pressuring up through the seams of me, and I am as volatile and paralyzed as ever. I can’t tell which is worse, standing numb and apart from the world wanting Being to burn me awake, or feeling that fire too acutely to crave anything other than escape. What I do know is that the turn toward God has not lessened my anxieties, and I find myself continually falling back into wounds, wishes, terrors I thought I had risen beyond.

BE CAREFUL. Be certain that your expressions of regret about your inability to rest in God do not have a tinge of self-satisfaction, even self-exaltation to them, that your complaints about your anxieties are not merely a manifestation of your dependence on them. There is nothing more difficult to outgrow than anxieties that have become useful to us, whether as explanations for a life that never quite finds its true force or direction, or as fuel for ambition, or as a kind of reflexive secular religion that, paradoxically, unites us with others in a shared sense of complete isolation: you feel at home in the world only by never feeling at home in the world.

IT IS THIS LAST COMPLACENCY to which artists of our time are especially susceptible, precisely because it comes disguised as a lonely, heroic strength. Sometimes it truly is a strength: Giacometti, Beckett, Camus, Kafka. Yet it is a deep truth of being human — and, I would argue, an earnest of the immortal Spirit who is forever tugging us toward him — that even our most imaginative discoveries are doomed to become mere stances and attitudes. In this sense, art does advance over time, though usually this advance involves a recovery of elements and ideas we thought we had left behind for good. This is true not only for those who follow in the wake of great accomplishments, but also for those who themselves made those accomplishments.

What belief could be more self-annihilating, could more effectively articulate its own insufficiency and thereby prophesy its own demise, than 20th-century existentialism? To say that there is nothing beyond this world that we see, to make death the final authority of our lives, is to sow a seed of meaninglessness into that very insight. These artists knew that, and made of that fatal knowledge a fierce, new, and necessary faith: the austere, “absurd” persistence of spirit in both Camus and Beckett, the terrible disfiguring contingency that, in Giacometti’s sculptures, takes on the look of fate.

There is genuine heroism here, but there is also — faintly at first, but then more persistently, more damagingly — an awareness of heroism. (Only Kafka seems to fully feel his defeat: he is perhaps the most “spiritual” artist in this group, though he treasures his misery too much ever to be released from it.) This flaw — the artist’s adamantine pride — is what made the achievement possible, but it is also the crack that slowly widens over time, not lessening the achievement but humanizing it, relativizing it, causing what had once seemed an immutable, universal insight to begin to look a little more like a temporal, individual vision — a vision from which, inevitably, there comes a time to move forward.

CHRISTIANITY ITSELF IS THIS, to some extent. To every age Christ dies anew and is resurrected within the imagination of man. This is why he could be a paragon of rationality for 18th-century England, a heroic figure of the imagination for the Romantics, an exemplar of existential courage for writers like Paul Tillich and Rudolf Bultmann. One truth, then, is that Christ is always being remade in the image of man, which is to say, his reality is always being deformed to fit human needs, or what humans perceive to be their needs. A deeper truth, though, one that scripture suggests when it speaks of the eternal Word being made specific flesh, is that there is no permutation of humanity in which Christ is not present.

If every Bible is lost, if every church crumbles to dust, if the last believer in the last prayer opens her eyes and lets it all finally go — Christ will appear on this earth as calmly and casually as he appeared to the disciples walking to Emmaus after his death, who did not recognize this man to whom they had pledged their very lives; this man whom they had seen beaten, crucified, abandoned by God; this man who, after walking the dusty road with them, after sharing an ordinary meal and discussing the scriptures, had to vanish to make them see.

WHEN I THINK OF THE YEARS when I had no faith, what I am struck by, first of all, is how little this lack disrupted my conscious life. I lived not with God, nor with his absence, but in a mild abeyance of belief, drifting through the days on a tide of tiny vanities — a publication, a flirtation, a strong case made for some weak nihilism — nights all adagios and alcohol as my mind tore luxuriously into itself. I can see now how deeply God’s absence affected my unconscious life, how under me always there was this long fall that pride and fear and self-love at once protected me from and subjected me to. Was the fall into belief or into unbelief? Both. For if grace woke me to God’s presence in the world and in my heart, it also woke me to his absence. I never truly felt the pain of unbelief until I began to believe.

WHEN I ASSENTED to the faith that was latent within me — and I phrase it carefully, deliberately, for no white light appeared, no ministering or avenging angel tore my life in two; rather it seemed as if the tiniest seed of belief had finally flowered in me, or, more accurately, as if I had happened upon some rare flower deep in the desert and knew, though I was just then discovering it, that it had been blooming impossibly year after parched year in me, surviving all the seasons of my unbelief — when I assented to the faith that was latent within me, what struck me were the ways in which my evasions and confusions, which I had mistaken for a strong sense of purpose, had expressed themselves in my life: poem after poem about unnamed and unnamable absences, relationships so transparently perishable they practically came with expiration dates on them, city after city sacked of impressions and peremptorily abandoned as if I were some army of insight seeing, I now see, nothing. Perhaps it is never disbelief, which at least is active and conscious, that destroys a man but unacknowledged belief, or a need for belief so strong that it is continually and silently crucified on the crosses of science, humanism, art, or (to name the thing that poisons all these gifts of God) the overweening self.

THEY DO NOT HAPPEN NOW, the sandstorms of my childhood, when the western distance ochred, and the square emptied, and long before the big wind hit, you could taste the dust on your tongue, could feel the earth under you — and even something in you — seem to loosen slightly. Soon tumbleweeds began to skip and nimble by, a dust devil flickered firelessly in the vacant lot across the street from our house, and birds began rocketing past with their wings shut as if they’d been flung. Worse than snow, worse than ice, a bad sandstorm shrinks the world to the slit of your eyes, lifting from the fields an inchoate creaturely mass that claws at any exposed skin as if the dust remembered what it was, which is what you are — alive, alive — and sought return. They do not happen now, whether because of what we’ve learned or because the earth itself has changed. Yet I can close my eyes and see all the trees tugging at their roots as if to unfasten themselves from the earth. I can hear the long-gone howl, more awful for its being mute.

LORD, I can approach you only by means of my consciousness, but consciousness can only approach you as an object, which you are not. I have no hope of experiencing you as I experience the world — directly, immediately — yet I have no hunger greater. Indeed, so great is my hunger for you — or is this evidence of your hunger for me? — that I seem to see you in the black flower mourners make beside a grave I do not know, in the ember’s innards like a shining hive, in the bare abundance of a winter tree whose every limb is lit and fraught with snow. Lord, Lord, how bright the abyss inside that “seem.”

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