Sunday, January 19, 2014

Article: The conversion of CS Lewis by Steen Olsen

The Conversion of CS Lewis - A Thinker's Journey to Faith
During the Christmas break I read three novels and Alister McGrath’s new biography of C.S. Lewis. [C.S. Lewis : A Life – Eccentric Genius. Reluctant Prophet. Hodder & Stoughton, 2013.]. While I have read a considerable amount of Lewis over the years I had never read his story before.
In these few lines I do not want to attempt a review or even a summary of the book. I just want to pick up a few of McGrath’s comments about Lewis’s journey to faith that got me into some New Year thinking about the work of the Spirit in bringing Jesus into the lives of thinking people. He draws in particular on Mere Christianity and Surprised by Joy. I was struck by how this story speaks to the children of post-modernism and not just to those caught up in the fundamentalism and rationalism of modernism. Therein lies its relevance for us today.
Lewis was an avowed atheist (before his journey to belief in God and finally coming to faith in Jesus Christ over 1929-31) who in addition to his speciality in English literature lectured on philosophy at Oxford. Quoting Evelyn Waugh, McGrath draws attention to “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 [Lewis] into sharp focus, allowing him to understand it properly for the first time. … Lewis comments on his discovery in the early 1920s of the surprising depth of the literature shaped by and grounded in the Christian faith. … [These writers] 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.” [p133f]
“Lewis’s literary reflections … 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.” [135]
“Gradually, the pieces of the jigsaw began to fall into place…. 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 lies not in their individual importance, but in their cumulative weight. Lewis portrays these, not as moves which he made, but moves that were made 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 … is not a process of logical deduction … but much more like a process of crystallisation, 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.” [136]
McGrath quotes the French physicist Henri Poincaré: “It is by logic that we prove, but by intuition that we discover.” “Lewis found himself compelled to accept a vision of reality that he did not really wish to be true, and certainly did not cause to be true.” [136]
Lewis comes to a point where he “describes an assertive, active, and questing God, not simply a mental construct or philosophical game. God was pounding on the door of Lewis’s mind and life. Reality was imposing itself upon him, vigorously and aggressively demanding a response.” Lewis said, “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.” [138] “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 recognised as inevitable. … ‘I gave in, and admitted 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.” [139]
On 19 September 1931 Lewis spent an evening with Hugo Dyson a lecturer in English at Reading University and JRR Tolkien of Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit fame, who also taught at Oxford. On 1st October Lewis wrote to his friend Arthur Grieves saying, “I have just passed 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.” He further explained this in his next letter dated 18th October. He said that he had difficulty understanding how the life and death or someone a long time ago could help us here and now.
It was Tolkien, more than anyone else, who helped Lewis along this final road to faith. “Tolkien helped Lewis to realise 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.” [149]
“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 realised 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 fulfilment and completion imperfect and partial insights about reality, scattered abroad in human culture. … Perhaps more important, Tolkien allowed Lewis to connect the worlds of reason and imagination. … Reason and imagination alike were … affirmed and reconciled by the Christian view of reality. Tolkien thus helped Lewis to realise that a ‘rational’ faith was not necessarily imaginatively and emotionally barren. When rightly understood, the Christian faith could integrate reason, longing, and imagination.” [150f]
…and if you have read this far, you should probably consider reading the whole biography!

New Year’s blessings!
Pastor Steen Olsen
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