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After fifteen C. S. Lewis was the happiest he had ever been. His previous schooling had given him pain more often than pleasure. Too many of his schoolmates had displayed every motive but that of real learning. He had grown to hate school sports, especially when he had to take part. He had felt constricted by his father, whom he thought peculiar in his ways and narrow in some of his views. Now he was joyfully immersed in rigorous intellectual training under W.T. Kirkpatrick, "the Great Knock," who was preparing him for entrance to Oxford.
The young Lewis was in love with learning. He had come to love books, not just their contents, but their physical make-up – the quality of their paper, their binding, even their odor. Under his new tutor he had plenty of contact with books. Homer in the original Greek came first, most of the Iliad and all of the Odyssey. Also Demosthenes, Cicero, Lucretius, Catullus, Tacitus, Herodotus, Euripides, Sophocles, and Virgil. Mrs. Kirkpatrick, the wife of his tutor, had him reading French in the evenings, and he was soon purchasing French books for his own library. A little later came German and Italian, with abundant reading in English and American writers.
Among his new-found freedoms was freedom from God. The fifteen-year-old student was a young atheist being tutored by an older atheist. Lewis had been reared in a nominally Christian home. At one of the schools he had attended he received genuine Christian training, and there he had made serious efforts to practice Christianity. But later circumstances encouraged him to abandon his belief in God, and by fifteen he was calling himself an atheist and writing emphatically of his opposition to God.
During his studies with Kirkpatrick (from 1914 to 1916) Lewis completed a tragedy in Greek form about Norse gods. In it Odin knowingly created a world through wanton cruelty. He had been warned against it but went ahead making creatures simply to vent his anger and spite upon them. Why, the tragedy asked, should the gods, or God, make a world in the first place? A writer of sorts from a very early age, Lewis was now also writing poetry that attacked God and the evil he felt was incarnated in the Ruler of the Universe. If God existed at all, He was more like a demon.
At this period a vigorous correspondence existed between Lewis and his Irish boyhood friend Arthur Greeves. The two had enjoyed many walks and talks together but apparently had never spoken of religion. Now Arthur asked his friend what he thought about religion. Lewis's answer was little less than a tirade. Religion is nothing more than man's own invention and is utterly without real foundation. Primitives made up religion out of their ignorant fears of thunder and other natural phenomena. They came to the point of believing these to be evil spirits and began to try to placate them with sacrifices. Thus various cults arose, usually after the death of a leader. It was out of such a situation that a philosophical Jew called Yeshua, or Jesus, had a cult grow up about him. Lewis rebuked Arthur for being so backward as to fail to join "the educated and thinking" people who ignore such old and decaying superstitions.
Years later Lewis was to put similar arguments in the mouth of an evil witch in his Narnia story The Silver Chair. The witch endeavored to persuade the children, who had long been lost underground, that they were wholly mistaken to think that there really was light above them and that such a one as the lion Aslan (Christ) existed. "I see," said the witch, "that we should do no better with your lion, as you call it, than we did with your sun. You have seen lamps, and so you imagined a better lamp and called it the sun. You've seen cats, and now you want a bigger and better cat.... Well, it's a pretty make-believe." She almost brought the children under her power before they awakened to her devilish intention.
Arthur asked his friend why with such a negative attitude he did not simply commit suicide. Because, replied Lewis, in spite of fits of occasional depression he was pleased with life and having a good time. Nor did he feel that being an atheist relieved him of all moral responsibility to himself and his community. These are things we owe to our manhood and dignity, quite apart from belief in gods.
Not that Lewis had always strictly followed the morality he postulated. He sometimes lied to his father and even defended the notion that not to lie may itself be criminal. He was quick to curse things he did not like — a guest downstairs, unfavorable weather, fellow pupils. He had practiced fornication and generally played the fool.
Lewis wrote Arthur that he was willing to look at any new theistic evidences. He conceded that there was indeed "a Hebrew called Yeshua," but "when I say 'Christ' of course I mean the mythological being into whom he was afterwards converted by popular imagination.... That the man Yeshua or Jesus did actually exist, is as certain as that the Buddha did actually exist: Tacitus mentions his execution in the Annals. But all the other tomfoolery about virgin birth, magic healings, apparitions and so forth is on exactly the same footing as any other mythology; ... most legends have a kernel of fact in them somewhere." Arthur suggested in one letter that Lewis was sad simply because he had "no hope of a 'happy life hereafter.'" "No," Lewis wrote back, "strange as it may appear I am quite content to live without believing in a bogey who is prepared to torture me forever ... a spirit more cruel and barbarous than any man."
How did Lewis turn from such convictions to become one of the most completely orthodox and influential Christians of his generation? From the time of these letters rebuking Greeves to the time of his own conversion was thirteen years. It was a period of indecision in spiritual things. At times he looked back toward atheism; at times forward to a slowly brightening view of Christianity. "It took me as long," he was later to write, "to acquire inhibitions as others (they say) have taken to get rid of them. That is why I often find myself at such cross-purposes with the modern world: I have been a converted Pagan living among apostate Puritans."
Kirkpatrick had helped Lewis prepare for college, and to college he went. Like any other beginner, the scope of his horizon enlarged. He found one fellow who had been an atheist but was turning away from it, and they had a long talk about religion, particularly Buddhism. Another talk ranged over "the rival merits of Swinburne and Keats, the improbability of God, and Home Rule." He found a girl, "another agnostic" he called her, and they discussed "Christian mythologies." It is often the case that college leads young people away from God. For Lewis, possibly because he had already probed the depth of his unbelief so thoroughly, college contributed to his movement in the other direction.
Lewis continued to read books about religion. Some confirmed his atheism, others disturbed it. He read Berkeley's Dialogues and felt that the bishop's efforts to prove the existence of God turned out only to disprove the existence of matter. He read Clutton-Broch's The Ultimate Belief and saw that morals might be rooted in God rather than, as he had supposed, in one's accidental convictions of right and wrong.
The next encounter with such ideas was shortly after his entrance to Oxford, when he was sent into the trenches in France, arriving there on his nineteenth birthday. Two periods of leisurely reading were afforded him by a spell of trench fever and a war wound. Several years before, the seed of holiness had been implanted in him when he had sat down on a train and begun to read George MacDonald's Phantastes. Now the seed started to bear, if not fruit, at least some foliage. The correspondence with Greeves shows Lewis slowly becoming the occasional defender of spiritual things against his hitherto more orthodox friend.
Arthur had suggested that the beauty of the world is to some degree an evidence of God. From the London hospital where he was recuperating, Lewis took vigorous hold of this idea and pressed it further than Arthur had imagined. Precisely where, he asked, does the beauty of a tree, for example, reside? Like every other physical object, a tree is made up of atoms, and atoms are identical and without color. So when you call a tree beautiful you are actually speaking of something other than the atoms of which it is made. A light from the vibrations in the distant sun produces a wave toward your eye. When it reaches the tissues of your eye another vibration is set up and moves along a nerve like a telegraph wire, carrying the sensation to your brain. One such sensation we call greenness, another brownness, a third shapeliness. But there is no actual color either in the atoms of which the tree is composed or in all those vibrations.
How then does the beauty of the tree arise? Shape, size, color, touch, and the like are simply the names we call our sensations, and no amount of study of them can ever bring us to the notion of beauty in the tree. Beauty must therefore arise from some nonmaterial relation between the tree and myself. "I fancy," he told Arthur, "that there is Something right outside time and place, which did not create matter, as the Christians say, but is matter's great enemy: and that Beauty is the call of the spirit in that Something to the spirit in us." It was a long step upward for the atheist.
At this stage Lewis was more or less in the position of his character Mark in That Hideous Strength. The novel describes how Mark, who had grown up an unbeliever and materialist, was subjected to torture in an effort to get him to "believe" in a materialism more perverse than he had ever dreamed of. Under these circumstances "the idea of the Straight or Normal ... grew stronger and more solid in his mind." Finally, it was like "a kind of mountain." Mark "had never before known what an Idea meant: he had always thought till now that they were things inside one's own head." But under persecution he came to understand that an idea is "something which obviously existed quite independently of himself and had hard rock surfaces which would not give, surfaces he could cling to."
Lewis himself was now discovering that things like beauty and the Straight have unexpected roots. Later on, debating with his friend Owen Barfield, he would be forced to the conviction that logic involves "participation in a cosmic Logos." At the time of this exchange with Greeves he still meant by "spiritual" something more nearly from nature upwards than from heaven downwards. But it is clear enough that substantial straws were blowing in the wind of Lewis's atheism.
Another deep-seated belief of this period, which Lewis was later to repudiate, was that of general or universal evolution. For some time he had worked on the lengthy narrative poem Dymer. The main idea, he wrote Arthur, was that of "development by self-destruction; ... nature produces man only to conquer her, and man produces a future or higher generation to conquer the ideals of the last." This is a Keatsian idea, and Lewis was later to speak against it often. Yet it is significant that he adds of Dymer: "The background proceeds on the old assumption of good outside and opposed to the cosmic order." That is, somewhere outside the cosmos there appears to be a Good.
After the war Lewis returned to Oxford to complete his education, earning many honors along the way. As he commenced his college work anew he ran into a whole nest of men who were both Christians and intellectuals. He came to notice a wide gap between mere morality and "holiness" — his own word — in men like Nevill Coghill, J. R. R. Tolkien, A. K. Hamilton Jenkin, and, particularly, Owen Barfield. More and more he turned to the reading of distinctively religious writers. He read Jakob Boehme and, though not fully able to understand him, felt that he was talking of "something tremendously real." It was for Lewis another experience like Phantastes, "not like a book at all, but like a thunderclap. Heaven defend us — what things there are knocking about the world!" So compelling was the reading of Boehme that he attributed the effect to some local circumstance — perhaps the weather — and determined to try reading him again later.
The stream of God's calling in Lewis's life had already made many turns and tumbled over many rapids. Now it began to run deeper. He reexamined the quality of much of his lifelong reading and concluded that writers like Gibbon, Voltaire, Mill, Shaw, and Wells, who were well suited to his anti-Christian views, were thin and shallow, while writers whom he had most admired had a quality that suggested Christianity. George Herbert in particular he found superlative in conveying "the very quality of life as we actually live it from moment to moment; but the wretched fellow, instead of doing it all directly, insisted on mediating it through what I would still have called 'the Christian mythology.'"
All the while Lewis was maturing as a literary critic, and the insight into what makes a writer great became at the same time an insight into holiness. He was also continuing to review his philosophical outlook. Earlier he had experienced Lucretius, occultism, spiritualism, magic, theosophy, and pantheism in various forms. When logical positivism came onto the scene, Lewis equated it with the "ruthless dialectic" of his old tutor Kirkpatrick. Looking back, Lewis first felt that it was God Himself who had kept him from getting too deeply involved in any of these movements. Perhaps it was the tremendous joy produced in him by reading such authors as George MacDonald and G. K. Chesterton which enabled him to survive the New Psychology that swept through Oxford and overwhelmed him for a time with the idea that his whole imaginative world, so large an element in his life, was no more than wishful thinking.
Reading Henri Bergson taught Lewis to "relish energy, fertility, and urgency; the resource, the triumphs, and even the insolence, of things that grow" and of "resonant, dogmatic, flaming, unanswerable people" like Beethoven, Titian, and Goethe. Also Bergson persuaded him to accept the universe and life as existent fact, "the nearest thing to a religious experience which I had had since my prep. school days."
Next he went through a period in which he tried to combine the conception on the one hand of a "real" universe with the belief on the other that subjective thought and moral judgment are legitimate avenues to truth. Barfield convinced him that such a mixture would not do and forced him to turn from realism to idealism, the conception "that the whole universe was, in the last resort, mental; that our logic was participation in a cosmic Logos."
Even though he then turned to Absolute Idealism, he still did not see how this pointed in the direction of Christianity. "I thought that 'the Christian myth' conveyed to unphilosophic minds as much of the truth, that is of Absolute Idealism, as they were capable of grasping.... Those who could not rise to the notion of the Absolute would come nearer the truth by belief in 'a God' than by disbelief. Those who could not understand how, as Reasoners, we participated in a timeless and therefore deathless world, would get a symbolic shadow of the truth by believing in a life after death." Lewis had always loved the idea of calling his soul his own, of not being interfered with. But logic itself — or rather Logic Himself — had begun to hem him in.
Excerpted from C. S. LEWIS Images of His World by Douglas Gilbert Clyde Kilby Copyright © 2005 by William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. Excerpted by permission of William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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