conversion

The Conversion of C.S. Lewis

17 April 2023

6.3 MINS

Anyone who has read the account of Lewis’ conversion in Surprised By Joy will know that the penultimate chapter is titled “Checkmate”. There he discusses some of the final steps that led him to abandon his atheism and move through from theism to Christianity.

If, by some strange reason, you know nothing of the one of whom I speak, let me point you to an earlier piece where I briefly describe the man, his thought and his influence here.

And I discuss this general theme of looking for joy in this piece.

Early Influences on Lewis

But back to Surprised By Joy. While I of course encourage you to read the entire book if you have not yet done so – or read it again if you already have – let me offer an overview of the chapter along with some quotes from it. He discusses his life in the 1920s and how he befriended Nevil Coghill.

Turns out he was “a Christian and a thoroughgoing supernaturalist.” (HBJ, 1955, p. 212) Along with Owen Barfield, Coghill was helping Lewis overcome his “chronological snobbery.” They were forcing him to ask the question: “Was the archaic simply the civilised, and the modern simply the barbaric?” (p. 213) Maybe the ancients DID know better.

And all his reading was a big factor in getting him to question so many things he had all along assumed. Says Lewis:

All the books were beginning to turn against me. Indeed, I must have been as blind as a bat not to have seen, long before the ludicrous contradiction between my theory of life and my actual experiences as a reader.

George MacDonald had done more to me than any other writer; of course it was a pity he had that bee in his bonnet about Christianity. He was good in spite of it.

Chesterton had more sense than all the other moderns put together; bating of course, his Christianity.

Johnson was one of the few authors whom I felt I could trust utterly; curiously enough, he had the same kink.

Spenser and Milton by a strange coincidence had it too. Even among the ancient authors the same paradox was to be found.

The most religious (Plato, Aeschylus, Virgil) were clearly those on whom I could really feed.

On the other hand, those writers who did not suffer from religion and with whom in theory my sympathy ought to have been complete – Shaw and Wells and Mill and Gibbon and Voltaire – all seemed a little thin; what as boys we called “tinny”. It wasn’t that I didn’t like them. They were all (especially Gibbon) entertaining; but hardly more. There seemed to be no depth in them. They were too simple. The roughness and density of life did not appear in their books. (pp. 213–214)

He goes on to say:

“The only non-Christians who seemed to me really to know anything were the Romantics; and a good many of them were dangerously tinged with something like religion, even at times with Christianity.” (p. 214)

He says that at this point he should have been checking out Christianity more closely, to see if it was in fact wrong. But he did not at the time.

Image of Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life

Dyson and Tolkien

The death of his father also had an impact on him, as did further friendships, along with his own reading. He writes:

When I began teaching for the English faculty, I made two other friends, both Christians (these queer people seemed now to pop up on every side) who were later to give me much help in getting over the last stile. They were H. V. V. Dyson (then of Reading) and J. R. R. Tolkien. Friendship with the latter marked the breakdown of two old prejudices. At my first coming into the world I had been (implicitly) warned never to trust a Papist, and at my first coming into the English Faculty (explicitly) never to trust a philologist. Tolkien was both.

Realism had been abandoned; the New Look was somewhat damaged; and chronological snobbery was seriously shaken. All over the board my pieces were in the most disadvantageous positions. Soon I could no longer cherish even the illusion that the initiative lay with me. My Adversary began to make His final moves. (p. 216)

Chesterton

He goes on to speak of how his teaching of philosophy also seems to conspire against him. His watered-down Hegelianism and the like just did not seem to cut it. And reading, especially some of his favourites, continued to chip away at his resistance:

Then I read Chesterton’s Everlasting Man and for the first time saw the whole Christian outline of history set out in a form that seemed to me to make sense. Somehow I contrived not to be too badly shaken.

You will remember that I already thought Chesterton the most sensible man alive “apart from his Christianity”. Now, I veritably believe, I thought – I didn’t of course say; words would have revealed the nonsense – that Christianity itself was very sensible “apart from its Christianity”.

But I hardly remember, for I had not long finished The Everlasting Man when something far more alarming happened to me.

Early in 1926 the hardest boiled of all the atheists I ever knew sat in my room on the other side of the fire and remarked that the evidence for the historicity of the Gospels was really surprisingly good. “Rum thing,” he went on. “All that stuff of Frazer’s about the Dying God. Rum thing. It almost looks as if it had really happened once.”

To understand the shattering impact of it, you would need to know the man (who has certainly never since shown any interest in Christianity). If he, the cynic of cynics, the toughest of the toughs, were not – as I would still have put it – “safe”, where could I turn? Was there then no escape? (pp. 223–224)

God Closes In

Yes it was getting to be very dangerous to be an atheist, or even just a generic theist. He says:

“Really, a young Atheist cannot guard his faith too carefully. Dangers lie in wait for him on every side.” (p. 226)

He had said similar things a bit earlier:

“In reading Chesterton, as in reading MacDonald, I did not know what I was letting myself in for.

A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading. There are traps everywhere — ‘Bibles laid open, millions of surprises,’ as Herbert says, ‘fine nets and stratagems.’ God is, if I may say it, very unscrupulous.” (p. 191)

Yes, God was closing in on him. He discusses how much all this was about him seeking God, or God seeking him:

“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.” (p. 227)

He closes the chapter with these words:

Remember, I had always wanted, above all things, not to be “interfered with”. I had wanted (mad wish) “to call my soul my own”.

I had been far more anxious to avoid suffering than to achieve delight. I had always aimed at limited liabilities.

The supernatural itself had been to me, first, an illicit dram, and then, as by a drunkard’s reaction, nauseous. Even my recent attempt to live my philosophy had secretly (I now knew) been hedged round by all sorts of reservations.

I had pretty well known that my ideal of virtue would never be allowed to lead me into anything intolerably painful; I would be “reasonable”. But now what had been an ideal became a command; and what might not be expected of one?

Doubtless, by definition, God was Reason itself. But would He also be “reasonable” in that other, more comfortable, sense? Not the slightest assurance on that score was offered me.

Total surrender, the absolute leap in the dark, were demanded. The reality with which no treaty can be made was upon me. The demand was not even “All or nothing”. I think that stage had been passed, on the bus-top when I unbuckled my armour and the snow-man started to melt. Now, the demand was simply “All”.

You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me.

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.

I did not then see what is now the most shining and obvious thing; the Divine humility which will accept a convert even on such terms. The Prodigal Son at least walked home on his own feet.

But who can duly adore that Love which will open the high gates to a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape?

The words compelle intrare, compel them to come in, have been so abused by wicked men that we shudder at them; but properly understood, they plumb the depth of the Divine mercy. The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men, and His compulsion is our liberation. (p. 228–229)

Millions of people the world over are so glad that Lewis did finally surrender all. Praise God for C. S. Lewis.

Afterword

One point should be made here. As many have pointed out, including especially Alister McGrath in his 2013 biography, Lewis may have gotten his conversion date wrong. It seems early 1930 instead of late 1929 is when this conversion actually occurred. A short write-up about this is found here.

___

Originally published at CultureWatch. Photo by K. Mitch Hodge/Unsplash.

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One Comment

  1. Kaylene Emery 17 April 2023 at 2:58 pm - Reply

    We can all relate to “ the wish to avoid suffering “Bill. It more often than not , governs our decisions and behaviour.
    And unless God intervenes we can pass our whole lives in this state of avoidance.
    As ever, thank you.

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