David C. Downing
R. W. Schlosser Professor of English
Finding Truth in the Old Beliefs
The Most Reluctant Convert: C. S.
Lewiss Journey to Faith (
Lewis's testimony has confused some readers, for he seems to record two conversion experiences, one in 1929 and another in 1931. In Surprised by Joy Lewis writes about himself as a dejected and reluctant convert kneeling and praying in the summer of 1929. But then he quickly adds that this was only a conversion to "Theism, pure and simple, not to Christianity." He goes on explain that he began attending his parish church on Sundays and college chapels not because he believed in Christianity, but because he thought "one ought to 'fly one's flag' by some unmistakable overt sign."
As for his more explicit conversion to Christianity, Lewis
also recalls a specific incident, a trip to the Whipsnade Zoo in which he
left home not believing that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and arrived at
his destination believing that He is. From his brother Warren's diary, we
learn that this trip took place in the late summer of 1931, more than two
years after Lewis's first conversion experience in his rooms at
It would have been easy for Lewis to tidy up his recollections a bit and choose one dramatic moment in which he reclaimed his childhood faith. But he wanted to record his progress with all possible accuracy and it is obvious he felt that the process only began in 1929 and was not completed until 1931. His distinction between "Theism" and "Christianity" is not entirely satifactory, for it is clear that he was surrendering the first time to a Person visualized as the God of the Bible, not of the Koran or the Kabbalah. Yet his letters to Arthur Greeves during that two-year period do indeed reveal that his conversion came on steadily, not suddenly. Owen Barfield has said that the word "conversion" itself is not quite accurate to describe Lewis' spiritual development in this period, since it connotes sudden, radical transformation.
It is important to note that Lewis depicts himself as a "dejected and reluctant convert" the first time around, almost as if his mind were taking him where his heart did not want to go. The distinction between the two conversions might be best interpreted in terms of the medieval model of human personality, which Lewis explained in The Screwtape Letters. In this view, the inner self can be envisioned as three concentric circles, with one's will at the center, intellect in the second circle, and imagination in the outer circle. First an idea or image enters into the mind's eye, then one grasps it intellectually, and finally one acts upon it. Lewis's long drawn-out conversion process illustrates the model perfectly. His imagination was baptized back in 1916, when he first read MacDonald and was entranced by "the beauty of holiness." His intellect had shown him by 1929 that the Absolute must indeed be God, but it was not until 1931 that he recognized the claims of Christ and surrendered his will.
Lewis recalls that his father's death in September 1929 had no direct bearing on his recovery of faith. This seems accurate enough since the process had already begun earlier that summer. Yet this period of spiritual healing was almost certainly reinforced and deepened by the emotional healing that occurred in the last month of Albert Lewis's life.
The low point of the relationship between father and son
had come ten years earlier, when Jack was twenty, during a time the two
brothers were visiting their father on summer holiday in 1919. Albert found
some unpaid bills Jack had tried to hide from him and irritably confronted
his son with the evidence. The younger Lewis, resenting this interference
into his personal affairs, responded fiercely, complaining that he had lost
respect and confidence in his father, dredging up incidents going all the way
back to childhood. According to his diary, Albert Lewis expected an apology
for this tirade, but his son never offered one. That fall Jack set up a joint
household with Mrs. Moore and her daughter Maureen in
Gradually, the two of them put the incident behind them and their relations seemed to have improved throughout Jack's twenties. When he was awarded the prestigious fellowship at Magdalen, the first thing Jack did was sit down and write a sincere letter of gratitude to Albert for all the years of financial assistance:
First, let me thank you from the bottom of my heart for the generous support, extended over six years, which alone has enabled me to hang on like this. In the long course I have seen men at least my equals in ability and qualifications, fall for lack of it. "How often can I afford to wait?" was everybody's question; and few of them had at their back those who were both able and willing to keep them in the field for so long. You have waited, not only without complaint but full of encouragement, while chance after chance slipped away and when the goal receded furthest from sight. Thank you again and again.
This is certainly one of the most eloquent letters of thanks a son could write to his father, and it may well have expressed feelings that Albert had been hoping to hear for many years. Through all those years of financial support--including quarrels over unpaid bills--it seems that Jack wanted to feel grateful, but felt instead a certain resentment at his own dependency and his father's prying into his private life. But once Jack was assured of some measure of monetary self-sufficiency, it seemed to free him to confess frankly his gratitude and affection.
Their relationship continued on this more cordial note
throughout Jack's late twenties. Then in August 1929 he received news in
When Albert learned from his doctors that he needed to undergo immediate surgery, Jack wrote to Warren that their father was "taking it like a hero." In these last days Jack underwent a profound reversal of perspective. As A. N. Wilson has observed about this period, "All of a sudden, Jack saw that his father was a sort of hero--a maddening, eccentric hero but a man whose decency, courage and good humour were as unshakable as his sincere piety." In those few weeks the elder and younger Lewis found a serenity and closeness in their relationship which they had perhaps not known before.
Albert seemed briefly to rally after the operation, so much
so that Jack returned to Oxford to prepare for the fall term. But after only
two days, Jack was called back to
Both Jack and Warren considered their father an enduring
fixture in their lives and neither seemed prepared for the loss. In October,
Jack wrote to his brother, at an army post in
Having spent so many years fretting over how his father treated
him, Jack now had begun to contemplate how he had treated his father. He and
his brother had long referred to Albert as "Pudaita" or "the
Pudaitabird," after his rounded Irish pronunciation of the word potato.
This suggests that part of their condescension toward their father was less
personal than social, the attitude of two English-educated schoolboys toward
their Irish forebear, whom they considered parochial and unsophisticated.
Jack himself was aware of this snobbish element in his feelings toward his
father after he had been at
For both brothers, the death of their father also called to
mind their mother's passing twenty-one years earlier.
One of the most significant items Warren discovered in this mountain of papers was his father's diary, in which the latter had recorded his wife's conversation on her deathbed. Albert wrote that Flora had advised her sickroom nurse that, when it came time to marry, she should find "a good man who loves you and who loves God." And that they had been quietly discussing the goodness of God when Flora asked suddenly, "What have we done for Him?" To this quotation, Albert had added, "May I never forget that."
It would be difficult for either of her sons to forget that
either. Jack was sifting through the
family papers during this time as well as
The process that was begun in 1929 with Jack's conversion to Theism continued, sometimes fitfully, for the next two years. His letters during that period make it clear that he was on the move spiritually, but that he hadn't yet reached his destination. In December 1929 Jack confessed to Arthur that he had found and was still "finding more and more, the element of truth in the old beliefs." Over the Christmas holiday he and Warren attended church services together, and in January 1930 Jack wrote three letters to Arthur Greeves reporting on his spiritual condition. On January 9th, the critic seemed to hold sway, as he told Arthur, "In spite of my recent changes of view, I am still inclined to think that you can only get what you call 'Christ' out of the Gospels by picking & choosing & slurring over a good deal." On January 26, Jack wrote on a more positive note that he had finished reading George MacDonald's Diary of an Old Soul and was looking for other books of that kind, adding, "that is another of the beauties of coming, I won't say, to religion but to an attempt at religion--one finds oneself on the main road with all humanity, and can compare notes with an endless succession of previous travellers. It is emphatically coming home."
Only four days later he wrote again, saying that "Things are going very, very well with me spiritually," though he tried not to take pride in his progress, knowing that "one must attribute everything to the grace of God, and nothing to oneself." He goes on to offer a perceptive self-diagnosis, saying that his spiritual life is still hampered by pride and a deep-seated desire to call his soul his own: "There seems to be no end to it. Depth under depth of self-love and self-admiration. Closely connected with this is the difficulty I find in making even the faintest approach to giving up my own will: which as everyone has told us is the only thing to do."
The next month he wrote to Owen Barfield in a tone of humorous panic: "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." During the next year, one finds few references to Lewis's spiritual state as explicit as this one, though he often wrote to others about his reading of Dante and George MacDonald, and he told Arthur Greeves that he had begun writing religious poetry of his own.
Then on October 1, 1931, came the definitive word, as Jack wrote to Arthur, "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."
Jack had described his long night talk with J. R. R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson in a letter to Arthur the previous week, saying that the three of them had begun talking about metaphor and myth just after dinner, had continued the conversation as they strolled along Addison's Walk near Jack's rooms at Magdalen College, and that he had not gotten to bed until 4 in the morning. This conversation might well be considered the defining moment in Jack's life, for it helped him resolve issues he had been grappling with since boyhood. In particular, it gave him a way to understand the Incarnation as the historical fulfillment of Dying God myths found in many cultures.
Tolkien and Dyson, who shared Lewis's reverence for myth, romance, and fairy tale, showed him that mythology reveals its own kind of truth and that Christianity is true mythology. Lewis had insisted that myths were nothing more than "lies breathed through silver," but Tolkien and Dyson answered that myth was better understood as "a real though unfocused gleam of divine truth falling on human imagination." They argued that one of the great and universal myths, that of the Dying God who sacrifices himself for the people, shows an innate awareness of the need for redemption, not by one's own works, but as a gift from some higher realm. For them, the Incarnation was the pivotal point at which myth became history. The life, death, and resurrection of Christ not only fulfilled Old Testament types but also embodied--literally--central motifs found in all the world's mythologies.
Ironically, their arguments had been anticipated five years earlier in the unlikeliest of sources. In Surprised by Joy Lewis reports that in 1926 a fellow don whom he considered a hard-boiled atheist commented that the evidence for the historicity of the Gospels was surprisingly good. "Rum thing," the skeptic had concluded. "All that stuff of Frazer's about the Dying God. Rum thing. It almost looks as if it had really happened once." From Lewis's diary we know that this hard-boiled atheist was T. D. Weldon (1896-1958), who resembles a great deal the flashy and immoral Dick Devine of the Ransom trilogy. In his diary Lewis wrote that Weldon was "determined to be a villain," and that he "believes he has seen through everything and lives at rock bottom." Yet in his entry for April 26, 1926, Lewis records Weldon's opinion that there was a lot about the historicity of the Gospels that could not be explained away, which would qualify him as a "Christian 'of a sort.' " Coming from a man determined to be a villain (and who Lewis determined to use as a villain in his later fiction), this remark remained little more than a psychological curiosity at the time. But coming from two of his closest friends, and forcefully argued well into the night, the idea found its mark in 1931, leaving a lasting impression on his imagination, his intellect, and finally his will.
Tolkien and Dyson's view of myth offered Lewis a way to justify his lifelong love of mythology and to cross the threshold into the household of Christian faith. No more were his beloved Greek myths, Nordic sagas, and Irish legends mere escapist tripe unworthy of a thinking person. They became reservoirs of transrational truths; they provided insights, admittedly partial and distorted, about realities beyond the reach of logical inquiry. In Christianity, the True Myth to which all the others were pointing, Lewis found a worldview that he could defend as both good and real. It was a faith grounded in history and one that satisfied even his formidable intellect.
For Lewis, Christianity would thence become the fountainhead of all myths and tales of enchantment, the key to all mythologies, the myth that unfolded itself in history. About a month after Lewis's conversation with Tolkien and Dyson, he wrote to his brother about a book he had discovered by William Law, an eighteenth-century devotional writer, aptly titled An Appeal to All that Doubt or Disbelieve. Unlike all those tentative letters he had been sending to Arthur the past two years, Jack's response clearly shows that he now saw his newfound faith not as "an attempt at religion," but as reality: "[This is] one of those rare works which make you say of Christianity, 'Here is the very thing you like in poetry and the romances, but this time it's true.'"
For Lewis the Incarnation became the archetype of a larger pattern, the principle of Descent and Reascent. In Miracles, he calls this the "very formula of reality." Plants produce seeds which must fall to the ground and die before new life can begin. Animals and humans produce seeds and eggs which, useless by themselves, form a union at the most elemental level to produce offspring. And the myths of many cultures tell of "corn-kings" who die and rise again for the sake their people. The Incarnation fulfills this mythic pattern, as the King of Heaven descends to earth in order to raise it up. Lewis compares the Incarnate Christ to a strong man who must stoop low under a heavy burden in order to lift it upon his shoulders. Or He is like a diver who must plunge downward into the depths in order to reascend with the precious object he had gone to recover.
This last analogy reveals another important dimension of
descent and reascent, the symbolic death and resurrection in Christian
baptism. In June 1930, during Lewis's personal two-year preparatio
evangelico, he wrote to Arthur Greeves that Owen Barfield had taught him
how to plunge head-first into a river, and that he had found an important
religious significance in the art of diving. This hint is developed more
fully in the climactic scene of The Pilgrim's Regress, a chapter
titled Securus Te Projice,
"Throw yourself down safely," a quotation from Augustine. The pilgrim John, stranded in the
impassable gorge Peccatum Adae ("Sin of Adam"), awakens one moonlit
night and tries to find his way out. He encounters the hideous face of Death
itself, who offers the sober reassurance that "the cure of death is
dying. He who lays down his liberty in that act receives it back," then
tells him to descend to the floor of the canyon. There John meets Mother Kirk
(Christianity), her crown and scepter glinting in the bright moonlight, who
instructs him that his only escape is to dive into the water, swim downward,
and emerge on the other side of the mountain. John is full of doubts, pleads
that he doesn't know how to dive, and feels that the very bitterness of death
awaits him. Yet he takes the plunge, learning many mysteries and "dying
many deaths," emerging finally in green forests beyond the
mountain--along with many other pilgrims whom he hadn't noticed in all his
earlier peregrinations. They march westward together until they come upon a
beach, and there before him in the morning sun John sees the
The Island in The Pilgrim's Regress symbolizes Joy throughout the story, though in the end John learns that it is only a symbol, not his final destination. When Lewis at last became a Christian, he also ended his quest to grasp Joy and resolved the "dialectic of desire" that he had been puzzling over since childhood. If, as Christian doctrine teaches, all humans are exiles from paradise, then how natural that they should feel pangs of longing, painful in their fallenness, yet pleasurable in that they point to genuine realities in which they may someday partake. In Surprised by Joy Lewis says that once he became a believer again, his intense interest in Sweet Desire receded. He came to feel that it was not really Joy he had been seeking but rather "the naked Other, imageless (though our imagination salutes it with a hundred images), unknown, undefined, desired." Having baptized his imagination with Christian myth years earlier, and then having satisfied his intellect, it only remained for Lewis to surrender his will. This was no small task, since he now felt he was not simply accepting a body of doctrines but submitting to a living Person. Christianity is, after all, not simply a philosophy, but a Way.
As mentioned at the beginning of this chapter, Jack explained the actual moment of conversion to Christianity in somewhat cryptic terms: "I know very well when, but hardly how, the final step was taken. I was driven to Whipsnade one sunny morning. When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did." In the same passage, he adds that this was not a particularly emotional moment, nor had he spent the trip in deep contemplation. Rather, he felt like he had awakened from a long sleep and now realized that he was indeed awake.
We know from Warren's diary that this trip took place on September 28, 1931, when Jack was riding in the sidecar of his brother's motorcycle, nine days after his late-night talk with Tolkien and Dyson. Warren wrote in some detail about the outing from the Kilns, their home outside Oxford, to Whipsnade, though he did not know at the time the momentous event that was taking place inside the heart and mind of his brother Jack.
One can't help but wonder, why that particular day? Both
Lewis brothers enjoyed visiting the Whipsnade Zoo outside
The Moores and Lewis brothers had been planning for some time to drive to the zoo, and this was the appointed day. But the morning had been blanketed in fog and Maureen argued with her mother at breakfast about whether or not they should cancel the trip. Then there was further discussion and delay about getting the car ready and getting it packed. Warren, unaccustomed to all the fuss and bluster of family life with Minto and Maureen, had gotten increasingly restless and convinced himself that there wasn't going to be time to make the trip. He left the others to their debate and found a quiet place, partly to read a book and partly perhaps to sulk. Then Jack struck a compromise: it was decided that he and Warren should set out for Whipsnade in the motorcycle, Jack in the sidecar, and the others could follow by automobile.
This may not have been an easy decision for Jack. He had
mixed feelings about riding in the sidecar of
Whatever his feelings that day, Jack set out with Warren
and the others soon followed. The fog lifted when the two brothers were en
route and the sun shone down on the homely cottages and lush fields along the
road. In his diary
But the question remains, why that particular day?
But perhaps one might be permitted to speculate, to enter imaginatively into the moment: They are on the road--finally--Warren on his motorcycle and Jack next to him in the sidecar. The trees and stone walls are whizzing by on either side, but a grey mist veils the horizon and the way ahead. A cool wind is blowing past Jack's face, making his coat flap against his side. Here again is that peculiar thrill of riding, a lightness in the head, a tingle in the stomach. Trusting his safety to another.
There is Warnie, old Badger, peering straight ahead, his
rounded shoulders hunched forward as he grips the handlebars. Attending
church again, after a lapse of many years. Finding truth in the old beliefs.
"We few," their band of brothers, all seemed to see it too--Tolkien
and Dyson, Coghill, all just like Greeves.
The fog is lifting, with surprising suddenness, like a door swinging open. There is blue sky overhead. Jack can see down the road now, all the way to the ridge where it curves over the horizon. The sun is shining, like morning, like the first morning of the world. A perfect day for Whipsnade, that little patch of Eden.
Not paradise, of course, only a picture. Like pictures of Joy. This and yet not this. Not a garden isle, not a northern vastness. A face. The face above all worlds. Someone to know and be known by.
But what of freedom? Being "master of my fate, captain
of my soul." Nonsense. Poetry for boys. We are not free, not in that
sense. Minto, Maureen,
Lay it down. It's not even yours. It never was. Lay it down as He did. "Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground . . ." Descend and reascend. Like Death. Good death. An Anodos who finds his way.
Very well, then, I will ride. Trust my safety to another.
Galilean, God come down from heaven, I believe.
I believe in You.
Teach me to obey.
In Your will is my peace. . .
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