I never met C. S. Lewis but I don’t think I would have felt at ease with him; nor am I entirely at ease with his God. Lewis, I am sure, would have applauded this discomfort. He once criticized the low church milieu in which he grew up for being too cosily at ease in Sion, and in particular his grandfather, who used to look forward, as he said, to having “some very interesting conversations with St Paul when he got to heaven”. It reminded Lewis of two clerical gentlemen talking at ease in a club. “It never seemed to cross his mind,” he commented, “that an encounter with St Paul might be a rather overwhelming experience even for an Evangelical clergyman of good family.”1Richard Harries, C. S. Lewis: The Man and His God (Wilton, Conn.: Morehouse-Barlow, 1987), 27.
So wrote Richard Harries, sometime Dean of King’s College, London, and Bishop of Oxford. This description, from Harries’ book about Lewis, aptly summarizes the perspective of C. S. Lewis on the church and the Christian faith.
Perhaps no other man had more influence on Christianity in the 20th Century. His lectures, arguments, writings, and life are still today scrutinized and reviewed with the diligence of scholars and the pleasure of laymen. Lewis’ books are still in print and widely circulated with millions of copies sold.
All this is quite extraordinary considering Lewis was once an atheist. In fact, it seems that Lewis’ entire life was an oddity, even in his own eyes. It might be described as one great oxymoron. Lewis might have described his whole life just as colorfully as he did his early life in Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life. His life was quite colorful—and it continues to color the world today.
As a child, Lewis attended church with his family. His grandfather was rector of the parish church of Saint Mark’s in Dundela. Lewis despised his grandfather’s sermons as dry and dead. His grandfather primarily railed against Roman Catholicism and accomplished little else in his discourses.2George Sayer, Jack: A Life of C. S. Lewis (Wheaton: Crossway, 1994), 217-18.
Services at the Lewis family church were dull, boring, and meaningless to Lewis and his brother Jack. This seemed to be the common view of many of the parishioners. Churchgoing was more a political act than a religious one. People attended the services in order to demonstrate that they were not Roman Catholics.3Ibid., 217.
Lewis’ mother came from a family background of various professions, including clergymen.4C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (New York: Harcourt Brace & World, 1966), 3. She was a churchgoer but did nothing to teach Lewis any devotion. Lewis father, on the other hand, loved the “charm of the tradition and the verbal beauty of the Bible and Prayer Book …”5Ibid., 8. according to Lewis. He was also devoted to high church worship and Lewis described his as “… far from being specially Puritanical …”6Ibid., 7.
At home, Lewis was taught the “usual things” about religion.7Ibid. He was taken to church and said his prayers.8Ibid., 9. Yet, despite his father’s interest in the Church and the family traditions of nominal church involvement, Lewis wrote in his autobiography that, in his childhood, “… religious experiences did not occur at all.”9Ibid., 7. In fact, when his mother died—an event which changed Lewis forever—some thought he was spiritually engaged: “My mother’s death was the occasion of what some (but not I) might regard as my first religious experience.”10Ibid., 20.
When Lewis’ mother became sick, he prayed, with a firm will power, that she might recover. When she died, he hoped for a miraculous rising from the dead. However, when this approach did not work, he thought no more of it. He records that he had “approached God, or my idea of God, without love, without awe, even without fear.”11Ibid.
Shortly after his mother’s death, Lewis was sent away to school at Wynyard. While there, Lewis became an “effective believer.”12Ibid., 33. He attended church service twice on Sundays. He was enamored with the Anglo-Catholicism of the parish church. This struck him with a sense of fear, but one that he did not regard as unhealthy.13Ibid., 33-34.
It was at these church services where Lewis first “… heard the doctrines of Christianity … taught by men who obviously believed them.”14Ibid., 33. His faith was brought to life. Lewis began to pray and read the Bible and to try to live according to the designs of his conscience.15Sayer, 62. He and his fellow pupils frequently discussed religion.16Surprised by Joy, 34.
At thirteen, Lewis lost his faith while a student at Cherbourg.17Joe R. Christopher, C. S. Lewis (Boston: Twayne, 1987), 5. His disbelief was sparked by the “esoteric religious flounderings of the matron, Miss Cowie.”18Roger Lancelyn Green and Walter Hooper, C. S. Lewis: A Biography (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974), 30. He was taught that the pagan gods were taken seriously by the writers of the literature he read.19Christopher, 5. Unfortunately, Miss Cowie helped destroy Lewis’ faith, though he believed it was not intentional.20Surprised by Joy, 59.
Lewis’ struggle with prayer helped destroy his faith. His particular practice of praying made praying unbearable for him. He usually dreaded the prospect of praying in the evenings because he was suspicious of whether he had a true “realization” of prayer.21Green and Hooper, 30. 22Surprised by Joy, 61. Lewis turned his faith into a practice that was “a quite intolerable burden.”23Ibid.
Lewis’ experiences in school at Malvern and Great Bookham and his time in the army did not encourage him in religion, either. He found the services to be completely meaningless.24Sayer, 218. While a pupil at Great Bookham, he took part in a significant Christian rite.
Throughout his early life, Lewis struggled to understand and communicate with his father. Their differences led to a strained relationship. Though Lewis did not attend church at all during his time at Great Bookham, he hid this fact from his father so that he would not have to explain his atheism.25Ibid. This struggle to please his father, while also maintaining his independent thought, led Lewis to be confirmed in the church.
At his Confirmation in Belfast,26Ibid. the liturgy of the Church of Ireland would have been in this form:
Then shall the Bishop say, Do ye here, in the presence of God, and of this Congregation, renew the solemn promise and vow that was made in your name at your Baptism; ratifying and confirming the same in your own persons, and acknowledging yourselves bound to believe, and to do, all those things which your Godfathers and Godmothers then undertook for you?
Answer. I do.27Church of Ireland, “The Order for Confirmation,” The Book of Common Prayer (1878).
For Lewis to take part in this rite, he was, in fact, attesting to his belief in the Christian faith. However, he had no such belief. This was an ultimate act of hypocrisy, for which was deeply ashamed in later life.28Sayer, 218. In his own words: “I allowed myself to be prepared for confirmation, and confirmed, and to make my first Communion, in total disbelief, acting a part, eating and drinking my own condemnation.”29Surprised by Joy, 161.
As Lewis matured, his beliefs changed gradually. In 1926, he came to believe in a “nebulous power outside himself.”30Sayer, 217. He even went so far as to say that “… Christianity was very sensible apart from its Christianity.”31Ibid., 222. And, inspired by an offhand remark by another atheist, he began to examine the proofs of Christianity—particularly focusing on evidence for the historicity of the Gospels.32Ibid.
In 1929, Lewis became a theist.33Green and Hooper, 103. In his autobiography, he wrote, “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.”34Surprised by Joy, 228-229. He began attending church services and became increasingly interested in religion.
Lewis discovered, in 1931, that his brother Warren had been thinking of becoming a Christian and that Warren had been attending church services. The two began attending services together.35Sayer, 225. On the evening of September 19, Lewis had a long discussion with J. R. R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson.36Ibid., 225-226. The pair assured Lewis of the veracity of the Christian myth and a real God.
On September 22, Lewis’ conversion to Christianity was complete.37Ibid., 226. On Christmas Day, he received Holy Communion for the first time since childhood. This was also, incidentally, the same day that Warren received Communion with new faith.38Ibid., 227 And so, the most reluctant convert to theism gradually became a most devoted convert to the true Christian faith.
Initially, it was Lewis’ practice to receive Communion only on significant holidays, such as Christmas and Easter. This was partly influenced by his family’s practice in Ireland. Later, he began to receive Communion weekly.39Ibid.
For most of his adult life in Oxford, Lewis attended services at the parish church in Headington Quarry. Because it was the local parish church, he believed this the natural place to attend. One of his biographers wrote,
He regularly went to a church in Headington with ‘high’ services, not because of any preferences but because it was the parish in which he lived. This practice was for him a matter almost of obedience. He thought it was a mistake for a Christian to shop around looking for an eloquent vicar or a pleasing service.40Ibid., 422.
Lewis had some rather interesting views about life, literature, and especially about Christianity and the church. But he was completely devoted to being an ordinary Christian and worshiping—not according to the fancy of his taste—but according to the dictates of his heart, which meant to him, wherever the nearest Anglican congregation happened to be.
Lewis was “nonliturgical”41Ibid. and preferred to stay away from organ music and liturgical innovation.42C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer (San Diego: Harcourt, 1964), 5. But, he was quick to criticize changes in forms of worship, such as the liturgies. He wrote that “Every service is a structure of acts and words through which we receive a sacrament, or repent, or supplicate, or adore…. The perfect church service would be one we were almost unaware of; our attention would have been on God.”43Ibid., 4.
During his lifetime, and after, there were rumors that Lewis had converted to Roman Catholicism.44Sayer, 421. However, despite rumors to that effect, Lewis remained a loyal communicant of the Church of England.45Ibid., 422. He had objections to Roman Catholicism that prevented him from joining that communion. “His objection to Roman Catholicism was the ordinary Protestant one, that of addition of doctrines not in the Bible, such as transubstantiation, the immaculate conception, worship of the Blessed Virgin, and papal infallibility.”46Clyde S. Kilby, The Christian World of C. S. Lewis (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1964), 25.
Perhaps the inaccurate rumors of Lewis’ conversion to Rome were begun because of his association with Catholics such as Tolkien. Lewis was not opposed to the faith of Catholics: “He felt more at home with Catholics than with some extreme Anglo-Catholics who have ‘passed into a worse state of ecclesiastical rigor mortis’.”47Ibid. In 1935, Lewis wrote to his friend Arthur Greeves to complain: “He did not like having a book of his handled by a ‘Papist publisher,’ but he submitted since they thought they could sell it …”48Sayer, 231.
Despite his differences with Roman Catholicism, he refused to be sectarian in other aspects of the faith. He avoided interpreting certain doctrines, such as the sacrament, because he did not want to create division. He recognized that each group of Christians has its own understanding of such doctrines, though all Christians give affirmation of the doctrines.49Chad Walsh, C. S. Lewis: Apostle to the Skeptics (New York: Macmillan, 1949), 91. He tried to “avoid writing anything that would accentuate the factionalism in the Church, except that he does not conceal his conviction that the Broad Churchmen are, consciously or unconsciously, apostates, whose salvation lies in ‘repenting and believing’.”50Ibid., 92.
Lewis was quick to affirm the good in all Christian churches. “He was not satisfied with the excessive ‘good taste’ in the Church of England and thought that the Roman church, the Orthodox faiths, and the Salvation Army have all retained a certain gusto that his own church could well re-acquire.”51Kilby, 25. “In the preface to Mere Christianity, Lewis said that his own position was ‘not especially ‘high,’ nor especially ‘low,’ nor especially anything else’ …”52Christopher, 108. However, hew was also quick to criticize what he understood to be wrong: “… He felt that Protestants are about as busy in subtracting from the Gospel as Romans are in adding to it.”53Kilby, 25. Neither did he suffer heretics lightly. He “… ordinarily restricts the word ‘Christian’ to those who believe in traditional Christianity.”54Walsh, 90.
One of Lewis’ interesting views was on speaking in tongues at Pentecost. He regarded it as something similar to miracles—if not, itself, miraculous. Clyde S. Kilby described Lewis’ understanding this way:
Looking from below, one will always suppose a thing to be ‘nothing but’ or ‘merely’ this or that. The natural to which one is accustomed will so fill the eye that the supernatural does not appear. One sees clearly the facts but not their meaning. But from above one can see both the fact and the meaning, the supernatural and the natural.55Kilby, 159.
This is only one of several of Lewis’ pronounced views on Christian doctrine. Among other things, he affirmed the doctrine of Real Presence,56Walsh, 91. explained his views on Purgatory,57See C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce: A Dream (New York: HarperCollins, 1946) and letter XX from Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer (San Diego: Harcourt, 1964). promoted prayer for the sick, believed that heaven and hell are final, and that conversion is essential.58Kilby, 159. After the time of his conversion, his writings emphasized obvious Christian content and influence, and his letters gradually turned more and more to Christian themes, including doctrine.59See W. H. Lewis, ed., The Letters of C. S. Lewis (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1966).
No doubt, C. S. Lewis was one of the most prominent Christians of his time. Today, his legacy continues. Through the sale of his books and other writings, survival of some of his lectures and sermons, and the appreciation of his attitude toward life and faith, the world continues to be impacted by Lewis. Maybe he had no idea that his life, simple as it seemed to him, would mean so much.
The simplicity of Lewis’ faith is an enduring call to all. The man who threw his faith away, disavowed it, despised it, and ridiculed it, found that he could not escape the Object of that faith. It was as if he was the losing player in a great chess match with God. And, in the end, Lewis discovered that his losing the match and God winning was of greatest benefit to Lewis. His summary of God’s character speaks loudly: “The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men, and His compulsion is our liberation.”60Surprised by Joy, 229.
- Christopher, Joe R. C. S. Lewis. Twayne’s English Authors Series. Boston: Twayne, 1987.
- Church of Ireland. The Book of Common Prayer. 1878.
- Green, Roger Lancelyn and Walter Hooper. C. S. Lewis: A Biography. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974.
- Harries, Richard. C. S. Lewis: The Man and His God. Wilton, Conn.: Morehouse-Barlow, 1987.
- Kilby, Clyde S. The Christian World of C. S. Lewis. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1964.
- Lewis, Clive Staples. The Great Divorce: A Dream. New York: HarperCollins, 1946.
- —. Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer. San Diego: Harcourt, 1964.
- —. Mere Christianity. New York: HarperCollins, 1952.
- —. Miracles: A Preliminary Study. New York: HarperCollins, 1947.
- —. Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1955.
- Lewis, W. H., ed. Letters of C. S. Lewis. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1966.
- Sayer, George. Jack: A Life of C. S. Lewis. Wheaton: Crossway, 1994.
- Walsh, Chad. C. S. Lewis: Apostle to the Skeptics. New York: Macmillan, 1949.
Author note: I have moderately revised this text from my 2002 original.
|↩1||Richard Harries, C. S. Lewis: The Man and His God (Wilton, Conn.: Morehouse-Barlow, 1987), 27.|
|↩2||George Sayer, Jack: A Life of C. S. Lewis (Wheaton: Crossway, 1994), 217-18.|
|↩4||C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (New York: Harcourt Brace & World, 1966), 3.|
|↩16||Surprised by Joy, 34.|
|↩17||Joe R. Christopher, C. S. Lewis (Boston: Twayne, 1987), 5.|
|↩18||Roger Lancelyn Green and Walter Hooper, C. S. Lewis: A Biography (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974), 30.|
|↩20||Surprised by Joy, 59.|
|↩21||Green and Hooper, 30.|
|↩22||Surprised by Joy, 61.|
|↩27||Church of Ireland, “The Order for Confirmation,” The Book of Common Prayer (1878).|
|↩29||Surprised by Joy, 161.|
|↩33||Green and Hooper, 103.|
|↩34||Surprised by Joy, 228-229.|
|↩42||C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer (San Diego: Harcourt, 1964), 5.|
|↩46||Clyde S. Kilby, The Christian World of C. S. Lewis (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1964), 25.|
|↩49||Chad Walsh, C. S. Lewis: Apostle to the Skeptics (New York: Macmillan, 1949), 91.|
|↩57||See C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce: A Dream (New York: HarperCollins, 1946) and letter XX from Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer (San Diego: Harcourt, 1964).|
|↩59||See W. H. Lewis, ed., The Letters of C. S. Lewis (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1966).|
|↩60||Surprised by Joy, 229.|