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Brief Lives

C.S. Lewis (1898-1963)

Martin Jenkins gathers his courage, steps through the wardrobe and meets an enchanting professor.

C.S. Lewis is today best known as a Christian apologist and the author of the Narnia series of children’s fantasy books, including The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (1950). It is therefore easy to forget that his original training, and his first academic post, were in philosophy. That training marked almost everything that he wrote and broadcast.

CS Lewis
C.S. Lewis by Darren McAndrew

From Protestantism to Atheism and Back Again

Clive Staples Lewis was born on November 29th 1898 in Belfast. Later he reinvented himself as a quintessential Englishman who loved long walks in the country followed by a pint in the local pub; but he was born doubly an outsider. In a majority Catholic country, his family were Ulster Protestants – but not the mainstream, nonconformist Protestants; he was born into the Church of Ireland, a minority faith even within the Irish Protestant tradition. It is no surprise that later one of his closest friends was another outsider – the South African Catholic J.R.R. Tolkien. Lewis’s comment on this friendship in his autobiography Surprised by Joy (1955) is characteristic: “At my first coming into the world I had been (implicitly) warned never to trust a Papist, and at my first coming into the [Oxford] English Faculty (explicitly) never to trust a philologist. Tolkien was both” (p.173).

Lewis’s childhood can best be described as chaotic. His mother died when he was nine. He then, for the first time, stopped having private tuition and went to school. Soon he was sent to a boarding school, Malvern College, where he was thoroughly miserable. Fortunately, his father transferred him into the charge of a private tutor in Surrey, William T. Kirkpatrick. Lewis called his tutor ‘the great Knock’, but clearly revered him. From Kirkpatrick he learned the commitment to logic and evidence that characterised his thought, and as a result of the tutoring was able to successfully prepare for the entrance examination to Oxford University. But Lewis chose to defer his admission to Oxford in order to take up an officer’s commission in the British army and be involved in what proved to be the end of World War I.

His war service was as chaotic as his childhood. He was twice invalided out – once with trench fever and once after being wounded by a British shell. In the meantime he captured sixty German soldiers; or, as he put it, “discovered to my great relief that the crowd of field-grey figures who suddenly appeared from nowhere, all had their hands up.” Surprised by Joy reveals him as a great humorist who found the war absurd.

The war ended, and Lewis returned to Oxford. He studied philosophy, and to add a string to his bow, he spent a year studying English literature. He was a natural academic, and was soon teaching philosophy. He only later found his true academic métier, which was teaching mediaeval and Renaissance English literature.

Lewis had become an atheist at the age of fifteen. The philosophical position he adopted he described as ‘watered-down Hegelianism’. Hegelianism was very popular in British academic circles at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; but, by Lewis’s own admission, he was not committed to it. He said that he needed a position from which to criticise his students’ essays. So we find Lewis in the 1920s linked to a philosophical position to which he is less than committed, and, by his own account, coming into contact with ideas which are likely to shake it. “Really,” he wrote, “a young atheist cannot guard his faith too carefully. Dangers lie in wait for him on every side… 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” (Surprised by Joy, p.182).

I cannot improve on Lewis’s expression of his conversion experience as told in Surprised by Joy, I can only quote from it. It is worth noting that his initial conversion was to a belief in God, not to Christianity. His description of that final step is prosaic: “I was driven to Whipsnade [Zoo] 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” (p.189).

Lewis never denied his atheist background. In fact, he responded to a badly argued piece of atheist propaganda by saying that it was intended to offend him as a Christian, but actually hurt him as an ex-atheist.

Lewis’s Literary and Love Life

After the war, Lewis’s story is fairly prosaic. From the 1920s he lived the life of an Oxford don. Then in 1954 was awarded a professorship at Cambridge, though he maintained his connections with Oxford until the end of his life, commuting from Oxford to Cambridge. He shared a house in Oxford with his brother, in which they looked after the mother of an army friend until the end of his life. (There has been a lot of speculation about the relationship between Lewis and this woman, Janie Moore. The common sense position is that Lewis had promised to look after her and kept his promise. Boring, but not salacious.) Lewis was also a member of the Inklings, a literary group which was probably as convivial as it was literary, since it met in a pub. But it included Tolkien, as well as the philosopher Owen Barfield.

In his middle years Lewis often both wrote and broadcast. He produced works on mediaeval and renaissance literature, including The Allegory of Love (1936); fantasy fiction – the best known being the Narnia books, but probably the best in literary terms being his trilogy of science fiction novels beginning with Out of the Silent Planet (1938); and works of Christian apologetics – certainly the funniest being The Screwtape Letters (1940).

In later life Lewis entered into a correspondence with Joy Davidman Gresham. Eventually she came to Britain to meet him, and they became close friends. Joy was a New York Jewish ex-communist who had converted to Christianity. She became ill with cancer, and Lewis entered into a civil marriage with her. It was at first a marriage in name only, intended to enable her to receive treatment in the UK as the wife of a British citizen. However, Lewis’s feelings for Joy developed; he prayed vigorously for her, and her cancer went into remission (cause and effect, as Lewis believed). In 1956 he married her in a religious service.

This is perhaps the most improbable thing that Lewis ever did. His attitudes to sexual morality and marriage were deeply conservative, and it was out of the question for him as a committed conservative Christian to marry a divorcee whose ex-husband was still living. But he did (and to do so he had to bend more than one rule of the Church of England).

I suspect that Lewis had found in Joy a soulmate who was a fellow outsider. The marriage was happy but brief. Lewis revelled in the role of stepfather to Joy’s two sons, and in another out of character move went on holiday with her to Greece. (It was the first time he had crossed the Channel since 1918. Lewis was prejudiced against ‘abroad’.) However, Joy’s cancer returned, and she died on July 13th 1960. Lewis was devastated but reacted in the way most natural to him. He wrote about his reaction, and so produced his last great work, A Grief Observed (1961). In it he examined how his bereavement threatened his faith. It was first published under a pseudonym; there is even a story that Lewis’s friends recommended that he read it as a way of dealing with his grief.

Lewis died of kidney disease on November 22nd 1963. Aldous Huxley died that day, too, and there has been speculation as to which death would have been likely to get more space in the press. Of course, the question is academic: both deaths were completely overshadowed by the murder of President Kennedy on the same day.

Philosophy, Apologetics and Evil

In a series of WWII radio broadcasts, later adapted in Mere Christianity (1952), Lewis argued that human beings have a sense of morality which has to derive from something other than either themselves (say, by evolution) or their experiences. The sense of morality is not, he said, for instance, the herd instinct, since although the herd instinct makes us want to help the person in danger, the contrasting self-preservation instinct tells us not to get involved because of the risk to ourselves. Lewis argued that we therefore have good reason to think that our moral instinct derives from God, and so human morality is a good reason to believe in God.

His other major apologetical insight is sometimes described as ‘Lewis’s trilemma’. According to the gospels, Jesus claimed to be the Son of God, therefore making himself equal with God, as the Pharisees themselves complained in the same gospels. Now, Lewis argued, either Jesus was lying ; or Jesus genuinely believed the claim, yet was mad ; or it’s true, and Jesus is the Son of God. So Jesus is either ‘bad, mad, or God’. Lewis further points out that if either of the non-divine possibilities is true, Jesus cannot be just ‘a great moral teacher’. In making this argument Lewis is therefore attacking anyone, such as liberal Christians, who believes that Jesus is a great moral teacher yet deny his divinity. (Some liberals responded to this argument by denying the authenticity of the Bible verses in which Jesus claimed to be the Son of God.)

Lewis as a thinker can be criticised. As a believer, he often knew his conclusions before he started, and had only to find a satisfactory way of getting to them. For this reason Mere Christianity is a disappointing work to me. Apart from Lewis’s trilemma, it tells me nothing I didn’t know already.

However, sometimes Lewis tackled more intractable questions. In The Problem of Pain (1940) for instance, he addresses the age-old question of theodicy : How can a loving, all-powerful God permit suffering? Here he starts by not knowing the answer, and offers a journey to one, which even if we don’t agree with his conclusion is worth following and which makes us think. The idea he arrives at is that pain is ‘God’s megaphone’, drawing people’s attention to the need to think seriously about fundamental issues.

Lewis also understood evil as an active (‘positive’ would be the wrong word) principle. The Screwtape Letters is probably his best book and shows a deep understanding of how attractive evil can be. In it Lewis went beyond the feeble formulations of Plato (evil as ignorance), and Augustine of Hippo (evil as the absence of good), to examine how much fun it can be to be evil. The book also reveals Lewis as having a powerful understanding of human psychology, and a sense of humour: “She’s the kind of woman who lives for others. You can tell the others by their hunted expression.”

As I said, Lewis was often deeply conservative – but often with good reason. He was sceptical of ‘modernising’ forms of Christianity on the basis that they are often based on sloppy reasoning, which his philosophical training enabled him to identify and his skillful writing helped him expose. I recommend his essay ‘Fernseed and Elephants’ as a model of demonstrating clear thinking and of exposing muddled thinking. And I can do no better than to finish with a quotation from The Screwtape Letters which clearly expresses Lewis’s attitude:

“Only today I have found a passage in a Christian writer where he recommends his own version of Christianity on the ground that ‘only such a faith can outlast the death of old cultures and the birth of new civilisations.’ You see the little rift? ‘Believe this, not because it is true, but for some other reason.’ That’s the game.”

C.S. Lewis the philosopher and C.S. Lewis the Christian would have agreed on not playing the ‘game’, and instead insisting that the only reason for believing anything is because it is true.

© Martin Jenkins 2021

Martin Jenkins is a Quaker and a retired community worker. He lives in London and Normandy.

The dedication from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, to Lewis’s goddaughter Lucy Barfield

My Dear Lucy,

I wrote this story for you, but when I began it I had not realized that girls grow quicker than books. As a result, you are already too old for fairy tales, and by the time it is printed and bound you will be older still. But some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again. You can then take it down from some upper shelf, dust it, and tell me what you think of it. I shall probably be too deaf to hear, and too old to understand a word you say but I shall still be,

your affectionate Godfather,

C. S. Lewis.

CS Lewis books
The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe and other books from the Narnia series of children’s books – C.S. Lewis’s most widely-known works today.
Photo by Marcel Steinbauer-Lewis 2021

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