Mind in Motion

HE WAS AN IMAGINATIVE BELFAST IRISHMAN, in whom a cultivated Oxford accent replaced his father’s oratorical brogue, and for whom Oxford was home.

He was a brilliant expositor and debater, whose powers of logical analysis, bright brisk narrative, and vivid illustration were stunning.

He was a heavyweight academic with a self-possessed forthrightness that unnerved some of his students. He worked hard and expected others to do the same. Woe to you if Lewis was your tutor and you were lazy!

He was a teacher of literature who seemed to have read all the literature there was in English and Europe’s other main languages. He was once called the best-read man of his generation. He wrote effortlessly and brilliantly.

He was somewhat eccentric, careless about clothes and home comforts and quixotically meticulous in keeping promises and observing routines. In his fifties, he enjoyed three years of great happiness married to a crippled Jewish divorce from America.

His clubbable, booming jollity masked shyness; his schoolboy humor masked seriousness; and his reading, teaching, writing, and endless dialectics masked a longing for deep and close relationships. “You’ll never get to the bottom of him,” his friend J. R. R. Tolkien once said.

Such was Clive Staples Lewis, “Jack” to his friends, fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, from 1925 to 1954, and professor of medieval and Renaissance literature at Cambridge from 1954 to 1963, who died of kidney failure on November 22, 1963, a week from his 65th birthday. It was the day Kennedy was shot.

He had become a clear-headed Christian in 1931, after almost two decades of professed atheismthat is, of denying all the realities of the high church Anglicanism in which he was reared and to which he now returned. Inwardly, his conversion turned him right around, giving him a lifelong desire to make known his recovered faith. Walter Hooper says he never knew a man who was so completely converted. Outwardly, however, his life as an Oxford don was unchanged.

His habits of mind also continued unchanged. He was already thinking the way he believed Christians should. All through his life, realism, or objectivismthat is to say, aiming always to discern and adjust to the reality that was there, both outside and within himwas the mark of his mind. “I want God, not my idea of God; I want my neighbour, not my idea of my neighbour; I want myself, not my idea of myself.” Plato and common sense combined to feed his passion for reality and to arm him against the subjectivism that projects onto the world whatever one wants it to be. Lewis’s powers of fantasy would offer him imaginary worlds of all sorts, but his inner demand for factuality forbade him to take up mental residence in them.

He recovered his faith primarily through argument. In 1943, he wrote: “On the intellectual side my own progress (was) from ‘ popular realism’ [i.e., naturalism, the belief that the material order, called Nature, is all there is] to Philosophical Idealism; from Idealism to Pantheism; from Pantheism to Theism; and from Theism to Christianity. I still think this a very natural road.”

Yet it was not the whole story. From childhood, Lewis had known moments of what he called joy; meaning, very precisely, a sweet ache of sensingand in that moment longing fora reality of life, light, and beauty beyond ordinary experience. These aching moments, which he thought were common (though constantly misperceived), set a person searching for something not yet known.

In fact, these moments were wake-up calls from God, pointing to him as the ultimate reality that alone satisfies all longings. Lewis displays this autobiographically in his allegorical Pilgrim’s Regress (1933) and his anecdotal Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (begun in 1948, published in 1955). He speaks of the “dialectic of desire,” whereby these moments of joy critique all supposed human fulfillments, and says that in his conversion “this lived dialectic, and the merely argued dialectic of my philosophical progress, seemed to have converged on one goal.”

The quest begins

Lewis’s journey away from the Christian faith started at an early age. Through the trauma of the death of his loved and prayed—for mother when he was nine, estrangement from his orthodox churchman father, and grim times in two supposedly Christian boarding schools, his childhood religion sickened and died.

Then two-and-a-half teen years of study with W. T. Kirkpatrick, “the great Knock,” a retired headmaster and disputatious rationalist, left Lewis convinced, first, that any God who existed would be a bad God and, second, that there is no real evidence of God’s existence at all. Lewis took these views into the Army (1917) and to post-war Oxford (1919), and voiced them in his first book, a slim volume of poems titled Spirits in Bondage (1919).

Yet recurring moments of joy and the sustained impact of George MacDonald’s Phantastes, which Lewis said “baptized” his imagination, convinced him that there was in reality something to be sought and found.

His resultant feeling that life must be lived as an exploratory search found expression in two long poems, the unfinished “Quest of Bleheris,” written at Kirkpatrick’s, and Dymer, written at Oxford. By then, Lewis had looked hard at both occultism and spiritualism to see if they would help in his quest, but had concluded that they would not.

Lewis’s Oxford friend Owen Barfield convinced him that if physical reality is all there is, thought itself (being a mere byproduct of matter) would lack validity and significance. To maintain his Kirkpatrick-inspired quest for a rational account of reality, Lewis saw that he must believe, as he later expressed in Miracles, that “reason is something more than cerebral bio-chemistry.” Henceforth, Lewis’s intellect no longer oscillated away from his imaginative questings into paths of dogmatic materialism, but sought a worldview that would somehow unite intellect and physical matter.

As a competent philosopher (he taught philosophy in his early Oxford days), Lewis now revisited the idealist view, still up and running at Oxford, which saw matter as having in some sense the nature of mind. What was then called pantheism (i.e., seeing everything as expressing some sort of divine reality; today we label this view panentheism or monism), lies at the end of that road, and Lewis’s investigation went all the way. But he found the coherence and clarity that would warrant conviction lacking throughout, so he moved on.

Hamlet, meet Shakespeare

Then, in the mid-1920s, through the impact of friends and of G. K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man (1926), he found himself thinking that “Christianity was very sensible apart from its Christianity.” Also, as never before, he began to feel that the living, personal God of theism (so different from idealism’s fuzzy, abstract, non-demanding Absolute Spirit) was tracking him down.

He became morally serious: “For the first time I examined myself and found what appalled me; a zoo of lusts, a bedlam of ambitions, a nursery of fears, a harem of fondled hatreds. My name was legion.” He felt haunted and hunted. “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.” Finally, in 1929, “I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed.”

Nevertheless, at that time he did not think he could truly know God personally any more than Hamlet could know Shakespeare. It seemed as if his quest might end there, but his pursuit of truth was to lead him further still.

Certainty about the Incarnation came two years later, after a late-night talk with J. R. R. Tolkien gave him the idea that the pagan dying-and-rising-god myths were “good dreams” given by God to prepare the ground for myth to become fact in Jesus of Nazareth. Lewis realized that while Hamlet could not break out of the play to meet the author, Shakespeare could write himself into the play as a character, making the introduction possible. The Incarnation was, in some ways, like this.

“I was driven to Whipsnade one sunny morning,” Lewis writes in Surprised by Joy. “When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did. It was like when a man, after long sleep, still lying motionless in bed, becomes aware that he is now awake.” Wanderer Lewis had reached home at last.

The closing pages of Surprised by Joy review Lewis’s intellectual path through this final phase, and the concluding section of The Pilgrim’s Regress shows how he now saw human reality through his newly-converted eyes. All the seeds of his later Christian writings are found in these two places.

Further up and further in

Lewis’s mind did not stop working when he became a Christianrather the reverse. Besides composing his lecture courses and his academic masterpiece, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama, plus his series of apologetic books covering much of the ground traversed in his own journey, plus several books full of essays, addresses, and articles on many topics looked at from a mainstream Christian standpoint, Lewis now labored to shore up Western culture, which he believed was about to come apart.

Lewis saw the civilization of which he was a product and a part as threatened by a pincers movement of two mutually reinforcing evils: subjectivism and scientism. Latter-day subjectivism would sweep away the morality given in universal natural law (the Tao, as he calls it) in favor of man-made ideals of behaviorimmoralities, really. Scientism, meaning trust in scientists to advance our welfare and solve our problems, would sweep away the humanity experienced in the relationships of everyday life in favor of technocratic enslavement by a power-hungry elite.

Lewis threw down the gauntlet in his 1943 Durham University lectures, The Abolition of Man, and followed it up with a novel, That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-tale for Grown-ups (1945), a sort of mythic parable in which he displayed ghoulish practitioners of subjectivist scientism invading a Durham-like university to pursue dehumanizing manipulations of all sorts.

One thing leads to another. In The Abolition of Man, Lewis argued, echoing Plato, that in educating children one must instill “emotions organized by trained habit into stable sentiments,” otherwise they will grow into “men without chests,” lacking strength of character to control their unruly passions. Basic virtuedutifulness, justice, prudence, self-control, love, fidelity, and so onwill not then survive, and society will sink into pagan barbarism.

Lewis therefore began writing fantasy tales for children that would teach these virtues by example. These are the Narnia stories (1950-56), seven tales built round the almost allegorical figure of Aslan, the lion Savior-Lord. In these and his other works of fiction, Lewis used the mythical manner to focus with imaginative and searching force realities that would get inside us to haunt us better than mere formal definitions could ever do.

One of the insights that Lewis the educator emphasized is that all reality is iconoclastic; that is, it constantly breaks up inadequate understandings of itself in order to take us on to a more adequate grasp of the world. Minds, therefore, must ever continue in object-oriented, self-critical thinking, constantly seeking to reach, as the talking beasts of Narnia phrased it, “further up and further in.” This, Lewis would have said, is the will of God for us all. And who can doubt that he was right?

By J. I. Packer and Jerry Root

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #88 in 2005]

J. I. Packer is Board of Governors Professor of Theology at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia. Jerry Root is assistant professor of evangelism and associate director of the Institute of Stategic Evangelism at Wheaton College in Wheaton, IL.
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