Monday, November 22, 2010

Remembering C. S. Lewis

Today is the Feast Day of Clive Staples Lewis (November 29, 1898 - November 22, 1963). The website of the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music of the Episcopal Church offers the following sketch of one of the 20th Century's great Christian apologists and spiritual writers:

“You must make your choice,” C. S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity. “Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up as a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon, or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God.”

Lewis did not always believe this. Born in Belfast on November 29, 1898, Lewis was raised as an Anglican but rejected Christianity during his adolescent years. After serving in World War I, he started a long academic career as a scholar in medieval and renaissance literature at both Oxford and Cambridge. He also began an inner journey that led him from atheism to agnosticism to theism and finally to faith in Jesus Christ. “Really, a young Atheist cannot guard his faith too carefully,” he later wrote of his conversion to theism in Surprised by Joy. “Dangers lie in wait for him on every side … 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. You must picture me all alone in that room at 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.” Two years later, his conversion was completed: “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.”

Lewis’s conversion inaugurated a wonderful outpouring of Christian apologetics in media as varied as popular theology, children’s literature, fantasy and science fiction, and correspondence on spiritual matters with friends and strangers alike. In 1956 Lewis married Joy Davidman, a recent convert to Christianity. Her death four years later led him to a transforming encounter with the Mystery of which he had written so eloquently before. Lewis died at his home in Oxford on November 22, 1963. The inscription on his grave reads: “Men must endure their going hence.”

Lewis was a hugely important figure for me back when I was in high school. I devoured most of his books and essays before completing junior high, and I was eager to get my hands on more. In comparison to dry and boring experiences of worship and Sunday school, Lewis made the Christian faith come alive for me. He made theology exciting and intellectually challenging, the sort of thing one could give one's life to. It's no understatement to say that Lewis helped keep the flame of Christian faith alive for me during that period of my life.

Perhaps precisely for that reason, however, I tended to read Lewis uncritically. How vividly I remember the feelings of crushing disappointment that overtook me when, at the age of 16, I began reading John Beversluis' C. S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion. Beversluis takes on Lewis-the-apologist, placing his arguments under the microscope of analytic philosophy, breaking them down and exposing how (according to Beversluis) they completely and utterly fail. I only got halfway through the book before I gave up.

Beversluis was my first real introduction to the sometimes brutal world of philosophical argument. And he had demolished my hero. Or at least that's how it felt at the time. I put my C. S. Lewis books in the closet and moved on.

Recently, after about 25 years, I reread Lewis' Mere Christianity. It was a new book to me. I encountered things I simply do not recall from first reading it as a teenager (some of which I've blogged about recently). The third section of the book entitled "Christian Behaviour" is a particularly good (and brief) introduction to Christian moral theology. I also recently read one of Lewis' books I didn't get around to so many years ago: The Abolition of Man. Written in 1943, it anticipates the argument put forth by another author who has left an indelible imprint on me: moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre and his book After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (first edition published in 1981). I think The Abolition of Man may be Lewis' finest contribution to philosophy and cultural criticism.

Whatever one may say about the strengths and weaknesses of Lewis' work, there is no question that his apologetic and spiritual writings have nurtured the faith of millions of Christians. Indeed, for some persons, Lewis' writings have been instrumental in converting them to the Christian faith (how many professional academic theologians can make a comparable claim for their writings?). And as one of my clergy colleagues recently noted, Lewis is one of the few writers in the 20th Century who published work in virtually every genre and it's all worth reading.

And so today, I honor C. S. Lewis for the role he has played in my life and for the countless ways his work and legacy continue to touch the lives of others.

O God, by your Holy Spirit you give to some the word of wisdom, to others the word of knowledge, and to others the word of faith: We praise your Name for the gifts of grace manifested in your servant Clive Staples Lewis, and we pray that your Church may never be destitute of such gifts; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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