Updated: Jul 6, 2020
By Les Henson.
Over the next two weeks, we shall consider the life of C. S. Lewis looking, particularly the impact his two-stage conversion had upon his life. Each week we will make available an appropriate video.
Clive Staples Lewis, once described as the best-read man in England, was born in 1898, into a middle-class, bookish family of Protestants in Belfast, (Northern) Ireland. He preferred to be called, 'Jack' rather than 'Clive' as he grew up at home with his father and mother, who were a lawyer, and a mathematician, respectively. Warren, his older brother, was his best friend and close companion growing up.
Lewis became hostile toward religion early in life, feeling a deep sense of betrayal when his prayers failed to prevent his mother's death from cancer at the age of ten. He wrote, ". . . all settled happiness, and all that was tranquil and reliable disappeared from my life" (Surprised by Joy, p. 23). Not only did he lose his mother. His father never really recovered from her death. The result was the alienation of both boys from their father, and home life was never the same again. His frustration and exasperation with God increased when he went to boarding school, which he hated in 1911 or 1912. Influenced by a spiritually unorthodox school matron, he rejected Christianity and became an avowed atheist. Additionally, he found the religious exercises that were required of him there dull, monotonous and contrived.
Lewis went up to Oxford in 1917 only for World War I to interrupt his studies. He was wounded, and the experience only solidified his atheism since the suffering he had witnessed seemed irreconcilable and even contradictory with the existence of a good God. Alister McGrath writes that he saw "the horribly smashed men still moving like half-crushed beetles, the sitting or standing corpses, the landscape of sheer earth without a blade of grass" (McGrath, C. S. Lewis, p. 69). Lewis' dismissal of God was not based on his experience of suffering alone, but also on rational grounds. His reading of mythology caused him to ask, why can one god be considered real and another not? He concluded that "all religions are simply mythologies invented by human beings? (McGrath, p. 42). Indubitably, he thought, gods are simply the wishful thinking of human beings.
After graduating with a degree in philosophy and the classics from Oxford University in 1922, appointed to a position at Magdalen College, his primary research was Dymer, a long poem in which he represented belief in God as a tantalising illusion that must be resisted at all cost. But he found that in his own life the question of God's existence would not let him go. Lewis' epistemological understanding created for him a ". . . ludicrous contradiction between [his] theory of life and [his] actual experience as a reader" (McGrath, 134). He then goes on to state that, "On the one side a many islanded sea of poetry and myth; on the other a glib and shallow 'rationalism.' Nearly all that I loved I believed to be imaginary; nearly all that I believed to be real I thought grim and meaningless" (McGrath, p. 137). Thus, he found it deeply disturbing to read accounts of human nature and experience that excluded the possibility of God.
The reading of George MacDonald further challenged his atheistic beliefs. "What it actually did to me," wrote Lewis, "was to convert, even to baptise... my imagination" (In Lewis' preface to George MacDonald: An Anthology). Also, G.K. Chesterton's books similarly impacted him, especially The Everlasting Man, which presented essential questions concerning his materialism.
While MacDonald and Chesterton were disturbing Lewis' thoughts, he was surrounded by other scholars at Magdalen College, who were intensely interested in theological issues and writings, Lewis found his atheism seriously challenged. His close friend Owen Barfield disputed the logical conclusions of his atheistic beliefs. Barfield, who had journeyed from atheism to theism, then finally to Christianity continually harrying Lewis regarding his materialism. Likewise, Nevill Coghill, a brilliant fellow student and lifelong friend who to Lewis's amazement, was "a Christian and a thoroughgoing supernaturalist."
Other colleagues also influenced Lewis' thinking; including Hugo Dyson, writer Charles Williams, and perhaps most famously, the medievalist J.R.R. Tolkien. These close friends, whom he admired were each committed Christians, like his favourite authors— MacDonald, Chesterton, Johnson, Spenser, and Milton. Consequently, his conversations with them, as well as his reading of Christian writers and the New Testament in Greek, lead Lewis to converted from atheism to theism in 1929. He recognised that 'God was God', and made the first step of his journey towards faith. Two years later the reluctant Lewis converted, also from theism to Christianity and joined the Church of England.
The follow YouTube video shows Lewis’ Conversion from Atheism to Theism: