A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading. There are traps everywhere—“Bibles laid open, millions of surprises,” as Herbert says, “fine nets and stratagems.” God is, if I may say it, very unscrupulous.
C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy
Re-reading the journals
One of the first things I noticed when I looked through the journals from my freshman year at Berkeley was how I wrestled with doubt. I doubted my functional atheism, which was now wearing thin.
I had re-discovered these journals in my garage one morning as I began the day with a vigorous workout on the stair machine. Sweaty and winded, I looked slightly left and spied non-descript cardboard data boxes. I pulled these down from the metal shelves to discover hand-written pages of revelations, often written in cursive, contained in spiral bound, fifty-nine cent notebooks that described the crisis of doubt and of the vicissitudes of a college freshman with their florid introspection and excessive use of exclamation points. As I poured over these pages, I found the months between fall 1980 and spring 1981 in which my life had changed, when I suddenly seemed to wear unbelief uneasily. It was, as the philosophers call it, “an existential crisis.”
As I began to have a crisis about my doubting God, C.S. Lewis accompanied me and eventually led me out.
Not of course that Lewis was still alive and walking around Telegraph Avenue with me. He died a year before I was born, lived in another country, never visited the United States, and in many ways, had nothing to do with a California kid starting college in fall 1980. Moreover, it would even be self-centered to the point of narcissistic to say that Lewis had the same crises I had or that I’ve encountered since: Lewis grew up in a household of faith, namely the Church of Ireland, and after the death of his mother, when he was ten, he abandoned Christian faith and did not return for years. He grew up at the end of the Victorian era, spent time in the trenches of WWI, lived through the bomb raids of World War II in London, and spent his last two decades (more or less) in England as it rebuilt following these two world wars. He died before the “Sixties Revolution” hit its stride. In other words, he inhabited a different world from me.
And yet, I would still say that Clive Staples Lewis or “Jack” as he like to be called, helped me find God in Berkeley, California. Nursed on the casual secularism of the region now known as Silicon Valley, where, I’ve been told less than ten percent of its residents are found in a worship service on any given Sunday I grew up not needing God. Instead I found satisfaction in perfect, temperate weather, comfortable surroundings, a secure and happy family, a life rounded out with sufficient personal achievements. This is happy secularism, Californian-style, to be distinguished from an Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Samuel Beckett-cultivated atheistic existentialist, where I’d drink bitter French Roast, wearing peg leg jeans, and filling leather journals with reflections on Meaninglessness and the Abyss while atonal jazz plays in the background. I don’t remember specifically denying God’s existence exactly. God played no role in my life, and thus my term, “functional atheism.” I simply didn’t see it as relevant or useful. But when I got to Berkeley—postmodern, freewheeling Berkeley—I didn’t know what I was doing and why I was doing it. And that undid me.
In Lewis I found a kindred spirit—one for whom faith was by no means self-evident nor devoid of serious reflection, a person who struggled with Jesus as a unique revelation of God, who took religious faith seriously with all his powers of thought, and who knew the importance of wisdom. I found in his writings a fluidity of style and of mind that slowly engaged and even entranced me as a fellow lover of books and a soon-to-be undergraduate in comparative literature. And there in the University of California, I also found a fellow seeker, who spent his life in a secular, world-class university, a place where Christianity, if treated at all, was passé, a vestige of western civilization that had long ago thrown off this infantile belief.
The uniqueness of Jesus
As I read through those journals, one of the first things that struck me—besides the unbelievable emotional swings of a late adolescent—was my struggle with the uniqueness of Jesus. In a section from January 1981 named “My Belief in Religion: What Stops Me,” I have a very sparse but poignant entry: “So many religions.” And then a bit later this: “I’m having a lot of problems believing in Jesus Christ. It’s so narrowly defined.”
I needed to know about where Jesus fit. During that decisive, life-altering winter quarter, I took Religious Studies 90A, an introduction to the basic menu of “world religions”: Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam with some animism and Chinese religion thrown in. One thing struck me: I discovered that there was a pervasive reverence for Jesus among world faiths. Buddhism describes him as an “enlightened” figure. Hinduism easily fits him into their rather expansive worship of numerous deities. Islam considers him one of the prophets. Judaism? That provided a fascinating exception: it bestowed the seeds of his teachings and yet simultaneously denied that Jesus fulfilled Jewish messianic hopes. Of course, Christianity—the largest and most globally universal faith—centers on him, even worships him.
Here, on the subject of the uniqueness of Jesus, C.S. Lewis came as a mentor, or perhaps, in Lewis’s words, a “Teacher.” (In one of his later books, The Great Divorce, Lewis’s great Teacher, the pastor and fantasy writer, George MacDonald, accompanies him in the afterlife, revealing that he has been there throughout Lewis’s earthly life. Lewis, it seems, is my George MacDonald.)
The particular connection I felt toward Lewis I read years later in his description of a famous stroll on Addison’s Way in Oxford in September 1931, at age 32, that he offered to his childhood friend, Arthur Greeves. After walking with fellow Oxford professors, J.R.R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson, he admitted that his struggle was between pagan “myths”—which, as a lover of classical literature, he cherished—and the uniqueness of the story of Jesus:
Now what Dyson and Tolkien showed was this: again, that if I met the idea sacrifice in a Pagan story I didn’t mind it at all: that if I met the idea of a god sacrificing himself to himself… I liked it very much and was mysteriously moved by it: again, that the idea of the dying and reviving god (Balder, Adonis, Bacchus) similarly moved me provided I met it anywhere except in the Gospels.
But in this early morning around Oxford, which lasted until 3am, these two fellow academics demonstrated something new, and this was a turning point for Lewis:
Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working in us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened: and one much be content to accept it in the same way, remembering that it is God’s myth where others are men’s myths: i.e., the Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there, while Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call “real things.”
Notice that here Lewis was able to simultaneously sustain a deep appreciation for Pagan mythology, even describing them as a place where God is “expressing Himself” while upholding the ultimate nature of the story of Christ. Lewis’s view of the uniqueness of Christ was not that all other faiths were entirely false, but it might be called a fulfillment model—the Christian story fulfills the hopes and directions of other religions:
The question was no longer to find the one simply true religion among a thousand religions simply false. It was rather, “Where has religion reached its true maturity? Where, if anywhere, have the hints of all Paganism been fulfilled?
This approach struck me then as reasonable and still does. I will unfold this theme more in a later chapter. For the purposes here, Lewis led me to resolve the problem of the uniqueness of Jesus in a secular and pluralistic world.
But I didn’t really know much about Jesus, and here Lewis had a distinct advantage over me: he actually had read the Gospels—having been given a tutoring in his teens under the “Great Knock” William Kirkpatrick, he even read them in their original Greek. I had hardly even glanced at them in English. Growing up largely outside of the church, I had never really done that before. And so, at the end of my eighteenth year toward the end of 1980, I began to read the Gospels in earnest. My growing interest in Christianity had brought me to various conversations with Christians, all of whom directed me to the Bible. And there was this simple fact: So many religions talked about Jesus, so why not read the primary texts about his life? It was much later, during my graduate studies, that I would discover these are also the earliest and most definitive texts about Jesus of Nazareth. At that time, my best tools for interpreting these narratives were my budding skills as student of literature: I realized that Jesus, this central figure of the Gospels, wasn’t some fictional protagonist. For one thing, his depiction honestly wasn’t really literary. Mark, for example, writes his Gospel in very rough language. The Gospels included details that didn’t necessarily carry the story along, but had the hard authenticity of history, the man who runs away naked in Mark’s Gospel when confronted by the soldiers, or the one hundred and fifty-three fish that the disciples catch at the end of the Gospel of John. On the other hand, Jesus’s personality and actions never appeared to me as modeled by my expectations; instead they kept “pushing back” against my preconceptions. He wasn’t just some nice waspy, Sunday school kid. Jesus even talked about things that I didn’t like—serving others, shunning status, dying to self—that weren’t calculated to appeal to my baser desires, especially those that could be “monetized.” As a college student spoon-fed on the marketing culture of the U.S., where there was always some product to meet my needs, I should have been repulsed. Instead, I was allured. Jesus was no salesman. His utterances displayed the unrelenting character of truth.
One related problem for me was that Jesus’s death, I was told, somehow substituted for the penalty for sin I needed to pay. This didn’t make a great deal of sense. It didn’t make sense to Lewis either, and he struggled with how the death of Jesus two thousand years ago could have an objective effect on our lives today. After becoming a convert and even a Christian, Lewis could not easily subscribe to the notion that Christ “substituted” himself for us. “What I couldn’t see was how the life and death of Someone Else (whoever he was) 2000 years ago could help us here and now—except in so far as his example helped us” (Letters I:976),
Though I’ve come to appreciate the substitutionary death better over the subsequent years, I still would resonate with Lewis’s conclusion that he drew a little over a decade after his conversion. In effect, theories about Christ’s atonement are not the final issue. (Historically in fact, Lewis is in good company with the Church historically. Though it has defined who Christ is—or Christology—there has been no ecumenical statement on atonement.)
We are told that Christ was killed for us, that His death has washed out our sins, and that by dying He disabled death itself. That is the formula. That is Christianity. That is what has to be believed. Any theories we build up as to how Christ's death did all this are, in my view, quite secondary: mere plans or diagrams to be left alone if they do not help us, and, even if they do help us, not to be confused with the thing itself. All the same, some of these theories are worth looking at.
And Christ has made the world right—once I understood the uniqueness of Jesus I discovered why and how I could believe this. Lewis led me to see that the witness to Jesus in the Gospels demands that I respond. He is “either God or a bad man.” (This argument that Lewis would rework in his famous “trilemma”—Jesus is either liar, lunatic, or Lord—to which I will return in the fourth chapter.) Put simply, through the Gospels, I found that Jesus demands a response, and that his truth—ultimately though it is—does not invalidate other insights, but is “the light that enlightens everyone,” as John 1:9 puts it.
Christian faith: Serious, but not somber
Some of the roots of this crisis of doubt went back three years further.
It was sometime in 1979, as a wishy-washy junior in high school sixteen-year-old atheist-agnostic, that I picked up Mere Christianity, Lewis’s presentation and defense of Christianity (two tasks that almost always appeared together for him no matter what the subject). I had expressed a mild interest in Christianity, but felt reasonably self-assured that to believe implied that I needed to stop thinking. And it didn’t take the atheists to convince me that Christians weren’t intellectually engaged—it was the light-in-the-head church youth groups singing Jesus songs many didn’t believe accompanied by hand-signals that were totally mismatched with the message of denial, faith, and abandonment to God that I read in Jesus. (Although I had few experiences in church, I had been brought along to a church junior high youth group. I left dismayed after a few weeks.) Their flippancy in belief was all I needed to not believe myself. It wasn’t really hypocrisy; it was the frivolity that turned me away.
So when I began Mere Christianity, I was dumbfounded: Here a writer, a Christian at that, was somehow making the whole Christian faith reasonable. I mean, I had been taught that Christianity was anything but reasoned. The most reasonable author I had read to date was also a proponent of this severely unreasoned faith.
Lewis taught me that Christian faith requires and sustains serious reflection, but is not ultimately somber. The content of faith is important, serious, but never frivolous “Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important.” In fact, faith and the experience of God lead to joy.
And although I didn’t know who this Lewis guy was, nor what a truly world class mind he possessed, he made sense. It was so similar to a sentiment that Lewis himself would record—and which I read many years later—about his own reading, as a young atheist, of the Catholic journalist G.K. Chesterton:
Then I read Chesterton’s Everlasting Man and for the first time saw the whole Christian outline of history set out in a form that seemed to me to make sense. Somehow I contrived not to be too badly shaken. You will remember that I already thought Chesterton the most sensible man alive “apart from his Christianity.” Now, I veritably believe, I thought—I didn’t of course say; words would have revealed the nonsense—that Christianity itself was very sensible “apart from its Christianity.”
Even in this citation, Lewis demonstrates that, though funny (e.g., the irony of attempting to believe Christianity is sensible “apart from its Christianity”), he was never frivolous. He knew that Christianity was something worth our lives. I was not only dumbfounded, but I was hooked—hooked in subtle way. That is to say, the whole message went underground for a couple of years, made subterranean by senioritis, falling in love, and moving to college at Berkeley.
When I returned to look at the Christian gospel one more time in that freshman year with new eyes and redoubled vigor, it was Lewis’s writing—this self-described “dinosaur”—that made Christian belief come alive. To use William James’s memorable phrase, Christian faith emerged as a “live option.” What seemed relevant and distant before now became intensely personal. Lewis took Christian faith seriously, but not morosely. His Mere Christianity—with a subtext of his disenchantment with atheism and his conversion to Christianity—got under my skin with its reasoned and reasonable approach to Christian faith His friends would remind us that Lewis was a very funny man. As his former student, Alastair Fowler once remarked, “Lewis seemed always on the verge of hilarity—between a chuckle and a roar” (C.S. Lewis Remembered, 103). But he knew that humor could also lead to trivializing important topics. His humor supported his exposition, but never dominated or diminished it.
Christian faith, Lewis taught me could withstand serious intellectual engagement. In fact, as I interrogated other philosophers—the thought of French post-structuralist Michel Foucault was hot at Berkeley in those days—they actually didn’t stand up as well. And so I was being won over. And so I began to engage it. Or better God began to engage me. “I read in a periodical the other day that the fundamental thing is how we think of God. By God Himself it is not! How God thinks of us is no only more important, but infinitely more important” (Weight of Glory). And God, I was learning, apparently thought enough of me to send Christ and to take on this smart, but largely immature, eighteen year old and take his questions seriously. I was taken so seriously that I was being shaken.
Although I’ve emphasized the rationality in Lewis’s work, that certainly wasn’t the only element that sustained me. In fact, as I’ve learned from him over the past thirty years, and as I’ve seen him work in the lives of my congregations, his imagination (a topic for a later chapter) and wisdom have played major roles. Even in 1980-81, the wisdom of C.S. Lewis stood out. And being an eighteen year old, I needed a little wisdom. (I’m thankful now that today, this age is deemed “emerging young adulthood.”)
Reading through the journal pages from my late teens, I tried to construct my worldview of agnosticism or functional atheism. Although any important metaphysical commitment lurked casually in the back of my mind, I now realize the presence of this casual non-belief held the seeds of a problem. Atheism is effectively one large No: “No, God does not exist. Or at least if God exists, it’s impossible to prove or irrelevant to modern, intelligent adults. Therefore, No, the universe lacks purpose or meaning.” Or as the best-selling author, Richard Dawkins phrases it, the universe is “nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.” Thus my atheism could not solve one of its own dilemmas, namely the problem of meaning: If there is at the bottom, no God and no purpose, where can I find beauty and meaning? And why do we care? Why did I so deeply value love—not just romantic love, but true caring for another person?
As a first year student in this overwhelming university and pluralistic city, I was confused and undone by my newfound collegiate freedom. No parent or teacher could provide me with certainties, and quite frankly, the old ones didn’t work so well. The voice of self-sufficiency and selfish, personal fulfillment rang hollow. I found myself regularly strolling through Berkeley’s famous Sproul Plaza—where Mario Savio jumped on a police car, initiating the Free Speech Movement in 1964—and on every side I was surrounded by the free and cacophonous voices of various student group tables on every side. It was a veritable circus. All offered directions: the Spartacus Youth Party, gay and lesbian empowerment, animal rights, medical cannabis use, Green Party sign-up, Berkeley Free (medical) clinic, and the like. They all seemed at the same volume.
And so I searched for meaning, which to me is tied to wisdom, or to be biblical, skillful living—doing what’s right, what makes sense, and what works. Where was a wise voice to guide me that could speak more clearly than the others?
This must be the reason that the chapter that had early knocked me down was this chapter from Lewis, a vice I would never have concerned myself with as a fairly proud junior in high school—excelling in school and my advanced placement classes, doing well as a varsity tennis player. The following words rung in my ears like Jesus’s words—angular to what my culture was feeding me (“You can have your dreams; you create your destiny”) and for that reason, curiously true.
I now come to that part of Christian morals where they differ most sharply from all other morals. There is one vice of which no man in the world is free; which every one in the world loathes when he sees it in someone else; and of which hardly any people, except Christians, ever imagine that they are guilty themselves. I have heard people admit that they are bad-tempered, or that they cannot keep their heads about girls or drink, or even that they are cowards. I do not think I have ever heard anyone who was not a Christian accuse himself of this vice. And at the same time I have very seldom met anyone, who was not a Christian, who showed the slightest mercy to it in others. There is no fault which makes a man more unpopular, and no fault which we are more unconscious of in ourselves. And the more we have it ourselves, the more we dislike it in others.
The vice I am talking of is Pride or Self-Conceit: and the virtue opposite to it, in Christian morals, is called Humility.
And so, in the second quarter of my first year, almost three years after reading this for the first time, I decided I was proud, that I had to replace the idolatry of me and that Jesus was indeed the Son of God. I confessed faith in him. Lewis called himself “the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England” (Surprised by Joy, 228-9). I was more surprised and fearful. I knew that my fraternity brothers would ridicule me and my university professors’ post-Christian erudition would subtly mock my gangly, adolescent belief. I sought to kill my self-destructive pride by submitting to God. This also opened me to that critically important virtue of humility, which opened me to learning at a formative time (because I didn’t know it all) and to healthy relationships (I didn’t have to compete with others).
In sum, Lewis, as my mentor, led me to see that Christ’s uniqueness demands a response, but does not invalidate other truths; that Christian faith withstands and supports serious reasoning, but is never solemn or dour; and that Christianity leads to wisdom and much needed skill for a late adolescent and for a culture that’s still not fully emerged into adulthood. And this leads me to the reason for writing this book: I believe he can do this and much more for this generation.