I can't remember if I posted this already, but this is a piece that didn't fully make it into the most recent draft of CS Lewis Through Crisis. Let me know what you think. I might try it as a stand alone article.
Admittedly, some have argued that C. S. Lewis made the resolution of crises too easy.
Admittedly, some have argued that C. S. Lewis made the resolution of crises too easy.
Similarly, as I strolled through Bookshop Santa Cruz in July 2012, I found some staff recommendations and found one for Till We Have Faces, “If you enjoyed Lewis’ ‘The Lion (etc.)’ but found him a tad heavy-handed with the Christian allegory, you may want to check out this book, geared more subtly, and with perhaps more wisdom, toward adult readers. This is a re-telling of the Cupid and Psyche myth, but told from the viewpoint of the ‘ugly’ older sister. It is a profound tale about changing your mind about everything you think you know.”
But not everyone agrees: Debra Winger, who played Lewis’s wife, Joy Davidman, in the film Shadowlands offered as an evaluation of Lewis: “He may make difficult questions accessible. I don’t think he makes answers ‘easy.’ I don’t think he answers questions. He discusses them.”
And that is what I discovered as a freshman in high school. I discovered this once again one morning. In fact, 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 had worn thin.
I had unearthed 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 to finding God.
Not of course that Lewis was still alive and walking around Telegraph Avenue with me. He died just a year after 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. (For example, I can never refer to him as “Jack,” as his friends did.) 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 about fourteen, he abandoned Christian faith and did not return in earnest until his early thirties. 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 one drinks 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 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.
Some of the roots of this crisis of doubt went back three years further.
It was sometime earlier, as a wishy-washy high school junior, functional atheist, 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), which were totally mismatched with the message of denial, faith, and abandonment to God that I read in Jesus. Although, as a typical resident of what we now call “Silicon Valley,” 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. The 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. In this way, Lewis both presented, and later resolved, a crisis.
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 college 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. Still, 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 seem fresh. To use William James’s memorable phrase, Christian faith emerged as a “live option.” What seemed relevant and distant before now became intensely personal. 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. Lewis took Christian faith seriously, but not morosely. As his friends would remind us, 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.” But he knew that humor could also lead to trivializing important topics. In his famous imagined correspondence between a senior and a junior devil about how to tempt the human soul, The Screwtape Letters, he called this flippancy: “Among flippant people the Joke is always assumed to have been made. No one actually makes it; but every serious subject is discussed in a manner which implies that they have already found a ridiculous side to it.” Accordingly, 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 poststructuralist 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.” 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.
In sum, Lewis, as my mentor through crisis, 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 a book, C. S. Lewis Through Crisis: I believe he can do this and much more for this generation.