C. S. Lewis as Atheist turned Apostle

In an introduction to a broadcast given on 11 January 1942, which was later deleted from the published text, Lewis explains why he was chosen to give the talks: “…first of all because I’m a layman and not a parson, and consequently it was thought I might understand the ordinary person’s point of view a bit better. Secondly, I think they asked me because it was known that I’d been an atheist for many years and only became a Christian quite fairly recently. They thought that would mean I’d be able to see the difficulties—able to remember what Christianity looks like from the outside.” Do you think Lewis has succeeded in representing the ordinary person’s view of Christianity? In what ways might his atheism and later conversion have affected his relationship to Christian beliefs? Do his convictions gain weight because he struggled to arrive at them?

In the introduction to his Broadcast Talk given on 11 January 1942 (not included in the text of Mere Christianity), C. S. Lewis explained that he was asked to give the talks in order to provide a lay person’s point of view, not that of a parson. This strategy might have backfired in many cases, as there’s an old saying, “There is no greater ignorance than that of an expert talking outside his field of expertise.” Fortunately, Lewis knew his theology and his church history, and he also consulted clergy from a variety of denominations before delivering his radio talks.

Lewis with his brother Warnie

Lewis also explained that the BBC programmers had invited him to give the talks because “I’d been an atheist for many years and only became a Christian quite fairly recently. They thought that would mean I’d be able to see the difficulties—able to remember what Christianity looks like from the outside.”

With his usual shrewdness, Lewis put his finger on one of the key reasons for his success as a Christian apologist.  A careful look at Lewis’s teens and twenties reveals that he did not become an effective defender of the faith despite the fact that he spent so many years as an unbeliever. Rather his Christian books are compelling precisely because he spent so many years as an unbeliever.

Lewis’s spiritual journey (like that of St. Paul and St. Augustine) was an unusually long one. At age seventeen, C. S. Lewis explained bluntly to a Christian friend he’d known since childhood, “I believe in no religion. There is absolutely no proof for any of them, and from a philosophical standpoint Christianity is not even the best.” Fifteen years later, he would write to the same friend on a very different note: “Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call ‘real things,’ . . . namely the actual incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection.” This turnabout did not reflect a “Damascus road” conversion; it took Lewis all of that fifteen years to change his mind.

The story of Lewis’s arduous pilgrimage is fascinating in itself, considering what a celebrated and far-reaching voice for Christian thought he has become. But Lewis’s spiritual struggles go beyond biographical interest: they cast fresh light on the paths which many other pilgrims take. The worldviews he considered and the issues he grappled with are still very much with us today.

Many thoughtful seekers since Lewis’s time have contemplated Materialism, the view that the physical world is all there is. If that is true, then, of course, any talk of spirit, of a house not made with hands, is mere wishful thinking. Today’s pilgrims are also confronted with alternative spiritual guides, the claim that occult experiments or paranormal research can provide a more “scientific” approach to spiritual life than Christian faith. Or they may be invited to affirm an impersonal Life-Force, a belief which offers a generalized sense of uplift without having to commit to any creeds or commandments. So the spiritual avenues and byways Lewis explored for many years are not merely of “historical” interest.

As Lewis himself said, he certainly remembered “what Christianity looks like from the outside.”  He understood atheism, he felt the force of its arguments in his bones and sinews. (The opening few pages of Lewis’s The Problem of Pain (1940) offer a more compelling case for unbelief than a whole stack of books churned out by the so-called “New Atheists.”)  Lewis also understood the lure of the occult; indeed, he wrote in Surprised by Joy that if the wrong person had come along in his teenage years he might have ended up a sorcerer or a lunatic. And he was also acquainted with what would now be called “New Age” thinking, the assumption that some unknowable Absolute lies behind the veil of appearances.

Lewis weighed all these world-views himself, and eventually found them wanting. He once called himself a “most reluctant convert” to faith. But this very reluctance is a sign of Lewis’s spiritual integrity; he fully recognized that commitment to Christian faith would be a life-changing event, not just a casual decision about where to spend his Sunday mornings. And when he was ready to make the surrender of his will that was required of him, Lewis entered into faith with his whole heart, and mind, and soul.

Those who invited Lewis to give the Broadcast Talks chose more wisely than they knew. Apart from his vast intellect and sparkling prose style, Lewis’s enduring influence as a Christian thinker is assuredly due in no small part to the fact that he spent so many years as a non-Christian thinker.

David C. Downing is the R. W. Schlosser Professor of English at Elizabethtown College in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Downing has written four award-winning books on C. S. Lewis, including Planets in Peril, about the Ransom Trilogy; The Most Reluctant Convert, about Lewis’s journey to faith; Into the Region of Awe, about mysticism in C. S. Lewis, and Into the Wardrobe, a guide to the Narnia Chronicles. Downing’s latest book is Looking for the King, a historical novel featuring C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and their friends (lookingfortheking.com).

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