The Conversion of His Reason – 1917-1939
C.S. Lewis had reached a significant milestone in his spiritual journey. His appreciation of story had given him a bridge to spiritual truth. Soon this strong intuition would point the way to someone outside of his own natural experience.
Echoes of the One True Story
As a youth, Lewis received an excellent education. One key influence in his life was a private tutor named W.T. Kirkpatrick, who encouraged him to read Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough. The then popular book was a comprehensive survey of all the world religions and mythologies. For the most part, Frazer viewed religious belief as a human attempt to make sense of frightening and incomprehensible phenomena such as thunder, pestilence, famine and death. While describing a variety of myths and legends, Frazer also showed how different cultures told stories of dying and resurrected gods. In agricultural and fertility settings, these common themes of death and rebirth were linked to the cycles of nature. They reflected the harvest kills the plant. But when its seeds are buried in the ground, new life springs from death. The dying and rising god was a symbol of nature’s life process.
From his research, Frazer concluded that these various myths explained away the story of Christ in the Gospels. Lewis began to wonder, however, if these same stories actually anticipated Christ’s resurrection as a historical event.
Later, after Lewis had become a professor at Oxford, his questions about this continued to grow. A comment made in an offhand manner by fellow Oxford professor T.D. Weldon especially struck Lewis. “Rum odd thing, all that stuff of Frazer’s about the Dying God.” Weldon said, “It almost looks as if it had really happened.”
Astonished at his atheist friend’s open speculation about Christ as a real counterpart to pagan myth, Lewis began to read the Gospels closely and found them to be a credible and convincing record. He saw that unlike the other mythical stories of dying and resurrected gods, the account of Jesus Christ was carefully described in a particular place and time.
Later, Lewis discussed his spiritual findings with J.R.R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson, two fellow scholars who were Christians. Lewis told them that whenever he encountered a dying and rising god story in mythology, he was “mysteriously moved.” His colleagues explained that what made the gospel of Christ unique was its historicity. Although carrying a familiar theme of a dying and resurrected God, the recorded events about the life of Jesus Christ had actually happened in history.
Lewis was not yet convinced, but he was becoming increasingly disillusioned with his atheistic worldview. A meaningless universe empty of any divine power or design seemed an oversimplification. Later, in his book Mere Christianity, Lewis would conclude that atheism was too simple because it doesn’t adequately explain the complex design of the universe. At this stage of his journey, however, Lewis was asking questions like: If there is a God, has there been a time when He revealed Himself to His creation? Lewis kept looking at the myths and wondering if all those stories were really echoes of the one true story.
A Question of Personal Independence
In time, it would become apparent that Lewis’ objections at this point were more a matter of his will than intellectual, Lewis’ great concern was a fear of divine interference. He would later acknowledge:
“Christianity placed at the center what then seemed to me a transcendental Interferer.”
Lewis struggled, as so many others have, about what a decision to follow Christ would mean to his own freedom. He later understood this desire to maintain control of his own life when he wrote:
“That is what I wanted: some area, however small, of which I could say to all other beings, ‘This is my business and mine only.'”
To Lewis, it would become increasingly apparent that experiencing a right relationship with God would require a surrender of his will.
With so much at stake, Lewis’ desire to know the truth left him with a troubling question: Among all the competing claims of different religions, how could he be sure that his spiritual longing would find rest in Jesus of Nazareth?
At this point, Lewis was influenced by G.K. Chesterton’s book The Everlasting Man. Of it, Lewis wrote:
“I read Chesterton’s Everlasting Man and for the first time saw the whole Christian outline of history.”
In it, Chesterton laid out a clear picture of the origin of civilization, with God stepping into history through the incarnation of His Son. Chesterton’s case for the Christian God was compelling. Lewis’ former arguments for atheism were beginning to fall like a house of cards. Yet it was not the evidence alone that seemed to be crowding in on him, but a Person. He wrote:
“The odd thing was that before God closed in on me, I was in fact offered what now appears a moment of wholly free choice.”
Looking back, Lewis recognized that the God who created him to have an eternal relationship with Himself would no do so without the permission of his will.
Finally, Lewis relented. He wrote:
“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.”
Lewis felt compelled to acknowledge God’s existence, not because of some kind of psychological need, but because of the evidence.
Years of nagging facts and spiritual reflection had brought Lewis to a spiritual crossroads. But he was not yet a convert to Christianity. Just as his imagination had come under the influence of Christ, now his reason would drive him to embrace the spiritual tenets he would so masterfully defend for the rest of his life. Of this, Lewis wrote:
“It must be understood that the conversion…was only to Theism….not to Christianity.”
The evidence that drove him to this decision, however, was not without emotion. Lewis began to connect to the phenomenon he called “joy” with the Christian God. he later understood.
“I was now approaching the source from which those arrows of joy had been shot at me ever since childhood.”
The merging of his reason and his heart had been a foretaste of fellowship with God. Later, Lewis would say:
“Union with God’s Nature is bliss and separation from it horror.”
Lewis’ final decision to fully embrace the Christian faith came to him at an unexpected time. It was not while he was meditating during a Sunday service or chapel at Magdalen College, Oxford. Instead, he was riding with his brother to the Whipsnade Zoo. Of this experience, he wrote:
“When we set out I did not believe Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did.”
Lewis’ decision to entrust himself to a God he had been denying was a defining moment in his life. It was a life-changing encounter that was accompanied by the deepening of his conscience as well.