The Conversion of His Conscience 1940 to 1951
In the period from 1940 to 1951, Lewis published some of his most popular and enduring Christian books. Screwtape Letters provided insights from the imagined dialogue of demons discussing the best means of tempting a follower of Christ. Mere Christianity pursued an intriguing case for truth by starting with our shared sense of right and wrong. And The Abolition of Man argued for the reality of objective values by comparing different cultures. What all three works have in common is a strong reliance on conscience.
But how did Lewis get to the point of seeing the implications of the inner moral compass that is common to all of us?
A Conscience Being Converted
Long before becoming a Christian, Lewis had a strong sense of conscience. While serving in World War I, he befriended a fellow soldier by the name of Paddy Moore. Many believe that Paddy asked Lewis to take care of his mother if he were killed in combat. When Paddy tragically died in the war, Lewis took Mrs. Moore and her daughter Maureen into his home, where his brother Warren would eventually join them. This living arrangement went on for years and was not without its domestic frustrations. While some have questioned this living arrangement, many believe that Lewis accepted the inconvenience to honor a promise made to his comrade in arms.
After Lewis became a Christian, his conscience seemed to grow under the influence of his new found faith. One example of this occurred during World War II. When bombs were falling on London, Lewis volunteered to have evacuated children stay in his modest home. It was while observing their games that Lewis got some of the ideas that were later incorporated into the first Narnia book, The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe.
It might be enjoyable today to read about children frolicking in the professor’s home, but for Lewis it must have been disruptive. As an Oxford professor, his drive to absorb vast amounts of literature was insatiable. So his time alone to read and study had to have been important to him. Yet his conscience directed him to look after the needs of others.
Another example of Lewis’ generous heart is evident in his donation of royalties from his popular book The Screwtape Letters to his favorite charities. He continued to live modestly and give away what he had received to those in greater need. Eventually, he developed a trust fund to donate to charity all the royalties he received from his Christian books.
Even more than his generosity and desire to help others, the real evidence of Lewis’ converted conscience is seen in his writings that detail the moral argument for the existence of God.
Loving and Hating What is Right
Mere Christianity contains a partial autobiography of Lewis’ journey from atheism to Christianity in many ways it reflects his own spiritual journey from a relativistic moral philosophy to one of the objective values of the Lawgiver behind the law.
Lewis began Mere Christianity with the intriguing subtitle: “Right and wrong as a clue to the meaning of the universe.” He observed that when one man is arguing about the rightness or wrongness of an action he is appealing to some kind of standard of behavior which he expects the other man to know about.
Lewis explained that any quarrel over fairness reflects the capacity for moral judgment and an objective standard that has been violated.
In modern times, moral relativism has sought to dismiss the conscience as “herd instinct” or “social convention.” But Lewis found this an inadequate explanation for this sense of right and wrong. He observed:
“Thee is something above and beyond the ordinary facts of men’s behavior, and yet quiet definitely real a real law, which none of us made, but which we find pressing on us.”
Lewis then turned his attention to human nature to explore the possibility of a moral Creator. Central to Lewis’ argument is the internal conflict we all experience between wanting to do what is good but instead doing the opposite. He believed that this love/hate relationship with moral code is best explained by the story of the Bible:
“(Christians) offer an explanation of how we got into our present state of both hating goodness and loving it…how God Himself becomes a man to save man from the disapproval of God.”
Despite Lewis’ arguments for a universal moral code, many of his contemporaries did not agree with him. For them moral choice would often be considered a personal preference. Although cultural relativism was used in an attempt to refute him. Lewis argued the case for objective values by appealing to a wide variety of cultures.
The Law of God Written in the Heart
Lewis gave a series of lectures at the University of Durham that would eventually be published as The Abolition of Man. In this work, Lewis used many different cultures to build the case for a similar set of objective values. The many cultures he cited included: Egyptian, Hebrew, Babylonian, Hindu, Chines, Roman, Norse, Christian, Native American, Anglo-Saxon, Greek, and even Australian aborigines. Among these varied traditions were moral values such as the golden rule, duties to parents and children, justice in a court of law, keeping one’s promises, and showing mercy.
In The Abolition of Man, Lewis eloquently appealed to an eternal moral code of ethics that our consciences naturally respond to. Interestingly, he didn’t begin with the Christian faith to which he had converted. Instead, he cited an ancient culture in Asia:
“The Chines also speak of…the Way in which the universe goes on…it is the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false.”
From the evidence of this universal moral awareness, Lewis built his case for objective standards that have their origin in the God who revealed Himself in Christ. Lewis’ conscience had been converted. Yet he was to face a personal crisis that would challenge the very fabric of his spiritual life and many of his expectations.