I have been following, with a mixture of emotions — including curiosity and claustrophobia — C. S. Lewis’s account, in Surprised by Joy, of his conversion to theism (belief in a personal God) from his former atheism. My last and most unexpected reaction has been recognition!
I have been following, with a mixture of emotions — including curiosity and claustrophobia — C. S. Lewis’s account, in Surprised by Joy, of his conversion to theism (belief in a personal God) from his former atheism. My last and most unexpected reaction has been recognition! How could that be, with a stuffy Oxford don, puffing on his pipe?
Lewis’s peregrinations along the road to God begin after he’s been lucky enough to retire from The War (WW I) with a mend-able wound and some friends among the Honored Dead.
He entered Oxford as a philosophical materialist, which is where most of the opinion-shaping elite in our culture is still based. (I entered professional life as an assistant professor of philosophy at Stony Brook, SUNY, as a materialist.) About that view, he recalls that it protected him from having to confront the Infinite character of reality. Materialism said, if life doesn’t pan out, I can always end it. I have my own finite space, with barbed wire around it, and it’s my defense against aggressors. I recognize that exactly.
His new friends at Oxford were a much better set of people than the go-along-to-get-along schoolboys he had detested at what the Brits call public school, where you had to pretend to like Games (cricket? soccer?) and avoid being picked on, at all costs. The Oxford friends, some of them war veterans like himself, had high personal standards: veracity, public spirit, sobriety, chastity. Their values moved him to a healthy imitativeness, and away from the affected cynicism of Oscar Wilde and the pre-War aesthetes.
(Re personal honor: In my own professional life, early on, I declined to vote at a departmental election for the candidate supported by the ruling bloc, despite threats that were soon enough carried through. I had not exactly formulated the “why” of my refusal, but there seemed to me to be An Unwritten Law along these lines, to which one had to conform if one was not to lose out, lose whatever hold one had on … a “life of one’s own.” One might never gain that life. Maybe it was a mirage after all. But one could sure lose it!)
But then some of Lewis’s personal friends, people whose comradeship he had greatly valued, began to get interested in the occult — things like anthroposophy, theosophy, yoga, etc. and that angered him very much, so much that he spent hours in intellectual combat with these valued friends. It was perennial New Age stuff, in the nineteen twenties. In another vein, there was the appeal of sex, not for him a personal addiction, but as the purported summit of experience — the plateau where human desire could find absolute fulfillment. What he learned positively from occultism was that materialism’s account of the real was less than exhaustive. There was simply more to reality than that. Also, these friends rid him of his “chronological snobbery.” They made him realize that we moderns hadn’t come to the end of the line of enlightenment. Rather, like those who came before us, we belonged to an historical epoch, with its own illusions and limitations. Having gained these insights, Lewis also moved beyond these two desiderata (sex and nirvana?) as end-points for desire. Occultism, like sex as fulfillment, began to seem beside the (focal) point of personal desire.
For me the appeal of yoga, holistic healing, etc. lay in its promised practicality. If, in the ebb and flow of forces, there is more to life than bits of dead matter floating about, then one needed the power to do and know whatever “more” there is, that one can be helped by. I’ll skip my particular experiences, which would take too long to tell and go to the inferences I drew: the occult doctrines fail to acknowledge and protect the topography of personal life, within which there are matters to be resolved and questions to be answered. Personal life is not a thing to be transcended. As for the erotic spell, the reason love comes first is that love has an object, the person loved; it is not a mere feeling tone. One is misled by modern views into mistaking the side-effects for the thing sought.
At this point (Lewis was teaching philosophy), he gravitated toward a philosophy that went beyond materialism. He found it in Henri Bergson, with his concept of an élan vital. Lewis now saw the universe as full of purposiveness. So the universe is not an accident and one does not invent oneself. From there to the view that consciousness is not an epiphenomenon but derives from a universal, impersonal Mind was but a short step. It involved the recognition that the Absolute is utterly valuable, even if it does nothing for us personally. (My own version would have been the Spinozistic one: to love God without asking Him to love you back.)
Lewis’s momentous, last step was his move from the cognitive to the prayerful. He read a philosopher named Samuel Alexander (Space, Time and Deity) whom nobody reads much any more. Alexander taught him that the contemplative (intellectual) mode cannot cover everything, because one cannot contemplate what one is actively “enjoying” (i.e. committing to, getting into). So the field surveyed by contemplation cannot be the object of one’s ultimate desire. Sense data, images, are what contemplation becomes aware of when one is disengaged, not when one actively desires and engages with reality. But desire, which leads toward and longs for its object, hasn’t any single, fixed shape or form. Rather, desires take on the shape of what they desire. So the ultimate Object of desire must be something Other than any particular image or sense datum. It must be an imageless, undefined Other to oneself.
Lewis thought of this Object of Desire as the Impersonal Absolute, having the character of Mind or Spirit. Now it occurred to him that it would be best to assume the vantage point of that Absolute, so that Lewis’s particular interests would not, in his own eyes, count for more than other people’s interests. Looking at his desires in this objective way, he was struck by an obstacle much bigger than any he had noticed before: an appalling “legion” of selfish, murky impulses of every kind. What to do? Should he just “have intellectual recourse” — ever more frequently — to the standpoint of the Absolute? Or should he ask for help in prayer — the decision now lying with a God who would hear him?
Lewis found that the passage from the cognitive to the prayerful is not marked by any barrier. He glided, almost imperceptibly, from the first to the second attitude, noticing that in prayer the initiative lies with God, who is a Person and Who will help. God cares and will help, but at the same time commands one’s all — no detachment, no compartmentalization, no postponements. In responding to God’s command, one also feels freer than one has ever felt before.
I think this is interesting and true. Actually a remarkable and prophetic confession for our age. It’s timely. It should get more public notice, if such a thing is possible. My surprise is that my own experience corresponds with his to the extent that it does. I am surprised, since Lewis and I are such different types, with dissimilar backgrounds, religious vocations, and so on.
My conversion to theism had a different surface look. I wasn’t looking for an Object of ultimate desire or trying to get rid of my sins. I was in fact more directly imperiled. And no amount of Spinozistic understanding of the peril could lessen it. Because, quite simply, it was more menacing and larger than my devices. I needed, and therefore prayed to receive, guidance, step by step. Guidance of me as a person, in that very predicament, detail by detail, inward and outward. A prayer that only a Person, who could see what made the specificities of me, could hear or answer.
I don’t know that I suffered from the intellectual’s disease of detachment. Because I am so readily penetrated and shattered by experience, I have a long practice of blending together direct and contemplated experience. Also, I think I was able to let others in, let the personal penetrate the cognitive. For me, it was malign influences that menaced my life and motivated my turn toward a divine Other Person, to help me and guide my steps.
Lewis is surprised by Joy. I am surprised by Lewis, to find him more of a brother spirit than I imagined he could be.