The curious life and prodigious influence of C. S. Lewis, the man behind The Chronicles of Narnia
It would have been easy for Lewis to explain those mistakes in terms of his personal trials and setbacks. Lewis, though, would have had none of that. To be sure, in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, he talked about his Belfast childhood with an alert awareness of its potential as justification for his descent into atheism. The brilliant, doting mother who died when he was only 10 (and the child's unanswered prayers that she not be taken from him). An alternately affectionate, demanding, and aloof father, a Belfast solicitor, who sent Jack and his brother, Warren, to a series of English "public" (i.e., private) schools, where Jack learned to live under the tyranny of the "Bloods," as the athletic student oligarchs were called. Three and a half months as a green lieutenant in the trenches near Arras, France, at exactly the time the Germans launched their five great 1918 offensives, an experience that robbed him of close friends and left him with shrapnel in his lung from a round of artillery fire. It was all enough to make an atheist of anyone.
But not Lewis. Even if he tacitly acknowledged that such factors might have confirmed his disbelief, he insisted that the real cause was something far more subtle and insidious, something as alluring as the famous apple in the garden. It came upon him in public school, when Lewis, always a precocious reader, discovered that he was one of the rare students possessed of real aesthetic sense--"good taste," as he more simply put it. Arrival at that knowledge, he wrote, "involves a kind of Fall. The moment good taste knows itself, some of its goodness is lost. Even then, however, it is not necessary to take the further downward step of despising the 'philistines,' who do not share it. Unfortunately I took it." To separate oneself from run-of-the-mill humanity was, for Lewis, the beginning of self-idolatry, the real sin of pride. And such self-worship, he believed, was also the prevailing vice of the modern world.
Against relativism. What drove Lewis from such complacent selfishness is hard to say. He would later trouble his American evangelical admirers when he told them that he'd had no sudden road-to-Damascus or born-again experience. In fact, between 1919 and 1929, first as an Oxford undergraduate and then as a fellow of the university's Magdalen College teaching literature and philosophy, Lewis, by his own account, did everything in his power to resist belief in divine providence. From the literary and anthropological study of myths, for example, he fortified his conviction that Christianity was only one of the more compelling sacrificial hero myths.
But it was out of supreme freedom from faith that Lewis felt himself being drawn toward it. Give some credit to the arguments of his devoutly Roman Catholic friend Tolkien as well as to the writings of G. K. Chesterton. But there was also his own intensive reading of medieval literature, which immersed him in a worldview in which the foundation of knowledge and truth is faith in a transcendent spiritual reality. Add to this his attraction to the Platonic idea that all true knowledge is remembering and that the object of this remembering is the realm of the ideal forms behind the world of appearances. Even after he became a Christian, Lewis would insist that all religions share with Platonism an appreciation of higher, absolute truth--the Tao, he called it, using the Chinese word for the "way" --and that all equally reject the relativism embedded in so much modern ethical thought.