According to Peter Kreeft, “Clive Staples Lewis was not a man: he was a world” (C.S. Lewis: A Critical Essay, 4).
That is the kind of accolade you read again and again in books about C.S. Lewis. Which means there must have been something extraordinary about the man. Indeed, there was.
Speaking personally, ever since I began to take Lewis seriously in my early twenties — along with his Reformed counterpart, Jonathan Edwards — I have never been the same. I don’t see myself as an imitator of Lewis. In his ability to see and think and feel, he was almost without peer. His capacities to see and feel the freshness and wonder of things were childlike, and his capacities to describe it and understand it and defend it were massively manly.
So I can’t imitate Lewis, but I can listen. And I have been listening for decades, and what I have heard echoes almost everywhere in my life and work. His influence is simply enormous.
England’s Voice of Faith
Lewis was born November 29, 1898, in Belfast, Ireland. His mother died when he was 9 years old, and his father never remarried. Between the death of his mother in August 1908 and the fall of 1914, Lewis attended four different boarding schools. Then for two and a half years, he studied with William Kirkpatrick, whom he called “the Great Knock.” There his emerging atheism was confirmed, and his reasoning powers were refined in an extraordinary way. He described himself later as a 17-year-old rationalist.
But just as his rationalism was at its peak, he stumbled onto George MacDonald’s fantasy novel Phantastes. “That night,” he said, “my imagination was, in a certain sense, baptized” (Surprised by Joy, 222). Something had broken in — a “new quality,” a “bright shadow,” he called it (Surprised by Joy, 220). The romantic impulse of his childhood was again awake. Only now it seemed real, and holy (though he would not have called it that yet).
At 18, he took his place at Oxford University, but before he could begin his studies he entered the army, and in February 1918 was wounded in France and returned to England to recover. He resumed his studies at Oxford in January 1919, and over the next six years took three first-class honors in classics, humanities, and English literature. He became a teaching fellow in October 1925, at the age of 26.
Six years later, in 1931, he professed faith in Jesus Christ and was settled in the conviction that Christianity is true. Within ten years, he had become the “voice of faith” for the nation of England during the Second World War, and his broadcast talks in 1941–1942 “achieved classic status” (C.S. Lewis — A Life, 210).
In Full Flower
He was now in the full flower of his creative and apologetic productivity. In his prime, he was probably the world’s leading authority on Medieval English literature, and according to one of his adversaries, “the best read man of his generation” (C.S. Lewis — A Life, 166). But he was vastly more. Books of many kinds were rolling out: The Pilgrim’s Regress, The Allegory of Love, The Screwtape Letters, and Perelandra. Then in 1950, he began The Chronicles of Narnia. All these titles were of different genres and showed the amazing versatility of Lewis as a writer and thinker and imaginative visionary.
He appeared on the cover of Time Magazine in 1947. Then, after thirty years at Oxford, he took a professorship in Medieval and Renaissance English at the University of Cambridge in 1955. The next year, at the age of 57, he married Joy Davidman. And just short of their fourth anniversary, she died of cancer. Three and a half years later — two weeks short of turning 65, on November 22, 1963 — Lewis followed her in death.
Lewis as an author is more popular today than at any time during his life. “The Chronicles of Narnia” alone have gone on to sell over one hundred million copies in forty languages. One of the reasons for this appeal, I will argue, is that Lewis is a “romantic rationalist” to an exceptionally high and healthy degree. Lewis’s romanticism and his rationalism were the paths on which he came to Christ, and they were the paths on which he lived his life and did his work.
Lewis the Romantic
The essence of Lewis’s romanticism is his experience of the world that repeatedly awakened in him a sense that there is always more than this created world — something other, something beyond the natural world. The feeling was at once inconsolable and pleasant, a hunger “better than any other fullness” and a poverty “better than all other wealth” (Pilgrim’s Regress, 7). At first, he thought the stabbing desire and longing itself was what he really wanted. But his conversion to theism and then to Christ cleared the air and showed him what all the longing had been for.
News from a Far Country
After God overcame Lewis’s atheism in the spring of 1929, Lewis looked back on all his romantic experiences of longing and knew why the desire was inconsolable and yet pleasant. It was a desire for God. It was evidence that he was made for God.
The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things — the beauty, the memory of our own past — are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of the tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited. (The Weight of Glory, 32)
So Lewis stopped turning Joy into an idol when he found, by grace, that it was “a pointer to something other and outer,” namely, to God (Surprised by Joy, 291).
Made for Another World
Lewis says, “In a sense the central story of my life is about nothing else” (Surprised by Joy, 19). When you read his repeated descriptions of this experience of romanticism or Joy in Surprised by Joy and Pilgrim’s Regress and The Problem of Pain and The Weight of Glory, you realize Lewis doesn’t see this as a quirk of his personality but as a trait of humanness. All of us are romantics in this sense.
For example, in The Problem of Pain, Lewis makes the case that even people who think they have never desired heaven don’t see things clearly.
There have been times when I think we do not desire heaven, but more often I find myself wondering whether, in our heart of hearts, we have ever desired anything else . . . tantalizing glimpses, promises never quite fulfilled, echoes that died away just as they caught your ear. But if . . . there ever came an echo that did not die away but swelled into the sound itself — you would know it. Beyond all possibility of doubt you would say, “here at last is the thing I was made for.” (152)
So Lewis saw in his own experience of romanticism the universally human experience. We are all romantics. All of us experience from time to time a longing this world cannot meet, a sense that there must be more. He would state it most famously in Mere Christianity: “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world” (181).
Lewis the Rationalist
We turn now to Lewis’s rationalism. As with the term romanticism, I mean something different from some of its common philosophical uses. All I mean is his profound devotion to being rational — to the principle that there is true rationality and that it is rooted in absolute reason, God’s reason.
The simplest way to get at the heart of Lewis’s rationality is to say he believed in the law of noncontradiction, and he believed that where this law was abandoned, not only was truth imperiled, but romanticism and Joy were imperiled as well. The law of noncontradiction is simply that contradictory statements cannot both be true at the same time and in the same way.
This commitment to the basic laws of logic, or rationality, led Lewis on the philosophical path to the same Christ that he had found on the path of romanticism or Joy. On the romantic path, Lewis was led again and again to look beyond nature for ultimate reality — finally to God in Christ — because his desires could not be explained as a product of this world. Now how did that same thing happen by the use of his reason?
He looked at the philosophical, scientific cosmology emerging in the modern world and found it self-contradictory.
If I swallow the scientific cosmology as a whole (that excludes a rational, personal God), then not only can I not fit in Christianity, but I cannot even fit in science. If minds are wholly dependent on brains, and brains on biochemistry, and biochemistry (in the long run) on the meaningless flux of the atoms, I cannot understand how the thought of those minds should have any more significance than the sound of the wind in the trees. And this is to me the final test. (“Is Theology Poetry?” 21)
In other words, modern people construct a worldview that treats their thoughts as equivalent to wind in the trees. And then they call these thoughts true. Lewis said that’s a contradiction. Atheistic man uses his mind to create a worldview that nullifies the use of his mind.
Either a Lunatic or God
This is what Lewis meant by the title of his book The Abolition of Man. If there is no God as the foundation of logic (like the law of noncontradiction) and the foundation of value judgments (like justice and beauty), then man is abolished. His mind is no more than the rustling of leaves, and his value judgments are no more than ripples on a pond.
Here’s how he describes the way these thoughts brought him on the path of reason to see Christianity as true:
On these grounds and others like them one is driven to think that whatever else may be true, the popular scientific cosmology at any rate is certainly not. . . . Something like philosophical idealism or Theism must, at the very worst, be less untrue than that. And idealism turned out, when you took it seriously, to be disguised Theism. And once you accepted Theism you could not ignore the claims of Christ. And when you examine them it appeared to be that you could adopt no middle position. Either he was a lunatic or God. And he was not a lunatic. (“Is Theology Poetry?” 21)
Longing and Logic
Therefore, Lewis came to Christ as his Lord and God along the path of romanticism, or inconsolable longing, on the one hand, and the path of rationalism, or logic, on the other hand.
Lewis came to Christ on the converging paths of romanticism and rationalism. And as a Christian, he became a master thinker and a master of poetic effort in story and essay. This is who he was, this is what he knew, and this was the aim of his life. He bent every romantic effort and every rational effort to help people see where all his longings and logic had led him: the glory of Jesus Christ — the goal of all his longings and the ground of all his logic.