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C.S. Lewis; From Atheist to Christian Leader

Atheist; According to the Oxford definition; a noun - a person who disbelieves or lacks belief in the existence of God or gods.

Why is it then that an atheist does not believe in God?

The simplest answer is this. Atheists argue that since the entire universe, and all of creation can be explained by evolution and scientific cosmology, we don't need the existence of another entity called God. Therefore, God doesn't exist. As we know today, macro-evolution and scientific cosmology have largely been proven inaccurate, facts the subject of today’s message did not know at the time. Yet, through his own knowledge and research, he too would rebut these “beliefs,” in his lifetime.

I find it ironic that these definitions come from the Oxford dictionary; Oxford, a place where our subject spent the vast majority of his life, in or around this community and “noble” institution. This week in November, each year, we remember a man, C.S. Lewis, who saw and experienced both a true belief in Atheism, and the unwavering love and faith of Christianity.

C.S. Lewis, whose full name is Clive Staples Lewis, was born nearly 123 years ago, this coming week (November 29, 1898,) and died just 58 years ago, this past week (November 22, 1963.) He was born in Belfast, Ireland and died in Oxford, Oxfordshire, England. Lewis, an Irish-born scholar, became a famous novelist, and author of about 40 books, many of them on Christian apologetics, including The Screwtape Letters and Mere Christianity. His works of greatest lasting fame may be The Chronicles of Narnia, a series of seven children’s books that have become classics of fantasy literature.

Lewis lost his mother when he was just 9 years old, and he essentially lost his father at that same time, as his father would send Lewis and his brother away to an abusive boarding school. To add to the trauma of this young life, the head-master of the boarding school would in just a few years be declared “certifiably” insane. Lewis equated all this “badness” to a lack of ability to properly pray. He had been to church and he always struggled with his inability to pray “correctly.” He would say a prayer, and then analyze how well he prayed, over and over again. He did this to a point where he would repeatedly try to correct each prayer and say them over and over again until he got them “perfect.” His young mind reasoned that doing this each time he prayed, would drive him in sane, just like his head-master. Lewis reasoned that none of this made any logical sense and also that if the multitude of prayers he had said, yielded zero results, then the Atheist way of thinking must be right. Lewis would later counter this thinking by saying; “God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing.”

Even at only age nine, Lewis was well on his way to being an educated man. Reading and education were valued highly in the Lewis household. Lewis’s father, Albert Lewis, was a practicing lawyer, and his mother, Florence Hamilton Lewis, graduated from the Royal University of Ireland (now Queen’s University Belfast) at a time when it was not common for women to earn degrees. Lewis and his older brother, Warren (“Warnie”), like their parents, were avid readers. Lewis was something of a prodigy: he was reading by age three and by five had begun writing stories about a fantasy land populated by “dressed animals,” influenced by the stories of Beatrix Potter, which were being published as Lewis grew up. Selections of those early stories were collected in Boxen: The Imaginary World of the Young C.S. Lewis (1985).

After receiving their early education at home, Lewis and his brother attended English boarding schools. Very little learning occurred at the first of these, Wynyard School in Watford, outside London, overseen by a brutal authoritarian headmaster who was drifting into insanity. Lewis’s education was rescued by excellent teachers at Campbell College in Belfast, Cherbourg House in Malvern, and at Malvern College. He left Malvern after a year to be prepped for the University of Oxford entrance exams by W.T. Kirkpatrick, whose tutoring enabled Lewis to win, in 1916, a scholarship in classics at University College.

After serving in France with the Somerset Light Infantry in World War I, he began his studies at Oxford and achieved an outstanding record, taking a double first in Honours Moderations (Greek and Latin texts) and Greats (classical history and philosophy) and then staying on for an additional first in English language and literature, completing it in one year instead of the usual three. He became a fellow and tutor of Magdalen College, Oxford, in 1925, a position he held until 1954. From 1954 to 1963 he was professor of medieval and Renaissance English at the University of Cambridge.

In his youth Lewis aspired to become a notable poet, but his first publications attracted little attention. So, he turned to scholarly writing and prose fiction. His first prose work to be published was The Pilgrim’s Regress: An Allegorical Apology for Christianity, Reason, and Romanticism (1933), an account of his search to find the source of the longings he experienced from his early years, which led him to an adult acceptance of the Christian faith. Lewis turned to Christianity in 1931, partly with the help of his close friend and devout Roman Catholic J.R.R. Tolkien. Lewis described these changes in his autobiography Surprised by Joy (1955), an account of his spiritual and intellectual life through his early 30s. Lewis would recount these years; “Thirty was so strange for me. I've really had to come to terms with the fact that I am now a walking and talking adult.”

Lewis at the same time was becoming known in literary circles, initially by publishing articles and book reviews. His first scholarly book, The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition (1936), was highly praised and established his reputation as a leading figure in British literary studies. Lewis would go on to publish several later books, which were all quite successful sellers.

Lewis’s book, The Problem of Pain (1940) and the ensuing four series of radio talks on the British Broadcasting Corporation during World War II (later collected as Mere Christianity, 1952) brought him wide recognition as a commentator on Christian beliefs. But those were far exceeded in popularity by The Screwtape Letters (1942), a work of epistolary fiction consisting of 31 letters in which an elderly, experienced devil named Screwtape instructs his junior, Wormwood, in the subtle art of tempting a young Christian convert. It became a best seller in Britain and the United States.

Other books explaining and defending Christianity include Miracles: A Preliminary Study (1947), Reflections on the Psalms (1958), and The Four Loves (1960). The posthumously published Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer (1964), in which Lewis wrote a series of letters to an imaginary friend, Malcolm, dealing mostly with various kinds of, approaches to, problems arising from, prayer as well as other matters concerning liturgy, worship, and doctrine. Lewis often wrote a theme of, being close to God will bring you a true life, and those you choose to distance themselves will wander helplessly in a cold world full of despair. He once said; “There are two kinds of people: those who say to God, 'Thy will be done,' and those to whom God says, 'All right, then, have it your way.’”

In 1950 Lewis published what has become his most widely known book, the children’s fantasy The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. He went on to write six additional stories, and together the series came to be known as The Chronicles of Narnia. The series, which describes the conflicts between good and evil that occur in the kingdom of Narnia, is unified by Aslan, a noble lion, which is the form in which the Son of God usually appears in Narnia. The books were hugely popular, and numerous television and film adaptions appeared. The Narnian chronicles were followed by his last work of fiction, the one he thought his best, Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold (1956), a retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche from the viewpoint of one of Psyche’s sisters, whom Lewis names Orual. It is the least popular of his novels but the most highly praised by literary critics.

Late in life Lewis married Joy Davidman Gresham, an American who had become a Christian in part through reading Lewis’s books. The two began a correspondence in 1950, while she was still married to writer William Gresham; by 1954 she and her husband, who had been unfaithful, were divorced, and she was living in England, becoming a close friend of Lewis. They wed in a secret civil ceremony in April 1956 to give her the legal right to remain in England.

Six months later she was diagnosed with advanced cancer. In March 1957 they were “publicly” married by an Anglican priest, who prayed that she would be healed. In what she and Lewis thought of as a miracle, her cancer went into a period of remission, allowing them several years of happiness together, until the cancer returned and she died, in July 1960. Under the name N.W. Clerk, Lewis published A Grief Observed (1961), in which he poured out his sorrow and spiritual doubt and outlined the stages he went through in his grief process. Of interesting note, the story of their relationship was fictionalized in Shadowlands, a 1985 made-for-television movie later revised for the stage [1989] and revised again into a film starring Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger [1993].)

In early 1963 Lewis wrote his last book, Letters to Malcolm, and in the summer of 1963, he retired from his post at Cambridge, a few months before his death. Lewis would reflect at this time that; “When Christ died, He died for you individually just as much as if you'd been the only man in the world.”

Lewis once reflected that he became a Christian, because it was the only belief that made sense. A brilliantly educated man, and outstanding author, he had struggled with his beliefs since that early age when he lost his mother and essentially his father. He reasoned past that youthful trauma to finally give his life to Christ. Although the loss of his wife would again tempt his faith, yet even through these struggles, he stood fast in his faith and belief in God.

As I reflect on Lewis’s life, I think of all those who “reason away” their disbelief in God and their condemnation of Christianity. Like Lewis, these people have had some traumatic occurrence in their lives to bring in their doubt and/or anger. It is this very doubt and anger that Satan breeds upon to pull us away from Christ. Praise be to God, that C.S. Lewis saw through the despair and anguish, and realized, throughout his life, and even after loosing his wife, that God is the only way and that Jesus came for all of us.

Shortly before the death of C.S. Lewis, he said this; “Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important.”

C. S. Lewis

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