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CW Lewis: The Most Reluctant Convert by David C. Downing

The Most Reluctant Convert

I read an extremely interesting account of CS Lewis‘ journey to faith recently and felt compelled to share it with you. I was surprised to learn that CS Lewis was an atheist prior to becoming one of the most widely read Christian authors in history. I found his journey fascinating and it reinforces my hope that even the hardest heart is loved and pursued by God. My summary of the account written by David C. Downing follows.

CS Lewis (nicknamed Jack) was born to strict Irish orthodox parents who provided him a foundation of Christian faith. Jack’s childhood faith failed, however, when his mother died at age 9 and he was estranged from his emotionally unavailable father. He later wrote that his father lost not only his wife that summer but his two sons as well.

Jack’s father sent him to boarding school in the UK where he endured years under a brutal schoolmaster. The man’s anger and lack of faith effecively robbing that of his students. This schoolmaster followed by a cold “intellectual” tutor who ridiculed any remnants of Jack’s faith ultimately led CS “Jack” Lewis to atheism – Who says teachers can’t make a difference, for good or ill?

At age 19, Jack served as a British soldier in the bloody trenches of France during World War I. He witnessed great horrors there before being wounded in three places by shrapnel from a nearby explosion. Jack was hospitalized in Britain for weeks after the inuries. His father never came to visit him despite repeated written requests.

Academic Years

By the time CS Lewis enrolled at Oxford, he was an atheist/materialist (“this world is all there is”) who could read five languages. He was a brilliant, advanced student who always held a special place in his heart for art, beauty and nature. He recognized the tension between his love of fantasy stories (longing for a perfected world) and his intellectual conviction that the “seen” world is all there is and that it is barren and ugly.

He explains in his book “Surprised by Joy” that his atheistic convictions and interest in the occult swayed him in different ways, both serving equally to insulate him from the Christian faith. It was at Oxford, however, that exposure to several “magicians” and occultists ultimately convinced him that this path was also one of faith. There was no hard evidence to support the occult, only a requirement to “believe in the process” and to keep pursuing it in hopes of someday coming to enlightenment. A meeting with famous Irish poet William Butlet Yeats, who was totally enthralled with the occult, put an end to CS Lewis’ romance with it. He said of Yeats that his “tremendous creative energy was being squandered on credulous and self-indulgent speculation.” Soon after, CS Lewis tried to help an occultist friend through a mental breakdown. The man suffered a heart attack at age 46 (Lewis used the word “possession disorder” to describe the man’s state) leading CS Lewis to conclude that the occult and magic were a “particularly sinister kind of escapism and a possible route to diabolism or dementia.”

Lewis would reflect later that his period of Spiritualism (belief in life after death in a non-religious way) “seemed to offer many of the consolations of religion without its obligations”. You could hold assurance that your loved ones survived in the afterlife without “shouldering the burdens of orthodox belief or the guilt of repeated moral failure”. Thus, its attraction.

This comment by Lewis pierces me personally as the American church has largely continued to produce this kind of fruit in many – causing earnest seekers to identify Jesus more as a source of “burden” than a source of freedom. This is not what Jesus intended. His life and death has freed us from the bondage of religious law, not added another layer of burden. Oh, that the truth of His heart would become evident to men and be magnified, not obscured, by our lives and actions.

The Touch of a Friend

In later reflections, Lewis summarized his faith journey as follows: “On the intellectual side my progress had been from popular realism to Philosophical Idealism, from Idealism to Pantheism, from Pantheism to Theism, and from Theism to Christianity”. Ultimately, it was two events that cemented CS Lewis’ journey back to belief in God and, subsequently, to Christ.

In 1929 during a bus ride to Oxford, CS Lewis was overwhelmed with a sense of “a door in the spirit” being held open for him. There was no sense of compulsion or threat, just a sense that “to open the door….meant the incalculable”. This led him to a moment of surrender later in 1929 – a moment where “I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed; perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all of England.”

CS Lewis considers this encounter his conversion to Theism (belief in God), not acceptance of Christ specifically. That came two years later and it came, as it does for so many of us, because someone he respected and was friends with took an interest. It happened as a result of a late night conversation with two friends. You may have heard of one of them, a fellow student at the time, J.R.R. Tolkien.

Lewis wrote on October 1, 1931 in a letter to a friend that “I have just passed on from believing in God to definitely believing in Christ – in Christianity” and that his “long night talk with Dyson and Tolkien had a good deal to do with it.”

Perhaps it was their similar heart for understanding myth as a “real though unfocused gleam of divine truth falling on human imagination” or their common realization of the “Dying God” myths that exist in the mythology of many cultures – the understanding embedded in mythology that the need for redemption comes as a gift from above, not as a result of one’s own works.

Whatever intellectual argument it was, I am thankful that the Holy Spirit brought these men together and redeemed one of the greatest Christian writers in history. That being said, CS Lewis is of no more value to God than you or I. You have a task to complete just as he did (Ephesians 2:10) and in His economy, it is just as important and that is an enouraging thought.

If you would like to purchase David C. Downing’s book about CS Lewis’ faith journey, please use the Amazon affiliate link below. It will earn me enough cash to buy a french fry. One….french fry:) The Most Reluctant Convert: C.S. Lewis’s Journey to Faith


Jeff McKinney
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