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Archive for the ‘Atheism’ Category

If he only knew how "surprised by Joy" he eventually would be....

The next step in C. S. Lewis’s fall into atheism discussed in Surprised by Joy actually predated and undergirded his encounters with his school matron (discussed in my previous post).   For quite some time, Jack had been wrestling with what it meant to know that his prayers and beliefs were effective.  That is the sort of thing that I would venture to guess that most Christians have wrestled with at one time or another.  How do I know that God is listening to my prayers?  How do I know that He’s answered them?  Am I really believing or am I failing miserably?  Many of us immediately jump to the (false) conclusion that the only way we could “know” any of this is by the observable, measurable presence of some emotional reaction to the process that produces some vague mystical experience.  Frankly, entire denominations of the Christian faith have been based on this one answer to this one problem.  As Jack himself put it:

No clause of my prayer was allowed to pass muster unless it was accompanied by what I called a “realization,” by which I meant a certain vividness of the imagination and the affections.  My nightly task was to produce by sheer will power a phenomenon which will power could never produce, which was so ill-defined I could never say with absolute confidence whether it had occurred, and which, even when it did occur, was of a very mediocre spiritual value. (61)

Lewis himself notes that it was a brilliant ploy of the Enemy–similar to one I saw a debate student pull on several other non-debate panel members in one of my classes today.  In that case, the student clearly and forcefully posed an answer to a hypothetical question (in his case dealing with the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki) and then just as forcefully refused to accept anything but concrete evidence to the contrary.   The trouble was that the scenario in question was entirely abstract and therefore there was no concrete evidence that could be offered.  In short, he presented them with a question that, if they accepted it on his terms, was impossible to answer.  Jack put himself in a similar bind.  He notes that he demanded of his will power one thing that will alone could never deliver.  The result, not surprisingly, was repeated failure.

Jack’s response was to reinforce that failure.  If he could not find that feeling, it must simply be that he wasn’t trying hard enough.  So, he would spend hours up at night, repraying the same prayers over and over and hoping that this time he would get it right.  It was an incredible burden, especially for a thirteen year old boy.  He found that as time went on he “dreaded bed time” and that had it gone on for much longer, “I think I should have gone mad.” (63)

All of that built up in his mind over time and as a result, not only did he feel like he could slip away from his faith, in fact he wanted to do so.  It made him “desperately anxious to get rid of my religion.”  Atheism, then, came as a release.

My wife and daughter got me this...but its on cassette tape! 😦

I also find it interesting to see bits of Screwtape showing up in this section.  Somewhere–I believe it was in the prologue to The Screwtape Letters–Lewis remarked that he did not need to delve into any diabolic sources to research Screwtape.  He simply knew what worked with him.  He seems to be facing precisely that sort of attack that one might expect Screwtape himself to mastermind, and (at least in 1955) he understands what had happened to him.  In his descriptions I can almost see Jack’s infernal companion whispering in the young man’s ear, kneeling by his bed in the deep shadows of the night, a solitude broken only so often by the ticking of a clock and a sliver of moonlight.  The patient was tired, but the demon kept whispering his encouragement–“Keep at it!  Maybe this time!  Did you really mean that prayer?  Was that feeling real enough?”

And so it would go, with Jack’s best, most earnest efforts leading him farther into the darkness, into the halls of infernal Noise, perhaps to one day become the prey of Undersecretary of the Infernal Lowerarchy himself.

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I’ve decided to spend some time looking carefully at the few surviving letters from Lewis’s time at Cherbourg.  It was a key time in his life, especially religiously, because though his intellect and imagination began to revive itself while he was there, serious damage was done to his faith also.  In fact, it was while he was here that he found himself “deliciously” lapsing into a warm haze of unbelief.  Therefore, I will devote at least one post to each of the few surviving letters from Cherbourg.  (I can’t keep that up for the rest of the project, of course, if I want to ever get it over with.)

This evening I’m going to take a step back and begin to work through Lewis’s account of his time there in Surprised By Joy for context.  His own explanation of his atheism could be turned into a decent academic paper in and of itself, so I don’t want to try to tackle it all at once. I’ll pick up with the letters again as soon as I can, frustrating though the delay might be.  I tend to get impatient, and I have to keep reminding myself that this project is the proverbial marathon for the sake of experience rather than a sprint to a particular publication deadline or conference presentation

Lewis referred to Cherbourg as “Chartres” in his autobiography, and he was only thirteen years old when he first arrived there with Warnie (who was attending nearby Malvern College).  It was, he said, the “classic” period of their school days and a key time in their maturation.  It certainly was key in his spiritual devolution:

The chronology of this disaster is a little vague, but I know for certain that it had not begun when I went there and that the process was complete very shortly after I left. (58-59)

Jack has already begun to pick up some of the habits he would regret later in life–smoking in particular–but he notes that his intellectual revival began in earnest.  In many ways, he was a typical schoolboy.  For instance, though the food at the school was good, they “of course…grumbled at it” (58).  It recalls to my mind the time in elementary school a transfer student yelled at a group of us when we were complaining about the otherwise good food at our own school in south Georgia.  We were all taken aback.  After all, aren’t school children obligated to complain about lunchroom food?

On the subject of his descent into atheism, Jack places a good bit of the blame for his fall from grace on a very well-meaning school matron, called Miss C. in SBJ (G. E. Cowie, in real life).  She was searching and experimenting with her faith at that point her her life and, like many before and since, had begun to explore some of the “paths less trodden,” and that had led her into the occult.  She introduced Lewis to the entrance to the confusing maze of “Theosophy, Rosicrucianism, Spiritualism; [and] the whole Anglo-American Occultic tradition” (59).  Unbeknownst to her, she was carrying a candle into a room “full of gunpowder” (59).

I had never heard of such things before; never except in a nightmare or a fairy tale, concieved of spirits other than God and men.  I had loved to read of strange sights and other worlds and unknown modes of being, but never with the slightest belief; even the phantom dwarf* had only flashed on my mind for a moment. […]  But now, for the first time, there burst upon me the idea that there might be real marvels all about us, that the visible world might be only a curtain to conceal huge realms uncharted by my very simple theology.  (59-60)

I can understand the temptation.  From my earliest years, I too have found all these things alluring.  I have, for years now, kept accounts of the paranormal–ghosts, faeries (the real, frightening sort, not the Tinkerbell vulgarizations), and other unknown phenomena–on my regular private reading list.  Oddly, I can carry on surprising intelligent conversations about a broad range of strange things.  And it is always an open and dangerous question to know where to draw the lines in my studies.  The whole subject has a unique, supernatural pull to it, and people that have never felt it usually don’t understand it.  Those that have, Jack says, “will know what I mean” (60).  All I can do is hope that it is this sense of wonder at the unknown that I apparently share with Jack will be a help to me with my own fiction writing rather than a spiritual hindrance, as Jack himself seemed to think it was.

Miss C never offered Lewis anything concrete, and that was the rub.  She opened doors that encouraged him to search for what was conceivable rather what was true.  This infected his view of theology, like a virus, and it turned the creed from something that was a certainty to a mere list of assumed possibilities.  Of course, there is nothing binding in possiblities.

So, ironically, Jack’s first step away from his faith was toward the occult, and only by gradual degrees unmarked did he finally find himself an atheist.

*Earlier, in SBJ, Lewis recounted that after he left Campbell College, he was walking in the garden at Little Lea and “I was for a second not quite sure that a little man [a dwarf] had not run past me into the shrubbery” (55).  This instance might be worth looking at by itself sometime, if to do nothing more than indulge my own fascination with Faerie.

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