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The next point brought up in Surprised by Joy deals with paganism and myth.  My friend Rachel ironically prefigured this whole question in the post she wrote today for the other blog I contribute to, While We’re Paused.  This issue was the first one that Lewis says gave rise to specific, conscious doubts about his faith:  If all other religions were simply rot, why should he believe Christianity to be any different?

Jack noted that in all of his classes and studies at Cherbourg, he was being presented with a slew of religious ideas from all sorts of places and times. Virgil was first among these in providing a “mass of religious ideas.”  All of this was presented to him as universal rubbish–all except, conveniently, the particular belief system prevalent in England at the time.  Jack wondered, and rightly so, what made Christianity so different that it shouldn’t be held to be in the same crowd as all the others?  His teachers never gave him any answer to that question.  Indeed, they likely didn’t know themselves.  In Lewis’s words:

No one ever attempted to show in what sense Christianity fulfilled Paganism or Paganism prefigured Christianity.  The accepted position seemed to be that religions were normally a mere farrago of nonsense, though our own, by a happy fortunate exception, was exactly true. […] But on what grounds could I believe this exception? It obviously was in some general sense the same kind of thing as all the rest.  Why was it so differently treated?  Need I, at any rate, continue to treat it differently?  I was very anxious not to. (62-63)

From the perspective of history and philosopy, there are a couple of points that strike me:

First, I’ve noticed, and I teach my classes, that there is always a time lag that is evident between the time a new idea (or ideas) are thought up and the moment when people really, truly begin to believe it and act on it.  Until practice catches up to theory (and indeed for quite a while afterward), people tend to act only on certain parts of an idea, while ignoring others.  Put simply, they take the idea only so far as “makes sense” based on their current ideas and previous sense of morality rather than take it to its logical conclusion.  We often see a few decades pass before people really begin to do what a philosophy demands.  We must allow time for a new generation to be raised up with fewer of the old inhibitions intact.

Naturalism and evolution is a good example.  Darwinism was in existence for decades before anyone actually tried to manage the human herd.  It was a gradual process of younger people continually asking “Why not?” again and again and realizing that, if naturalistic Darwinism was correct, there was no sufficient answer that could be given.  Slowly, that led us first to the eugenics movements and eventually to the Nazi purges.  Each step towards the conclusion would have given pause to the ones that went before–and the ends would seem unconscionable to those at the beginning–but to someone “forward thinking” enough, it just made sense.

I think what we see in Jack’s Cherbourg is a society in the middle of such a transition.  Jack is observing a period of English history were, in fact, many people have ceased to believe in Christianity in any real sense–they just haven’t all realized it yet.  It is left to the younger generation (Jack, in this case) to take the older one at their word and therefore to carry their ideas to their logical conclusion.*

Second, something else that might be coming into play is the tendency for us to teach what we are taught, regardless of whether or not it is consistent with our larger belief system in any meaningful way.  I know I’ve seen multiple professors who I know believe strongly in standards of right and wrong, in the truths of Christianity, stand up in class and teach philosophies that they themselves would not espouse if they really took the time to think about them.  Unfortunately, they’ve compartmentalized their lives to the point that they cannot understand how one part of their life might affect the other.  They teach the history that was taught to them (either by professors in person or in books) without really critiquing it from even their own perspective let alone a consistently Biblical worldview.  Perhaps some of Lewis’s teachers were in similar straights.  Perhaps not.  Without a closer look at them (diaries, lectures, etc.) it remains speculation.

Jack’s situation also demonstrates why my wife and I choose to homeschool our daughter.  Teachers exercise a tremendous amount of influence over children, and when a system clearly inculcates the idea that religion (particularly Christianity) is rot on virtually every level, it is often only by happy accident that someone emerges from it not only with their faith intact, but educated in the process.  It is certainly true that few, if any, come out as educated Christians.  I see no reason why we can’t have both–at least we’ll try.

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*From my own observations, this is an analogous period to American education in the 1970s, 80s, and perhaps a bit of the 90s.  America is always behind the curve when compared to Europe–and in this case it isn’t a bad thing.  I simply wish were weren’t trying so hard to catch up!  I see no reason to rush the handbasket on its way to Hell.

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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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