An Atheist’s Search for Joy: Surprised by Joy

Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life by C. S. Lewis

“Joy itself, considered simply as an event in my own mind, turned out to be of no value at all. All the value lay in that of which Joy was the desiring. And that object, quite clearly, was no state of my own mind or body at all.”
“The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men, and His compulsion is our liberation.”

C. S. Lewis is one of the most popular Christian writers of the 20th century. His works include both non-fiction and fiction, including theology, philosophy and science fiction, his best known being The Chronicles of Narnia series. Personally I find some of his theology to be a bit off, so I have to admit I’ve enjoyed his fictional works more than his non-fiction. Surprised by Joy is an autobiographical account of his life up to his conversion from atheism to Christianity. I had always heard that he was an atheist who became a Christian while actually trying to disprove Christianity, but that’s not the way I interpreted his journey towards faith in God, although it was an interesting read (if not a bit dry in places). I do recommend it to anyone who is a staunch Lewis fan.

Clive Staples Lewis was born in 1898 in Belfast, Ireland; his father was a solicitor and his mother’s education was in mathematics. While he grew up surrounded by books and academia, his childhood lacked what he refers to as experiences with beauty – art, nature, poetry, romance – with religion being completely absent. He says,

If aesthetic experiences were rare, religious experiences did not occur at all…I was taught the usual things and made to say my prayers and in due time taken to church I naturally accepted what I was told but I cannot remember feeling much interest in it…Of my mother’s religion I can say almost nothing from my own memory. My childhood, at all events, was not in the least other-worldly.

Lewis describes his father as being “sentimental, passionate, and rhetorical,” and this contrasted with his mother’s peaceful pleasantness made him distrustful and uncomfortable with emotions at a young age. When his mother died when he was eight years old, his father took it badly and became angry and emotionally unpredictable, alienating Clive and his older brother, but causing their bond together to become stronger.

Providentially, Lewis was born with a physical defect in his thumbs which made it difficult for him to handle tools and equipment, inhibiting his ability to make things with his hands or to play many sports with any amount of success. As a result, he turned to writing, and drawing illustrations and maps to go along with his imaginative stories. I find it interesting that his imagination was obviously innate and God-given, since his childhood environment didn’t seem to contribute to or encourage it.

It wasn’t until he went away to boarding school at age nine that Lewis became exposed to sincere, serious Christian teaching and began to pray and read the Bible seriously. But at age 13, under the influence of the head matron of his second school, Lewis became interested in the occult and started losing interest in Christianity, gradually becoming an atheist, and drawn into worldliness as a result of another teacher’s influence.

At this point, Lewis may have abandoned any thought of God, but God had not abandoned His plan to work in him. The beginning of this turning around seemed to occur in 1913, when Lewis’s imagination was rekindled as he became basically obsessed with mythology, calling back to his earlier years when he and his brother would invent fictional kingdoms and characters. At that time, there was never any element of belief; he always knew it to be imaginary. He was a confirmed materialist, putting a lot of weight in the authority of science and believing that only what can be seen and touched was real, and rejecting anything out of hand coming from a Christian, whom he didn’t see as realists. Unfortunately, everything he loved seemed to be imaginary, while he saw reality as “grim and meaningless,” and Christianity held no attraction for him:

Christianity was mainly associated for me with ugly architecture, ugly music, and bad poetry…But what mattered most of all was my deep-seated hatred of authority, my monstrous individualism, my lawlessness. No word in my vocabulary expressed deeper hatred than the word Interference. But Christianity placed at the center what then seemed to me a transcendental Interferer. If its picture were true, then no sort of “treaty with reality” could ever be possible.

In fact this, essentially, is why most people reject the idea of God – they want to be their own god and don’t want to be held accountable by a higher authority.

As a young man, Lewis didn’t realize that his taste in literature and music (opera), and his Latin skills, not to mention his lack of interest in sports, placed him in a class apart from others. This was a contributing factor in the companions he chose and the circles he would become part of. Eventually he became introduced to writers and philosophies which held to beliefs in a spiritual or supernatural realm. He was exposed to and influenced by writers such as John Milton, G. K. Chesterton, George MacDonald, and George Herbert, all who wrote with beauty and eloquence, and spoke about truth, goodness, virtue, and joy. Here again God was working. Lewis makes the comment, “A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading. There are traps everywhere – ‘Bibles laid open, millions of surprises,’ as Herbert says, ‘fine nets and stratagems.’ God is, if I may say it, very unscrupulous.” So true. If God has a target on your back, you cannot escape Him!

Several of his friends at Oxford became Anthroposophists, a philosophy defined (according to Wikipedia) as one that “postulates the existence of an objective, intellectually comprehensible spiritual world, accessible to human experience through inner development.” He also became friends with two Christians who challenged his atheism, one of whom was J. R. R. Tolkien. A subtle question entered and grew in Lewis’s mind: Perhaps there is more than what can be physically seen. Thus God planted a seed of doubt in his mind. His rekindled interest in the possibility of a spirit world could have disastrously led him down the path towards the occult and black magic, but he believes God protected him and did not give him the opportunity or influencer to escort him in this direction. In fact, Lewis had been searching for joy, and in his experience and memory, the occult held only that which was dark and scary – the very opposite of joy.

While rejecting the specific teachings and applications of Anthroposophism, as a result of reading, discussing, and thinking through these ideas, Lewis came to accept that there must be an “Absolute” beyond the physical realm. However he initially chose to think of this “Absolute” as impersonal and did not identify it yet as theism or belief in a personal God. Then one night in 1929, Lewis confessed that God was real, and he says he knelt in prayer, possibly as “the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.” He says in God’s mercy he was brought in “kicking, struggling, and resentful.” But he acknowledges that this was just one more step in the direction towards, but not conversion to, Christianity. As a theist he now began attending church, though merely out of a sense of obedience and obligation and without understanding the value of it. He went through a period of self-examination and reform, although it was not what he considers to be true repentance.

His actual conversion to Christianity took place possibly a year later, after he came to accept the Gospel accounts and the Person they spoke of as truth and not myth. Only when he came to see that Jesus Christ was God in the flesh did he realize that Christianity was not merely a religion or a philosophy, but a fact – a person who must be embraced and a faith that must be lived out.

Every step I had taken, from the Absolute to “Spirit” and from “Spirit” to “God,” had been a step toward the more concrete, the more imminent, the more compulsive. At each step one had less chance “to call one’s  soul one’s own.” To accept the Incarnation was a further step in the same direction. It brings God nearer, or near in a new way.

He continues to explain how his conversion occurred:

I know very well when, but hardly how, the final step was taken. I was driven to Whipsnade one sunny morning. When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did…It was like when a man, after long sleep, still lying motionless in bed, becomes aware that he is now awake.

It was interesting to see the gradual steps that C. S. Lewis made towards accepting the existence of God and finally faith in Christ. The element I found to be missing and wish was included more was the role that God’s Word played in his ultimate repentance and conversion. We know that God uses many different people and circumstances in our lives to draw us to Him, as can be seen in the life of C. S. Lewis. But the primary and essential tool He uses is the truth of Scripture, for it is the Gospel that has the power of God unto salvation, as Paul states in Romans 1:16.

The theme of Lewis’s autobiography is that of Joy: his constant search for it in various places and things offered by the world. He remarks,

I saw that all my waitings and watchings for Joy, all my vain hopes to find some mental content on which I could, so to speak, lay my finger and say, “This is it,” had been a futile attempt to contemplate the enjoyed…for all images and sensations, if idolatrously mistaken for Joy itself, soon honestly confessed themselves inadequate.

C. S. Lewis learned that the only source of real, pure, lasting Joy is God, who is Joy Himself. If we seek to find happiness, satisfaction, contentment, or joy in anything but God, that thing or person is a substitute for God and a mere idol, one which cannot and will never satisfy.

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