Opinion: C.S. Lewis can teach us much about struggling with faith
The lesson at this holiday season for a world ravaged by the disillusioning inertia of a pandemic, rising inflation and socially paralyzing partisanship is to simply do good
The holidays are a time to consider the things that matter in life. If you struggle with purpose, if you wrestle with faith, if you seek lasting companionship, C.S. Lewis offers simple steps to find enduring satisfaction.
In his autobiographical “Surprised by Joy,” a memoir of his own falling away from faith as a young man and subsequent rediscovery of the divine, he outlines a simple, though surprising truth: When we do good, God will find us — sometimes without us explicitly looking for him.
I should preface the lessons from Lewis’ search for meaning with a few observations about his book. First, Lewis wrote his memoir in his late 50s (the book was published in 1955, the author born in 1898), but the subject matter covered his early life, adolescence and college days. When we talk of Lewis losing his faith, we are talking about a young man letting go of traditions rather than hard-won personal conviction. He was raised by a not particularly observant Christian widower who expected good behavior from his two sons, but put little effort into making devotion a central part of their lives.
It would be an exaggeration, then, to say that Lewis became a hardened atheist. Instead, he fell in with the fashionable crowd at boarding school, substituted worldly ideas for an undeveloped faith, and then earnestly tried by trial and error to find happiness in three areas of his life: a) the things that he chose to do; b) the sources he chose to learn from; and, c) the people with whom he mingled.
It was only in retrospect that he found God looking for him as he merely attempted to do good in these three areas of his life.
First, Lewis pursued high ideals in his preferred activities. While Lewis loathed traveling, he loved walking in the countryside for long stretches of time between morning and evening studies. This is probably what endeared him to England as much as to the gently rolling hills near his Belfast, Ireland, home. He found that natural beauty resonated with the purest and most pleasant experiences of his innocent youth.
He also found solace in beautiful music — in his case Wagnerian operas that gave musical expression to the Nordic myths that he so enjoyed reading with his friend, Arthur Greeves. He credits both of these factors for leading him to truth, a place where he could be touched by a higher power.
Second, Lewis’s memoir catalogs the long list of books that helped him find meaning, and ultimately what he deemed to be the truth, from the time he was an adolescent until the time he returned to faith. This twisting path began with Nordic mythology and its adherence to absolute ideals, but then meandered through philosophy and then back again into science fiction and fantasy.
Over time, he intuited that there was something of deeper substance about the authors he read who happened to be persons of faith. While other authors might exhibit greater rhetorical flash, there was something endearing — even enduring — in the writings of those with faith. Lewis credited God with allowing him to meander through ideas at his own pace before manifesting himself to a young, professorial Lewis.
Third, Lewis surrounded him with good people, which also put him in a position to be found by God. Even as a rebellious youth, Lewis instinctively gravitated towards teachers who radiated goodness and a belief in the absolute. He could contrast the hazing of school-time bullies with the decorum of the officers he met as a young soldier during his service in World War I.
These latter associations nudged him to start practicing the very principles of goodness that edged him toward faith (in conjunction with what he was studying and how he was using his time). Ultimately, as is so well known in the lore of Lewis’ life, it was the association of believing friends such as J.R.R. Tolkien — of “Lord of the Rings” fame — that invited Lewis back to consider a faith-centered life.
It is often a truism that people must seek out God if they are to find a higher power. The knob on the inside is for us to turn, to let that presence into our life. Lewis taught that the opposite was true. He may have been pursuing a life of goodness and seeking after truth, but for that reason God was seeking him out just as much as the reverse.
The takeaway at this holiday season for a world ravaged by the disillusioning inertia of a pandemic, rising inflation and socially paralyzing partisanship, is to simply do good — in our everyday activities, in the things we choose to read and study and in the company that we keep. Should we do those things, we might not be too surprised — as was Lewis — to find a hallowed companion we might not have expected.
Evan Ward is an associate professor of history at Brigham Young University, where he teaches courses in world history. His views are his own.