December 20, 2008

The Most Reluctant Convert

Category: History,Literature :: Permalink

For some time now, I’ve been reading through C. S. Lewis’s Collected Letters.  I’ve finished Volume 1, together with his diary, All My Road Before Me, and now I’m well on my way through Volume 2.  The first volume ends with Lewis returning to the faith and to the church, and so when I reached that point, I paused to read David C. Downing‘s recent book The Most Reluctant Convert: C. S. Lewis’s Journey to Faith.

Downing is perhaps best known for his book Planets in Peril, a highly regarded study of Lewis’s Ransom trilogy.  More recently, he has written Into the Wardrobe, an in-depth treatment of the Chronicles of Narnia.  Both books are very helpful for understanding Lewis’s writing.

One might wonder why, in between these literary studies, Downing would bother to write a book about Lewis’s conversion.  The story is familiar to most fans of C. S. Lewis, not only because Lewis himself wrote a book about it but also because it is central in most biographies of Lewis.  The story has been told repeatedly.  And yet Downing tells it again.

We should be glad he did.  Downing’s account does not simply repeat the things Lewis discusses in Surprised by Joy; he draws on many other sources to put together a much fuller account of Lewis’s early life, leading up to his return to faith.

Along the way, I learned many things that I hadn’t from other sources.  Downing begins with Lewis’s childhood in Ireland and paying special attention to how the conflict between Protestants and Catholics played out in Lewis’s own family.  He raises the question of how the death of Lewis’s mother affected his early childhood faith.

In the next chapter, Downing discusses Lewis’s boyhood years, spent in England at school, including one school that was particularly horrible.  Lewis and his brother begged their father to rescue them from the school.  In Surprised by Joy, Lewis says that his father chose this school.  But Downing points out that the only member of Lewis’s family to have actually seen the school, and the one who recommended it after touring it, was not Lewis’s father but rather his mother.  Downing calls this

a detail that illustrates the Lewis brothers’ tendency to idealize their lost mother and to be too hard on their father….  Lewis recognized this fault in himself in later years, but even so, this instance reminds us that his judgments of his father do not always give us a fully rounded picture (p. 37).

Later on, Downing points out, as well, that, far from being mere churchgoers, as Lewis himself thought, his mother at least, and perhaps also his father, appear in their own writings to have been sincere Christians:

One of the most significant items Warren discovered in [his parents’] mountain of papers was his father’s diary, in which the latter had recorded his wife’s conversation on her deathbed.  Albert wrote that Flora had advised her sickroom nurse that, when it came time to marry, she should find “a good man who loves you and who loves God.”  They had been quietly discussing the goodness of God when Flora asked suddenly, “What have we done for Him?”  To this quotation, Albert had added, “May I never forget that” (p. 144).

While this brief comment doesn’t reveal much about their faith, it does suggest that Lewis may have misjudged his parents at this point. Chapter 3 introduces Lewis’s atheism, but Chapter 4 illustrates the conflict that Lewis had between his atheistic materialism and his romantic bent.  On the one hand, he believed that whatever appeared beautiful to him was meaningless, just a random arrangement of atoms.  On the other hand, he loved the beauty of nature and saw in it “glimpses of Joy,” which “seemed to suggest some hidden glory at the center of things” (p. 62).   As Lewis said, “Nearly all that I loved I believed to be imaginary; nearly all that I believed to be real I thought grim and meaningless” (cited p. 63).  During this period, Lewis discovered George MacDonald’s novel Phantastes which, he said, “baptized” his imagination, even though intellectually he was still a materialist.  As well, it was at this time that Lewis began writing fiction, and in this chapter Downing gives a helpful summary and examination of Lewis’s unpublished manuscript “The Quest of Bleheris,” showing its similarity at some points to things Lewis would write later.

In chapters 5 and 6, Downing describes Lewis’s dualism, his conviction that materialism was wrong and that there was something (or Something) other than the material world, and then his interest in and later repulsion from the occult.  Chapter 7 traces Lewis’s journey through idealist philosophy and a sort of pantheism, ending with his embrace of theism. Finally, Chapter 8 gives us Lewis’s full conversion.

Here, Downing rightly points out that even though Lewis at first says that he was converted to theism and then to an acceptance of the claims of Jesus Christ, when Lewis starts moving toward a belief in “God,” he isn’t thinking merely of some sort of god but of the God of the Bible.

His distinction between “theism” and “Christianity” is not entirely satisfactory, for it is clear that he was surrendering for the first time to a Person visualized as the God of the Bible, not of the Koran or the kabbalah (pp. 139-140).

In fact, I would question even the phrase “for the first time.”  In the story Downing recounts, as well as the story you can piece together from Lewis’s letters and diary, neither the conversion to theism in 1929 nor the conviction of the truth of Christianity in 1931 were really “first time” events.I don’t recall if Downing addresses this, but it isn’t really proper to think of Lewis’s story simply as a move from atheism to Christianity.  Rather, Lewis starts out as a Christian, baptized and believing as a child, then apostatizes (even while hypocritically being confirmed in the Anglican church) and lapses into atheism, and finally returns to faith, now a mature and grown-up faith but still the faith of his childhood.  This is a richer and more complex story, in other words, a story not just of a conversion but of a conversion which was a return from apostasy.

Throughout the book, Downing draws connections between elements in Lewis’s own life and elements in Lewis’s writing.  Some readers may find that distracting, but I found it particularly interesting.  Again and again, Downing would show that Lewis uses certain words consistently in his writings, so that things he says in his letters or diary shed light on what he says in later writings.  He also shows how Lewis, in his later writings, attacked and refuted some of the false paths that misled him on his way to faith.

When I finished the book, I remember thinking that there were a couple of flaws, but at this point I remember only one: Downing doesn’t discuss Lewis’s interaction with Owen Barfield and Cecil Harwood.  Their friendship began when Lewis came to Oxford and lasted throughout their lives.  Barfield and Harwood were Anthroposophists (though also Anglicans and professing Christians?) and Lewis and Barfield in particular engaged in what was later called “the Great War,” as Lewis rejected Barfield’s views strongly.  After his conversion, though, Lewis wrote to Harwood’s wife and said he was glad she had never read what he wrote about those matters,

for all that is dead as mutton to me now: and the points chiefly at issue between the Anthroposophists and me then were precisely the points on which anthroposophy is certainly right — i.e. the claim that it is possible for man, here and now, in the phenomenal world, to have commerce with the world beyond — which is what I was denying (Collected Letters 2:107).

He goes on to mention a continuing disagreement with Barfield and Anthoposophy.  But from what he says here, it sounds as if his debate with Barfield may have had some impact on him during his journey to faith. Even though he was vigorously rejecting Barfield’s arguments, he was constantly made aware of and thinking about certain matters that he would later embrace when he came to faith.  Perhaps Downing didn’t spend time on this because it is discussed in depth elsewhere (perhaps in Lionel Adey’s C. S. Lewis’s Great War with Owen Barfield which I haven’t read), but I do think that by omitting this debate Downing has skipped over a significant part of the story.

In short, the book was surprisingly good — surprisingly because I thought I already knew the story from Surprised by Joy and also now from Lewis’s letters and diary, and yet Downing revealed several new aspects to the story.  I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to know more about Lewis, and perhaps especially to those who think they know this story already.

Posted by John Barach @ 1:28 pm | Discuss (2)

2 Responses to “The Most Reluctant Convert

  1. Paul Baxter Says:


    if you haven’t read Barfield himself yet, you are missing out. Do read Saving the Appearances.

  2. Chip Lind Says:

    Hey John, Chip here. Hope you’re surviving the winter down there in Oregon. Don’t know if you’ve have had a chance to check out “Planet Narnia” by Michael Ward. I went and heard him speak at SPU and asked him about dragons. Check his site out at and also his SPU lecture at Greetings to Moriah and her fam from me and Janet. Take care,

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