I am not quite sure how to classify C. S. Lewis’s Surprised by Joy. It is an autobiography, of sorts, but Lewis only wrote about his early, pre-Christian life. He had quite a lot to write about his childhood and adolescence and his early loss of his faith. He seemed to have less to write about his adult life, his service in World War I, and his career at Oxford and the narrative ends when he became a Theist. He seems to have ended just when many readers might want to know more.
Lewis’s journey was not primarily a spiritual one. There was no conversion on the road to Damascus for Lewis. His journey was largely an intellectual one. His faith was shaken by the death of his mother but destroyed by his intellectual pride and a too ready acceptance of the materialist philosophies of his time. C. S. Lewis became a Theist when he realized that many Christians were quite intelligent men. He found that he could no longer believe that a writer like G. K. Chesterton or George MacDonald was brilliant despite his faith.
Lewis’s journey was also a lifelong search for what he called Joy, an indescribable longing for something not found in this world and that can never really be satisfied by the world. Lewis describes his search for Joy in pleasure, the world’s philosophy, and other such vanities. He got snatches of Joy in Nordic mythology, a feeling he called “Northerness”, in music, friendships, etc but it was never the real thing. Ultimately, Lewis found Joy after he stopped looking for it, in his Christian faith. He didn’t expect to find Joy there. Lewis described himself as a reluctant and miserable convert. Lewis’s lesson seems to be that you cannot find Joy by looking for it. If you seek for other things, especially the Ultimate Source of Joy, Christ, you may surprise yourself by finding Joy.
I do not believe that C. S. Lewis was ever really an Atheist. He was not being dishonest, except with himself. For a very long time, Lewis tried to convince himself to be an atheist, but it never really stuck. He never fully accepted the materialist, naturalist worldview that is necessary for true atheism. By his account here, Lewis always had a somewhat mystical bent, a feeling that there is more to the world than meets the eye. One of the temptations he faced in his youth was a fascination with the occult and Lewis admitted that if he had run into the right (wrong?) sort of people he might have ended up a magician or even a Satanist. This seems hardly the sort a Richard Dawkins is made of, but a Dawkins would never have responded to Christ’s call.
Surprised by Joy is one of Lewis’s better books. Some of his best lines, the ones people are always quoting can be found in this book. Lewis recounts his early life with good humor and the result is a very readable story. There are too many typos in the Kindle edition of this book which are very annoying. I hope this can be corrected.
- Feast of Clive Staples Lewis (emmanuelchatham.typepad.com)
- AAJ Podcast: C.S. Lewis vs the New Atheists # 8 – Conclusion: First Things First (lewisminute.wordpress.com)
- Alister McGrath’s Book on Lewis is Free for Kindle. Today Only! (cwoznicki.com)