Children’s books and popular presentations of Christian belief are what C.S. Lewis, who died 50 years ago this month, is best known for. But what makes him a favourite for earnest Christians’ christening and confirmation gifts — undaunted supernaturalism and doctrinal conservatism combined with an enticing rhetoric of certitude — makes him distasteful and a little suspicious to us intellectuals: “Mr Lewis is always clever” is the usual snub in Oxford Senior Common Rooms.
A.N. Wilson, in what is still the most widely read biography of Lewis, tries to dispel the magic by meticulously mapping Lewis’s intellectual development onto a well-worn Freudian chart of childhood trauma, repressed sexuality and frustrated ambition. But the diagnoses don’t really stick. There is no doubt, for example, that his mother’s death from cancer when he was nine left an indelible mark on Lewis’s psyche and imagination; but his responses to this and other blows were never obvious or merely reflexive. Indeed, one of the things that make Lewis remarkable is that, exactly contrary to Wilson, he never allowed experiences to become determining causes of his actions or convictions, but actively took hold of them as occasions for learning and, not least, self-questioning. The outcomes of such reflection were often unexpected, and Lewis accepted their consequences with uncompromising honesty.
One such conclusion was his conversion. The deaths first of his mother and then of his friends on the battlefields of the Great War aroused in the aspiring young poet a deeply felt and perfectly commonplace rage against a tyrannical God: “Come let us curse our Master ere we die, / For all our hopes in endless ruin lie. / The good is dead. Let us curse God most High,” Lewis wrote in his cycle of war poems, Spirits in Bondage, with all the consternation of Wilfred Owen or A.E. Housman. But probing further, he realised that it didn’t work — not because his protest was ineffectual but because it was incoherent. Richard Dawkins captures the reason well. When, at a 2012 podium discussion between Dawkins and Rowan Williams, an audience member asked tremulously what to make of the tragedy of an innocent child’s death, Dawkins shrugged that he could see here no puzzle or tragedy, but only an instance (sad perhaps for the mother, but unremarkable in itself) of the evolutionary principle of natural selection. Lewis came to the same conclusion: without God, there is no problem of evil. We may certainly ask, “If God exists, why does he allow evil?” — but we cannot answer that there is no God, or that he is a “brute and blackguard” morally inferior to any ordinary human, without also giving up our own sense of the outrage of evil. For if there is a creator God at all, then human reason, desire and moral intuition have their source in Him no less than the material world does; and if there isn’t, then any moral standard available to us can only derive from the same material processes that govern evolution, and so cannot ground the sort of outrage at the world’s futility that is irreducibly experienced as unconditional and absolute rather than merely relative and practical.
When Lewis accepted theism and later Christianity, then, it was not so much because God was a foolproof answer to the problem of evil, as because He alone made it possible for us to experience evil as evil: to ask the sort of questions and feel the sorts of desire and indignation that define our human experience. This confident but open belief in God gave Lewis a rare boldness as a thinker and imaginative writer — a basic trust that rigorous probing of the world, including our own emotions, would uncover not less but more meaning, even if that meaning might not, at first sight, be simple or reassuring. Of nothing did Lewis think this truer than of the undefined and unquenchable longing which he found at the heart of Plato’s philosophy, Shakespeare’s late plays, Wagner’s operas and to some extent all ordinary loves and ambitions. Much of Lewis’s writing, both critical and imaginative, was an attempt to be true both to the impossibility and to the ineradicability of that desire. His essays “Transposition” and “The Weight of Glory”, and above all perhaps his last novel, Till We Have Faces, are brilliant examples of the results.
This probing mind gave Lewis a certain unorthodox boldness as a person, too. After 50 years as an Oxford bachelor, he married an ex-Communist American Jew with two sons from a previous marriage. When she fell ill with cancer, he quietly accepted the consequences: “Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; lock it up safe in the casket of your selfishness. But in that casket, it will change into something unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation.” It is this uncompromising love of the world that draws one back to Lewis again and again.