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C.S. Lewis: A Leap in the Dark

from Program One


At Oxford, troubled by his own once-fervent atheism, Lewis realizes and admits his will to believe.

Narrator: In 1922, Jack Lewis took his degree in classics and philosophy from Oxford University. At the time, reason and logic dominated academic thinking.

Colin Duriez: Lewis describes the new psychology of Freud, which made a tremendous impact upon undergraduates, particularly somebody like Lewis, whose life was so imaginative.

Lewis: The new Psychology was at that time sweeping through us all. We were all influenced. We were all concerned about fantasy, or wishful thinking. I formed the resolution of always judging and acting with the greatest good sense.

Walter Hooper: He was saying that all youth at that time were trying to escape from wish fulfillment dreams. They got that from Freud. And they wanted to in one way spit on the images of their youth, and go onto they knew not what. But, anyway, leave that behind because it was juvenile.

Narrator: Lewis was writing a long poem called Dymer. In it, he portrayed belief in God as a tempting illusion — one that had to be resisted. But he found that in his own life he wasn't so certain. The question of God's existence would not let him go.

Lewis: I was at that time living like many atheists; in a whirl of contradictions. I maintained that God did not exist. I was also very angry with God for not existing. I was equally angry with him for creating a world. Why should creatures have the burden of existence forced on them without their consent?

Narrator: More than anything, Lewis wanted to write poetry — and for that he needed the security of an academic career. He applied for teaching jobs at Oxford, but college after college turn him down.

Lewis: I was attacked by a series of gloomy thoughts about professional and literary failure. Such a rage against poverty and fear and all the infernal net I seemed to be in that I went out and mowed the lawn and cursed all the gods for half an hour.

Hooper: Lewis's first ambition, a burning ambition, from the age of about 15, was to be a poet — a great poet.

Lewis: I cannot say simply that I desire, not my fame, but that of the poem. Nor was the feeling a disinterested love for Dymer simply as a poem. It was a desire that something that I recognize as my own should publicly be found good.

Narrator: His hopes were finally fulfilled in 1925. Magdalen College made him a fellow. The next year, he found a publisher for his long poem Dymer. Success at last — but it was not enough.

Lewis: All the books were beginning to turn against me. Indeed, I must have been as blind as a bat not to have seen, long before, the ludicrous contradiction between my theory of life and my actual experiences as a reader. The most religious were clearly those on whom I could really feed.

Hooper: The poetry he really cared about was not Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein. All these years the greatest pleasure he ever had was from Christian poetry. Things like Spencer, Milton — all of these great poets. And yet he found out that he was reading them, as he later said, with the point left out. The same thing was happening with his friends — the people he thought he should've liked were the college atheists. But the ones he really liked were Tolkien, a practicing very devout Catholic, and Owen Barfield, who asked all the right questions.

Lewis: I can only describe it as the Great War between Barfield and me. When I set out to correct his heresies, I find that he had decided to correct mine! And then we went at it, hammer and tongs, far into the night, night after night.

Duriez: Barfield believed that the imagination plays a very important part in how we know. He rejected the model that science is the only way to truth, to acquiring truth. He felt that the imagination was laid behind even the work of science. It gave meaning to propositions. And so he felt that Lewis was missing out in his whole approach to reality on what made knowledge possible.

Lewis: I was suddenly compelled to read the Hippolytus of Euripides.

"Oh God, bring me to the sea's end
To the Hesperides, sisters of evening,
Who sing alone in their islands
Where the golden apples grow,
And the Lord of Oceans guards the way
From all who would sail
Into their night-blue harbors —
Let me escape to the rim of the world
Where the tremendous firmament meets
The earth, and Atlas holds the universe
In his palms.
For there, in the palace of Zeus,
Wells of ambrosia pour through the chambers,
While the sacred earth lavishes life
And Time adds his years
Only to heaven's happiness"

... I was off once more into the land of longing, my heart at once broken and exalted as it had never been since the old days. I was overwhelmed. I called it Joy.

Peter Kreeft: When Lewis talks about joy, he talks about something that he labels the central theme of his whole life. But what he means by joy is not the satisfaction of a desire, but a desire that is more desirable than any satisfaction.

Lewis: There was no doubt Joy was a desire. But a desire is turned not to itself, but to an object. I had been wrong in supposing that I desired for Joy itself. All value lay in that of which Joy was the desiring. The naked other. Unknown, undefined, desired. I did not yet ask "Who is desired?"

Kreeft: The very experience of Joy that Lewis had was an arrow that led to the target of belief in God. Lewis argued innate, deep desires do not exist unless they correspond to something that can satisfy them. If there is hunger, there is food. If there is sexual desire, there is sex. If there is curiosity, there is knowledge. So if there is the desire for this thing that is beyond this world, there must be something beyond this world.

Narrator: Lewis was still resisting — but growing tired from the struggle.

Lewis: The fox had now been dislodged from the wood and was running in the open, bedraggled and weary, the hounds barely a field behind. The odd thing was that before God closed in on me, I was in fact offered what now appears to be a moment of wholly free choice. I was going up Headington Hill on the top of a bus. Without words, and almost without images, a fact about myself was somehow presented to me. I became aware that I was holding something at bay.

I felt myself being given a free choice. I could open the door or keep it shut. I chose to open. I felt as if I were a man of snow at long last beginning to melt. Drip-drip. And presently trickle-trickle.

I had always wanted, above all things, not to be interfered with. I had wanted — mad wish — to call my soul my own. I had been far more anxious to avoid suffering than to achieve delight.

You must picture me alone in that room at Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet.

Total surrender, the absolute leap in the dark, were demanded. I gave in, and admitted that God was God ... perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.