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The Question of God

The Life of C.S. Lewis

C.S. Lewis (1898 — 1963)

Clive Staples Lewis was born in 1898, 42 years after Freud. Along with his older brother and close companion Warren, Clive (or "Jack," as he preferred to be called) grew up in a middle-class household in Belfast, Northern Ireland with his father, who was a lawyer, and mother, a mathematician.

Lewis turned bitter toward religion early in life, catalyzed by the apparent ineffectiveness of his prayers to prevent his mother's death when he was 10. His sense of betrayal by God was heightened when he was sent off to a boarding school that he hated, in part because he found the religious exercises that were required of him there dull and contrived. His pre-university tour of duty in World War I only solidified his atheism, since the suffering he had witnessed and experienced seemed irreconcilable with the existence of a good God.

Lewis's burning ambition, from the age of about 15 onward, was to be a great poet. After receiving his degree in classics and philosophy from Oxford University in 1922 — a program which included the study of Freud's theories of psychology — he accepted a position as a fellow at Magdalen College and sought opportunities to get published. His main work at that point, Dymer, was a long poem that portrayed belief in God as a tempting illusion — one that had to be resisted. But he found that in his own life the question of God's existence would not let him go.

By the 1950s, C.S. Lewis had become the most popular spokesman for Christianity in the English-speaking world.

Surrounded by other scholars who were intensely interested in theological issues and writings, Lewis found his atheism challenged by literary critics Owen Barfield and Hugo Dyson, writer Charles Williams, and perhaps most famously, the medievalist J.R.R. Tolkien. As a result of his conversations with these scholars, as well as his own reading of classic Christian literature and the New Testament in Greek, Lewis converted to theism, and later Christianity in 1931.

This group of scholars, who called themselves "The Inklings," stayed together throughout the 1930s, meeting weekly to consider their Christian faith in light of the culture of scientific rationalism that was permeating the university at that time. Through their writings, including Lewis's trilogy Out of the Silent Planet and Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings series, they attempted to use their literary and rhetorical skills to defend the faith they had adopted.

For Lewis, the definition of love was what most sharply differentiated the Christian worldview from the secular worldview. In 1960, he wrote a book called The Four Loves, which compared the divine, unconditional love inherent in Christianity to the affection for family and friends and sexual love that Freud covered in his work. The difference, he said, was that the divine love enables a person to love without any direct personal benefit, while most other forms of love are at some level motivated by a desire to fulfill a self-interest. This unique form of love did not simply evolve from human experience, in Lewis's view, but rather, was implanted in every human being by God through what Lewis termed "the moral law."

Lewis quickly rose to fame in England in the 1940s after the director of religious programming at the BBC asked him to give some broadcast talks about faith during the Second World War. What started as an experimental series of five 15-minute broadcasts grew into a program fueled by popular demand, and later formed the core of the best-selling book Mere Christianity. Lewis followed this book with The Screwtape Letters, in which a senior devil teaches a young apprentice the tools of the trade, and The Problem of Pain, a treatise on suffering. By the 1950s, C.S. Lewis had become a famous figure and the most popular spokesman for Christianity in the English-speaking world.

While Lewis spent most of his life as a bachelor, he counted his brief marriage to Helen Joy Davidman, a novelist and a poet from New York, as his happiest period. Motivated in part by Lewis's work, Davidman had converted from Judaism to Christianity. The two married in a civil ceremony on Christmas Eve 1956, in the knowledge that Davidman had bone cancer and would likely not live a great deal longer. A period of remission gave them three years together, but the cancer finally claimed Davidman's life in 1960. The pain of this curtailed love affair gave rise in 1961 to A Grief Observed, a book in which Lewis wrestles with how to maintain one's faith in the wake of profound loss. On November 22, 1963, one week before his 65th birthday, and on the same day as Aldous Huxley and President John F. Kennedy, C.S. Lewis died.