Among all the influential Christian thinkers throughout history, C.S. Lewis is among a select few who were, at some point in their lives, strongly atheist. Looking at Lewis’ literary output and his profound influence on popular and academic Christianity in the 20th century, one might be hard-pressed to believe that, as a young man, Lewis was an avowed unbeliever.
Surprised by Joy details that long, varied journey from faith to atheism and back again. Lewis carries us through his early childhood, a hapless, happy existence, into his rowdy adolescence, his priggish high-school years, and his early adulthood’s burgeoning rationalism. Throughout, Lewis encounters horrid and brutal schoolmasters, the death of his mother, suffocating intra-scholastic social hierarchies, strains and bonds with his brother and father, friendships, losses, and a myriad of other formative events.
Defining that journey, always lingering at the fringes of Lewis’ life, was a certain inexplicable feeling — one that would be the first key to his religious awakening: Joy. This is not joy in the standard, connotative sense, but something much deeper — as Lewis puts it, Joy with a capital J.
Clive Staples Lewis, born in Belfast in 1898, was a highly influential author and lay theologian. As an academic, he held posts at both Oxford and Cambridge. Though born into the Church of Ireland, Lewis lost his faith in Christianity and became a staunch atheist as an adolescent and young man. At the age of 32, through a variety of influences discussed at length in Surprised by Joy, he became a Christian once more — this time in the Anglican Church.
Lewis’ influence on popular Christianity cannot be overstated. His works have sold millions upon millions of copies and have been translated into more than thirty languages. His children’s book series, The Chronicles of Narnia, and his works of Christian apologetics, Mere Christianity and Miracles, had and continue to have lasting cultural impact. His work, which also includes The Weight of Glory and The Problem of Pain, is a consistent reference point in theological circles to this day, both popular and academic.
Lewis died in 1963 at age 64. He has since been memorialized in the legendary Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey.
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For many, C.S. Lewis is the pinnacle of the faithful Christian, a person who dedicated much of his life to explaining Christian ideas and the defense of the Christian lifestyle. For many still, whether through his expert defense of the faith in Mere Christianity, his damning examination of sin in The Screwtape Letters, his moving allegories for the faith in The Chronicles of Narnia, or one of his many other explorations of the Christian life, C.S. Lewis helped to bring them to the faith.
Lewis’ account of his childhood up through his intellectual maturation shows us that, even for a person like the one that Lewis became, the journey of faith is not a straight line, nor is it a short one. Just as Lewis converted many non-believers to the faith through his writing, at one point, Lewis was in dire need of conversion himself. From the beginning of his religious life, he was a Christian by rote more than anything else — a cultural Christian. He participated in the duties and celebrated the holidays, but he knew no deeper spiritual experience than those.
For a moment, Lewis’ Christian spirit rose up, and during his time at boarding school, he became a genuinely devout Christian, praying, studying, and practicing his faith in the company of faithful mentors. After an unfortunate series of spiritual struggles and personal and literary encounters, the seeds of doubt began to loom large in Lewis’ mind. As his increasingly pretentious and rationalist mind developed throughout his teens, a newfound atheism became more and more pronounced and rigid.
Still, even from this deep hole, Lewis would emerge a Christian only a few short years later. After several encounters with Joy, some influential friends and professors, and some crucial readings of Yeats, MacDonald, and Chesterton, Lewis shed his intellectual preference for atheism and materialism in favor of Christianity. Do not be discouraged when your friends, family members, or fellow Christians experience struggles with their faith — Lewis’ story demonstrates that finding one’s faith is a highly personal process, in equal parts self-discovery and intellectual and emotional exploration.
Lewis was born into the Church of Ireland in Belfast, in 1898. His childhood (ages one to six) was mundanely happy, though not particularly religious. He had a penchant for creating fictional worlds and writing, all the while lazily participating in the religious rituals of English family life.
Three moments, however, stand out beyond all others in his childhood. In those moments Lewis experienced what he calls Joy:
In those moments, Lewis experienced not happiness, not pleasure, but a deep, irresistible, fleeting desire. That desire was not erotic and not an infatuation. It was, rather, a profound longing that is — to those who have experienced it — the one and only object worthy of our attention.