Was C.S. Lewis Wrong about His Own Conversion?

Surprised by Joy by C.S. LewisC.S. Lewis’ conversion to Christianity is one of the 21st century’s classic spiritual stories. And the moment of his final, reluctant yielding to a belief in God has been often repeated:

“You must picture me alone in that room in 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. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England” (Surprised by Joy, ch. 14).

I have been slowly working through Lewis’ published poetry, voluminous letters, and personal diary of the 1920s. It is true that the reader can see a shift in Lewis through the period. As I was moving toward this expected “Trinity Term of 1929,” though, two publications simultaneously questioned the date of Lewis’ conversion to theism–they questioned the timing of that first reluctant prayer.

The first hint came by whispers. When I was at the Wade Center last summer, I overheard staff and researchers talking about how leading Christian intellectual Alister McGrath was doing an “insider’s” biography of Lewis. Like C.S. Lewis, McGrath is an Irish convert to Christianity from Lewis Relecutant Prophet Eccentric Genius Alister McGrathatheism, and they both centred their academic life around Oxford. In the first wave of advertising for McGrath’s C. S. Lewis – A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet came the idea that McGrath challenged that conversion date, and would argue for a 1930 date rather than Spring 1929 (as Lewis himself claimed).

Any critical historian would immediately challenge McGrath’s conclusion based on the testimony of the man himself! But a second stream of questioning came from a second, independent source. More than confirmation, though, this is a primary source: C.S. Lewis’ own words, pinning down his theistic conversion to June, 1930. American C.S. Lewis scholar Andrew Lazo connected the dots based on his work in an early conversion narrative of C.S. Lewis’ that is now housed at the Wade. He is publishing the results in VII: An Anglo-American Literary Review, which has just been released.

I have been waiting until I read all the material for myself to make a judgment. As is proper historically, I have read through all of Lewis’ published work before looking at what other scholars say–in particular, his letters and journal. I must admit, based on his letters, I don’t think that Lewis had converted to theism in Spring 1929. His belief seems, to me, to come on strong through Fall ’29 through Spring ’30. We know that he has converted by the end of 1930. In a Christmas Eve 1930 letter to his best Collected Letters vol 1friend, Arthur Greeves, his conversion is a fait accompli–he admits that he has personal doubt, though he has no reason intellectually to doubt the existence of God. And in a June 1, 1930 letter he speaks of temptation and sin, which fits with Lazo’s target date.

But I have some doubts. In a Mar 21st, 1930 letter to A.K. Hamilton Jenkin, Lewis writes:

“On my side there are changes perhaps bigger: you will be surprised to hear that my outlook is now definitely religious. It is not precisely Christianity, though it may turn out that way in the end. I can’t express the change better than by saying that whereas once I would have said ‘Shall I adopt Christianity’, I now wait to see whether it will adopt me: i. e., I now know there is another Party in the affair—that I’m playing poker, not Patience, as I once supposed.”

This sounds much like the Surprised by Joy quotation above–taken from a chapter entitled “Checkmate”–though perhaps that’s where Lewis has finally lost the hand of poker! Moving back further, in Feb 1930 Lewis writes to his anthroposophical friend, Owen Barfield:

“Terrible things are happening to me. The ‘Spirit’ or ‘Real I’ is showing an alarming tendency to become much more personal and is taking the offensive, and behaving just like God. You’d better come on Monday at the latest or I may have entered a monastery.”

About the same time, Lewis writes to Arthur Greeves that materialism is definitely not what he believes and speaks of a group of “us” when it comes to religious belief. That winter of 1929-30 Lewis speaks of his spiritual growth and meditation practices. And in a Jan 26, 1930 letter to Arthur Greeves I found what I can only describe as the first “Lewisian” moral statement–an idea with that upside down quality we see in his WWII books:

“I suppose there is such a thing as imagining you have got beyond the stage of hating bad men, when in reality you haven’t got as far as hating them. Divine charity must be very different from human truckling to bullies, or human indulgence for rotters because they are amusing…”

Alister McGrathThere are hints in 1929 of spiritual growth but nothing like that Mar 21, 1930 letter to Jenkin. Now that I have read Lewis’ work up through The Pilgrim’s Regress (1933)–which I am almost through for the second time–I will look at the work of McGrath and Lazo and come to conclusion. I think, though, they are on to something. Winter of 1929-30 was spiritually very rich for Lewis, and it seems that he finally gave in during the first half of 1930 (rather than late Spring of 1929).

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About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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27 Responses to Was C.S. Lewis Wrong about His Own Conversion?

  1. jubilare says:

    “You’d better come on Monday at the latest or I may have entered a monastery.”
    It’s comments like this that make Lewis so entertaining. Without his sense of humor, he’d still be worth reading, but not half as much fun!

    Like

    • Well said. I’m reading the Pilgrim’s Regress, and although it was very funny to him and his friends, I’m missing a lot of the jokes! But the letters (of which I’m about 1/3 through) are quite funny.

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  2. I admire your ability to follow these details (of dates, etc.) so closely. I always get so caught up in the narrative, themes, and writing style that I forget to observe things like that. I look forward to your final opinion on this matter.

    Like

    • Thanks so much! But I’ve seen your youtube lectures on That Hideous Strength. I think your eye for detail is quite sharp. This is why we read in community, why we publish: we come from different reading sites and see things differently. So iron sharpens iron, etc.

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  3. Great summary of the issue. For those interested in further reading, an article by Andrew Lazo in
    VII (SEVEN) from the Wade Center is now available (I just got my copy in the mail today).
    http://www.wheaton.edu/wadecenter/Journal-VII

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    • You are right, William. I’ve actually decided to subscribe–I can’t wait any more for academic libraries to pick it up! I also linked your interview.
      And I did link that article. Have you read it?

      Like

      • We had guests for dinner, but I managed to start it before they arrived and just now finished it. I read your piece this morning and then with the arrival of the journal in the mail today I got carried away with bragging that I had a copy when encouraging others to consider getting it. 🙂
        Anyway, I must say that Andrew does an excellent job defending the belief that the date is in 1930. His evidence is presented very clearly and I think proves it couldn’t have been 1929.

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  4. I don’t see Lewis as a man who would be too concerned with pinning down his own dates. He HATED having fans poking about in his biography and I think he was ivory-towered enough to be more interested in content than context (at least as far as timing and perhaps even sequence of events were concerned)–the what than the when.

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    • You might be right, Jessica. He did poke fun of people (like me) doing degrees in his work.
      But, I’m a historian. This is what we do. And, personally, I need help reading The Pilgrim’s Regress–and rereading these letters help.
      More than that, though, scholarship is a funny business. You might complain that we can’t see the forest for the trees. But, sometimes, knowing the DNA of a particular tree helps understand the whole forest. Going into that little detail might help against an invasive species, for example.
      And that’s how this work on Lewis goes. We read broadly, we think, we discuss, we translate. Occasionally we disappear into a moment so we can better understand the whole.
      So, that’s my “apology” (in both senses of the word). As far as Lewis’ humour, you are bang on.

      Like

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  15. Ian says:

    I would take his word. I imagine he knew he was regenerated when he got on his knees and prayed. He just didn’t know yet what that all entailed. As his faith sought understanding, he started to really grow spiritually. I liken it to a man who enters the military. He takes an oath and is immediately a Marine or serviceman. He hasn’t entered boot camp yet and doesn’t yet know how to be a Marine, but he’s a Marine none the less and will likely be a better Marine shortly thereafter with training and experience. That’s my two cents and thanks for writing this blog!

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