C.S.Lewis is most famous for his children’s fantasy series, the Chronicles of Narnia, but by the time he had written them, he had already spent forty years becoming one of the last century’s most prolific letter-writers.
That the man Yeshua or Jesus did actually exist, is as certain as that the Buddha did actually exist: Tacitus mentions his execution in the Annals. But all the other tomfoolery about virgin birth, magic healing, apparitions and so forth is on exactly the same footing as any other mythology. (VI, p.234).
No, it’s not a quote from Richard Dawkins’s latest assault on religion, but one from the popular Christian writer, C.S.Lewis. Lewis is most famous as author of the Narnia Chronicles, from which the newly released film, Prince Caspian, is drawn. But the recently completed three-volume collection of his correspondence, from 1905 to 1963 (the year of his death) will cause a reassessment of his contribution to 20th century letters.
The quotation above is by Lewis in a letter to his friend—in fact, his first and best childhood friend—Arthur Greeves, back in 1916, a long while before he even considered becoming a Christian himself. Greeves and Lewis connected over a shared love of Norse mythology, but the record of their correspondence is a precious guide to Lewis’s celebrated spiritual journey towards admitting that God is God and becoming ‘the most reluctant convert in all England’ as he described himself.
Lewis received a stunning number of letters daily—perhaps akin to the number of emails we each receive now. Lewis, unlike most of us, read them and answered them seriously and courteously. Whether it was a reader’s complaint that a character in The Screwtape Letters could not have seen Bus 73 from where he was standing in London (VIII, p.1562) to comments on the comic reading habits of children (VIII, p.1178)—Lewis thought adults were hypocrites about this—he penned a genuine reply.
I can’t pretend to have read it all – there are thousands of letters amounting to 3900 pages here, but I’ve read parts of all three volumes and scoured volume one, reading it with a particular eye to his discussion of Christianity. Lewis’s early letters are filled with literary reflections, advice and queries about moral and behavioural questions, and deeply serious yet light-hearted discussions with such famous figures as science fiction writer, Arthur C. Clarke, fellow novelists J.R.R. Tolkien, Dorothy L. Sayers, and poet T.S. Eliot.
However, the most extensive discussion of Christianity takes place with his childhood friend, Arthur Greeves. Their friendship has long been studied, and it is an intense and delightful one. Greeves was not much like Lewis—he was a bit muddled-headed, a painter but not an intellectual—and yet Lewis admired him as much as anyone for his humility, his appreciation of a garden as much as a book, and his warm, accepting demeanour. He seems to have been the perfect foil for Lewis’s ferocious rationalism and hyper-active conscience.
Lewis can hurl his objections to religion at the patient Greeves without risking their friendship, as seen in one of the first letters between them to explore Christian ideas:
[S]trange as it may appear I am quite content to live without beleiving (sic) in a bogey who is prepared to torture me forever and ever if I should fail in coming up to an almost impossible ideal…As to the immortality of the soul, though it is a fascinating theme for day-dreaming, I neither beleive nor disbeleive (sic): I simply don’t know anything at all, there is no evidence either way. (VI, p.235).
Greeves’s unsatisfactory apologetic manoeuvres towards Lewis (most of which we don’t have, since Lewis didn’t keep his letters), seem to have goaded Lewis into greater consideration of Christian doctrine, but these ruminations do not appear in the early letters, and there is very little correspondence concerning his conversion to theism at Magdalen College in 1929. Most correspondence up until this point concerns matters of friendship and reading. One fascinating exception is Lewis’s admission to Greeves late in 1929 that he is finding ‘more and more the element of truth in the old beliefs…even their dreadful side’ (VI, p.850).
Lewis’s conversion to theism is certainly less remarked upon by him than his tortuous path towards belief in the divinity and lordship of Jesus Christ. In 1930, he is still writing to Greeves that, ‘In spite of all my recent changes of view, I am still inclined to think that you can only get what you call “Christ” out of the Gospels by picking & choosing, & slurring over a great deal’ (VI, p.862).
But precious moments of spiritual awakening emerge as the correspondence continues, such as Lewis’s remark in 1930: ‘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.’ (VI, p.882). Something is slouching towards Bethlehem in Lewis’s mind’s eye! Furthermore, Lewis is awkwardly aware that he is not entirely in control of what is going on: ‘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.’ (VI, p.887).
The key letter to Greeves describing Lewis’s conversion to Christianity is dated 18th October, 1931, although his belief in Christ had been mentioned briefly in a few letters already. In this significant record, Lewis outlines how his friends Tolkien and Dyson had explained to him the meaning of sacrifice and propitiation as they strode Addison’s Walk behind Magdalen College at 3am. He describes the death and resurrection of Jesus as ‘true myth’, ‘a myth working in us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened’ True to his endlessly inquisitive and restless mind, Lewis concludes the letter by saying ‘I am also nearly certain that it really happened.’ (VI, p.976-7).
I always feel a little queasy reading the personal letters of famous people. The collection’s editor, Walter Hooper, justifies his project in the Foreword by recalling with what care Lewis and his brother Warnie preserved their own father’s correspondence. Yet it still seems unfair that private words are publicly displayed, as we readers presume some right to friendship and intimacy that we never earned. And yet, it is often in the letters when the real character, the genuine concerns, and the reasons for which the person has gained such prominence are revealed. Despite the fact that Lewis thought written letters were often more grandiose and unrealistic than conversation (VI, p.91), he nevertheless used letter-writing to explore deeper and more serious connections between people than they would usually establish across the table. The letters reveal a bruised and open heart that was thoroughly and painfully explored by the God Lewis came, reluctantly, to believe in.
The Collected Letters of C.S.Lewis in three volumes:
Volume I: Family Letters (1905-1931). Ed. Walter Hooper. HarperSanFrancisco, NY, 2004.
Volume 2: Books, Broadcasts, and the War (1931-1949). Ed. Walter Hooper. HarperSanFrancisco, NY, 2004.
Volume 3: Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy (1950-1963). HarperSanFrancisco, NY, 2007.
Greg Clarke is a Director of the Centre for Public Christianity.