Monday, July 11, 2016

An Atheist Reads "Surprised by Joy"

Surprised by Joy
The Shape of My Early Life
C. S. Lewis
Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich (1966)
To reveal art and conceal the artist is art's aim. ~ Oscar Wilde

C. S. Lewis is the author of The Chronicles of Narnia. He's also known for his 20th Century writings on Christian faith. He had a fairly ordinary childhood for an upper crust Protestant Irish kid, became a big deal at Oxford University, and was friends with J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. His actual given names were Clive Staples, but people mostly just called him Jack. He was born and raised in Ireland and his mother died of cancer when he was still quite young.

He was, for a time, an outspoken Atheist. Surprised by Joy is not his first account of turning from Atheism to Christianity. That was A Pilgrim's Regress, written more than two decades earlier. The earlier book is allegorical. Surprised by Joy was written to be a much more personal account, published at a time when he moved from Oxford to Cambridge.

The book takes its title from a poem by Wordsworth.

Surprised by joy—impatient as the Wind
I turned to share the transport—Oh! with whom
But Thee, long buried in the silent Tomb,
That spot which no vicissitude can find?

In those few lines Wordsworth describes a feeling perhaps many people who have lost someone they loved are familiar with. Feynman describes it in What Do You Care What Other People Think? in a passage concerning the time after his wife had passed away from tuberculosis. I have experienced it after my best friend from high school passed away.

For Lewis the concept of Joy becomes a term of art in this book, a word that he uses in place of a more cumbersome description. He does not mean happiness or delight. He begins the project by describing a handful of specific experiences he has as a young child, when he was transported on a moment of feelings that were, as he puts it, not connected to this world. Lewis makes a point of referencing an Other World, a realm perhaps defined by myth, yet as real as ours. When Lewis was young he wrote of fantasy lands, long before Narnia, but they were not this Other World. Not even Narnia is this Other World. Lewis describes Joy as a glimpse of this Other World, a surprising glimpse as it comes unexpectedly and unsought.

It was to me helpful to see the connection between Lewis's Joy and Wordsworth's joy - both are surprising, both have a sting of pain. In spite of that sting, Lewis describes how much of what he set out to do he did in the hopes of experiencing that Joy.

Lewis spends an inordinate amount of time telling of his time growing up. There was a horrible little public school, later an unremarkable prep school followed by a horrible college (what Americans would call high school). The main point of these stories is that Lewis wants his readers to understand how he came to be an atheist. He also writes that he became a "prig," a person who thinks he is better than those around him. Later in his telling that is also an important feature of his youth. But most importantly, Lewis writes that his time at college turned him into an atheist. The way he describes it it was not the fault of the setting and the people around him, but that he himself had turned his religious observances in to a chore, so he just stopped doing them.

After he has spent a short time at college he persuaded his father to send him to a private tutor, Kirkpatrick, a man his father calls "the Great Knock," and whom Lewis refers to as Kirk. Kirkpatrick was an atheist and a materialist, of whom Lewis writes,

"I hasten to add that he was a "Rationalist" of the old, high and dry nineteenth-century type. For Atheism has come down in the world since those days, and mixed itself with politics and learned to dabble in dirt."

Kirkpatrick proceeded to school Lewis in sorting out his arguments. Lewis describes this time as a very happy time.

In the meantime the First World War started. Lewis' older brother joined up, and Lewis himself went to Oxford to get a scholarship and enter officer school. Very little of real importance to his conversion story seems to happen at this time, though he does mention some people he met who demonstrated to him the virtue of living a principled life.

Lewis was injured and returned to England to recuperate. The war ended before he was ready to return to battle, and he went back to Oxford to resume his studies. He talks about finding various authors who convinced him to discard or reexamine this or that belief he had. It's these readings that he is referring to when he writes,

"A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading. There are traps everywhere - "Bibles laid open, millions of surprises," as Herbert says, "fine nets and stratagems." God is, if I may say it, very unscrupulous."

These readings, he writes, brought him to deism, to theism, and finally to Christianity.

Yes, that is all.

I found the book to be an immense disappointment. For some reason Christian reviewers write of it in terms that made me think there might be more to it, that Lewis would deliver himself of something more personal than a list of authors he read, but ultimately Lewis was dishonest with himself.

I kind of guessed that Lewis was going to be dishonest. Right at the outset of the book he warns readers that if they cannot apprehend this Joy that he is talking about then there's no point in continuing to read his account. In a scam the mark can be softened up by creating in him a desire for a shared experience, so that at some point later the scammer may argue, "but you stayed on with me, surely you did so because we share this thing in common!" Lewis may not be consciously attempting a scam, but the setup is the same.

This sort of dishonesty pervades the story. It's an intellectual brag. It's all tell, no show.

I think Lewis never really was an atheist, except that he found it easy to assume that stance in the company he kept. When he had enough friends around him to make him feel safe to take a different stance, that's what he did. The rest is rationalization.

Perhaps for Christians in particular to understand what was going on, a bit more needs to be said about Lewis. He was a remarkable enough man, reading and writing and learning languages - these accomplishments got him his post at Oxford, and his later his post at Cambridge.

For all that Lewis was well spoken and well read, educated, published, he betrays himself as remarkably opinionated and parochial. His notion of what atheism is, in particular, suggests that he never really understood why Kirkpatrick was an atheist.

"I was at this time living, like so many Atheists or Antitheists, 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."

If he ever uttered such nonsense to the Great Knock, he would have gotten intellectually flayed for it.

It's a caricature of atheism. Atheism was a popular thing among intellectuals at the time, but there is no "Common Book of Atheist Prayer" or "Catechism for Atheists." When a thing is tossed around carelessly, it easily becomes a caricature of itself, and because Lewis's atheism was a caricature it was easy for him to dismiss it in favor of "something else."

"Perhaps (oh joy!) there was, after all, "something else"[...]"

There isn't much else to add at this point. In spite of the intriguing title (considering its origins) I can't see recommending the book to anyone. It is just disappointing.