On C.S. Lewis’s Conversion
Conversion is the instance or period when one changes their beliefs about what they understand to be true and begin acting upon those beliefs. Many people have different conversion experiences and that is what I’d like to write about today. In my study, Augustine serves as the often-cited example: God intervenes in his life through what sound like a child singing, ‘Take up and read.’ So Augustine thinks this is a divine command, opens his Bible and his eyes set on Romans 13:13-14.
Today, I won’t contest that Augustine’s experience was genuine. I won’t contest this odd form of Christian mysticism (which would be categorized under the doctrine of providence). But what I would like to do is fight against the notion that Augustine’s experience is normative for all believers.
Many Christians (specifically I have in mind Calvinists or charismatic/Pentecostal) would claim to have a similar experience. However, they typically want to say more by saying that this is how all Christians become Christians. That is, the reason why people become Christians is because God either did something to first fix their situation or he intervened in their life to get them to repent.
But what of those who have difference experiences? Here I have in mind the great C.S. Lewis. In Alister McGrath’s recent biography of the Irish Christian writer, he writes:
What Lewis describes in Surprised by Joy is not a process of logical deduction: A, therefore B, therefore C. It is much more like a process of crystallization, by which things that were hitherto disconnected and unrelated are suddenly seen to fit into a great scheme of things, which both affirms their validity and indicates their interconnectedness. Things fall into place. A fundamental harmony between theory and observation emerges, once things are seen in the right way.
It is like a scientist who, confronted with many seemingly unconnected observations, wakes up in the middle of the night having discovered a theory which accounts for them. (The great French physicist Henri Poincaré once remarked, “It is by logic that we prove, but by intuition that we discover.”) It is like a literary detective, confronted with a series of clues, who realizes how things must have happened, allowing every clue to be positioned within a greater narrative. In every case, we find the same pattern—a realisation that, if this was true, everything else falls into place naturally, without being forced or strained. And by this nature, it demands assent from the lover of truth. Lewis found himself compelled to accept a vision of reality that he did not really wish to be true, and certainly did not cause to be true.
For Lewis, McGrath and others have written, his own thinking efficiently caused his conversion. I’m aware this will not sit well with many theologians. Yet, if we are to consider Augustine’s conversion experience we must also consider other people’s conversion experiences.