Paganism and the Conversion of C.S. Lewis | Clotilde Morhan |
"Nearly all that I loved I believed to be imaginary; nearly all that I believed to be real I thought grim and meaningless."  With these words C.S. Lewis, the great Christian apologist who wrote the Chronicles of Narnia, described the early years of his life. The story of his pre-conversion self, however, is much more than the autobiography of one 20th-century Englishman. It depicts the spiritual torpor of modern man, namely post-Christian man.
For the first time in the history of humanity, man does not believe in the supernatural. The supernatural was natural to the pre-Christian age. The sun and the stars, trees and rivers, everything that surrounded them was inhabited by dryads and nymphs and all sorts of mythological creatures. Everything bore the trace of the divine. Modern man may smile at the primitiveness of their beliefs. In the best case, he will admit that it would make a good fairy tale for children.
Lewis did not think so; to him it was the twentieth century that was regressive. By reducing the world to the material reality which one can experience with ones senses, man has turned the world into a vacuum in which men spend their time, as T.S. Eliot would say, "dodging [their] emptiness."  Surprisingly enough, it was pagan mythological literature, permeated as it was with the intuitive belief in the supernatural, which set Lewis searching for God. He became a theist and his conversion to Christ followed later. Pagan literatureGreek myths, the sagas and eddas of Norse mythology and the epics of classical antiquityacted upon him as a preparatio evangelica. His imagination and his sensibility were "baptised"  first, which proved to be a pre-requisite for the conversion of his heart. The material reality around him was the same but his gaze had been converted. Like the post-conversion T.S. Eliot, he ended up revisiting the ordinary experiences of his daily life and saw a transfigured reality:
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time. 
When Lewis uttered these words he was, of course, not encouraging his contemporaries to start worshipping pagan gods. The world that emerged out of the literature of the pagan age, however, seemed much more appealing to him than the grim and meaningless one he found himself to be living in before his conversion. It was nonetheless an imaginary world and therefore, he believed, a lie. His imaginary life and his intellect were at war. The post-conversion Lewis came to see that, despite the primitiveness of their beliefs, the pagans were more spiritually enlightened than most of his contemporaries. To the pagans there was more to reality than the material world. They saw something modern man is blind to. Spirit and matter were indivisible to them. They looked at the sun and they saw, if not a god, at least an expression of the divinity; we see a "huge ball of flaming gas,"  thus reducing the world to "what it is made of" instead of seeing what it "is."  They seemed to see, touch and feel the invisible reality of the spiritual world. The "disease" of our age is that "Spirit and Nature have quarreled in us" ; this is where the healing needs to take place.
If our contemporaries had to study the pagans beliefs, they would delight in introducing the role of subjectivity and the way in which it impacted their way of looking at the world. Lewis believed in an objective reality: the invisible, universal and changeless reality of the spiritual world. Pagan writers intuitively knew that this world was far more than what could be seen, and that belief transfigured their gaze. Having the privilege to live after Christ we know that they worshipped the wrong gods and worshipped them in the wrong way. Nevertheless Lewis found in them a spark of truth that was ultimately going to lead himthe intellectual, the agnostic and the post-Christianto the true God.
Pagan literature testifies to their need to invent gods, to fill the universe with something that could give it meaning. And they somehow knew that this something was to be found in the supernatural realm. Out of that search were born the innumerable gods who filled their myths. These were imaginary gods and could, therefore, only offer "desire without hope."  And yet, as Lewis came to see it, their dreams were inspired by God. Their search was an unfocused one; they had the intuition of a God but lacked the revelation. In spite of that and of the darkness that clouded their human minds because of Original Sin, we find in their writings some fragments of the Truth.
The theme of the god who dies and rises again is recurs in their literature. When Lewis acknowledged the historicity of Christs life, he saw in the Incarnation the fulfillment of that longing which dwelled in the Pagans. With Christ mans dream had become a fact. As Chesterton writes, "Pan died because Christ was born  [ ] The place that the shepherds found [...] was a place of dreams come true. Since that hour no mythologies have been made in the world. Mythology is a search."  Pagan poetry was permeated by a sense of sadness because they lacked the revelation that would prove their dream true. But that very sense of emptiness was a pointer to the One who could fill it and change their mourning into gladness.
Unlike them, we have had the revelation of Christ. We do not need to go through that long and painful search, with all the uncertainties which any search implies. We know where Joy is to be found. Like them, however, we are the heirs of Original Sin and, as such, we still need to acknowledge our emptiness and poverty, our longing and need for our Savior so that he may come and fill us with his life and graces. The tragedy of post-Christian man is that he does not know himself to be sick and needy, and when he does, he looks for material remedies to his spiritual thirst. He has become so alienated from his Creator that he has lost that instinctive knowledge that this thirst can only be quenched by God and that, outside of God, he is nothing.
It is that very longing which the authors of the pagan age were able to revive in Lewis. This desire set him searching for the Truth and eventually led him to the One to Whom every longing ultimately points. He came to understand that, by denying God, man has killed the divinity in himself and has become less than human. In The Abolition of Man Lewis pictures his contemporaries as branches rebelling against the tree. It is their own roots that the branches are desperately attempting to destroy. Lewis concludes by saying that "if the rebels could succeed they would find that they had destroyed themselves"  Modern man does not want to have to bother about religion; he wants to be in control of his own life. He has felt the need to master the world and its complexities and, by dint of reducing the universe to a sum of scientific laws, has gradually emptied the world, stripping it and himself of God and of reality. In the process he has deprived himself of the very possibility of happiness. As Lewis wrote in a passage full of spiritual realism:
the world was made through [the Word], yet
the world knew him not (Jn 1:10)
The point, of course, is not to leave the material
world aside. Plato, who was a major influence in Lewis conversion
to theism, saw all earthly things as shadowy reflections of the ultimate
reality and yearned to be freed from the world and from his body so that
he might draw closer and closer to the Truth. Ours is an incarnational
religion. We profess Christ, the Word made flesh, and we believe in the
resurrection of the body. We cannot accept the dichotomy which Plato saw
between matter and spirit, lest we be guilty of trying to be more spiritual
than God; but, we know that the material world (Nature and our bodies)
is not an end in itself and could not have any existence outside of its
In 1931 Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien had that famous conversation about the nature of myths as they were walking down Magdalen College parks in Oxford.  This discussion completed the conversion process of Lewis gaze. Lewis, who was still an agnostic, claimed that despite his great love for myths, he could see in them nothing but lies. Tolkien explained his belief that God spoke through the minds of the poets, and that, although containing error, myths reveal glimpses of the Truth. He reiterated the idea that Lewis had found in Chesterton a few years earlier on, that the Incarnation was the fulfillment of our dreams. A few days later Lewis converted to Christianity.
Following this discussion Tolkien addressed a poem to Lewis, the "one who said that myths were lies and therefore worthless, even though breathed through silver,"  in which he praises the poets and the legend makers and denounces the materialistic spirit of his age. The post-conversion Lewis could have made Tolkiens words his own:
Erect and sapient. Before them gapes
the dark abyss to which their progress tends. 
This article originally appeared in the March/April edition of Catholic Dossier.
 Lewis, C.S., Surprised by Joy (Glasgow: Collins Fount Paperbacks, 1989), p.138.
Eliot T.S., The Complete Poems and Plays, "Choruses," V.
 Lewis, Surprised by Joy, p.146.
 Eliot, The Complete Poems and Plays, ed. V. Eliot (London: Faber and Faber, 1969), "Four Quartets."
 Lewis, Poems, ed. Walter Hooper (London: Geoffrey Bless, 1964), "A cliché came out of its cage."
 Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, (London: Lions, 1980), p.159.
 Ibid., p.159.
 Lewis, Miracles, (Glasgow: Fontana Books, 1976), p.209.
 Lewis, Surprised by Joy, p.169.
 Chesterton, G.K., The Everlasting Man, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), p.160.
 Ibid., p.175.
 Lewis, The Abolition of Man, (Glasgow: Collins Fount Paperbacks, 1990), pp.29-30.
 Lewis, Mere Christianity, (London: Collins Fontana Books, 1969), p.50.
 Lewis, Abolition, p.13.
 Lewis, Screwtape Proposes a Toast and Other Pieces, (London, Fount, 1991), p. 98.
 Lewis, Miracles, p.204.
 Ibid., p.89.
 Catechism of the Catholic Church, n.341.
 Lewis, Miracles, p.143.
 Lewis, Miracles, p.149.
 Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, (London: Lions, 1980), p.23.
 Lewis, Screwtape Proposes a Toast and Other Pieces, p.109.
 Ibid., p.109.
 Alighieri Dante, The Divine Comedy; II: Purgatory, trans. by D.L. Sayers (Edinburgh: Penguin Classics, 1951), Canto XXX, p.308.
 Ibid., p.307.
 Ibid., p.319.
 cf. Joseph Pearce, Tolkien, Man and Myth, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1998), pp.56-60.
 J. R. Tolkien, Tree and Leaf including Mythopoeia (London: Harper Collins, 1992), p.97.
 Tolkien, Mythopoeia, p.100.
Clotilde Morhan is a graduate in English literature from Oxford University. She writes from the Bay Area.
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