How do we discern our vocation? How do we find our way in life? Sometimes it takes some disappointment, some closing of doors. I am thinking of the story of how C. S. Lewis the apologist for the faith (“apologist” doesn’t mean someone saying he’s sorry; it means one who explains the faith and offers a reasoned defense for belief) became a children’s fantasy writer.
Lewis was first hooked by faith through his imagination, according to theologian biographer Alister McGrath, but he immediately began to construct rational arguments to show that his new faith was true. He was a genius at making big abstract philosophical arguments into ideas accessible to ordinary people. He wrote several books along that line, the most famous of them being The Pilgrim’s Regress, The Problem of Pain, and Mere Christianity. Then when he wrote the whimsical morality book, The Screwtape Letters, he became famous throughout the English-speaking world. His real vocational identity was grounded in a series of BBC radio broadcasts during WW II in which he articulated the reasons for belief.
I confess I am lukewarm about all of those books. The well-loved Mere Christianity does not seem to me to really get the Christian faith. What’s more, it is all pretty individualistic and intellectual. It reminds me of Mozart saying “The problem with Protestantism is that it’s all in the head.” Lewis doesn’t articulate a sense of the Church as continuing the Incarnation in a community and why it takes a community to continue the Incarnation. He doesn’t have a handle on Christian mission to a broken, suffering world. He is pretty weak on grace.
But then I see I am not really criticizing what Lewis wrote. As far as it goes, it’s fine. I am criticizing him for not writing other books I wanted written. Academic theologians were quietly critical but only quietly, since people were flocking to the faith through his words, not theirs. So the critics of Lewis, like me, tend to keep quiet.
Then in 1947, something happened. Lewis became the faculty sponsor for The Socratic Club, a philosophical student discussion group of Christians at Oxford, primarily women. One day Lewis presented to them a paper, which was an early draft of a chapter from his work in progress Miracles. In that paper he took on the fallacy of the naturalist argument that our beliefs are unreliable because they are the product of chemical processes in our brains. 28-year-old Elizabeth Anscombe was in the room. She agreed with Lewis that naturalism is “self-refuting” but she did not think his arguments made the case. Anscombe was a devotee of Ludwig Wittgenstein and would go on to become one of the great analytic philosophers of the 20th Century. At a subsequent meeting, she presented a paper using analytic philosophy to punch holes in Lewis’s arguments. He then rewrote the chapter to cover her concerns.
After that point, there are various versions of the story. Some say Lewis was publicly shamed and personally shaken. Some say he lost faith in the rational basis for belief and turned to imagination instead. Others (including Anscombe) say it was a collegial conversation that merely refined his ideas and he appreciated it. What we do know is that he stopped making apologetic (rational defense of the faith) presentations and writing books on that theme after 1947. In 1950, he was asked to pick a lineup of speakers for The Socratic Club. His first pick was Elizabeth Anscombe to speak on “Why I Believe In God.” He said to the President of the club, “Having obliterated me as an apologist, ought she (Ancombe) not succeed me?”[i]
My speculative opinion is this: Lewis was a bright guy. He knew that as a philosophical/ theological defender of the faith, he was not as good as he was popular. He knew that he was weak in philosophy, theology, history, and other key elements of rational argument for faith. He knew and he said that others could do that job better. But he also knew that rational argument is secondary. Anselm said that theological arguments were “faith seeking understanding.” Faith first; then understanding follows. Lewis knew that the sacred imagination is not just a fantasy game but also a way of accessing truth. He knew the distinction G. K. Chesterton made between imaginative (meaning finding truth through images arising in the mind) and imaginary (essentially escapist fantasy).[ii] Perhaps he even knew that the sacred imagination was the main vehicle of Ignatian spirituality.
So Lewis turned from what he had been doing – writing that was more popular than it was good – to do something new, something important. He wrote imaginative literature to express the faith rather than explain it. He had already done a bit of this with the Ransom Sci-Fi Trilogy, but now he did it brilliantly, beautifully, magnificently in The Chronicles of Narnia.
It may not have been an easy shift. Lewis seems to have been a bit gloomy between 1947 and 1949 when he penned The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. There were various reasons for his unhappiness, but I wonder if he was not mourning the loss of his identity as the apologist for the common person. Still, he had been muddling over the idea of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe for 10 years before he actually wrote it. In the next 5 years, he went on to write 6 more books of the Narnia series. Something had to die to clear the way for his masterpiece.
When I think of Lewis I wonder how my identity may encase me and hold me back from doing what God has in mind for me. I wonder how many of us are encased in identities, which are in some sense comfortable and rewarding – but less than we are capable of becoming.