I have to question Alister McGrath’s insistence (linked in this morning’s First Links) that the date of C.S. Lewis’ conversion “clearly needs review.” Lewis recounted in his autobiography Surprised by Joy that he converted to theism—not Christianity, yet—during “Trinity Term 1929,” that is, between April 28 and June 22. McGrath’s four reasons for demanding Lewis’ recollection must be challenged are as follows:
- There was “no sign of a significant change in tone or mood” of his works at the time.
- His correspondence at the time of his father’s death in September “makes no reference at all to any impact of a belief in God.”
- Lewis wrote to Owen Barfield in a state of spiritual crisis, sounding like he was coming up upon a conversion but not yet converted, on Feb. 3, 1930.
- The changes in behavior Lewis attributes to his conversion (such as attending chapel) suddenly start showing up in his letters in October 1930.
There are several problems with this. A conversion does not always translate into speech and action immediately. Even when Lewis identifies changes that followed his conversion, he doesn’t say they happened right away. Such a gap may be particularly likely to be present in this particular conversion. Most important, this was an intellectual conversion. He changed from believing in the pantheistic god of English Hegelianism to the transcendent god of Berkeley (a figure he identifies in Surprised by Joy as representing the view he changed to and the reasons for it) but not yet to the revealed God of the Scriptures or the history-changing God of G.K. Chesterton or the heart-transforming God of George MacDonald.
Also, he writes in Surprised by Joy that he was relationally estranged from his father and ashamed to admit to his friends and academic colleagues the truth about his selfish life; this may have slowed the process of communication. Plus, we know that in general the pre-conversion C.S. Lewis was (how shall we put this delicately?) a man who knew how to compartmentalize his emotions. Moreover, I beileve (under correction from McGrath or any other scholars who know this better than I do) that we do not have reliable information about the dates of Lewis’ progress from theism to Christianity. Who is to say the conversion he was beginning to experience in 1930 wasn’t this latter conversion? That would make sense of the evidence.
Granted, Lewis wrote Surprised by Joy two decades after the fact and had confessed to difficulty with dates, so the presumption in favor of his recollection is not especially strong. Still, the very fact that he usually doesn’t give dates for these movements and does give a date in this case adds some strength to it.
McGrath has done a great deal of historical study that I haven’t done, so I’m perfectly ready to be convinced by him. But he’ll have to come up with better evidence than he has so far presented.