C. S. Lewis seemed a reluctant atheist, keeping God at bay through intellectual pride and accusations of injustice and infidelity. Yet the world of Classical and Medieval literature he called home was filled with stories of lost and forbidden love—and longing for redemption and restoration—that kept alive hopes for finding the “joy” of his childhood days. Modernity increasingly seemed a cheap substitute for a more profound narrative. He could not escape the nagging idea that he’d given his love to an altogether wrong object of desire.
The book Lewis is reading in this segment is the Greek tragedy Hippolytus by Euripides. In this story young Hippolytus, the beloved son of Athens’ King Theseus, decides to devote himself in celibate faithfulness to Artemis, Goddess of the Hunt. His choice offends the Goddess of Love, Aphrodite, who cannot believe such a magnificent figure of manliness could possible resist the call of love. Aphrodite charms Phaedra, Hippolytus’ step-mother, inspiring in her heart an irresistible love for the handsome youth. The shame of this forbidden desire drives Phaedra to suicide. Her husband Theseus wrongly accuses his son of ravaging his wife and exiles him, an action which ultimately leads Hippolytus to a fatal end. Dying Son and loving Father are reconciled when Aphrodite herself appears and reveals the truth of the matter.
The passage Lewis reads aloud speaks of a longing for a deeper fulfillment in the land of the gods that might transcend the limitations of early love—particularly a love both forbidden and denied. This longing for eternal bliss in a real world where human hopes are shaped by both glorious aspirations and desperate disappointment plays an important role in Lewis’ transformation. It also echoes the great spiritual paradox that we humans are simultaneously created in God’s image (including the “divine” impetus toward creation) and cursed by the consequences of the Fall (including the temptation toward our own “divinity”). Lewis himself is puzzled by the paradox of his own attraction to the “idea of God” when everything in his “real” world not only rejects this idea, but has rendered it intellectually “forbidden.”
The desire for serenity and salvation rooted in religious expression is a recurring theme in the Human Story as well. The Classical Age of ancient Greece gave way to several centuries in which Greek ideas were spread to cultures conquered first by Alexander the Great and ultimately by Rome. During this “Hellenistic”Age, Greek thought intermingled with those of other cultures, giving rise a mélange of worldviews in which religion, philosophy, spirituality, and rationalism formed new syncretistic systems. Cynics were “self-sufficient” skeptics; they found satisfaction in simplicity, valued individuality, and disregarded universal claims to truth. Epicureans were “self-centered” materialists; they found solace in the pursuit of happiness and avoidance of pain. Stoics were “self-controlled” fatalists; they sought serenity in accepting life’s vicissitudes and valued perseverance in the face of struggle. (note the role of “self” in all these views!)
Of course, into this world as well was born the Promised One of the Jews, whose coming “in the fullness of time” would transform the world. Lewis is not yet ready to go that deep in his return to belief in God, but here we see him take important steps in the right direction
“I gave in, and admitted that God was God … perhaps that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.”
Learn more about the religious impulse and the Human Story—
G. K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man (originally 1925, Dodd, Mead & Co.; 2008 edition, Wilder); J. G. Frazer, The Golden Bough (originally published in 1890, many modern printings available)