Lewis’s “Leap in the Dark”

C. S. Lewis was brought up in the Church of England but left any childhood faith behind as soon as his independent circumstances and the demands of compulsory church attendance allowed, and in response to what he felt his intellectual maturity demanded.  As an educated young “modern,” he came to view religion in general, including the Christianity of his youth, as a mere cultural construct that evolved to provide comfort and answers to less “enlightened” men.  He had long turned to poetry to supply the kind of “spiritual” and aesthetic satisfaction that religion provided for others.  In looking to poetry, he unwittingly set himself on the road to redemption.

What Lewis most wanted to be in early life was an accomplished poet.  After Magdalen College made him a fellow in 1925, and his long poem Dymer was published the following year, it looked like he might be on the path toward achieving his desire.  But in his own reading, he found himself continually drawn to religious writers, whose works were “were clearly those on whom I could really feed.”  Walter Hooper notes of Lewis at this time “All these years the greatest pleasure he ever had was from Christian poetry. Things like Spencer, Milton — all of these great poets. And yet he found out that he was reading them, as he later said, with the point left out. The same thing was happening with his friends — the people he thought he should’ve liked were the college atheists. But the ones he really liked were Tolkien, a practicing very devout Catholic, and Owen Barfield, who asked all the right questions” (Question of God, “A Leap in the Dark” segment)

What poetry, story, and myth did for Lewis was to draw him with an indescribable longing, but for what he did not yet know.  Later, the Christian Lewis would call this “Joy,” and it would be one of the central themes of his writing.  How he came to describe it as was not the thing itself desired, not even the satisfaction of a desire, but a desire itself that is more desirable than any satisfaction because it points one toward the source of the desired.  And that led Lewis down a logical path to infer that if, in life, there are “real” satisfactions for our desires in this world, should not the longing that was Joy also have its satisfaction, but perhaps in something beyond this world?

Then Lewis read Chesterton’s Everlasting Man and, “for the first time saw the whole Christian outline of history set out in a form that seemed to me to make sense” (Surprised by Joy). He continues, “The fox had now been dislodged from the wood and was running in the open, bedraggled and weary, the hounds barely a field behind.”   Weary of running, he came to the realization the truth about his resistance:  “I had always wanted, above all things, not to be interfered with. I had wanted — mad wish — to call my soul my own.”  Then comes his famous description of the moment of surrender:  “You must picture me alone in that room at Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. Total surrender, the absolute leap in the dark, were demanded. I gave in, and admitted that God was God … perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England” (SJ).

Lewis now believed in God, but what remained unresolved were the claims of Jesus to be the Christ.  Walter Hooper describes the well-known night in 1931, when Lewis “had invited Tolkien and Hugo Dyson, two of his closest friends, to Magdalen College. It was a windy night, they went along before dinner, they walked along Addison’s Walk talking about mythology. They stayed up till 4:00 AM and Tolkien did his work well” (Question of God).  Lewis described a critical turning point in a letter to his friend Arthur Greeves:  “What Dyson and Tolkien showed me was this — that if I met the idea of sacrifice in a pagan story I didn’t mind it at all — I was mysteriously moved by it. The reason was that in pagan stories I was prepared to feel the myth as profound . . . . Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth.”

Lewis ruminated on this idea until it seeped into his soul.  In the Question of God, he describes his experience of what we American Evangelicals might call “accepting Christ” thus:  “I know very well when but hardly how the final step was taken. I went with my brother to have a picnic at Whipsnade Zoo. We started in fog, but by the end of our journey the sun was shining. When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and when we reached the zoo I did. I had not exactly spent the journey in thought. Nor in great emotion. It was more like when a man, after a long sleep, becomes aware that he is now awake. But what of Joy? To tell you the truth, the subject has lost nearly all interest for me since I became a Christian. It was valuable only as a pointer to something other and outer.”

About Rick D. Williams

Teaching and writing have been my life's work for over two decades as a journalist and educator. My degrees in History were earned at Illinois State University, and I've done additional graduate work at Lincoln Christian Seminary and Urbana Theological Seminary. Over the years I’ve led conference workshops and authored articles and book chapters on topics ranging from religious education and international student ministry to state and local history.
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