Saturday 16 October 2021

A 35 year relationship with Surprised by Joy by CS Lewis (1955)

I first read Surprised by Joy in about 1985; during a period of time when I was actively investigating Christianity. Then and since, I regard this autobiography of CS Lewis as a superb book - one of the best autobiographies ever, and as full of perfectly expressed and permanently memorable stuff as any other book of its length. 

In particular, the focus of this book - the experience of 'Joy' (which is essentially the same as Novalis's Sehnsucht or a Colin Wilson's Peak Experience) has for me, as it was for Lewis, been probably the core of my life. 

Surprised by Joy described my own deepest spontaneous yearnings, diagnosed exactly the ineradicable problems with making that 'desire' and 'state of mind' the focus of my life - and pointed to the answer in Christianity. An answer that I eventually reached myself - and in which I continue to regard Lewis as one of the most important of my mentors.

So here was a first-rate book which was written by a man with whom I had much in common, spiritually, in that we were both lifelong Romantics; a book describing beginning with Joy and becoming a Christian...    

Yet the fact is that I did not become a Christian; not until more than 20 years after reading SbJ

Also, it was only after a few more years as a Christian when I reached the point of being able to reach what I regard as a satisfactory way of knowing Christianity to be the real and full answer to my Romantic yearning; I mean (what I call) Romantic Christianity

The reason that Surprised by Joy did not convert me back in 1985, I now perceive to be because it defines the problem, and make the diagnosis - but does not provide the answer.

Indeed, in its final concluding passages, SbJ explicitly rules-out what I would now regard as the true solution to the problem. Here is the penultimate paragraph:

But what, in conclusion, of Joy? for that, after all, is what the story has mainly been about. To tell you the truth, the subject has lost nearly all interest for me since I became a Christian. I cannot, indeed, complain, like Wordsworth, that the visionary gleam has passed away. I believe (if the thing were at all worth recording) that the old stab, the old bittersweet, has come to me as often and as sharply since my conversion as at any time of my life whatever. But I now know that the experience, considered as a state of my own mind, had never had the kind of importance I once gave it. It was valuable only as a pointer to something other and outer. While that other was in doubt, the pointer naturally loomed large in my thoughts. When we are lost in the woods the sight of a signpost is a great matter. He who first sees it cries, "Look!" The whole party gathers round and stares. But when we have found the road and are passing signposts every few miles, we shall not stop and stare. They will encourage us and we shall be grateful to the authority that set them up. But we shall not stop and stare, or not much; not on this road, though their pillars are of silver and their lettering of gold. "We would be at Jerusalem."

You see the problem?

In the end, Lewis explicitly repudiates his past Romanticism - by re-labelling Joy as merely a pointer to a Christian way of living that is not - of itself - Romantic.

This did not answer the question which drove me - which was how to carry my innate and dominating Romanticism forward into being a Christian. 

Lewis was content (or said here that he was!) to become a Christian with a Romantic hobby; but I wanted to be a Christian whose faith was Romantic - root and branch. 

When I first became a Christian, I indulged my romanticism mainly in contemplating the aesthetic aspects of Christianity that had always drawn me - the beauty of cathedrals and old churches, the beauty of the Authorized Version of the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer... but these are not intrinsic; and they do not permeate down to the level of thinking - that thinking which includes the moral and the true, as well as the beautiful; that thinking which knows the coherence and relations of living and conscious Beings from the inside.

This is the demand of the real romantic - nothing less. 

But this is not a feature of mainstream Christianity as derived from any of the churches - indeed, it cannot be derived from any external authority; because it rests upon the ultimate authority of imagination and intuition; heart thinking not intellect; of inner grasp; of direct knowing.  

So Lewis's usual advice to new Christian converts - you must pick a traditional-orthodox church (preferably one you were born into) then subordinate yourself to its instruction - was not advice I could take. 

Nor was it advice I much wanted to take (although I tried, initially) since I could soon observe the corruption and indeed apostasy of the churches (which turns out, since early 2020, to be far more extreme and complete an apostasy than I had supposed possible).

Yet Romantic Christianity is present even in orthodoxy - although in practice subordinated rather than formative. Lewis himself contradicted his non-Romantic Christianity in several of the best parts of his Narnia books. And indeed, Romantic Christianity is exactly what I get from a close reading of the Fourth Gospel ('John') - which is the only book of the Bible where there is a complete identity of word and being. 

Reading the Fourth Gospel with full conviction and recognizing its primary authority among all scripture and divine provenance; I find that the mode of reading, the mode of thinking, is itself that which was sought after. This book is not a test of instructions for how to live; it is a book which itself can be an instance of how to live.  

Likewise I can get this at times in Narnia - for example in the character of Lucy, Reepicheep and the children towards the end of Dawn Treader, the underground parts of Silver Chair, or The Last Battle - when I can feel that This Is It... almost despite what Lewis explicitly asserted (in his theological lectures and essays) how things ought-to-be for a devout Christian. 

In other words, it is my conviction that Joy - rigorously considered and pursued - is not just a pointer to Christianity; but a vital element in actually being a Christian. 

And, indeed, a Christianity that is not rooted in Joy, is not of much value in the world as it has now become. It is Joy that saves us from the near-total negativity towards The World (a world so thoroughly contaminated and dominated by evil, as it is) which is otherwise the unenviable fate of Christians. 

Therefore we still may benefit from the definitions and diagnoses of Surprised by Joy - but when it comes to a prescription for what ails us; we need to look to Narnia and Middle Earth, The Fourth Gospel - and to the insights of such as Owen Barfield.

These make clearer that our task is to bring to explicit and chosen consciousness the intimations of Joy and let them lead us seamlessly into Christian thinking, Christian being. 

Joy (properly understood) is the actual experience of eternal resurrected life in Heaven - it is what we can experience of Heaven here on earth, during these brief mortal lives.