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Lewis’s idyllic childhood, however, would come crashing down when his mom was diagnosed with cancer. Lewis, aged nine at the time, prayed fervently that God would heal his mom. When he was greeted with the tragic news of her death, he became angry at a God who would take away his loving mother. Added to the pain of this loss was the inability of his father, Albert, to comfort and console Lewis and his brother, Warnie. When the boys most needed their dad, just weeks after their mother’s death Albert sent them off to a small English boarding school to fend for themselves.
Lewis had begun his life surrounded by Christian practice and thought, but the loss of his mom and the coldness of his father sent him reeling spiritually. From this point he describes his spiritual journey in this way: “On the intellectual side my own progress had been from ‘popular realism’ to Philosophical Idealism; from Idealism to Pantheism; from Pantheism to Theism; and from Theism to Christianity. I still think this a very natural road, but I now know that it is a road very rarely trodden.”2
Pessimism, Atheism, and Popular Realism
In boarding school Lewis’s antagonism toward Christian faith grew as he experienced the hypocrisy of the “Christian” boarding school. The cruel hazing of the younger boys by the older boys burnt an indelible impression on Lewis, as he later wrote of the pain inflicted by those in the “inner circle.” Lewis’s first headmaster frequently beat his students and was actually declared mentally unstable soon after Lewis’s departure. Fortunately Lewis had the companionship of his brother, Warnie, for some of these difficult years during which Lewis became a pessimistic atheist.
When it was clear that Lewis was suffering miserably, his father relented and arranged for him to be tutored in the home of William Kirkpatrick, who had taught Albert himself and also Warnie. A former headmaster, Kirkpatrick was skilled in the Socratic method and logic. From the moment Lewis met Kirkpatrick, whom he called “The Great Knock,” Lewis was pressed to give a logical reason for every statement he made and defend his position. Some would have found Kirkpatrick intimidating, but Lewis for the first time ever enjoyed school. Later Lewis would state that the intellectual rigor and challenge of Kirkpatrick was like “red beef and strong beer,”3 an exhilarating diet that gave the bright Lewis confidence and enjoyment. From the age of fifteen to seventeen, under the Kirkpatrick’s influence, Lewis sharpened the debate and reasoning skills that would serve him well for the rest of his life. Rationalism, or popular realism as Lewis would call it, became his modus operandi as he sought to believe only that which could be proven by clear logic and reason. He adopted a materialistic or naturalistic worldview in which the only thing that mattered was “matter.” His atheist worldview was solidifying.
It is interesting to note that down the road these very Socratic reasoning tools would point Lewis in the direction of Christianity and enable him to explain the reasonableness of the Christian faith to the modern, scientifically oriented world.
Following his years with Kirkpatrick, Lewis gained entrance to Oxford University. His first studies at Oxford, however, would be short-lived, as he soon found himself in the British Army, serving as an officer in the trenches of World War I. As he witnessed firsthand the horrors of war in France and was eventually wounded in action, men dying all around him, Lewis’s atheism became more entrenched.
Lewis would survive the war, return to his studies in Oxford, and immerse himself in the academic world.
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