The immediate human cause of his conversion was a long night-time conversation with two good friends, J.R.R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson, on the subject of Christianity, metaphor, and myth. In a letter to a third friend, Arthur Greeves, Lewis recounted the substance of the conversation and it is clear that questions of meaning—that is to say, of imagination,—were at the root of it.
Lewis’s whole problem with Christianity, at that stage, was fundamentally imaginative. As he wrote to Greeves, ‘What has been holding me back … has not been so much a difficulty in believing as a difficulty in knowing what the doctrine meant.’8 Tolkien and Dyson showed him that Christian doctrines are not the main thing about Christianity. Doctrines are translations into concepts and ideas of that which God has already expressed in ‘a language more adequate: namely the actual incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection’9 of Christ. The primary language of Christianity is a lived language, the real, historical, visible, tangible language of an actual person being born, dying, and living again in a new, ineffably transformed way.
When Lewis realised this, he began to gain an understanding of what Christianity really meant, because he was already fascinated—he had been fascinated from childhood,—by stories of dying and rising gods. In many ancient mythologies there are stories of characters who die and go down into the underworld and whose death achieves or reveals something back here on earth: new life in the crops, for instance, or sunrise, or the coming of spring. Lewis had always found the heart of these pagan stories—he mentions those of Adonis, Bacchus, Balder, among others,—to be ‘profound and suggestive of meanings beyond my grasp even tho’ I could not say in cold prose ‘what it meant’”.10
The difference between his attitude to Christianity and his attitude to the pagan myths was that, with the latter, he did not try officiously to explain them: these stories he considered to be fruitful enough in their own terms. They were myths that had to be accepted as saying something in their own way, not treated as a kind of allegory and translated into something less, something secondary, mere ‘doctrines’. By accepting that Christianity too was primarily to be understood in its own terms as a story, before its translation into a codified doctrinal system, Lewis had moved, we might say, from an analytic to a religious perspective. Analysis means literally ‘loosening up’, while religion means something like ‘tying back up’,–re-ligamenting, if you like. Doctrines, though useful, are the product of analytical dissection; they recast the original, equivocal, historical material into abstract, less fully realised categories of meaning. In short, doctrines are not as richly meaningful as that which they are doctrines about. By coming to this conclusion, Lewis anticipated by several decades the turn to ‘narrative theology’ that would characterise much later twentieth century theological thinking.
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