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Conversion Tables (Lent 5)

Conversion Tables (Lent 5)

I spent the entire day reading and re-reading C. S. Lewis (part of Mere Christianity, all of Surprised by Joy) as a kind of going-to-church activity–rather than muddle around in my own thoughts, I would subject myself to a sermon of sorts. Lewis has been a hero to my family. And he’s been commended to me many times by people concerned for the state of my faith, people who believed he could clear it all up for me. “He lays it all out so clearly,” they’ve said. “He makes it feel like an open-and-shut case.”

Conversion narratives are often dramatic—Saul struck blind on the road to Damascus the ur-text. The conversions stories of most Christians I knew growing up had a similar character. Someone was just going about her daily life, not even any real interest in God. Then something happened–an unaccountable coincidence, a miraculous turn of events, a flash of light–that made conversion irresistible. The stories can be powerful, irrefutable–even if they sound like madness to an outsider, there’s no way to separate a believer from her account of her experience. “If it had happened to you, you’d know….”

Lewis’s fills out the template but in a low-key, intellectual way, accessible to those who haven’t been knocked off their horses. He was a tough-minded atheist whose certainties were chipped away at bit by bit and then collapsed all at once. Yet I find it disappointing and unconvincing. Arguments for belief, proofs of Christianity’s veracity, have a kind of self-defeating character. If the position you’re talking about has the inevitability of a logical proof, is it really belief? Isn’t it simply being correct? In that case, choosing not to believe in that case would be a matter of willfulness or radical skepticism, like flat-earthing. There’s something in it—maybe something peculiarly British in it—that reminds me of the arguments of the so-called New Atheists (Dawkins, Hitchens), logic so watertight it feels arid.

The one part of Lewis’s account story that I found most interesting, most moving, was of a different sort, comes at the end of the book. By this point he’s accepted that some kind God exists, and has started going to church as a show of—pardon the pun—good faith. He’s still unsure about some of the final details:

I was driven to Whipsnade one sunny morning. When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did. Yet I had not exactly spent the journey in thought….It was more like when a man, after long sleep, still lying motionless in bed, becomes aware that he is now awake.

Surprised by Joy, 237

I like that account, so different from the drama of the conversions I witnessed and even enacted growing up. I like the idea that the final development arrived unbidden, unheralded, almost unnoticeable. Rather than a lot of intellectual gear-grinding, it was a shift in perception that emerged organically and changed everything.

Maybe it’s that I feel that if a person can answer my question, my question wasn’t big enough.