C. S. Lewis in the University: His Life and Faith As A Guide For Us

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It is probably no surprise to anyone that it is increasingly difficult to maintain a Christian witness on many college campuses. Recently, InterVarsity has had to fight to remain at Harvard, Rutgers, and North Carolina. At North Carolina, a Christian fraternity was “de-recognized” and, according to Jo Stanley, a Christian group at the University of California Hastings College of the Law lost an appeal to be reinstated as a campus organization just this last April. The main reason these groups are facing problems is that they insist their members be Christian, something which flies in the face of non-discrimination policies that allow participation and membership in university organizations without regard to age, race, color, national origin, religion, disability, sex or sexual orientation. Writing in the October, 2003 issue of Christianity Today, Andy Crouch states:

There is nothing so close to the university’s heart as the dream of education as a liberating force. The liberation being most avidly sought in universities today is sexual—removing the shame from a wide variety of sexual orientations that are summed up in organizational names like “The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning Alliance…At UNC, some members of the gay community, aware of InterVarsity’s traditional views, were vocal in calling for the group’s removal from campus. (64)

There can be no doubt that Christians who work in the secular university face many obstacles today. How do we maintain our witness for Christ when the temptation, perhaps even the threat, to be silent, is very real? At what point must we decide to speak up or hold our tongue? What will speaking up cost us in the way of prestige or even our careers? It is a time when we must truly be wise as serpents and harmless as doves. Is there anyone to turn to for advice?

While we clearly face situations that are challenging, I think we can learn from and find comfort in the life and witness of C. S. Lewis. In Lewis’ life we can learn how to respond in hostile territory. In Lewis’ life, and time at Oxford, he knew the pain of being disliked for his faith and the disappointment of being passed over for promotions. Yet his great learning, his ability to communicate, and his Christ-likeness enabled him to weather the storms that blew around him, and become a great apologist whose works have touched thousands of lives. This paper will examine the struggles Lewis faced regarding his faith while at Oxford, and how he endeavored to obey Christ through the difficult times of his life. I believe we can find encouragement for our own situations as we seek to serve Christ in the university.

In his essay on Lewis, in the anthology C. S. Lewis at the Breakfast Table, Robert Havard, Lewis’ physician, recalls his friendship:

He was unhappy at his Oxford College. At dinner there I sensed the occasional whiff of hostility from some of his colleagues. The academic mind is a master of the politely barbed shaft. The college was pervaded by an abrasive anti-Christian humanism at that time, which gave Lewis a good deal of painful opposition. (226)

At the time Lewis was considering his move to Cambridge, J.R.R. Tolkien, writing to elector Henry Stanley Bennet, observed that “Besides being the precise man for the job, Lewis would probably be happy there, actually be reinvigorated by a change of air. Oxford has not, I think, treated him very well and though he is incapable of ‘dudgeon,’ or of showing resentment, he has been a little dispirited” (67).

Humphrey Carpenter mentions the attitude some at Oxford had of Lewis: “The widespread antipathy of many senior members of the University to books such as ‘The Screwtape Letters’ had not been modified by Lewis’s openly contemptuous attitude towards much of the academic work done in Oxford” (228).

Colin Duriez quotes Dame Helen Gardner’s obituary of Lewis that she wrote for the British Academy in 1965:

In the early 1940’s, when I returned to Oxford as a tutor, Lewis was by far the most impressive and exciting person in the Faculty of English. He had behind him a major work of literary history; he filled the largest lecture-room available for his lectures; and the Socratic Club, which he founded and over which he presided, for the free discussion of religious and philosophic questions, was one of the most flourishing and influential of undergraduate societies. In spite of this, when the Merton Professorship of English Literature fell vacant in the 1946, the electors passed him over and recalled his old tutor, F. P. Wilson, from London to fill the chair. In doing so they probably had the support of many, if not a majority, of the Faculty; for by this time a suspicion had arisen that Lewis was so committed to what he himself called ‘hot-gospelling’ that he would have had little time for the needs of what had become a very large undergraduate school…In addition, a good many people thought that shoemakers should stick to their lasts and disliked the thought of a professor of English Literature winning fame as an amateur theologian; and, while undoubtedly there were a good many people in Oxford who disliked Christian apologetics per se, there were others who were uneasy at Lewis’s particular kind of apologetic, disliking both its method and its manner. These last considerations were probably the strongest, and accounted for the fact that when, in the following year, a second Chair in English Literature was established his name was again not put forward. (148)

Clearly Lewis faced opposition to his beliefs while at Oxford. It would appear that the opposition to his faith took its toll, costing him the professional advancement any university professional would seek. Yet by all indications Lewis did not stoop to bitterness or retaliation; but neither would he be silenced by his critics. When it would have been easy to simply comply with the prevailing political winds at Oxford, Lewis refused. Instead he held his ground and moved on with his life. He was able to do this because of the strength of his faith and worldview.