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

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Lewis’ robust faith was in stark contrast to the “leftist, atheist, cynical, hard-boiled, huge Magdalen” College where he taught for twenty-nine years. In a letter to Dom Bede Griffiths in 1951, Lewis wrote, “from Modernists I have to take bitterness and rancour as a matter of course” (229). But for himself, Lewis looked to Christ for his strength. In Mere Christianity he writes, “The sense in which a Christian leaves it to God is that he puts all his trust in Christ: trusts that Christ will somehow share with him the perfect human obedience which He carried out from His birth to His crucifixion: that Christ will make the man more like Himself and, in a sense, make good his deficiencies” (128).

Lewis’ worldview was decidedly different, even opposed to the prevailing attitudes toward society and culture in which he lived. Wesley Kort writes, “Modern culture…encourages self-centeredness in people. As Lewis says, ‘It is impossible, in the context, not to inquire what our civilization has been putting first for the last thirty years. And the answer is plain. It has been putting itself first’” (77).

Lewis’s faith and worldview propelled him to a lifetime of service and giving of himself. His attitude is expressed in a letter to Don Calabria: “In the poor man who knocks on my door, in my ailing mother, in the young man who seeks my advice, the Lord Himself is present: therefore let us wash His feet” (47). Whatever pressure Lewis may have felt to keep quiet about his faith, he never appeared to let it deter him. Instead he was bold to speak and involve himself with campus-related events. Perhaps the most well known is his association with the Oxford University Socratic Club.

The Club was born in 1941 in response to a student’s complaint that there was no forum within the university whereby the questions raised by atheists and agnostics could be debated. Lewis expressed interest in such a venue and he served as first president until 1954. This proved to be the ideal arena for Lewis to expound the Christian faith in a context that was acceptable in the university setting. Christopher Mitchell writes, “The Socratic Club was deliberately designed to be an arena where Christian and non-Christian could intellectually lock horns in an atmosphere that was fearless and unyielding in argumentation, yet ruled by civility” (338).

Yet even in this context Lewis’ characteristic humility and Christ-likeness shined through. Quoting Austin Farrer, a friend of Lewis who attended the Club meetings:

Lewis was an apologist from temper, from conviction, and from modesty. From temper, for he loved an argument. From conviction, being traditionally orthodox. From modesty, because he laid not claim either to the learning which would have made him a theologian or the grace which would have made him a spiritual guide. His writings certainly express a solid confidence; but it is the confidence that he can detect the fallacy of current objectives to belief, and appreciate the superiority of orthodox tenants over rival positions; that he has some ability, besides, to make others see what he so clearly sees himself. These are modest claims, when compared with the pretension to look deeply into the things of God: a pretension he never advanced, even by implication, either on intellectual or spiritual grounds. (339)

Certainly Lewis was not deterred from what he saw as his calling to be a witness for Christ at Oxford. It would seem that the opposition to his faith which confronted him, far from forcing him to be silent, merely acted to make him all the more vocal. His example is an inspiring exhortation.

His outspokenness brought many to Lewis seeking spiritual help. Yet, he never seemed to turn anyone away. Walter Hooper, in his revised biography of Lewis writes:

It was not very long before Lewis realized that if you put your thoughts in print you had to accept the consequences. In any event, he believed he should. Over the years Lewis received vast numbers of letters from readers of Mere Christianity and his other theological books, and he tried to reply by return of post. The thousands of letters offering pastoral help are, in fact, a major part of Lewis’s writings, in which he encapsulated in a few words some of his most profound thoughts. (296)

Lewis’ attitude toward this part of his ministry is profoundly yet humorously recalled by Hooper:

Walter Hooper remembers walking down St. Giles with Lewis when he stopped to give money to a beggar. “Aren’t you afraid he’ll spend it on drink?” asked Hooper. “Well, if I kept it I would.” said Lewis. He told the younger man that his rule regarding beggars was “When in doubt, give.” Later, when Hooper was living in The Kilns and keeping up with his correspondence, Lewis said the same rule—“When in doubt, give”—applied to many of his correspondents. (296)

This is, I believe, one of the great lessons we can learn from Lewis. Being willing to be servants to all who come to us may be the greatest witness we can ever have. Lewis’ life was characterized by great learning, great ability to communicate, and a great Christ-likeness, and he used those traits to touch thousands in spite of the opposition he faced.