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.

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.

In his sermon “The Weight of Glory,” Lewis exhorts his hearers to pursue the idea of glory. But the pursuit of glory is maligned by modern philosophers who attempt to convince us that “the good of man is to be found on this earth…they begin by trying to persuade you that earth can be made into heaven” (31). But of course this is not the case. Our true calling is in the pursuit of the glory of God. Lewis defines this as, “good report with God, acceptance by God, response, acknowledge, and welcome into the heart of things” (41). He further defines it as “glory or brightness, splendor, luminosity” (42). All the longing of our hearts will one day, Lewis says, be realized. When that day comes, “The whole man is to drink joy from the fountain of joy. As Saint Augustine said, the rapture of the saved soul will ‘flow over’ into the glorified body” (44).

Lewis then reminds us that the cross precedes the crown. We are called to follow Christ and in doing so we must not linger in thinking about our own glory, but in looking to our neighbor’s needs. He says that “The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbor’s glory should be laid on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the back of the proud will be broken” (45). He then drives home his major point, holding that “All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealing with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics” (46).

It is therefore with a great sense of urgency that we, who have been called to a vocation in academia, must go about our duties. We are not called simply to teach, gain tenure, or publish, but to something even greater. We have been placed where we may bear witness to the One who is the source of all truth. We must have the attitude of Lewis—who saw his colleagues as potential bearers of glory and bore testimony to the truth of the Gospel.

In our day it is not easy to do this. Opposition to Christianity is great in some places. Our beliefs often fly in the face of political correctness. Our beliefs often conflict with the spirit of the age. Yet it is precisely this “weight” that we are to take upon ourselves. We must see, as Lewis did, the great need for Christ in our universities. Lewis willingly took the abuse of his colleagues because he saw that this life is not all there is. He saw each person he interacted with as a potential saint.

Another of Lewis’ significant writings is The Abolition of Man. Published in 1943, it is a startling prophetic work regarding what would eventually become the reality of the modern university. We have seen the university abandon any idea of “the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false.” We live in an era now that Lewis foresaw of “men without chests.” Today everything has value except traditional values. John West writes:

That essay—The Abolition of Man—discusses the potential for tyranny in a world where the elites no longer believe in any sort of objective truth. If everything is simply reduced to a struggle for power, then there is no constraint on what social elites might do to reshape society in their own image. The fundamental question in society is not “which policy is more just” but “which group has the most power to impose its will on society?” Lewis sees the mentality as the wellspring of tyranny. (68)

West sums up well the outcome of what Lewis foresaw, something which certainly has application to the university: “It has…led to a moral vacuum in many disciplines, opening the door to the postmodern claim (springing from Nietzsche) that people are free to create their own reality through a sheer act of will” (69).

“The Weight of Glory” and The Abolition of Man—one quite prophetic, the other a great exhortation—both reinforce the idea that we live in perilous and needy times. While postmodernism has, to some extent, allowed for a more tolerant attitude toward some worldviews, orthodox Christianity, with its claims of truth and absolutes is still often not welcomed.

In his excellent essay, “A Thoroughly Converted Man,” in the book The Pilgrims Guide: C. S. Lewis and the Art of Witness, Bruce Edwards writes a strong reminder:

If I were to describe Lewis in a single phrase, it would be this: C.S. Lewis was a man who lived his life before Pilate. That is to say, he carried out his daily tasks as teacher, citizen, and believer as one who knew he was always standing before a skeptical inquisitor, an inquisitor who too often hides from the truth and masks his fear of knowing the truth behind indifference, agnosticism, or the pretense on the search—as Pilate did in the presence of Our Lord (John 18:37). He knew that faced with a troublesome truth, the skeptical inquisitor will if he can send it out to be killed…As Christopher Derrick, Lewis’s pupil and friend, has judiciously observed, “Lewis was a man willing to ‘challenge the entrenched priesthood of the intelligentsia.’ And he did so from within the cloister, at the cost of being thought a traitor by many of his peers. One finds in him an uncommonly valiant and articulate skeptic of the modern era, one forthrightly opposed to the ‘chronological snobbery’ of our times that assumes truth is a function of the calendar and that the latest word is the truest one. (40)

Not only should we emulate Lewis’ life of living before Pilate, but we must daily live in a state that the Reformer’s referred to as Coram Deo—before the face of God. It is He that we ultimately seek to please and serve. In doing so there is great reward. May the Lord of Glory give us the strength to stand firm in the day of trial.

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Their Friends. London: HarperCollins, 1997.

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Crouch, Andy. “Campus Collisions.” Christianity Today. October, 2003, pp. 60-64.

Duriez, Colin. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis: The Gift of Friendship. New Jersey: Paulist Press,


Hooper, Walter. and Roger Lancelyn Green. C.S. Lewis: A Biography. Revised Edition.

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Lewis, C.S. The Abolition of Man. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1974.

_____. Mere Christianity. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1974.

_____. The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses. New York: Harper San Francisco,


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Stanley, Jo. “Judge tosses part of Christian group’s suit against law school” San

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