C.S. Lewis: Surprised by Chesterton
GNORANCE is the first penalty of pride.” So wrote H.G. Wells in his 1920 work The Outline of Human History. Wells argued that Christianity had collapsed “like a house of cards” in light of evolutionary theory.
“The whole moral edifice,” Wells said, referring to Christianity, “was built upon false history.” If ignorance is the first penalty of pride, perhaps the second is to have one’s fallacies forever recorded in print.
G.K. Chesterton, a literary heavy weight in more ways than one, took issue with Wells. He published his response in 1925 under the title The Everlasting Man. Chesterton opens the book with these words: “There are two ways of getting home; and one of them is to stay there. The other is to walk round the whole world till we come back to the same place.”
C.S. Lewis, as an atheist, took the latter route, having walked round the whole world; Chesterton helped lead him home. Lewis recalls the impact of reading The Everlasting Man in Surprised by Joy: “In reading Chesterton … I did not know what I was letting myself in for. A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading.” If Lewis wished to remain an atheist, he should have left Chesterton’s books alone. I, for one, am thankful that he did not.
Among the multiple influences that shaped Lewis’ conversion to Christianity, Chesterton looms large. In fact, in response to one writer in 1947 who asked for an apologetics resource, Lewis wrote: “As for books, the very best popular defense of the full Christian position I know is G.K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man.” While Chesterton’s impact was lasting, it was initially met with bewilderment:
“I had never heard of him and had no idea of what he stood for; nor can I quite understand why he made such an immediate conquest of me. It might have been expected that my pessimism, my atheism, and my hatred of sentiment would have made him to me the least congenial of all authors. It would almost seem that Providence, or some “second cause” of a very obscure kind, quite overrules our previous tastes when it decides to bring to minds together. Liking an author may be as involuntary and improbable as falling in love” (Surprised by Joy, 190).
While it may have seemed improbable, Providence brought these two minds together resulting in a wealth of wisdom for later generations. Author Janet Knedlick said of G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis, “These two claimed to begin with honest minds and concluded there was one thing no honest mind could miss.” This one thing was neither ignorance nor pride, as H.G. Wells may have assumed, but a transcendent joy to be found only in the gospel of Christ. Perhaps a riddle to most, for them it was a life long obsession.