An Occasionally Irrational Rationalist

Michael Metzger

Even C. S. Lewis, who called himself a rationalist, had his irrational moments.

In last week’s column, I asked how we get beyond our head when we hear something we initially feel is wrong. When we say: That can’t be!… we remain stuck in our head. But if we ask, How can this be?… our head opens. We enter the other person’s world to see things from their point of view. We consider reasons why they may be right after all.

Which brings us to an incident in C. S. Lewis’ life. I love Lewis and have benefited immensely from his work. But remember that Lewis grew up a rationalist. Then he had a dinner conversation with Hugo Dyson and J. R. R. Tolkien in 1931. The rationalist Lewis was calling mythological tales lies. “No,” said Tolkien, “They are not lies.” Tolkien described the cosmos as alive, bursting into flame in answer to eternal music, from which we get our word enchant.

Lewis was enchanted. He became a Christian that year, spending time with Dyson and Tolkien, both thoughtful Catholics. They expected Lewis to enter the Roman Catholic Church. Every indication early on was the Lewis was going to, a move that seemed likely as late as 1950. But he never did. Lewis was Irish, and his “religious upbringing seems to have been characterized by an inherited anti-Catholicism, whether implicit or explicit.”[1]

The year 1950 was also when Lewis began corresponding with Joy Davidman. At that time, Joy was married to a serial philanderer. She had grown up an atheist, becoming a Christian in the late 1940s. But Joy was a rather unorthodox Christian, falling for Ron Hubbard’s cult of Dianetics that became Scientology, a flirtation with Hubbard’s followers that persisted well past her conversion to Christianity.[2] Still, she and Lewis connected, both being authors.

Joy eventually decided to go by herself to England while leaving her husband in the same house with another woman. Dyson and Tolkien were troubled by this. Lewis wasn’t, and remember that, by 1954, he had left Oxford to teach at Cambridge. Dyson and Tolkien’s influence was waning. Two years later (1956), Lewis arranged to marry Joy in a civil ceremony to keep her sons in England. They never consummated their marriage, trying perhaps to preserve a particular image of “St. Jack,” writes biographer Walter Hooper.

Still, even though converted, Lewis maintained: “I am a rationalist.”[3] But he seems to have overlooked how the point of rationality is to prove the limits of rationality. For instance, when Tolkien asked Lewis why he hadn’t become a Catholic, Lewis is reputed to have replied: “If you had grown up in Belfast, you would understand and wouldn’t ask me that question.” Tolkien is reported to have referred (tongue-in-cheek) to Lewis’ “Ulsterior motives” for not becoming Catholic.[4] Lewis agreed. He knew his prejudices ran deep.

Lewis’ friend and biographer George Sayer confirms this. He writes how Dr. Robert Havard asked Lewis: “Jack, most of your friends seem to be Catholic. Why don’t you join us? Aren’t you tempted?” Lewis replied that the important thing was to make one’s submission to a Christian church. Which branch of the Christian church one chose was far less important. And he said he was not tempted to share what he called “your heresies.”

Havard replied: “Heresies! What heresies, Jack?”

“Well, here are two—the position you give to the Virgin Mary and the doctrine of papal infallibility.” But Lewis refused to discuss them. Nor can I find any evidence that he ever entered the Catholic world and saw things from its point of view. Lewis never seemed to ask: How can this be? He instead simply declared: That can’t be!

It’s admirable of Lewis to honestly admit his biases (we all have them), and to acknowledge that they had a sort of irrational but profound effect on his position. But his nonconscious bias seeps out, even in his scholarly work, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century. Lewis claims the Reformation would have been avoided had Catholic and Reformed leaders acted as “mature and saintly disputants.” That’s not exactly love, which believes the best in others. But his unseemly caricature of the disputants did allow Lewis to frame Anglicanism as the “middle way” between the two, a frame that conveniently overlooks how Henry VIII’s reasons for breaking with Rome were not the most honorable, to put it mildly.

But perhaps the most irrational moment in Lewis’ life was when his brother Warren wrote that he was shortly to be received into the Catholic Church. Jack immediately traveled to the hospital to prevent it. He argued not only with Warren, but also at length with the parish priest. In describing the event to Lewis biographer, Christopher Derrick, Warnie commented, “Jack did not always get the best of it.”[5] The rationalist was acting irrationally.

Lewis’ rationalist approach is summed up in a remark he made in a 1950 preface to a French edition of his book, The Problem of Pain: “I leave matters of religious controversy for theologians.” Lewis was deeply disturbed by the scandal of Christian division but decided to not talk about our deepest differences, never asking, How can this be?

We all have our irrational moments. I certainly do. The remedy is loving others, kindly considering their point of view, asking them, How can this be?, rather than dismissing them out of hand. Otherwise, like Lewis, we forget that our hearts have their reasons that reason knows not.


[1] Joseph Pearce, C. S. Lewis and the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press, 2003), 5.

[2] Abigail Santamar, Joy: Poet, Seeker, and the Woman Who Captivated C. S. Lewis (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015).

[3] C. S. Lewis, Selected Literary Essays, (Cambridge University Press, 2013), 265.

[4] Jedd Medifind, “Interview with Peter Kreeft on C. S. Lewis,” (October, 2003).

[5] Christopher Derrick, C. S. Lewis and the Church of Rome, (Ignatius, 1981), 421-422.


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  1. We all have our “pillars” that we can’t tear down, lest we tear everything down. Like a carpenter though, we need to see if a specific pillar in our life is really holding everything up or is just for show. Your points are well taken, Mike. We need to ask ourselves when confronted with uncomfortable ideas, “what if they are right”? This requires humility which is a valuable trait for believers.

  2. Mike,
    I really enjoyed this piece…I grew up Northern Irish Catholic and moved to the US in my early 20’s, so I was on the opposite
    side from Lewis. I don’t know if Lewis would have truly considered himself Irish, In my life I have never run into a NI Protestant who truly considered themself Irish…they are always British or sometimes to show a more progressive leaning, may identify as an Ulster man (hence the great response “Ulsterior motives”)…
    As a kid growing up I could never understand how these Protestants could hold up their “Ye must be Saved” signs to us Catholics and then every July 12th join in the Protestant band parades playing “Kick the Pope” outside our Catholic homes…so when Lewis replied “If you had grown up in Belfast…” that is perfectly normal in the context of NI.
    Unfortunately the NI lesson is that culture trumps just about everything and is so hard to break…”to be N Irish is to be Catholic” Lewis would have been giving up his Protestant culture and heritage were he to consider being a Catholic…
    Here in the US I became a follower of Jesus and learned the value of being extracted from my culture…if I have learned one thing in doing so it is to have an approach of “help me understand” when talking with others…
    Thanks again and God bless you

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