Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The test of belief

C.S. Lewis was a picture of contented bachelorhood when he met Joy (Davidman) Gresham. Their romance and marriage—dramatized in the play and film Shadowlands—was about as unlikely a match as one could imagine. Though he was a buttoned-up Englishman and she an outspoken New Yorker, their's was a sublime meeting of minds and hearts. Lewis described the few years they had together before Joy's life was cut short by bone cancer: "we feasted on love. . . . no cranny of heart or body remained unsatisfied." Lewis was delighted to find in his 60's the happiness that eluded him as a young man.

When Joy was taken Lewis experienced a crisis of doubt. It was as if everything he believed had collapsed like a house of cards. As he grieved Lewis jotted down random memories, questions and meditations in some old notebooks he found lying around the house. In modern parlance this is Lewis "venting", some times with barely concealed rage. The diaries were published in 1961 as A Grief Observed. It's a singular book in the Lewis canon. I've been reading and enjoying it again, though it's a gutwrenching read.

Here's Lewis on the true test of belief:

You never know how much you really believe anything until its truth or falsehood becomes a matter of life and death to you. It is easy to say you believe a rope to be strong and sound as long as you are merely using it to cord a box. But supposed you had to hang by that rope over a precipice. Wouldn't you then first discover how much you really trusted it? The same with people. For years I would have said that I had perfect confidence in B.R. Then came the moment when I had to decide whether I would or would not trust him with a really important secret. That threw quite a new light on what I called my 'confidence' in him. I discovered that there was no such thing. Only a real risk tests the reality of a belief. (pp. 34-5)

Talk to me about the truth of religion and I'll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I'll listen submissively. But don't come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don't understand. (p. 37)

I'm thankful "Jack" left us this brutally honest account of his wrestlings with doubt. At the end his questions remain mostly unanswered, but I hear the echo of that prayer: "Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief!"

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