Surprised by Joy is a work of autobiography. The memories that Lewis includes are those which have to do with the early influences that shaped him and then those that led step by step to his conversion. He was born into a Christian family and early in life practiced religion, but abandoned it during boarding school. As he was at this point beginning to develop intellectually, his abandonment of Christianity gave that development an atheist direction, but what Lewis found as he matured–both as a person and in his grasp of what he understood–is that the Christian persuasion kept impinging on his soul, till at last he surrendered.
It is an interesting story just for the autobiography of Lewis, who lived admirably. How his tastes developed, what he relished and how he learned to relish it are here mentioned and explained. I think is is valuable how he explains some of the things he loved and why; you learn a little bit to see things as he did.
I don’t know how unusual Lewis would have been in his time. Apparently Owen Barfield found the account of the conversion of Lewis rather more intellectual than the average person’s. If Owen Barfield says so, that is pretty good authority to go on; he was an educated man. What is amusing is that even in the story of his conversion, Lewis was making an argument. It was an argument in which he was defeated, but an argument nevertheless.
Once you have been led through the stages of his argument, you at least have an argument–and that can be useful. I’m not a great one for apologetics and arguments, but having been lead through the one Lewis makes, finding romanticism my ism, I am satisfied. I’ll take his explanation, perhaps at some point I can use it, though I don’t like those kinds of conversations. I’m not that critical a person, for one thing, and for another, I don’t think we really do things for reasons; we don’t come up with logical arguments in order to behave or to believe–we use them as excuses or as support for what we want, or better yet, clarification. If I meet a formidable argument I either want it or I don’t. In the end, arguments can’t be persuasive unless you want to be swayed by them. There are, of course, irrefutable arguments, and we ought to yield to those. I doubt, however, that we yield to them just because they’re irrefutable. Nor do I think there are as many of those as we sometimes think. That’s the part of persuasion Lewis has right: he makes me want what he is arguing for, he makes the case not just for its sense, but for its desirableness, and so I find I accept it. Because there are no reasons not to believe, but we will never find reasons persuade us.
If you have read Surprised by Joy you may take exception to this, but I think you’re wrong. Lewis is not showing that he was confronted by an argument he could not resist and so was reluctantly converted. No, he is showing the kind of person he was, and how providence operated on him from the beginning in order to make him clarify the desire for which he was made. Here is a controversial statement, but I’ll make it, and I think the book supports it: in an important sense, there is no such thing as conversion; there is only predestination.