Pastor John, was C. S. Lewis a Christian Hedonist?
Joy led Lewis to Christ as the supreme object of his joy and the supreme source of his joy. So, if we are asking the question what is the function of joy in Lewis and does it lead to Christian Hedonism, my resounding answer is going to be the function of joy was massive, and yes it leads to Christian Hedonism. I think I learned crucial elements of my Christian Hedonism from Lewis.
Longing for Joy
He called his autobiography Surprised by Joy. That is a massive choice he made to tell us what he was experiencing during his 30 unbelieving years in this thing he called the inconsolable longing. What he was experiencing, this northernness, was ephemeral — always disappointing, and disappearing. As soon as you tried to grasp it, keep it, or make it your god, it went away.
He wrote this really famous line, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probably explanation is that I was made for another world.” Well, that is a description of the discovery it took him 30 years to get to. He was constantly having these desires, and he called them joy.
“My resounding answer is that joy was massive for Lewis, and yes it leads to Christian Hedonism.”
He called these stabbings. They were these breaking ins of something he knew not what. The longing was for joy. It was so intense. He wanted it so bad, and yet it went away. And so he finally says in his story of his conversion this is a quote, “Inexorably, joy proclaimed you want. I myself am your want of something other outside, not you nor any state of you.”
In other words, that is what he finally came to. My desire is pointing beyond my desire, and if I don't discover the God beyond my desire — the true God who awakens all my desires and who satisfies all my desires — I will live an endlessly frustrated life.
There was a quest for joy which became a quest of the object of the joy so that the joy could be satisfied. That is how he became a Christian. You can’t overstate, for Lewis, the redemptive effect of joy in his life.
The next stage for me in my own discovery was to realize that it didn’t just bring him to Christ. Joy remained in Lewis’s way of thinking as a virtue behind all our good deeds. I remember standing at a Square Specials book table in Roman’s bookstore in fall of 1968 on Colorado Avenue in Pasadena, California looking down at a little blue paperback called The Weight of Glory by C. S. Lewis.
I had never picked it up in my life. I picked it up, opened it, and read the first page. The impact of that page on my Christian Hedonism is huge because that is the page where he basically says everybody is questing and pursuing joy and the problem, he said, is not that we are pursuing happiness, but that we are far too easily pleased. And I thought, yes, yes. That is right. The problem is not that I want to be happy. The problem is that I am settling on happinesses that are—to use his language—like a little child making mud pies in the slum because he can’t imagine what a holiday at the sea is like.
That sentence was just explosively illuminating for me. It became part of the ground of the last 40 plus years of my life’s work. So, yes, he was a Christian Hedonist.
One last piece. I forget when I read Reflections on the Psalms. I think I read it a year or two later. At the time, I was wrestling with how God-centered God seemed to be in the Bible, and I was being shown by Edwards and Dan Fuller how all over the Bible that God was God-centered. In his chapter on, I forget, something like a word on praise or something, he talked about this own struggle with God’s self-exaltation. He said it sounded like an old woman seeking compliments: “Praise me. Praise me, praise me, praise me.” It seemed to him that God was saying that all over the psalms. And he is.
“You can’t overstate, for Lewis, the redemptive effect of joy in his life.”
And then he gives these two pages of reflection, pages 92 and 93. I didn’t even check it because I remember it so well from those days. He said that praise is not the constrained dutiful add on to delight. You don’t delight and say, “Well, I guess I should praise you because it is so beautiful.” Nobody, nobody does that. If you love something — if you delight in something — praise spontaneously overflows. You say, “Isn’t that beautiful? Can you believe that?” And you point and you hope that somebody is standing at your side.
I remember standing as I read the jokes in The New Yorker in the library at Fuller Seminary and laughing quietly and wishing I could point to it with somebody. That confirmed that Lewis is right. I wanted to praise that joke right there. I want to praise this cartoon right now. My joy in this cartoon will not be complete until I find somebody and say, “Look, look. Look at this.” And he argued that when God calls us to praise he is calling us to bring our delight to consummation which means it is not ego mania it is love.
That was the capstone for me. It was the capstone to believe that God’s requirement that I praise him was an act for me. It was for me. He gets the glory. I get the consummation of the joy that I have in him.
So, Lewis has had a profound influence in my shaping of what I have called Christian Hedonism. I will just thank God for him until I see him face to face and can thank both him and the Father that he let me bump into him in my younger years.