C. S. Lewis is probably one of the most popular Christian writers of the 20th century, and when I was a Christian, I read plenty of C. S. Lewis. As a Christian, I read The Screwtape Letters, The Space Trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength), and The Chronicles of Narnia. I think the first thing C. S. Lewis did for me was to present an expanded, more mythical understanding of Christianity. Traditionally, Christianity tells us that God incarnated once as Jesus of Nazareth, died for our sins, and we must believe in this to get into Heaven. But this isn’t going to go over so well on other worlds in which God never incarnated as Jesus, and in which the people there have no way of knowing about Jesus. In his Space Trilogy and in his Chronicles of Narnia, Lewis presents a more universal conception of Christianity that covers not only Earth but other worlds. The details of the first and third books of his Space Trilogy are sketchy to me, but I distinctly remember what Perelandra was about. Perelandra is another name for the planet Venus, and in this novel, the hero of the previous novel, a man named Ransom, is sent to Perelandra to prevent the Adam and Eve of that world from making the same mistake that the Adam and Eve of Earth did. This presents the idea that for each world, God is playing out a similar drama as the Bible describes happening on Earth. In The Chronicles of Narnia, the children meet a lion named Aslan. But this isn’t just any lion. Aslan represents Jesus. As portrayed in The Magician’s Nephew, Aslan creates Narnia. As portrayed in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Aslan is killed and resurrected, defeating the powers of evil. As portrayed in The Last Battle, Aslan ushers the good inhabitants of Narnia into a new Narnia during the end times of Narnia.
Since I understood Aslan to be God, and more specifically the second person of the trinity, what the Gospel of John calls the Logos, in The Chronicles of Narnia, I began to sometimes direct my prayers to Aslan. I understood that The Chronicles of Narnia were fiction and that Aslan was a fictional portrayal of God, but I also considered God to be ineffable, and I figured that the manner in which I envisioned God didn’t matter as much as that I was praying to God. For whatever reason, I think that I found Lewis’s portrayals of Aslan more moving than the portrayals of Jesus in the Bible. This may be because Lewis was a better writer than the Gospel writers or because he had a more humane ethics than the Gospel writers. Maybe both. Although this prepared me to be favorable to the Vedantic view that Jesus was but one of several avatars of God, this was not the step that took me away from Christianity.
In The Last Battle, Aslan accepted into the new Narnia a follower of another god. When questioned about this, he said something along the lines of this being a truly devout man who had the right attitude in his heart even though he happened to worship a false god. This got me thinking that what we believed as Christians was not nearly as important as what kind of people we are. I realized that Christianity was asking us to believe in events that we had not witnessed and could not verify, and it would not be fair of God to require us to believe in unverifiable events to gain salvation. I reasoned that if Buddhists or people of other religions were good people, they could go to Heaven too. It wasn’t important what they believed but only whether they led good lives and were good people.
This freed me to start looking at other religions. I subsequently studied Vedanta, Buddhism, and Taoism, and I found value in each of them. I also read The Perennial Philosophy: An Interpretation of the Great Mystics, East and West by Aldous Huxley, which focused on the mystic traditions within the major world religions and what they all had in common. I came to agree with a quotation I read, I think from Sri Ramakrishna, that the various world religions were all just different paths to the same thing, a knowledge of God. So my first step away from Christianity was to become a Mystic. As a Mystic, I could still call myself a Christian, but it was in a broader, less provincial sense, much like I could consider myself a Cosmopolitan in one sense and an American in another. Instead of seeing Christianity as the one true path, I saw it as one path among many. And since I didn’t have any evidence for its specific claims, I didn’t consider it important to continue down that path. Instead, I drew more from eastern religions, generally considering myself a Taoist but also drawing from Hinduism and Buddhism.
In later years, I read more by C. S. Lewis. One book in particular, The Great Divorce, made even more explicit the Universalist ideas of C. S. Lewis. This book is about Heaven and Hell, and instead of portraying people in Hell as damned to eternal torment, it portrayed them as keeping themselves in Hell through their own narrow-mindededness and personal attachments, along with the people of Heaven trying to reach out to them and help them open themselves up to choosing Heaven over Hell. Again, the focus here was on what kind of person someone is, not on what he believes. It also portrayed salvation as remaining possible to people in the afterlife, which seemed fairer than the traditional idea that salvation is determined by what we believe in this life.
Although I think that Mere Christianity doesn’t have any good arguments in it, I have found the fiction of C. S. Lewis worthwhile and insightful, even when reading him as a non-Christian. I think this is because Lewis offers a vision of Christianity that is more about ethics than belief and one that is more universal in scope than the more provincial forms of Christianity many people know.