Have you ever been surprised by joy?
Updated: Aug 28, 2021
C.S. Lewis wrote about his early discovery of joy in his book Surprised by Joy. The experience of joy first came to him when reading fantasy stories and Norse mythology. Those tales touched something deep and majestic that brought a strange and enormous joy. The joy seemed to be something external to him that he was tapping into, not just something within his own brain chemistry. Later in life, he saw someone suffer from a mental breakdown.
This made him very distrusting of emotion and anything that purported to be a non-material state of being like a ghost or spirit. But he eventually rediscovered his joy and was able to put a name to it. This joy was touching the face of God, a scratching the surface of eternity. It pointed him to a reality and Being beyond anything in a the world of chemistry and physics. Later this led him to explore these ideas in books like Perelandra and the Chronicles of Narnia whose characters often have similar experiences.
Lewis rightly points out that not everything in our experience is merely a projection of subjective desires and wants. Freud famously asserted that the idea of God is merely a projection of our often unfulfilled desires for a father-figure. But what if many human desires are not simply projections but actually reflections, however dim? Many things in our mind reflect reality, such as our ability to recognize logic and mathematical principles. The deep joy or longing for a relationship with the Creator also can be a reflection of the way things are.
Lewis rightly points out that not everything in our experience is merely a projection of subjective desires and wants
Human longings are not, therefore, just a subjective laboratory of thought, cut off from anything truthful. Take our recognition of beauty, for example. The majestic beauty of the sun rising over the mile high city of Denver is spellbinding. Hiking through the flower filled foothills while small butterflies dance about in the sunbeams and myst is a moment of pure joy. It seems to point to something outside this mortal sphere.
Similarly, romantic love and heroism touches something at the core of human beings. There is something real about these longings and experiences. The alternative is that they are simply constructs, created by materialistic processes with no other reality. That conclusion would be very bleak indeed.
That means none of the stories, the beauty, the longings for order out of chaos have any real reason for being except perhaps as survival mechanisms. I would submit that the atheist who holds this view cannot even live it consistently. He continues to participate in the joys of life on many levels and just never thinks of the meaningless of them on his worldview. A theist on the other hand, is completely consistent with thinking that this beauty, truth, and joy are real and meaningful, even transcendent realities.
It seems to point to something outside this mortal sphere.
At the same time, experiences like this, as powerful as they are, are insufficient by themselves to lead us to the truth. The mind can give any number of interpretations on beautiful joy. Therefore, beauty and joy ought to lead us to philosophize about them. In other words, we ought to think hard about the truth. That is the path Lewis took. He didn’t rest content with endless variations and experiences of beauty without deep thought and action. Lewis is not like J. Alfred Prufrock in the T.S. Eliot poem who epitomizes the wanderer, the romantic dreamer flitting from one thought and activity to another while nothing ever truly affects his life.
Prufrock is the consummate flake. Lewis, instead, traced his experiences down to their source until he stumbled upon the question “why is there being?” He reasoned that there has to be some being at the back of all being that is the ultimate source of joy. Like Aquinas before him, he recognized that dependent beings cannot go endlessly on depending on other dependent beings. Eventually there needs to be an “I Am” at the back of all being to uphold their existence.
But Lewis didn’t stop there either. He knew too much history to just believe in some faceless and nameless deity. He reckoned that he ought to search for this deity among others who believed in a deity. So he began to go to church. And this led him to consider whether that deity had ever drawn near to his creatures and become one of them in the man Jesus Christ. If God permanently became man, then all of the beauties of the dying and rising hero find their fulfillment in one man in real and discoverable history.
So Lewis went through a process of experience of joy which brought up increasing questions. This led him to seek answers and reasons and finally to make a full commitment to Jesus Christ, the one in whom all joy finds its consummation.