Intelligent Christianity with C.S. Lewis

Fr Thomas Casey SJ reflects on key things we can learn from this genius of modern Christianity

On September 1914, just a month after Britain had declared war on Germany, the 15-year old C.S. Lewis came up against a formidable opponent in the life of the mind, a man who was relentlessly logical, and who taught C.S. Lewis how to think as no one before had ever done. First, I’m going to tell the fascinating story of their encounter, and second, I’m going to show how important it is to use and develop our minds as part of our Christian faith.

Shock of his life

Lewis’ father sent him over to Surrey to receive private tuition from a certain W.T. Kirkpatrick. Lewis expected to meet a sentimental old chap. But instead, when he came up against the man he was later to lovingly call “The Great Knock”, Lewis received the biggest shock of his life. Here is how C.S. Lewis described their first encounter in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy:

“I began to ‘make conversation’ in the deplorable manner which I had acquired at those evening parties… I said I was surprised at the ‘scenery’ of Surrey; it was much ‘wilder’ than I had expected. ‘Stop!’ shouted Kirk with a suddenness that made me jump. ‘What do you mean by wildness and what grounds had you for not expecting it?’”


This harsh question from the Great Knock would have turned many a teenager off this tutor for life, not to mention prematurely ending interest in any kind of academic career. But Lewis was made of sterner stuff; he was ready to fight. His pride stung him into attempting some answers: 

“I replied I don’t know what, still ‘making conversation’. As answer after answer was torn to shreds it at last dawned upon me that he really wanted to know. He was not making conversation, nor joking, nor snubbing me; he wanted to know. I was stung into attempting a real answer. A few passes sufficed to show that I had no clear and distinct idea corresponding to the word ‘wildness,’ and that, in so far as I had any idea at all, ‘wildness’ was a singularly inept word. ‘Do you not see, then,’ concluded the Great Knock, ‘that your remark was meaningless?’”

Lewis then thought that the matter would be over. But the Great Knock was not prepared to drop the subject. In fact, he had only just begun.


“Having analysed my terms, Kirk was proceeding to deal with my proposition as a whole. On what had I based my expectations about the Flora and Geology of Surrey? Was it maps, or photographs, or books? I could produce none… Kirk once more drew a conclusion—without the slightest sign of emotion, but equally without the slightest concession to what I thought good manners: ‘Do you not see, then, that you had no right to have any opinion whatever on the subject?’”

This daunting exchange lasted only four minutes, but for the few years that Lewis was to spend at Great Bookham, Surrey, such intellectual intensity never once let up. As Lewis commented, “If ever a man came near to being a purely logical entity, that man was Kirk.” Yet this relentlessly logical mind and intellectual toughness attracted Lewis. The Great Knock influenced him greatly, teaching him how to think in an extraordinarily disciplined way.

What has this story got to do with the rest of us? After all, C.S. Lewis was really promising material, a genius or at least close to one. The rest of us are not going to have the good fortune to have a tutor like Kirkpatrick (or perhaps after reading this story you may have decided that having such a teacher would be ill fortune!). Are we expected to take the life of the mind so seriously?

The plain answer is yes. Serving God through our minds is not some kind of optional extra in Christianity. It is not something we can simply decide to do only if it takes our fancy.

Crucial truth

Let me share a secret with you, one of the most open secrets ever, but one of which most Christians are unaware: Jesus himself commands us to serve God with our minds. It is not as if Jesus transmitted this commandment in a hidden or secret way.  In order to impart this crucial truth, he did not use parables that were difficult to understand.  In fact he spelled out this commandment as clearly and plainly as possible.  Perhaps we don’t see this commandment precisely because it is so obvious, staring us right in the face. 

The commandment I’m talking about is not a minor or unimportant one.  On the contrary, it has absolute priority, because it is the first and most important commandment of all. Really, I’m telling you the truth!

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment.”  (Matthew 22: 37-38) 

We have heard that commandment so often, but how many of us have noticed that word ‘mind’?  Jesus tells us we are to love God intellectually as well as spiritually and emotionally.  How many of us have reflected seriously about the word ‘mind’ that Jesus uses here?  How many of us have come to see that God commands us to love him not only with all our heart and all our soul, but also with all of our minds (intellectually)?  Jesus is clearly telling us that we cannot genuinely love God without loving him with our intelligence as well. 

Cherish your mind

Jesus values your mind, He values your mind seriously enough to want you to love Him with all your mind.  Jesus wants you to cherish your mind, He wants you to use and develop it. 

Isn’t it incredible: this is the greatest commandment, and somehow we have failed to notice that an essential ingredient, an indispensable element in it is that we are to love God with all our minds!

And when it comes to the mind, we don’t have to worry if we’re not of the same intellectual calibre as someone like C.S. Lewis. The truth is that a person of reasonable intelligence can achieve much more than a gifted person, provided he or she wants to do so.  This is the case in other spheres of life as well.  For instance, in the world of sports, once a certain level of skill and ability is present, it is the will to excel that counts above all.  Everyone admires the seemingly effortless grace and fluidity of the Brazilian soccer team, but it is easy to forget the will to win that is behind the sublime display of skill, a will so tenacious that it leads to years of hard work before the spotlight ever shines on any of these players. 


It is not the brightest people who are necessarily the best at improving their minds.  It is the people who want to be best, and who methodically and patiently dedicate themselves to the task.  They are much more likely to achieve something than a wayward genius.

Truth is everywhere, which means you can find it everywhere.  The key is your will, your desire. You must want to find it, you must look for it.  A musician hears rhythm everywhere, from the pitter-patter of footsteps to the tapping of rain on the windowpane.  A painter has only to look up to the sky to see colour and form in continual motion.

Let’s leave the final words to C.S. Lewis: “God is no fonder of intellectual slackers than of any other slackers. If you are thinking of becoming a Christian, I warn you: you are embarking on something which is going to take the whole of you, brains and all.” (Mere Christianity).

Fr Thomas Casey SJ lectures in philosophy at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth.