The group met at various times in Lewis’s classroom and a local pub from the late 1930’s to 1949. Charles Williams was an early member of the group and continued as a regular until his death in 1945. Williams grew up “a devout churchman” but was encouraged by his father “to appreciate the force of atheistic rationalism and to admire such men as Voltaire and Tom Paine”.
Lewis, of course, was an atheist when he arrived and began teaching at Oxford. His journey from materialism to agnosticism to Christian theism is chronicled in his autobiographical work, Surprised by Joy. Tolkien was already a Christian when Lewis joined him as a professor at Oxford, and Tolkien influenced Lewis in his transition to Christianity. Williams came along later. These men were attracted to each other as much by their love of language, literature and poetry as their faith, though their views on literature and faith often diverged sharply.
These three men, and others who joined them, were powerhouses of thought and creativity. CS Lewis, of course, wrote many books from fiction to philosophy. JRR Tolkien wrote, perhaps, the greatest mythological series of the 20th century in the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings Trilogy. Charles Williams, though lesser known, was a prolific writer, literary critic, publisher and student of English literature who could recite hundreds of passages from sheer memory.
They influenced each other, despite their very distinct differences, and their collective influence has been felt by generations from their day to ours. They were Christian men, believing very authentically in the Bible as scripture, but they were also fierce academics who held their faith up to the rigors of intellectual exercise.
They were classicists, Tolkien more than Lewis, and Lewis more than Williams. That is they valued the ancient literature, and they took an ancient approach that assumed no tension between science and faith. They stood against the thrust of 19th and 20th century academics in this regard during which time science was chiefly carried on as if theology was never considered a science.
Theology was once considered the “queen of the sciences” but began to take a backseat to “natural science” in the 18th century as scientists sought to approach science as a self-contained discipline without assuming a creator. The divorce of science from theology, and the exile of theology from the realm of science is complete today. Science is now limited to the study of the natural world, but it wasn’t always so limited.
Over the course of these past two centuries, and slightly longer, worldviews have shifted in academic levels to a position that has raised science to an elite level, while theology has fallen out of favor, taking on second class citizenship at best and, in many a modern mind, has been relegated to the vagaries of superstition. Many people now contend that no reality exists but the natural world – and to that extent, science is the study of everything that exists.
If Lewis, Tolkien and Williams were millennials today, they would “call BS”.
Tolkien, Lewis and Williams opposed this view of reality that was already taking solid hold in the academia of the early 19th century. They argued forcefully for a more transcendent view of the world. Lewis is famous for saying that mind doesn’t come from matter, and an objective moral reality hangs on nothing if not for the existence of a Supreme Moral Law Giver.
While science has certainly advanced in the study of the natural world over these last few centuries, science parted long ago with any real, working knowledge or understanding of theology, and even philosophy. Neal deGrasse Tyson and others have suggested that science has advanced such that it has replaced philosophy. But, that would only be true if knowledge of the natural world is the sum of all knowledge.
Frankly, I believe that such a proposition is more of an indictment of modern science than an advancement. It demonstrates more of a lack of knowledge and understanding of philosophy (and theology) than anything.
Though Lewis, Tolkien and Williams parted ways on various things, they were united in their view of the importance of literature and myth, even pagan myths, which they would say carry some shadows of the reality of “real myth”.
Above all, these mean were intellectuals who were men of faith. They saw no tension between faith and reason or faith and science. The one informed the other, and they were rigorous in the application of facts to faith and faith to facts.
For them, a worldview must account for much more than what science can tell us about the natural world. A worldview must be able to account coherently for beauty, love, art, morality, the sense of purpose that men intuitively seek and the longing we all have for something this world never quite satisfies, among other things. Lewis was fond of saying that, while religion can account for science, the natural world, beauty, love, art, morality and purpose, science can only account for the natural world.
The natural instincts of finite beings are to worship things that cause us to respond with awe. Our finitude also leads us to doubt. The thinking man is naturally led to doubt because we don’t know what we don’t know. Our desire for certainty has caused some to shrink the universe to the size and scope of all that we can know through science, and from that position they declare that is all there is to know.
Reality, however, is not so provincial. Our worldview must be robust enough to make sense of things that transcend the natural world and honest enough to admit them. To venture out into the vast reality of the universe and to transcend it requires measures of faith, doubt, intellect and awe … and the honesty and integrity to hold them in tension.
Lewis, Tolkien and Williams were modern pioneers of that transcendent reality, the necessity of which is suggested by the natural world, itself, and all of our experiences that interact with it. While admitting all the facts that science reveals of the natural world, they were keenly aware of the insufficiency of science to account for the things that matter most. They found in literature, myth, poetry, beauty and, ultimately, the redemption story of the Christian Scripture, all the transcendence that makes sense of this natural world.