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50 years ago today, Kennedy, Huxley and Lewis followed different paths to the grave

Published: Thursday, Nov. 21 2013 8:30 a.m. MST

“It’s an extinction of the self in the sense that once a wave on the surface of the ocean understands itself as ‘the ocean,’ that its fundamental nature and the fundamental reality of nature are the same,” Sawyer said. “Surrender of individuality at the end of my life is like when the wind dies down and the wave is subsumed back into the ocean. What is lost is individuality, the individual moment of the wave, but nothing is lost.”

Here again, Huxley may have been a rather unconventional Buddhist. “It is possible for a given human being to survive in more than one posthumous form,” he wrote. And Wines thinks Huxley did at least suspect that individuality could survive death.

The revered heretic

Lewis and Huxley were both religious skeptics at Oxford during the years just before World War I. But thereafter, their paths diverged.

Lewis describes his conversion to Christianity as a game of chess against God, with Lewis losing pieces as he tries to slow the advance of a superior player. "Really, a young Atheist cannot guard his faith too carefully,” Lewis writes. “Dangers lie for him on every side. You must not do, you must not even try to do, the will of the Father unless you are prepared to ‘know of the doctrine.’ ”

There was, of course, a mystical component in Lewis’ experience, says Devin Brown, a professor at Asbury University in Kentucky and author of "A Life Observed: A Spiritual Biography of C.S. Lewis." Lewis called this mystical experience “joy.”

"This isn't happiness or contentment: it’s longing for something that nothing in this world can satisfy,” Brown said. “But it's a beautiful longing, better than any satisfying thing you could ever have.”

Lewis first felt that joy when he discovered Nordic myths, which, he writes in “Surprised by Joy,” tapped in him a feeling something powerful, deep and urgent. “It's only later in life that he identifies this as a longing for God or a longing for heaven," Brown said.

When Lewis later read the New Testament, he found that its narrative combined the joy he felt in mythology with the authenticity of real events. The “old myth of the dying God … by becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle."

Lewis famously describes setting out one day in the sidecar of a friend's motorcycle on an outing. "When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did. Yet I had not exactly spent the journey in thought. … It was more like when a man, after long sleep … becomes aware that he is now awake."

Lewis, like Huxley, argued the self must be surrendered to save the soul. “Submit to death, death of your ambitions and favourite wishes. … Nothing that you have not given away will be really yours. Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead,” he wrote.

His theory was tested on this front in 1960 when, after a lifetime as a bachelor, he had befriended and married a soulmate, an American divorcee with two children coincidentally named Joy, only to see her die of cancer three years later. Lewis distilled the trauma into “A Grief Observed,” a wrenching account of his feeling isolated from God in grief.

Lewis and Huxley shared another bond in death. Both their mothers, to whom they were strongly attached, died in 1908. Lewis was 9, Huxley 14. And both lost wives to cancer.

Also like Huxley, Lewis was a heretic. A Google search of “C.S. Lewis” and “heretic” returns scores of websites “exposing” the most famous Christian apologist of the age — his books still sell more than 2 million copies a year — for his unconventional conclusions.

In addition to rejecting the infallibility of the Bible, for example, Lewis argued that non-Christians could be saved. "There are people in other religions,” he wrote, "who are being led by God's secret influence to concentrate on those parts of their religion which are in agreement with Christianity, and who thus belong to Christ without knowing it.”

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