Looking Along the Beam



Wadham College, Oxford University


“When it becomes clear that you cannot find out by reasoning whether the cat is in the linen-cupboard, it is Reason herself who whispers, ‘Go and look.’”[1]


In the early 1920’s, while enjoying the beauty of the garden at Wadham College, C. S. Lewis read Samuel Alexander’s Space Time and Deity and through it was introduced to an idea that would shed light on his past and set his path on a course towards the Light of the World.  Alexander put forth a theory that divided our conscious lives into two processes which he labeled Enjoyment and Contemplation.  Lewis would write in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy that upon reading this, he “accepted this distinction at once … as an indispensable tool of thought.”[2]  He would come to the conclusion that “we need a threefold division” of our thought lives:  “the Unconscious, the Enjoyed, and the Contemplated.”[3]  The thread of this conclusion can be seen running throughout the body of Lewis’s work, both academic and popular.[4]  Most importantly, this would be the tool by which he was able to fasten together particular experiences of intense longing he labeled Joy and the truth of Christianity.  This garden encounter would eventually compel him to take leave of the “dry desert” of popular Realism he had adopted as his life’s philosophy. He was humbled into accepting that this strong desire for Joy pointed to something real and beyond the finite world of his senses that he had hitherto accepted as rock-bottom reality.[5]  The role that the concepts of Enjoyment and Contemplation played in Lewis’s conversion can instruct us as apologists both in how we craft our approach and in how we understand our own lives “in Christ.”

In his essay, “Meditation in a Toolshed”, Lewis creates a metaphor for understanding these concepts and it gives us a glimpse into the far-reaching effects they had in his own thinking.  He compares the experience of being able to see a beam of light shining through a crack while standing in a dark toolshed, seeing the “specks of dust floating in it”, to what he experienced when he then stepped into the beam, with “the previous picture” disappearing as he gazed along it to the world outside the shed.[6]  In the first situation, he “was seeing the beam, not seeing things by it”, this representing his experience in the Contemplation mode of conscious thought.[7]  When he moved into the beam of light, his view completely changed and he could no longer detect its rays penetrating the shed’s darkness.  Instead, looking along the beam, he could see the world outside with “green leaves moving on branches of a tree outside and beyond that, 90 million miles away, the sun,” its source.[8] This new experience he likened to what one experiences in the Enjoyment mode of conscious thought.  It was this instantaneous shift of focus and experience that Lewis called the difference between “looking at and looking along”, and this new understanding of his inner thought life illuminated the path for his own thinking to step out of its reductionist toolshed and into the wider world of the Light in Whom “we live and move and have our being.”[9]

Lewis uses an illustration of the mathematician who in considering “timeless and spaceless truths about quantity”[10] enjoys his thoughts about these realities.  He is “looking along the beam.”  Yet, a neurobiologist cannot then learn these same “timeless and spaceless”[11] truths by inspecting the mathematician’s brain scans.  From his external vantage point, he can only see neurons firing throughout the matter of the mathematician’s brain, lighting up this area, then that.  These are two very different perspectives.  In fact, this shift in perspective can even occur within the mathematician himself as he shifts his thoughts from the scientific truths to his thoughts about them.

This distinction between Enjoyment and Contemplation is most important when giving explanations of realities like “religion, love, morality, honor, and the like,” writes Lewis, for not all of us have “been inside” these experiences in the way perhaps others have. [12]  Certainly in the contemplation mode of thought we can explain these phenomena as resulting from this sociological pressure or that biological process, but such explanations only explain away and all we are left with are words in a valueless vacuum.  Lewis will point out that even our own explanations can be explained away in similar fashion by someone contemplating the firing of our neurons as we think such thoughts.  He wrote that “you can step outside one experience only by stepping inside another”[13], and every experience is an inside one in a sense, with what we label as “true” being entirely dependent on our perspective.  If we are going to define all such “inside experience [as] misleading, we are always misled.”[14]  He writes “thus the inside vision of rational thinking must be truer than the outside vision which sees only movements of grey matter; for if the outside vision were the correct one, all thought (including this thought itself) would be valueless.”[15]  This would seem to fall within the category of Chesterton’s “thought that stops all thought”[16], and this realization would stop Lewis’s thought that his Realism was true.

Is this not what our modern skeptics and materialistic scientists do, as well, when studying religion?  Could not the religionist be equally as (reflexively) dismissive of the experiences of scientists in the midst of such contemplative dismissals?  One can easily see the train of endless reductions this leads to.  “You cannot go on ‘explaining away’ forever: you will find that you have explained explanation itself away,” Lewis writes in The Abolition of Man.[17]  The lesson here is, as Lewis says, “we must, on pain of idiocy, deny from the very outset the idea that looking at is, by its own nature, intrinsically truer or better than looking along.”[18]  Our only other option is to contemplate ourselves out of existence, which indeed is idiotic.  In practice, what this really amounts to in our modern culture is a selective explaining away of certain phenomena that do not fit into the dominant naturalistic narrative.  Lewis exhorts that “we must start with no prejudice for or against either kind of looking”[19], for we cannot know which resulting account is truer, if both are true, or if both are actually false.  We must examine the account in both lights.

Another important aspect of looking at our conscious lives this way, Lewis wrote, is that “the enjoyment and contemplation of our inner activities are incompatible.”[20]  Lewis would realize that the moment we shift our gaze from “looking along” to “looking at”, our experience changes.  In looking along, we are engaged, and our thoughts inhabit the world of the object, not unlike how our sight enters the world illuminated by the beam.  The dark toolshed drops out of our field of vision and we see beyond its confines.  Yet the moment we begin thinking about these thoughts, we leave this object’s world, turning inwardly and detaching ourselves from it in order to contemplate its effects upon us.  We step back into the cold, mental darkness of the toolshed in contemplation.  As a result, our conscious thoughts are continually alternating between Enjoyment and Contemplation – they can never occur simultaneously for a given object of our thoughts, which is a consequence of our temporal moment by moment existence in a cause and effect universe.

This point was key for Lewis when it came to understanding his experiences of Joy.  He recognized that in thinking of things like love, hate, and fear, the quality of these depends upon the object they are directed towards.  These are necessarily outward views.  We can only experience these in an Enjoyment mode if we truly engage with them, for the moment we shift into Contemplation of the love, hate, or fear they have produced in us, we turn our attention inwardly and into abstractions.  Our experience goes cold.  Lewis notes that effectively, we cease loving, hating, and fearing.  We go from the “along the beam” experiential knowledge of the objects, to an “at the beam” analysis of their effects upon us.   In fact, such a shift into the contemplation mode of thought is a way to mitigate negative effects.  “The surest way of disarming an anger or lust [is] to turn your attention away from the girl or the insult and start examining the passion itself.”[21] And, in this mode, it is not the object itself that we are analyzing, but only “mental images or physical sensations” created by these objects “like the swell at sea, working after the wind has dropped.”

Lewis realized that it was Joy’s leftover impressions on his mind that he had been struggling to contemplate all his life.  “I saw that all my waitings and watchings for Joy, all my vain hopes to find some mental content on which I could, so to speak, lay my finger,” he wrote, were destined for futility for he was attempting the impossible, to “contemplate the enjoyed.”[22]  That this Joy was a separate object was apparent to him because the desire it aroused necessarily pointed away from himself.  His faculties had only come under their influence.  Also, Joy had proved itself to be beyond the very things that had initially delivered it.  These things were only vehicles.  When he mistook them for Joy, they “soon honestly confessed themselves inadequate”[23].  In his sermon, “The Weight of Glory” he writes,

“The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”[24]

The significance of Alexander’s theory for Lewis cannot be overestimated, especially with respect to Lewis’s various experiences with Joy.   One might even suspect that he paid an imaginative tribute to these encounters by weaving them into his toolshed metaphor.  His fascination with the Norse god of light, Balder, and how the tale of his death “uplifted [Lewis] into huge regions of the northern sky”[25]  may be the source of his beam of light.  This might signify the importance he placed on approaching such ancient myths from “along the beam” versus simply contemplating them from a modern, dismissive, “at the beam” perspective.

Hints of his older brother’s moss filled biscuit tin and the Autumn longings inspired by Potter’s Squirrel Nutkin, which were his childhood encounters with Joy, can be detected in the leaves that are illuminated through the small crack above the door as the toolshed observer steps into the beam of light.  Finally, Lewis had a lifelong love for cosmology, especially the sun which he wrote is the “eye and mind of the whole universe.”[26]  In his poem, “The Planets”, Lewis would depict the sun’s beams as a sword of light that “hurts and humbles; beheld only / Of eagle’s eye. When his arrow glances / Through mortal mind, mists are parted.”[27]  It is this beam of sunshine that pierces through the dark toolshed of human conscious thought, inviting us to both contemplate its attributes and enjoy the light it shines on our world.  Could it be that the darkened toolshed represents the Realism that Lewis had hitherto accepted?  If so, this leads one to suspect that this new way of thinking had a humbling effect on Lewis with regards to his confidence in the capacity of his five senses to discover truth.

By fitting his experiences of Joy within Alexander’s Enjoyment / Contemplation paradigm, Lewis concluded that “all the value lay in that which Joy was the desiring.”[28]  He came to view this sensation as only a signpost, pointing beyond itself to this far off country yet to be entered.  And, within this desire, is the longing to be united with it.  We look along the beam, yearning to become one with its Source.  He writes, “that is why we experience Joy:  we yearn, rightly, for that unity which we can never reach except by ceasing to be the separate phenomenal being called ‘we.’”[29]

With this understanding, it is not difficult to understand how some religions perceive the highest plane of existence as one of complete absorption into the infinite.  Perhaps this is an indication of their own longing for what lies beyond this Joy.  For Christians, the only difference is that this infinite reality is a Person, not an abstract idea or force.  In fact, He is supremely personal, and “far more objective” than us, not being “clothed in our senses; [but] the naked Other, imageless (though our imagination salutes it with a hundred images).”[30]  When we are finally united with Him, we remain distinct and are not absorbed into nothingness as other religions believe.   And, this is why we encounter Him only in the Enjoyment mode of conscious thought.  We can contemplate God from within our darkened toolshed and gain limited knowledge of Him, but this is a detached and abstract view.  True knowing must be experiential and it cannot occur until we consider Him along the beam.

This enjoyment principle has direct effects on our apologetic, both in our delivery and in our own experience of working with God to spread His Kingdom.  It is very difficult to remain uninfluenced by the cultural milieu in which we live and move.  The current atmosphere is  either highly reductionist and suspicious of the kind of experiential knowledge one gains from looking along the beam or is so accepting of all views that they dissolve into the obscurity of subjective experience.  Lewis would liken this bias toward the external, Contemplation account of things to a kind of bullying into submission all Enjoyment-derived knowledge.  As apologists, we can unconsciously reflect and even join in on the brow-beating if we are not careful.  We must remember that, as Lewis discovered, Reason herself tells us that she can only get us so close to Him.

As apologists, we are not unlike Lewis’s toolshed observer, in a darkened room filled with our various tools to defend God’s existence.  We bid the unbeliever to enter and inspect this beam of light from the heavenlies using our various arguments or conceptual tools.  But, we must remember Lewis’s admonition to “both look along and at everything.”[31]  While we may be able to convince others that the beam exists and that it has such and such attributes, we must remember that they will remain in no better shape than Lewis’s physiologist who, having never experienced a particular sensation, is nevertheless trying to understand it from the outside.  We must bid them enter the beam’s illuminating warmth, to “taste and see” what the arguments can only hint is there.  If we do not, we leave them to the obscurity of the darkened toolshed with a handful of cold abstractions, but no Person.

Lewis’s conversion illustrates the importance of such a move, for God had to first get past his experiential defenses, or reticence to trust what he saw in the beam, before He could appeal to his will.  In his book Miracles, Lewis writes, “When it becomes clear that you cannot find out by reasoning whether the cat is in the linen-cupboard, it is Reason herself who whispers, ‘Go and look.’” As apologists, we must enable Reason’s whisper to be heard above the din of materialistic naturalism and encourage the unbeliever to listen.  Lewis says that it is in the moral and devotional life of the Christian, the life “along the beam,” that we truly engage with our Lord.  This must be the destination that we as apologists seek for our unbelieving friends and for ourselves.

The Psalmist tells us that we cannot escape His presence, for even the dark toolsheds of our conscious thoughts are as light to Him.[32]  Paul would tell the philosophers of his day that “He is not far from any one of us.”[33]  Indeed, as believers, we are told that we are “in Christ.”  Could it be that He only enjoys in His interactions with us, supremely personal God that He is?  Thus hidden in the cleft of our finite senses, we experience His passage as Joy and then we turn and contemplate the mental impressions left behind as we “look and see.”[34]  Indeed, Enjoyment and Contemplation are two very real aspects of our Christian walk and witness.  May we keep them in mind.

[1] C.S. Lewis, Miracles, (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 144.

[2] C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, (New York: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1984), 218.

[3] Ibid., 219.

[4] Michael Ward, Planet Narnia, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 17.

[5] Ibid., 33

[6] C.S. Lewis, The Timeless Writings of C.S. Lewis, “Meditation in a Toolshed”, (New York: Inspirational Press), 442.

[7] Ibid., 442.

[8] C.S. Lewis, The Timeless Writings of C.S. Lewis, 442.

[9] Acts 17:28, NIV.

[10] Lewis, The Timeless Writings of C.S. Lewis, 442.

[11] Ibid., 442.

[12] Ibid., 443.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Lewis, The Timeless Writings of C.S. Lewis, 443.

[15] Ibid., 444.

[16] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, (Peabody, MA:  Hendrickson Publishers, 2006), 28.

[17] C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1955), 91.

[18] Lewis, The Timeless Writings of C.S. Lewis, 444.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Lewis, The Timeless Writings of C.S. Lewis, 218.

[21] C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 220.

[22] Ibid., 219.

[23] Ibid., 220.

[24] C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory, (New York: Harper One, 2001), 30-31.

[25] Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 17.

[26] C.S. Lewis, The Discarded Image, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 106.

[27] Ward, Planet Narnia, 102.

[28] Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 220.

[29] Ibid., 221-222.

[30] Ibid., 221.

[31] Lewis, The Timeless Writings of C.S. Lewis, 444.

[32] Psalm 139:11-12, NIV, “If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me / and the light become night around me, /even the darkness will not be dark to you; /the night will shine like the day, /for darkness is as light to you.”

[33] Acts 17:27, NIV.

[34] Exodus 33:22-23, NIV “When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.”


2 thoughts on “Looking Along the Beam

  1. Pingback: The Dearest of All Wet Blankets | Along the Beam

  2. Pingback: Heaven Will Be More Diverse Than Hell | Along the Beam

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