While reading Rowan Williams’s The Lion’s World, I was reminded of A. N. Wilson’s conversion story. In his 2009 New Statesman article, Wilson recounts his journey back to faith on the basis of language.

Do materialists really think that language just “evolved”, like finches’ beaks, or have they simply never thought about the matter rationally? Where’s the evidence? How could it come about that human beings all agreed that particular grunts carried particular connotations? How could it have come about that groups of anthropoid apes developed the amazing morphological complexity of a single sentence, let alone the whole grammatical mystery which has engaged Chomsky and others in our lifetime and linguists for time out of mind? No, the existence of language is one of the many phenomena – of which love and music are the two strongest – which suggest that human beings are very much more than collections of meat. They convince me that we are spiritual beings, and that the religion of the incarnation, asserting that God made humanity in His image, and continually restores humanity in His image, is simply true. As a working blueprint for life, as a template against which to measure experience, it fits.

Wilson suggests an element of surprise upon discovering the peculiar character of language. Part of his journey back to faith was a movement away from analytical reason to the “grammatical mystery” of language. Or, as he puts it, “attractive and amusing as David Hume was, did he confront the complexities of human existence as deeply as his contemporary Samuel Johnson, and did I really find him as interesting?”

Surprise plays a key role in Lewis’s thought, so much so that witness and surprise go hand in hand. As Williams writes about Lewis’s method,

Sharing the good news is not so much a matter of telling people what they have never heard as of persuading them that there are things they haven’t heard when they think they have. Lewis repeatedly found, as did Dorothy Sayers, that they were dealing with a public who thought they knew what it was they were disbelieving when they announced their disbelief in Christian doctrine. The same situation is even more common today. It is not true that large numbers reject Christian faith – if by ‘reject’ we mean that they deliberately consider and then decide against it. They are imperceptibly shunted towards a position where the ‘default setting’ is a conviction that traditional Christianity has nothing much to be said for it. People who have settled down in this position are not likely to be much moved by argument; they need to be surprised into a realization that the have never actually reckoned with what Christianity is about (17).

The irony here is that Lewis failed to capture Wilson’s imagination; in fact, Wilson credits Lewis with his conversation to atheism. It took something else to surprise Wilson, perhaps something more mysterious than a children’s story through a magical world. With no less a degree of childlike imagination, Wilson was surprised not only by language, but by the ultimate word, the rational principle of the cosmos – the logos made flesh.