Learning in the Time of Crisis

A Reflection on C.S. Lewis’s Learning in the Time of War

In 1939, C.S. Lewis was invited to preach at St. Mary the Virgin Church in Oxford to address a nation thrown into World War II. The scene couldn’t have been more dramatic: the Oxford scholar and war veteran standing at the podium of a church that had stood for over a thousand years, at the dawn of another global conflict. The church was packed with nervous college youth, who would likely be called to fight and die for their country, not twenty years after the first world war had been won. This speech is recorded in the book The Weight of Glory. I’ve pulled out what I found comforting from that essay, and I hope they do the same for you.

Lewis took to the podium to encourage a fearful, conflict-weary country. The wounds of World War One had not yet fully healed. The central question Lewis faced was one one of how to spend our time. How can we bother with our mundane tasks when the world is at war once again? Isn’t that like fiddling while Rome burns?  Why study for a Math exam or do that Psychology homework when death is around the corner, or in London’s case, in the skies? Indeed, less than one year after Lewis’s speech, London would be bombed during the Battle of Britain, a tactic that came to be known as the Blitzkrieg. London was bombed by the Luftwaffe for seventy-six consecutive nights. The toll was unimaginable: 43,000 British civilians died. Astonishingly, the Oxford campus remained unscathed for the entire war and still stands today.

I return to the original question: Why fiddle? Why bother with life when death or suffering is around the corner?  Lewis starts with the metaphysical: we must not forget that we’re in a spiritual struggle to avoid Hell. C.S. Lewis was a believer in an actual physical Hell, which has fallen out of contemporary theology, seen more now as a metaphor for separation from God. Nevertheless, human life has always existed “under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself.”

If we agree that there is a bigger “game” going on here, an astute reader might ask if it’s the only game to play. Nero fiddled while Rome burned, perhaps he should have been working exclusively on his soul. Is that the single true vocation then? If a man shouldn’t “waste time” while we are at war, then the same applies when discussing man’s salvation. How can we engage in the mundane acts of carpentry and philosophy? Why would anything secular matter? Shouldn’t we all be directly in the ministry?

Lewis counters this by claiming that, while God’s claim on our lives is infinite, it does not exclude all our natural activities.

“St. Paul tells people to get on with their jobs. He even assumes that Christians may go to dinner parties, and, what is more, dinner parties given by pagans….Christianity does not simply replace our natural life and substitute a new one; it is rather a new organization that exploits, to its supernatural ends, these natural materials.”

He finishes this topic with a reminder to not think one type of work more pleasing to God than another, “The work of Beethoven and the work of a charwoman [house cleaner]  become spiritual on precisely the same condition, that of being offered to God, of being done humbly.”

The next point is a practical one. If humanity waits until things are “good” to pursue growth and beauty, then we may never start any task of significance at all beyond basic security. We are mistaken when we compare war with “normal life.”  Life has never been normal. Even when we look at times that were relatively peaceful upon closer inspection they are full of crises, alarms, difficulties, and emergencies. Lewis puts it this way: 

“[Insects] have sought first the material welfare and security of the hive…men are different. They propound mathematical theorems in beleaguered cities, conduct metaphysical arguments in condemned cells, make jokes on scaffolds, discuss the latest poem while we advance to the walls of Quebec, and comb their hair at Thermopylae. This is not panache; it is our nature.”

He closes out his sermon with concern about the nature of what we study for those drawn to intellectual pursuits. Why does a Christain need science, math, and philosophy? Shouldn’t we stay in the Bible and not concern ourselves with the secular world? To Lewis, that sort of singular focus would disarm the individual, making him unable to defend attacks from the other side: 

“To be ignorant and simple now – not to be able to meet the enemies on their own ground – would be to throw down our weapons and to betray our uneducated brethren who have, under God, no defense but us against the intellectual attacks of the heathen. Good philosophy must exist if for no other reason because bad philosophy needs to be answered….. A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village; the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.”

I’m grateful for what C.S. Lewis said during that dark time in England. He reminded me that we need to continue with our craft during times of war or peace, famine or pandemic. There will always be a reason to stop, to leave the battlefield, to put down our intellectual arms, but we must not give into this. Whatever activity we do, if done with humility, is pleasant and has a mysterious purpose under God. The composer Johann Sebastian Bach wrote the initials “S. D. G.” at the end of all his church compositions and some secular works. It stands for Soli Deo Gloria, “Glory to God alone”; it is in this spirit that any activity Christians do, the mundane to the great, can assuredly be both blessed by God and fulfilling to us and those we serve.