Learning in Wartime

C.S. Lewis's Counsel on Redeeming the Time

As our eyes are drawn to the global stage and our news feeds explode with atrocities, there are activities and pursuits that suddenly seem trivial or even callous. It is easy to be consumed with the now, and to feel guilty for thinking of anything else. It can even feel like a betrayal of our fellow human beings, suffering such reckless monstrosities as they are, to not commit every last thought and prayer to their plight. And certainly, we ought to be praying for Ukraine, for our brothers and sisters, and all our fellow human beings. We ought to be praying for peace, for the fall of tyrants, for the establishment of righteousness, and for the will of the Lord to be done on Earth as it is in Heaven.

But it is wise to remember that this is no new situation. Nor is it callous to say so. Rather, there is wisdom in reminding ourselves of truths we would much rather ignore. At the outbreak of World War II, there was talk at Oxford of shutting down classes in case of a national emergency. In response, CS Lewis preached a sermon.

On October 22, 1939, five weeks after the Germans invaded Poland, the Oxford lecturer stood in the pulpit of St. Mary the Virgin Church and gave his now famous address on “Learning in War-Time.” The sermon specifically addressed students, asking the same question we all are tempted ask in times like this: What’s the point?

Lewis began by reminding them, with the specter of war on their minds, that:

The war creates no absolutely new situation; it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself. If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure, the search would never have begun.

This is a profound insight. We live in a broken world. But that brokenness is no excuse to refuse to pursue what we have been called to pursue. The vocations God has given us to work out in faithfulness and diligence to His glory do not suddenly cease to be important because we are reminded of how broken we all are. Nor is it callous to continue on in what we have been called to do while tragedy falls on others. For what we do, we do unto the Lord first. And the Lord knows the needs of all. Our continued faithfulness is indeed an act of faith. What we do matters because it is what our sovereign King has asked of us.

Another temptation is to think that, out of respect for those suffering, we ought to deny ourselves any activities not strictly necessary for basic survival. This is the ascetic who thinks that, by depriving himself of “extracurricular” pursuits, he shows solidarity and support to those fighting for their lives. To be clear, I am not talking about the practice of fasting for the sake of prayer. I am talking about the person who feels guilty for reading a novel while there is a war on. To that person, Lewis has this to say:

[but] you are not, in fact, going to read nothing … if you don't read good books, you will read bad ones. If you don't go on thinking rationally, you will think irrationally. If you reject aesthetic satisfactions, you will fall into sensual satisfactions.

His point is simple. The taking in of “extracurricular” things is inescapable. We will be reading, thinking, learning, watching, listening, and participating in any number of things that (1) are not basic to mere survival, and (2) have nothing to do with the war. This is what past generations have called being human.

The question is not whether we will do any of these things, but rather, what will be the object of these activities? Will they edify and build us up? Will they encourage rational thought? Will they increase discernment? Will they cultivate a love for what is true, good, and beautiful? These are not idle questions.

We will be watching TV. We will be reading books. We will have thoughts that crowd our minds. How do we make the best use of the time given us? How do we redeem the time, knowing the days are evil? Lewis says this:

Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered. The cool intellect must work not only against cool intellect on the other side, but against the muddy heathen mysticisms which deny intellect altogether. Most of all, perhaps, we need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion. 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.
 

We need to equip our minds against the realities Lewis captured in that last sentence. We can remain glued to the latest updates, listening to the talking heads, checking in with our go-to outlets, wanting the very latest information, without pausing to consider if we are equipped to handle it all. We may think we have the ability to judiciously consider the millions of images and soundbites flooding our senses. But do we?

If we had aspirations of competing in the Olympics, we would dedicate much of our lives to a rigorous training program. In order to compete, our skills would need to be honed, bodies disciplined, minds focused. But how often do we simply assume we are already Olympians when it comes to receiving the news? To knowing with wisdom and discernment how to understand what we hear or read? True discernment is a skill of Olympic stature. It takes every bit as much training and preparation of mind and body as any sport.

This idea is echoed in this dialogue between a teacher and his student. It was written after the events of January 6, 2021, but its relevance transcends any single event. It is a reminder, especially to those who teach, of the importance of the classroom, not for the discussion of current events, but for the preparation and formation of minds for understanding current events with wisdom, discernment, and proper perspective.

War is a terrible and devastating reality. It requires us to be on our knees, in the Word, pleading with our Lord for the sake of those victimized by injustice and tyranny. Furthermore, it reminds us of the human condition outside of Christ, and thus encourages us to pray for the salvation, not only of those under attack, but also for those pulling the trigger.

But what war ought not cause us to do is to neglect the necessity of training our minds to understand well the world we live in. And to do that, we must return to the worlds that have been and to works that have proven to be faithful guides to the human condition. In this way we gain the proper perspective to discuss with reason and clear-sightedness the movements of our own day, offering thoughts that are grounded and helpful, unlike the noise that currently crowds our airwaves.

But most of all, that perspective brings peace. For we can see in the pages of history the same Lord who is Lord over all, who governs all for His good pleasure; and who will accomplish His good purposes for His glory. And in that assurance comes rest.

(MA Humanities) is a poet and translator living in the DFW metroplex with his wife and son. His new blank verse translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy, as well as accompanying reader’s guides, are available at dantepoem.com.

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