Reflecting on C.S. Lewis’ “Learning in War-Time”
By Mark Jalovick, ThM
On October 22, 1939, merely six weeks into World War II, Lewis stood at the pulpit in St. Mary the Virgin Church in Oxford to preach a sermon he titled “Learning in War-Time.” With it, he addressed the questions that many in the academic arena were asking: While war is being waged, what compels us to study things like philosophy, science, or history? Why devote ourselves to these matters when the lives of friends and the liberties of Europe are hanging in the balance? Lewis wondered if this was like “fiddling while Rome burns.”
Of course, for Christians, the question is even bigger. Lewis goes on to ask, in light of souls heading toward heaven or hell, how we can think of anything else? How can we turn away from this reality and study “comparative trivialities” of literature, art, math, or biology? Nero fiddled while Rome burned down, but even more tragically, Lewis said, “He fiddled on the brink of hell.”
Over my time at Cairn (as a student in the ’70s and professor since the ’80s), I’ve heard these questions answered in different ways. During that era, many of us held a “salvation theology” mindset, centering ministries on whether or not people were going to heaven or hell—in other words, “saving souls.” We would have answered Lewis’ questions with an emphatic, “Indeed! We must always center ourselves on the saving of souls.”
On the other hand, a different evangelical approach took on the title of “creation theology”: an emphasis on the created world, including creation care, humanitarian work, and concern for social justice and activism. “Engaging the culture” became a common catchphrase, and over the years there was a broadening of what “ministry” and one’s calling to different vocations could look like. This was an important shift, but as pendulum swings go, some took it too far. Acts of creation care and humanitarian work became the primary means of “preaching” the gospel; the importance of speaking about Jesus and the kingdom of God—salvation theology—was diminished.
Situated between these, Lewis’ “Learning in War-Time” has been something of a common-sense, grounding document in my own spiritual formation. It has informed my service in Christian education, the church, and the community. With it, Lewis shows how he holds together the life we live in this world and concern for humans’ ultimate destinies.
We live in times that pose similar challenges to those Lewis and his audience faced. Consider the issues of our context: racial inequality and unrest, the Capitol riots, contentious political discourse, environmental degradation, issues around immigration and border control—all under the dark cloud of a worldwide pandemic. How can we be so selfish to give ourselves to the study of mathematics, biology, literature, or art instead of these more important issues? Even more, how can we be so frivolous to think of anything but the salvation of souls?
Lewis reminds us, “Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself.” The human pursuit of knowledge and beauty has always paled in comparison to infinitely greater realities. But if humankind had waited until “the time was right” to search for knowledge and beauty, they never would have.
This is where our pendulum swing of salvation and creation theology creates an unhelpful dichotomy. Creation theology is right to drive us to engage in everyday human activities. We follow the original creation mandate to be co-rulers with God in the stewardship of the earth. On the other hand, salvation theology is right to drive us to the task of “soul saving.” We follow Jesus into preaching the gospel and inviting others into relationship with Him. The human experience, somehow, has to manage both of these tasks. Lewis said that, in one sense, “Religion cannot occupy the whole of life in the sense of excluding all our natural activities.” But in another sense, it must also “occupy the whole of life.” There is no essential quarrel between the spiritual life and human activities.
Pause for a minute and think about this past year. Many of us have said to ourselves, “I can’t wait for life to get back to normal.” However, Lewis reminds us that life has never been “normal.” We live in the middle of a pandemic now, but we’ve always lived a human life in light of greater cosmic realities. Lewis calls us to wisely navigate our normal, everyday lives as followers of Jesus in the world in which we live. In this, he echoes Paul’s vision of earthen vessels living in light of eternity as Christ’s ambassadors (2 Cor. 4:1–6:2).
In our own University context, we are committed to the pursuit of a Christian education in the midst of the pandemic and all the hard societal issues we have seen arise in this past year. We’ve faced the challenges of in-person classes, remote access, limits on seating in chapel, safety in student athletics and activities, the daily delivery of meals to students in quarantine, and more. We’ve faced these in the midst of the larger societal issues of racial inequality and unrest, differing views on the 2020 election and political issues, perspectives on sexual identity and identity politics, and wide-ranging opinions and behavioral responses around the pandemic. Still, we press on in the pursuit of knowledge and beauty for their own sake, for “This pursuit does not exclude their being for God’s sake,” as Lewis said.
“Learning in War-Time” helps us stay grounded in the integration of a salvation and creation theology. We cannot ignore the larger global, cultural, and societal issues of our day and merely focus on the saving of souls, but we cannot be so consumed with the issues of our day as to ignore the eternal destiny of our neighbor. And we cannot dismiss pursuing knowledge and beauty for their own sake, for as Lewis reminded us, by pursuing them “We are either advancing to the vision of God ourselves or indirectly helping others to do so.” Paul said it too: “Whether we eat or drink or whatever we do, do all to the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31).” It is always “war-time,” and God wants us to keep learning.
Mark Jalovick ’78 is the university chaplain at Cairn. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org