What’s the Point? | C. S. Lewis on Learning in Wartime

I recently read the second essay compiled in the book, The Weight of Glory, by C. S. Lewis. The first essay from which the book was named is worth the purchase alone, which is exactly what I did. Yet I finally ventured beyond that initial writing and read the essay titled, “Learning in War-Time.” It was delivered to university students in 1939, as World War II had thoroughly broken out across Europe, and it sees Lewis attempting the answer what the point of scholarly pursuits during wartime.

Interestingly, Lewis almost immediately steps back from that question in order to propose an even larger yet very much related one. How is it “right, or even psychologically possible, for creatures who are every moment advancing either to Heaven or to hell to spend any fraction of the little time allowed them in this world on such comparative trivialities as literature or art, mathematics or biology” (48-49)? If such ‘trivialities’ have a place in the midst of the great cosmic war raging around us, then they certainly have a place in wartime as well.

He answers “that Christianity does not exclude any of the ordinary human 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… The solution of this paradox is, of course, well know to you. ‘Whether ye eat or drink or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God” (54). Our Lord does not call all Christians to vocational evangelism; instead, He calls most of us to consecrate our ordinary vocations by doing them for the glory of God, whether plumbing, practicing medicine, or anything else.

With all of this in mind, I find the final pages of the essay to be the most beneficial because in them Lewis describes three enemies that will present themselves to the work of scholarship during wartime. While most of the world is not presently in wartime and relatively few people are vocational academics, application can still easily be made. Since the COVID pandemic began in 2020, it seems as though the world has gone from one crisis to another, and with inflation here in the U.S. continuing to skyrocket, it appears that the bulk of the tumult may still lay before us rather than behind us. Thus, we can still apply Lewis’ thoughts on wartime to our own anxious circumstance. And while most of us are not academics, we are nevertheless each given a vocational calling to pursue to the glory of God that we can apply these warnings toward.

What then are the three enemies?

The first is excitement, “the tendency to think and feel about the war when we had intended to think about our work” (60). We might rather call it distraction, the tendency to focus upon the headlines rather than upon what God has placed in front of us at any given moment. Lewis writes, “If we let ourselves, we shall always be waiting for some distraction or other to end before we can really get down to our work. The only people who achieve much are those who want knowledge so badly that they seek it while the conditions are still unfavourable. Favourable conditions never come” (60).

Frustration is the next enemy, “the feeling that we shall not have enough time to finish” (60). He counsels:

Never, in peace or war, commit your virtue or your happiness to the future. Happy work is best done by the man who takes his long-term plans somewhat lightly and works from moment to moment “as to the Lord.” It is only our daily bread that we are encouraged to ask for. The present is the only time in which any duty can be done or any grace received.

61

The third and final enemy is fear. Both war and pandemics threaten us “with death and pain” (61). Yet Lewis rightly asks: “What does war do to death? It certainly does not make it more frequent; 100 percent of us die, and the percentage cannot be increased” (61). Instead, he suggests that war makes death impossible to ignore; it confronts us with our mortality.

In ordinary times only a wise man can realise it. Now the stupidest of us knows. We see unmistakably the sort of universe in which we have all along been living, and must come to terms with it. If we had foolish un-Christian hopes about human culture, they are now shattered. If we thought we were building up a heaven on earth, if we looked for something that would turn the present world from a place of pilgrimage into a permanent city satisfying the soul of man, we are disillusioned, and not a moment too soon.

62-63

Despite the chaos in the headlines, we are thankfully not in the midst of WWII levels of global bloodshed nor the lethality of so many previous pandemics. Even so, the three enemies that Lewis lists are quite present, luring us away from the ordinary, everyday faithfulness to our daily tasks that the Lord has appointed for us.

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