Life Here and There: Thoughts on C. S. Lewis’s “Learning in War-Time”
“Learning in War-Time” is a sermon by C. S. Lewis that he delivered on October 22, 1939, less than two months after England was compelled by Hitler’s unconscionable invasion of Poland to declare war against Germany. At that time, Lewis served as a tutor at Oxford, and the Prime Minister’s sobering broadcast that England was now at war with Germany caused many at the university to deliberate whether in the face of this national crisis education should be suspended. After all, they argued, isn’t it an irresponsible use of time and resources to continue pursuing studies in philosophy and beauty and truth when the country may be ultimately overtaken by its enemy and all the effort come to nothing?
In his sermon, Lewis frames the question in the following way:
What is the use of beginning a task which we have so little chance of finishing? Or, even if we ourselves should happen not to be interrupted by death or military service, why should we—indeed how can we—continue to take an interest in these placid occupations when the lives of our friends and the liberties of Europe are in the balance? Is it not like fiddling while Rome burns?
In the rest of his sermon, Lewis pushes back against this temperament by painting a wonderful portrait of the Christian’s pursuits in their true, biblical context. I will not rehearse all of Lewis’s arguments. But I am struck by his first line of defense against the notion that learning should cease during time of war. Essentially, Lewis reminds his hearers that every person living on earth is already at the brink of eternity, and we do wrong when we fail to remember that all of our pursuits take place in that brief space of time between birth and death.
Lewis, a WW I veteran, says,
[A person] must ask himself how it is right … 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 …. To admit that we can retain our interest in learning under the shadow of these eternal issues, but not under the shadow of a European war, would be to admit that our ears are closed to the voice of reason and very wide open to the voice of our nerves and our mass emotions.
In urging his colleagues to look at education from the perspective of eternal truth, Lewis reiterates a theological idea that is ubiquitous in the NT. The apostles frame the Christian journey as one in which we are always on the brink of leaving this life for the next. Christians eagerly look for Christ’s appearing and walk in a particular way because of the possibility that he could soon return (1 Cor 1:7; Phil 3:21; Titus 2:13; 2 Pet 3:11–14; 1 John 3:2–3). But that does not mean that our goals in this life are inconsequential or a waste of our time. Rather, it means that our goals are worthy only when they retain their intrinsic value whether we live or die.
Paul makes this point in 2 Corinthians 5, while reflecting on the state of inhabiting our “earthly home” (5:1), versus being clothed with our “heavenly dwelling” (5:2–3); our life on earth versus our life “with the Lord” (5:6–8). His summary statement in 5:9 in this context is striking:
Whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him.
Whether living here or there, our goal must remain constant. We are tempted to imagine that, when we go to be with the Lord, this life completely ends and our new life with him begins. But that is not what the NT teaches. Rather, our new life with the Lord begins with our salvation (e.g., Rom 6:4) and continues for eternity. That means there is a profound continuity between this life and the next. The choices we make now must have as their ultimate goal to be “well-pleasing” (εὐάρεστος, 2 Cor 5:9) to Christ, just like the choices we will make in the life to come.
Furthermore, when Paul says, “We make it our aim” to please Christ, he uses a verb that means to be full of ambition, to eagerly strive after or desire something (2 Cor 5:9). So, what kinds of things should we be eagerly striving to do to please the Lord while we live only moments away from eternity? Well, Paul uses this verb only twice more in his letters. In Rom 15:20, he says, “I make it my ambition to preach the gospel.” And in 1 Thess 4:11–12, he exhorts the Thessalonians, “Aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands … so that you may walk properly before outsiders.”
These are two different kinds of activities. To actively preach the gospel to those who are lost, and to simply and modestly go about your own affairs in terms of work, community, and family, bearing a testimony of a life at peace with God. Are we not tempted to consider the former much more pleasing to Christ than the latter? Doesn’t “active evangelism” please Christ more than “passive evangelism”? No. Not if what I am doing at the moment is that which the Lord desires that I do, that which pleases him. In fact, we should remember that Paul instructs the Thessalonians in the context of their waiting for Christ’s return (cf. 1 Thess 1:10; 4:13–5:11). And as Paul famously has stated, “Whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor 10:31b).
Lewis goes on in his sermon to say that war does not create human vulnerability—the possibility that we could at any moment pass from this life to the next. Rather, war merely brings that ever-present possibility of our sudden death inescapably to our attention. The same way that attending a funeral forces people to think about the implications of the brevity of their own life. But living with this reality—that we could be with the Lord very soon—is necessary to give the believer’s life its proper context day by day.
Our pursuits in a new academic year are indeed worthy if they are worthy of Christ. Therefore, let us serve, work, witness, play, study, learn, lead, and worship always in a way that pleases him. So that we can one day—and perhaps soon—step into his presence to continue living a life that is worthy of him. For none of our labor is vain in the Lord (1 Cor 15:58).