World War II began on September 1, 1939 in Poland. On September 3, England declared war on Germany. With the inception of this great conflict, the question of learning in war time fueled debate in England.
So, on October 22, 1939, Lewis, himself a veteran of WWI, preached a sermon at St. Mary the Virgin Church in Oxford, England, which was broadcast on the BBC. Lewis wanted to address the question, “What is the use of beginning a task which we have so little chance of finishing?”
What we most want is to find comfort knowing that this present pandemic will pass, that we will make it through. So, we turn to our experts in medicine, finance, and government with the hope that they will convey a message of assurance and comfort. Scientists and doctors are working to determine how this virus works and its impact on our feeble material nature. Financial experts around the globe are trying to calculate the economic impact on the individual as well as the global financial system.
Could our present circumstances be a time where we are awakened to the reality that we face death all day long and that times of peace and prosperity provide only the illusion that we are not on the precipice?
While we must pray for those leading us during this time, how should we then live? Let’s widen the scope of our questions beyond the present. How can we seize the time to pursue learning? Over the past week, this question has been on my mind, which led me back to C.S. Lewis’s sermon, “Learning in War Time”.
The circumstances in which Lewis preached this sermon are quite different from our own present situation. The threat we face is one that is invisible, doesn’t respect borders, and shows no favoritism to race, class, or age. It also rightly curtails our gathering together in groups and turns social distancing into an act of selflessness. While we all are dealing with this new way of life, the question Lewis asks about learning is still relevant. I invite you to read C.S. Lewis’s sermon “Learning in War Time” in full as well as a great companion, The Weight of Glory.
For this reflection, I will summarize Lewis’s three points and apply them to the threat we face during this viral outbreak.
- Excitement. The coronavirus has not “raised up a new enemy, but aggravated an old one.” The old problem is the suggestion that we cannot learn something new or pursue a new goal because the time is not favorable. But, those who pursue their learning or new goal even when times are not favorable are the ones who will endure, because conditions will never be “favorable.” We must resist the flurry of this moment, by grace, to get down to the work of learning, reading, creating, and loving.
- Frustration. Do we have time for learning when we are not sure we could finish what we start? In the light of eternity and our limited capacity as mortal beings we will always be beginners. The future belongs to our God, so in all of our work, play, and learning we hold the future lightly, which is the posture we ought to have all along. It is only our hubris that fuels the presumption that we have been or are in control. As Lewis wisely reminds us, “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.”
- Fear. Does COVID-19 make death more likely? Lewis, I think, would respond with a resounding, “No.” As humans, we face a 100% mortality rate, a rate which cannot be decreased or increased. As we hear of the devastating effects of this virus, it doesn’t change the reality of our mortality. It is possible, therefore, to see this time as a gift because we are all awakened to our frailty and weakness. As the Psalmist declares in Psalm 146, “Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation.” We can take our fear and place it as a renewed trust that God is in control, and we can wait on him. We neither have to deny the severity of our situation nor be swallowed by its attending fears. We can ask God to do what he has already demonstrated in Christ: He meets us in our suffering with the abiding love of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Lewis concludes his sermon this way:
All the animal life in us, all schemes of happiness that centered in this world, were always doomed to a final frustration. In ordinary times only a wise man can realize it. Now the stupidest of us know. We see unmistakablely 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. But if we thought that for some souls, and at some times, the life of learning, humbly offered to God, was, in its own small way, one of the appointed approaches to the Divine reality and the Divine beauty which we hope to enjoy hereafter, we can think so still.
Invitation to Practice the Practice of Learning
I am grateful for the ministry of C.S. Lewis and many others who have ministered in times of suffering because they remind us of first things. I invite you to pursue learning, wisdom, art, and music for His glory (Colossians 3:23-24).
One small way my family will do this is to watch the film A Hidden Life this weekend, then on Sunday night join a film discussion with Makoto Fujimura, Brett McCracken, Karen Swallow Prior, and others. [see Twitter announcement]
If this is not your interest, then take this time to read that novel or pursue a new interest as we journey together, trusting that our God is with us. As long as we have today, we can learn, work, and play to the praise of his grace.
(inspired by and adapted from C.S. Lewis’s "Learning In War Time")