Lewis, Learning, and War-Time

In lieu of the normal prayer letter, I’d like to share with you a note that I sent to our faculty in light of the global events of the last week.

Like me, I’m sure that many of you are following in some measure the unfolding conflict in Ukraine. In addition to providing an opportunity for us to humble ourselves and pray for God’s peace to reign and the gospel of Jesus to spread, this conflict also gives us an opportunity to draw the attention of our students (and ourselves) to C.S. Lewis’s address “Learning in War-Time.” 

In this sermon, preached six weeks after Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Lewis essentially asks university students, “What is the point of a college education when there is a war going on? How is attending to academic pursuits to be justified in the face of such death and destruction? Is it not like fiddling while Rome burns?”

Before answering the question, Lewis, in his inimitable way, clarifies the question. Indeed, he shows how the question of “learning in war-time” is not even the hardest question that Christians in education have to face. If we struggle to explain why we pursue education in the midst of a war, how much more should we struggle to explain why we pursue education when heaven and hell are at stake? We don’t merely fiddle while the city burns; we fiddle perched on a precipice that overlooks the lake of fire. In the face of that, how can we justify time spent on studying history or learning Greek paradigms or reciting Shakespeare?

Having escalated the question in this way, Lewis offers a number of wise and penetrating thoughts about pursuing education in the midst of war and on the brink of eternity. I won’t provide a full summary; instead, I’ll simply pose three questions and let Lewis answer them.

First, what does the war do to us as humans? 

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. We are mistaken when we compare war with ‘normal life.’ Life has never been normal.

Second, how does the war help us to see the relationship between the claims of God and our “normal” human activities? 

There is no question of a compromise between the claims of God and the claims of culture, or politics, or anything else. God’s claim is infinite and inexorable. You can refuse it, or you can begin to try to grant it. There is no middle way. Yet in spite of this it is clear that Christianity does not exclude any of the ordinary human activities…All our merely natural activities will be accepted, if they are offered to God, even the humblest, and all of them, even the noblest, will be sinful if they are not. Christianity does not simply replace our natural life and substitute a new one; it is rather a new organization which exploits, to its own supernatural ends, these natural materials…There is no essential quarrel between the spiritual life and the human activities as such. Thus the omnipresence of obedience to God in a Christian’s life is, in a way, analogous to the omnipresence of God in space. God does not fill space as a body fills it, in the sense that parts of Him are in different parts of space, excluding other objects from them. Yet He is everywhere—totally present at every point of space—according to good theologians.

Third, what value does education in particular have for human beings with an eternal destiny?

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.

In light of that, may it be that our students, with the habits of heart and mind that we give them as we read the great books in light of the greatest book for the sake of the great commission, come to possess the necessary understanding, the right judgments, the appropriate affections, and the requisite wisdom to apply and express what they’ve learned. More importantly, having understood, may they have the spiritual maturity to take their cares and anxieties to God, who is the stability of our times.

Clinging to Jesus with you,

Joe Rigney, PhD

Prayer Requests

  1. Pray for God’s peace to reign and for the gospel of Jesus to spread.
  2. Pray for us as we complete our search for a Professor of Theology and Global Studies. We need God’s wisdom and guidance as we seek the right person to add to our remarkable faculty.
  3. Pray for the continued provision of scholarships that will allow us to graduate students who are ready to launch into life and ministry without the financial burden of student debt.
  4. Pray that God would guide the steps of the students and their families who will join us for Spring Preview Day.