fifty-four years ago today, people around the world were reeling from the news of an all-too young u.s. president’s assassination. so overwhelming was this tragedy that it overshadowed the news of a beloved english author’s death in his home on the same day.
on a recent friday evening, two friends and i gathered together at first presbyterian church of berkeley to reply to the question: what does c. s. lewis’s writing have to offer us today? you can listen to the audio from the evening’s panel discussion here, or read my response to this question, below.
i wasn’t planning on speaking about war when i first began thinking about tonight’s conversation, but war is the topic that has brought me back to c. s. lewis’s work lately. some of our recent headlines have reminded me of a fear that had been dormant for years.
as a young boy, my phobias involved three things: sharks, whether i was in saltwater or my grandfather’s backyard swimming pool; snakes, which i still consider the most biblical phobia; and nuclear war, of all things for a boy growing up in the 1980s, for reasons i’m still unclear about.
i’ve been reminded of that last phobia by so many recent headlines. on one particularly anxiety-inducing morning, two separate headlines warned me about the impending nuclear threat facing the united states. one of these headlines informed me that up to 90 percent of our nation’s population could be dead in a year, were north korea to strike with a nuclear attack.
i’ve since removed north korea from my phone’s news settings.
but our current political situation has drawn me back to lewis recently, for he was not only personally familiar with serving in war—lewis fought on the side of the british in the first world war, even though he was irish and not required to enlist—he was also writing, teaching, and speaking in the midst of world war two. and it’s in an evensong sermon that he delivered in the earliest days of world war two that i will spend most of tonight’s focus, a message he titled, “learning in wartime.”
learning in wartime
on october 22, 1939, less than two months after great britain and france declared war on germany, c. s. lewis climbed the spiral staircase into the famous pulpit of oxford’s university church, delivering this sermon to anxious students, faculty, and community members alike. though the 57 consecutive nights of bombs falling on london, “the blitz,” wouldn’t take place for another 11 months, lewis had already welcomed the first of many evacuated schoolchildren from london into his oxford home by the time he delivered this message.
lewis’s primary focus in this message is the question of whether or not it is worth pursuing learning amidst war. with talks of the draft sweeping the country, this was a practical question. and not, by the way, only for young men.
men in britain between 18 and 41 were liable to be called up for service. lewis would turn 41 that year—even he was waiting to know if he would be called back into duty.
is it worth studying if we might not even finish? many were asking. to the administration’s great relief, lewis answers with a resounding yes.
from moment to moment
one of the primary reasons is that most of us will never truly finish our work—especially those of us in the academy.
not only will we have to learn to live with the feeling of being a perpetual beginner, most of us will be called to wrap up our work before we’ve finished every project, written every book, presented every paper. that’s simply the way it goes.
the best we can do is steward our gifts for as many days as we’re given.
“happy work is best done by the man who take his long-term plans somewhat lightly,” lewis notes, “and works from moment to moment ‘as to the Lord.’” it is, after all “only our daily bread that we are encouraged to ask for.”
life has never been normal
in addition to this question of urgency, lewis addresses another question: does war not make academic work irrelevant? is the work of a scholar not like fiddling while rome burns?
lewis gives two helpful responses here. first, life is never normal. we are mistaken if we compare wartime with “normal” life.
“life has never been normal,” lewis insists. even if we make some periods out to be, that’s an illusion. human life has always been lived “on the precipice.”
“war creates no absolutely new situation,” he says. “[war] simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it.”
we’ve been fooled if we think there’s such a thing as “normal” life. so much of our work, academic or not, will always face the question of legitimacy—in wartime or in times of “peace.” only those who refuse to wait for “the right time” will accomplish anything in this world.
but there’s another reason lewis insists that the question of legitimacy ought not squelch our work in the face of wartime: this is part of what separates us from other creatures.
unlike insects that only seek the welfare of the hive at times of threat, humans hold metaphysical debates in prison cells, we make jokes on the front lines, and we perform music on sinking ships.
humanity long ago chose this route, lewis points out: “[we] wanted knowledge and beauty now, and [we] would not wait for the suitable moment, which never comes.”
if ever your work is worth doing, and so long as you’re permitted to continue your work in the face of war, then your work is worth doing now—so go right along and continue to do so.
which begs the question: what does war do to our human situation?
war forces us to remember
“what does war do to death,” lewis asks. “it certainly does not make it more frequent; 100 percent of us die, and the percentage cannot be increased.”
nor does war increase the likelihood of a painful death, he argues. in fact, just the opposite may be true.
but what war does do something to death, lewis insists: “it forces us to remember it.”
war has the opportunity to help humanity—if only we’re honest about its limits.
unlike so much of our culture, which encourages us either to pretend our own death will never come, so long as we avoid talking about it. or to use any and all technology available to evade or even escape death. war brings our own mortality into consideration.
this, lewis argues, happens not a moment too soon.
“war makes death real to us,” lewis continues. “and that would have been regarded as one of its blessings by most of the great christians of the past. they thought it good for us to be always aware of our mortality. i am inclined to think they were right.”
wartime help from uncle screwtape
about a year after delivering this sermon, lewis wrote the hugely successful work, the screwtape letters: a series of letters written from an elder demon, screwtape, to his young, apprentice and nephew, wormwood, on how best to carry out his task of tempting his human “patient.”
when news of the war in europe breaks out, uncle screwtape warns his young apprentice against getting too excited.
sure, it may be entertaining for the demons, what with the terror and the fear that pervades, but the young wormwood must remember that war may very well only expedite the delivery of his patient into the Enemy’s camp—“the Enemy” here being God.
when patients know they are about to die, screwtape reminds wormwood, they are more likely to take the time and care to prepare for it.
“in wartime, not even a human can believe that he is going to live forever,” screwtape writes. “how much better for us if all humans died in costly nursing homes amid doctors who lie, nurses who lie, friends who lie, as we have trained them, promising life to the dying” (letter five).
this was lewis writing in 1940, by the way. if you haven’t read the american surgeon and public health researcher atul gawande’s book, being mortal, do. he and lewis would have much to talk about.
no false hope of making it out of life alive
news of war forces us to remember the uncomfortable, but essential, reality that we come from dust, and it is to dust that we will one day return. but christians, of all people, should be those who have already considered their death.
“what is important is not that we should always fear (or hope) about the end but that we should always remember, always take it into account,” lewis wrote in a 1952 essay that asked, if the world were ending today, how should we live? “what modern christians find it harder to remember is that the whole life of humanity in this world is also precarious, temporary, provisional.”
for christians, there is no false hope that we will make it out of this life alive—at least, not on our own.
seeing the eternal in the temporal
in a distinction that initially appears like a bit of fine hairsplitting, lewis notes that it may very well be a human’s duty to die for his country, but it can never be a christian’s duty to live for his country. a familiar scene from the gospels is helpful for this distinction.
matthew, mark, and luke all include the story of Jesus being asked whether it is lawful for jews to pay taxes.
“whose head is on the coin?” Jesus asks those hoping to trap him. “then give to caesar what is caesar’s,” He replies when the emperor’s likeness is pointed out.
christians and non-christians alike live under state authority. but those who recognize Jesus as Lord are called to distinguish between temporal and eternal authorities.
christians may be required to give much to our earthly rulers, but earthly authorities can never claim that which is due only to our eternal Authority. which is why lewis can claim it may be a christian’s duty to die for her country, but it can never be a duty to live for her country.
one’s duty to die for their nation comes only as a result of one’s civic duty to military service. it’s an accidental duty, not a duty of necessity.
one’s duty to live for God, in contrast, is essential for anyone recognizing Jesus as Lord. living into Jesus’s Lordship is to find the kind of life that Jesus has come to offer: abundant, whole, shalom.
“the thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy,” Jesus tells us. “i have come that they might have life, and have it abundantly” (john 10:10).
seeing the ultimate within the penultimate
if this life is all there is, then death by war becomes the ultimate threat, our ultimate fear. and this would have been true in lewis’s day just as much as in our own.
but if temporal life is not the last thing, but only the next to the last thing, if it is penultimate, rather than ultimate, then fear of death is penultimate to our relationship with the One whose authority stretches beyond death.
“do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul,” Jesus teaches (matthew 10:28).
political powers who threaten with war, even nuclear war, are a threat to the shalom that God in Christ offers—but they are not a threat in the ultimate sense. their threat, and their authority, is never the final word.
the task of the christian, then, is to distinguish what will last from what is passing away, the ultimate within the penultimate, the eternal within the temporal. which is just what lewis preached from the same pulpit two years later, this time in the heart of world war two.
“there are no ordinary people,” he preached in early june of 1941, in a well-known sermon: “the weight of glory.”
“you have never talked to a mere mortal. nations, cultures, arts, civilizations—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat.”
“but it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. next to the blessed sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.”
God intends eternity for humans. the same is not true for nations, borders, and political powers. christians are called to remember this distinction, and to live like it.
called to remember
amidst threats of nuclear war and sensationalized headlines jostling for more paid clicks from anxious readers, those who name Jesus as Lord are called to remember that Ultimate Authority relativizes all penultimate authority.
“don’t you realize i have power either to free you or to crucify you,” pilate reminds Jesus when He refuses to respond to pilate’s interrogation.
“you would have no power over Me if it were not given to you from above,” Jesus finally points out (john 19:10–11a).
the trick to living, learning, and loving in wartime, lewis reminds us, is to see the temporal with an eternal perspective. to recognize one another as beings created for eternity in the Kingdom not of man, but God, where all weapons have been turned into instruments for good, where there is no more darkness, no more tears, where it is, in the end, not the one who boasts loudest who reigns, but the crucified Lamb.
the real trick, whether in times of war or “peace,” and the call for all those who name Jesus as Lord, is to live like it.