Wisdom From CS Lewis on Life in This Age of Fear
It is the age of fear. Apocalypse looms over us; the only question is which doom is most real and most urgent. For some it’s global warming or a resurging pandemic. For others it’s Chinese aggression, possibly coupled with terrorism arising out of Afghanistan. Others see more to dread in our domestic masters, who have either manufactured or magnified such threats to serve and support a new American authoritarianism, the end of what America was and what it was meant to be.
These are no ordinary fears. They’re a hot, whirling cyclone of dread, every bit of it pointing toward a tragic end: not necessarily the end of the world, but certainly the end of the world as we have known it. So birthrates are plummeting worldwide, and why not? Who wants to bring yet another child into a world like this? Indeed, what hope is there for a life anyone alive can enjoy living? Unsurprisingly, C. S. Lewis has wise counsel for us, coming from a situation that has much in common with ours — though it needs updating.
War, Death, and the University
The context was 1939 Britain. Germany had invaded Poland, and all Europe knew there was more to come. British men were training for war, and only seven months later, Hitler began dropping bombs on London. No one doubted there was reason for fear. Scholars in Oxford continued their studies nevertheless, and Lewis, who himself had been injured at the front in World War I, had a message for them. Titled “Learning in Wartime,” it begins with the same question many are asking today: The world falling to pieces. What’s the point of going on?
“As students,” Lewis said, “you will be expected to make yourselves, or to start making yourselves, into … philosophers, scientists, scholars, critics, or historians. And at first sight this seems to be an odd thing to do during a great war. What is the use of beginning a task which we have so little chance of finishing?”
It’s a huge question, but Lewis reminds them there are greater ones. What threat does war bring? Above all, death; and with death, either heaven or hell. It is there, not at the battlefield, that we stand at the true precipice. Death and eternity are not conditions of war but of life itself. “The war creates no absolutely new situation; it simply aggravates the present human situation so that we can no longer ignore it.”
Life Anyway, In an Age of Fear
So every student must ask, “How it is 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 on this world on such comparative trivialities as literature or art, mathematics or biology?” Indeed, why would a Christian attend to anything at all, besides the salvation of human souls? But this is unrealistic, says Lewis. Life goes on, simply because life will go on.
Before I went to the last war I certainly expected that life in the trenches would, in some mysterious sense, be all war. In fact, I found that the nearer you got to the front line the less everyone spoke and thought of the allied cause and the progress of the campaign. … Neither conversion nor enlistment in the army is really going to obliterate our human life. Christians and soldiers are still men.
And so shall we be, even in times of great fear: still men, still women. There is no mere focusing on “the issues,” except by individuals either stunted or deranged. Lewis tell these scholars,
If you attempted … to suspend your whole intellectual activity, you would only succeed in substituting a worse cultural life for a better. You are not in fact, going to read nothing, either in the Church or in the [battle] line; if you don’t read good books, you will read bad ones. If you don’t go on thinking rationally, you will think irrationally.
The one who by nature is a student will be a student, even during wartime. The same most assuredly must apply to teachers, to engineers, pipe-fitters, cashiers, programmers, and I think especially to mothers and fathers, or to potential mothers and fathers wondering whether to bring a child into this frightening world. We must resolve first of all to live as humans.
Eternal Concerns Brought In Finer Focus
So if you are a parent or a pipe-fitter serious about your Christian life and the state of the world, you will keep on being a parent or a pipe-fitter (or both). You will not spend every moment thinking only of so-called religious concerns or the future of humanity. You will know that every concern, properly understood, is religious, so you will make every moment spiritual in Christ. Every concern affects days yet to come, so you will also spend every effort building the best future for your family and your community.
Lewis’s student audience knew their work could be cut short, left unfinished. Ours could be, too. Says Lewis: “There is no question of death or life for any of us, only a question of this death or of that — of a machine gun bullet now or a cancer forty years later.”
The young student may lack the wisdom to know that none of us finishes what we set out to do. Wartime reminds us otherwise. “We were always doomed to a final frustration. 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 been living, and must come to terms with it. … We are disillusioned, and not a moment too soon.”
Disillusionment is good: Not to be disillusioned with God, but with human hopes to build a heaven on earth. Only Christ himself can finally bring His kingdom. God regards us with worth enough even to die for us, yet we remain merely humans in this world, breakable and small.
Fearsome times sharpen that reality for us. But “merely human” is still far greater than merely beasts or merely matter. Therefore now as at all times we must push back with all our might against every force of inhumanity. Lewis famously told this group of students, “Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.”
We all have our part in that push-back, whether it means building the bridge safely so that it will not fall, or standing up to terrorists or would-be tyrants at home, or doing good philosophy. As we do, Lewis cautions us against three perennial enemies. The first is “excitement,” by which he means focusing too much on the great fear, “always waiting for some distraction or other to end before we really get down to our work.”
The second is “frustration — the feeling that we shall not have time to finish.” There is a “more Christian attitude,” which is “that of leaving futurity in God’s hands. And the third is the obvious one, fear. Lewis puts that in perspective.
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. … If active service does not persuade a man to prepare for death, what conceivable concatenation of circumstances would? Yet war does do something to death. It forces us to remember it.
Updating C. S. Lewis’s Advice
Lewis’s counsel remains timely: We must live as humans, or we will live inhumanly. It needs updating though, in two ways. I speak now to those who those who see today’s apocalyptic moment as I do: an assault at least partially manufactured as an attack on the life, truth, grace, and righteousness found in Jesus Christ.
First, the battle is better disguised for us than it was for Londoners during the Blitz. We may feel almost as much dread, but none of the clarity that comes from bullets whizzing by our heads. Instead, blank denial remains a bland yet compelling temptation. If there’s any encouragement to be found in the more recent, more dramatic attacks on Christian life and belief, it’s that it’s finally rousing more of us to reality.
Second, the students in Lewis’s audience were in an either-or circumstance: either the library and the lecture hall, or the bullets and the battlefield. We have no such option. The battle is here. We must push back, not only for our humanity’s sake but to save our souls.
We Stand on the Battlefield
The builders of the wall in the book of Nehemiah carried stone or mortar in one hand and a sword in the other. They lived their lives as workmen, just as Lewis said we all must live our lives, yet at the same time they stood guard.
So must it be with us. When every child is in the line of fire, every parent must know that he stands as the first line of defense. Parents may even be the first ones shot at. The same goes not only for the obvious choices, that is, every pastor and teacher, but for everyone who’s subject to spiritual and cultural influence, or who has such influence.
But this is only to carry one of Lewis’s points to its conclusion. If every earthly concern has spiritual implications, then every earthly encounter may be an opportunity to equip or to hide, to advance or to retreat from the spiritual battle. We need not fear. We most certainly should keep living and loving, studying and teaching, creating and enjoying. But we need our swords nearby — our prayers, our knowledge of God and His Word, and our readiness to attend to and answer the culture’s most fearsome challenges.
There’s a war on, don’t you know?
Tom Gilson (@TomGilsonAuthor) is a senior editor with The Stream and the author or editor of six books, including the recently released Too Good To Be False: How Jesus’ Incomparable Character Reveals His Reality.