"Learning in War-time is one of my favorite short pieces by C. S. Lewis. It was originally delivered to Oxford students in England on verge of war. In it Lewis asks how can we pursue learning when war is going on? Lewis asks another question to bring the question in context: How can we pursue learning when people are dying and going to hell? This is an important question? It is a question I have asked myself.
I come from a broken home. My parents divorced when I was ten and before that time the home was not stable. In middle school I became involved with the wrong people and eventually dropped out of school in ninth grade. When I was eighteen I became a Christian. Soon after I went to college. During my first year at the college I began asking myself the question, How can I be pursuing learning when people are going to hell? I had not read Lewis yet. It would be several years before I would read "Learning in War-Time. After a few years in college I discovered that learning was an end itself. It is interesting that when I first read "Learning in War-Time, I discovered I had come to similar conclusions on my own. Lewis gives not only reasons for pursuing the intellectual life, but important truths about calling itself.
Lewis hits a home-run from the start: "A university is a society for the pursuit of learning. As students, you will be expected to make yourselves, into what the Middle Ages called clerks: or to start making yourselves, into philosophers, scientists, scholars, critics, or historians." He notes that this might seem an odd thing since they might not have time to finish before called to the war. So why begin something we cannot finish? Lewis tells them there is a even greater question, How can we pursue learning when people's lives hang in the balance.
Lewis explains that this is really no situation: "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." The war did not create any new situation. Should learning be pursued or not? If so for what reasons. I will now list some of the reasons Lewis gives.
First, there is a deep desire for knowledge and beauty inside us. God did not create this desire needlessly. It is part of who we are. Lewis shows how people in the past "wanted knowledge and beauty now, and would not wait for the suitable time that never comes."
Second, we will pursue lesser things if we do not pursue more excellent things like truth, goodness, and beauty. Lewis states, "If you attempted. . . to suspend your whole intellectual and aesthetic activity, you would only succeed in substituting a worse cultural life for a better. You are not, in fact, going to read nothing, (he was not aware of our own time period)either in the church or in the line: if you don't go on thinking rationally, you will think irrationally. If you reject aesthetic satisfactions, you will fall into sensual satisfactions." How many hours to we spend before electronic media vegging out? How often do we read a book to improve our learning? What do we spend our money on?
Third, we can pursue learning to the glory of God. Lewis notes, "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." God calls us to different stations. God's will is for us to do our very best wherever He places us. Lewis describes how we can know and fulfill our own vocation. Lewis says, "We are members of one body, but differentiated members, each with his own vocation. A man's upbringing, his talents, his circumstances, are usually a tolerable index of his vocation. If our parents have sent us to Oxford, if our country allows us to remain there, this is prima facie evidence that the life which we, at any rate, can best lead to the glory of God is the learned life." The intellectual life is not the call for everyone, but it is the call for some. God calls us to be obedient to our vocation.
Fourth, the intellectual life supports the church. The church needs learned people to defend it against attacks. In addition, it needs scholars to teach and preach. Lewis notes, "If all the world were Christian, it might not matter if all the world were uneducated. But, as it is, a cultural life will exist outside the Church whether it exists inside or not. To be ignorant and simple now--and not be able to meet the enemies on their own ground--would be to throw down our weapons, and to betray our uneducated brethren who have under God, no defense against the intellectual attacks of the heathen. Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered."
These are some of the reasons Lewis gives for pursuing the Intellectual life. When Lewis is speaking of learning he is speaking of the liberal arts. He believed that truth and beauty must be sought for their own sake, not that they are not sought for God's sake. He also thought that being faithful to the vocation of learning is not the idea of working things out to "edifying conclusions," or "to offer to the author of truth the unclean sacrifice of a lie." We are simply to pursue truth, goodness, and beauty and to follow where they lead.