Learning in Coronavirus Time: Rereading C.S. Lewis’s Famous Sermon

Learning in Coronavirus Time: Rereading C.S. Lewis’s Famous Sermon April 1, 2020

On October 22, 1939, C.S. Lewis ascended the pulpit of the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Oxford. From there he delivered to the university’s students his now-famous sermon “Learning in War-Time.” It was, of course, quite an extraordinary time to be a college student in England. Less than two months earlier, on September 3, the United Kingdom had declared war on Germany after Hitler had  invaded British ally Poland.

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Lewis addressed the elephant in the room: why bother going to college when the nation is gearing up for a massive war? For one thing, young Oxford men might very well be called away to fight. For another, in Lewis’s words, “Is it not like fiddling while Rome burns?”

I thought of this sermon a couple weeks ago when I taught a Brazos Fellows seminar by Zoom during the first week of social distancing. (Chris Gehrz also thought of it the next week in conjunction with blogging at the Anxious Bench.) Brazos Fellows is a Waco-based postbaccalaureate program for vocational discernment in the context of Christian community and theological study. The fellows and I were discussing a historical theological debate—the fundamentalist-modernist controversy of the early 1900s, to be specific. It would have been easy to say that there were rather more important things to have been thinking about at the moment.

But I was really excited to teach the material. I am convinced that the issues of biblical interpretation, personal piety, and social justice raised by that past controversy are just as relevant today. Lewis had argued that learning should continue in war-time, even—or even especially—about things not related to the war. So I commented that likewise, as a sign of hope, we would continue learning about weighty matters not directly related to the coronavirus.

Yet Lewis would not have commended learning by electric light at night during an air raid—that would endanger both you and your neighbor. So, likewise, we were learning by Zoom rather than in person. Crises rightly affect the mode of pursuing our vocations, but not the pursuit itself.

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But it’s hard. I’m actually on research leave this semester—so only guest classes to teach online. You would think Waco’s shelter in place order would result in all kinds of productivity for me. You would be wrong. I’m an extroverted germaphobe with a history of anxiety—and I live alone. Suffice it to say, international pandemics with required social distancing are not my thing. For this semester, I had set a goal for a minimum to maximum range of hours of research and writing each day. I have been hitting the minimum. Most days. And I have been praying a lot of psalms.

I say this to validate whatever your experience is trying to continue your vocation during the massive social shifts required to combat the coronavirus. I am not preaching from on high. I am preaching to myself.

And first, I am preaching grace. The most helpful productivity tip for this time that I have read is: give yourself grace. The mental, emotional, and physical stress of this time will hit us all differently, in different times, and in different ways. But for everyone there is a huge learning curve, and our normal resources—regular routines, time with friends, public worship, fear-free shopping, toilet paper—are slim or nonexistent. (My toilet paper is literally slim. I am down to the cheap stuff.)

So what I take from Lewis’s sermon is the encouragement to take satisfaction in the opportunity to continue to pursue our vocations—in my case, academic research—even if at a necessarily reduced pace.

As Chris noted, “What Lewis said about war—even in a cause that is, ‘as human causes go, very righteous’—pertains to disease—even one as serious as COVID-19: it ‘will fail to absorb our whole attention because it is a finite object, and therefore intrinsically unfitted to support the whole attention of a human soul.’”

Lewis acknowledged that in a time of international crisis, some forms of intellectual work can seem trivial: “I am well aware that there may seem to be an almost comic discrepancy between the high issues we have been considering and the immediate task you may be set down to, such as Anglo-Saxon sound laws or chemical formulae.”

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But he argued for “the pursuit of knowledge and beauty, in a sense, for their own sake, but in a sense which does not exclude their being for God’s sake. An appetite for these things exists in the human mind, and God makes no appetite in vain. We can therefore pursue knowledge as such, and beauty, as such, in the sure confidence that by so doing we are either advancing to the vision of God ourselves or indirectly helping others to do so.”

Easier said than done in a time of great stress. So Lewis concluded with three “enemies” of learning in [coronavirus] time, and how to combat them:

The first enemy is excitement — the tendency to think and feel about the [virus] when we had intended to think about our work. The best defense is a recognition that in this, as in everything else, the [virus] has not really raised up a new enemy but only aggravated an old one. There are always plenty of rivals to our work. We are always falling in love or quarreling, looking for jobs or fearing to lose them, getting ill and recovering, following public affairs. If we let ourselves, we shall always be waiting for some distraction or other to end before we can really get down to our work. The only people who achieve much are those who want knowledge so badly that they seek it while the conditions are still unfavorable. Favorable conditions never come. There are, of course, moments when the pressure of the excitement is so great that any superhuman self-control could not resist it. They come both in war and peace. We must do the best we can.

The second enemy is frustration — the feeling that we shall not have time to finish. If I say to you that no one has time to finish, that the longest human life leaves a man, in any branch of learning, a beginner, I shall seem to you to be saying something quite academic and theoretical. You would be surprised if you knew how soon one begins to feel the shortness of the tether….A more Christian attitude, which can be attained at any age, is that of leaving futurity in God’s hands. We may as well, for God will certainly retain it whether we leave it to Him or not. Never, in peace or war, commit your virtue or your happiness to the future. Happy work is best done by the man who takes his long-term plans somewhat lightly and works from moment to moment “as to the Lord”. 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.

The third enemy is fear. [The virus] threatens us with death and pain. No man — and specially no Christian who remembers Gethsemane — need try to attain a stoic indifference about these things: but we can guard against the illusions of the imagination. We think of the streets of Warsaw and contrast the deaths there suffered with an abstraction called Life. But there is no question of death or life for any of us; only a question of this death or of that — of a [virus] now or a cancer forty years later. What does [the virus] do to death? It certainly does not make it more frequent; 100 per cent of us die, and the percentage cannot be increased….Yet [the virus] does do something to death. It forces us to remember it….[The virus] makes death real to us: 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.

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 unmistakable 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.

May we continue to take daily joy and comfort from pursuing our God-given vocations in faith, hope, and love.






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