Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Back to school: Lewis on the pursuit of learning (2)

The follow excerpt is from a sermon C.S. Lewis preached in the Church of St. Mary the Virgin at Oxford University in Autumn 1939, thus the title, “Learning in War-Time.” Even though we are not on the brink of WWII, we do live on the edge of precipice, making Lewis’ perspective on higher education just as relevant now as it was then.

    Now it seems to me that we shall not be able to answer these questions until we have put them by the side of certain other questions which every Christian - ought to have asked himself in peace-time. I spoke just now of fiddling while Rome burns.George Bush playing guitar while... But to a Christian the true tragedy of Nero must be not that he fiddled while the city was on fire but that he fiddled on the brink of hell. You must forgive me for the crude monosyllable. I know that many wiser and better Christians than I in these days do not like to mention heaven and hell even in a pulpit. I know, too, that nearly all the references to this subject in the New Testament come from a single source. But then that source is Our Lord Himself. People will tell you it is St. Paul, but that is untrue. These overwhelming doctrines are dominical. They are not really removable from the teaching of Christ or of His Church.... Katrina devastates Louisiana -- like Nero fiddling while Rome burned. If we do not believe them, our presence in this church is great tomfoolery. If we do, we must sometime overcome our spiritual prudery and mention them.

    The moment we do so we can see that every Christian who comes to a university must at all times face a question compared with which the questions raised by the war are relatively unimportant. He must ask himself 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 in this world on such comparative trivialities as literature or art, mathematics or biology. If human culture can stand up to that, it can stand up to anything. To admit that we can retain our interest in learning under the shadow of these eternal issues, but not under the shadow of a European war, would be to admit that our ears are closed to the voice of reason and very wide open to the voice of our nerves and our mass emotions.

    This indeed is the case with most of us: certainly with me. For that reason I think it important to try to see the present calamity in a true perspective. 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.

C.S. Lewis, “Learning in War-Time,” The Essential C.S. Lewis (New York: Touchstone, 1986) 371-372.

1 comment:

  1. "You must forgive me for the crude monosyllable." What an interesting aside from Lewis! He goes on at length justifying his use of the word "hell" from the pulpit. It gives you some indication of how little the matter was preached on in Lewis' day.

    You must forgive me for any partisan offense taken from today's pictures. I don't know of any better way of illustrating Nero fiddling while Rome burns (which Lewis refers to repeatedly in this sermon) than President George Bush having fun playing guitar while Louisiana is flooded by the devastating force of Hurricane Katrina. And yet, life goes on. Students go back to school while people are picking up the pieces. Lewis is so right when he says that "Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice."