This morning I had a chance to re-read C. S. Lewis’s “Learning in War-Time?”, a sermon he gave at the outset of World War II. He made the observation at one point that it is never the case actually in war that we focus only on war. He writes, “Men are different. They propound mathematical theorems in beleaguered cities, conduct metaphysical arguments in condemned cells, discuss the last new poem while advancing to the walls of Quebec, and comb their hair at Thermopylae.” In other words, we will always be thinking of the significant (and commonplace!) matters of life. He goes on to argue that if we suspend serious intellectual and cultural activity in such times, we will only replace it with worse–“if you don’t read good books, you will read bad ones.” All of this is part of his encouragement to those whose calling is student during the war.
I equally wonder about the question of learning in peace-time? War in some ways raises really important spiritual and philosophical questions. When we are at peace, we often are more inclined to think about where will we eat? What movie will we see this weekend? Will I buy this shirt or that? What I wonder about in these times is whether our comfort and relative affluence results if anything in our being more distracted by the commonplace and content with the banal? When it seems that “life is good” do we resist the demanding intellectual and aesthetic work required to break new intellectual and aesthetic ground?
Lewis as a Christian appeals to a basic Christian precept of “doing all to the glory of God.” He contends that this does not mean forcing all intellectual life to be “spiritually edifying” in some way. Rather, he writes:
I mean 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.”
Lewis reminds me that we all have appetites for the good, the true, and the beautiful. What the passion for God’s glory in our work does is encourage us to give these to the best and most worthy things–to read (and write) good books rather than bad. We often talk around the educational world of “lifelong learning.” One of the questions that I often wonder about is what drives us to continue to learn, to grow, to change?