Monday, April 20, 2020

More on CS Lewis and "Learning in wartime"

From Lewis’ sermon

War 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.

Phil’s thoughts

Earlier I defended, using illustrations from my life as a teacher and academic, the idea that students should go on learning and teachers should go on teaching in a crisis, like war or the COVID pandemic. If students don’t go on learning and teachers don’t go on teaching, knowledge and ability may be lost.  Though we have extensive databanks available to us now and devices to store all the knowledge, we have to have someone who knows where to find that knowledge and how to use it.

In college at Penn State I had an abortive year as a physics major.  It was abortive, because mainly, I am just not that good at math. I was really trying then. I don’t even bother now. One of the things which frustrated me, as I grappled with triple integrals to describe magnetic fields, was that once you had mastered these triple integrals, you discovered there were books of “math tables,” which would give you the answers (nearly, if you set up your integral correctly and plugged in the right numbers).  I struggled to do this all “by hand” without anything more complicated that an early Texas Instruments calculator, which did trigonometric functions (which was an improvement on the slide rule).  It seemed cruel to expect freshman to be able to do these integrals with a pencil and paper when upper class men used the “math tables.”  I passed the calculus classes with a mean score of 60, a C. Now there are programs which can do these calculations, even handheld calculators.

Earlier our students at Tyndale (and I decades earlier in seminary) have had to learn biblical Greek and Hebrew the “old fashioned way:” by memorizing vocabulary, declensions (in the case of Greek) and verb conjugations.  We had and they now have to be able to reproduce those endless lists of conjugations and declensions: present tense, imperfect tense, past tense, aorist tense, perfect tense, pluperfect tense...nominative case, genitive case, accusative case, ablative case, dative case, locative case, instrumental case...  Tyndale students often find it a real pain.  All struggle and some barely pass.  Yet there are Bible programs (like Olive Tree which I have and Accordance which they have) that have “point and click” functions: point your mouse over the word, click and the word is defined and the grammatical information is immediately visible.

So why did we study earlier in this painful way, learning calculus with a pencil and a pad of paper and a language with flash cards and memorization?  Because, someone needs to know how to set up the “math tables” to reach and answer.  Someone needs to correct the “point and click” function in the Bible program, if the answer is wrong.  Many times the answers are not so simple. It’s not simply a “perfect tense with a waw consecutive.”  Maybe the meaning shifts.

If all the books were burned, all computers fried, all databanks were corrupted and the electrical grid bombed, for civilization to go on, someone must learn and memorize.  Someone must know how to set up the math tables or how to work without the electronic devices.

During this time of the COVID crisis many of us who are far from “home” may feel like we must go home.  Some of our students were planning to go home to marry this summer.  But if they do and they cannot return, it might mean the end of their studies.  We ourselves had to make the difficult decision to remain in the Netherlands this summer fearing that if we left we might not be able to return in the late summer to continue our ministry of teaching at Tyndale.

We from western countries don’t often feel such existential angst or fear.  When a loved one is sent to military duty in Iraq, all of the sudden we are aware of armed conflicts.  There are still armed conflicts which continue in countries like Ukraine where “separatists” in eastern Ukraine continue a “shadow” war.  In Syria, while the world’s attention is diverted, war continues between Islamist extremists and the Syria government.  War goes on in Libiya.  Armed conflicts go on in Nigeria, Cameroon and Myanmar.

The COVID pandemic is frightful and frightening.  Many, many people have died and it is horrific.  Many, many brave people have stepped forward to fight it: retired medical personnel, medical staff working extra shifts and accepting dangerous assignments.  In the light of this: Shouldn’t all seminarians drop their studies and go to help?  What good are “encouraging” sermons in the midst of this crisis?

Lewis reminds us that the eternal and things of eternal significance, and that includes poetry and music, arts and literature, go on being eternally significant even when our focus becomes tragically terminal, awfully fatal.  

Lewis’ sermon was trenchant in his day.  Before WWI and WWII many optimists and some Christians (“Postmillennialists”) believed that heaven on earth could be realized.  Technology and medical science were making life easier and longer (especially for western colonial powers).  But technology and even medical science must be servants and not masters of humankind.  We don’t live for convenience or even for military superiority. We don’t live for good health in and of itself.  We don’t pursue medicine merely to live longer.

Lewis’ words are wisdom grown out of misery.  He had served in the trenches of WWI.  He knew the Spanish Flu epidemic, which ravaged Europe and the US.  He preached this sermon in 1939 during WWII. He knew the fantastic military machinery which was being developed and enhanced:  jets, long range bombers and eventually the atomic bombs.  By the end of WWII millions had died. In a period of four days in 1945 almost 500,000 would die from only two bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Regardless of what we think of these developments and these wars, one thing was clear: humans could be more cruel to other humans than beasts could be cruel to beasts (if that word applies to beasts).  Death, Lewis tells us, is not something to be staved off, but is a certainty.

I have cited above from this sermon, and earlier I put up a quote from Lewis’ novel, Out of the Silent Planet, which reflect Lewis’ thoughts on death.  We as moderns and postmoderns don’t like to talk of death.  Due to our medical advances we seem to think we can “cheat” death, somehow avoid it all together.  Lewis was a clear sighted thinker.  He knew death when he saw it.

War has not been fought on US soil since the Revolutionary War and the US Civil War in the mid 19th century.  The US Civil War was horrible and brutal, but it was only for a relatively brief period. War in Europe ended in 1945 and apart from the Yugoslav conflict, the so-called “Bosnian” War, in the early 1990s and the present conflict in Ukraine, there have been no wars in the memory of western European people under 70. Younger people in Europe haven’t known the horror of war except through their grandparents’ stories.  Americans have known body bags returning from Vietnam, Korea, Iraq and Afghanistan, but the US has avoided fighting wars on its own territory.  

Thus, US citizens rarely face “untimely” death, except for death due to disease, accidental deaths and natural disasters, for example hurricanes. So, the COVID pandemic is a shock to US citizens and to younger Europeans.

As we face COVID we often act as if it were an animate being. We try to make it an enemy we can attack and opposes.  We try to take measures to control it, to “destroy” it, but we are in the end only hiding from a “grim” reality: we shall all die.  Sooner or later, as Lewis say, we shall all die.

Death was more real to ancient and medieval people partly because death happened all around them and at home.  There were no hospitals.  Women died in childbirth. Men died in battle.  Accidents were often not “fixable.” Surgery was not yet a science and an art.  The Black Death ravaged millions over a period of hundreds of years.

What I write is bleak.  What Lewis wrote was bleak.  But his point and mine is that life is not endless.  We shall all die.  The issue, then, is: What will we do with life?

If you are a nurse or a doctor, do your job by all means! I honor you and your calling.  However, if you are “only” a calculus teacher, a literature teacher, a music teacher, or an elementary Hebrew instructor, live your life for God using your skills which he gave you.  Extend and preserve knowledge.  Pass on your knowledge and skills. More importantly pass on your wisdom.

We may not actually need smarter people.  However, we surely need wise people and we seem to lack them.  Politicians bear immense weight and immense responsibility.  They need not only good facts, they need the wisdom of how to deal with the facts, how to do good and not evil.

I am blessed to be in the “business,” the ministry, of teaching people for service in Christian ministry.  They need for example, in my opinion, though they might differ with me, things like basic philosophy (a hew and cry goes up!), Greek, Hebrew, and hermeneutics (the science of interpretation).  They need to know church history and systematic theology.  They also need to learn how to counsel and preach.

But all of these skills and all of their talent will one day end.  Justin Martyr’s ended.  Augustine’s ended.  John Calvin’s ended.  Hendrikus Berkhof’s ended. Ours will one day end.

However, we hope that the “deposit which has been entrusted to us” will go on being passed from hand to hand as long as humanity exists.  We trust that the skills we have taught and the feeble wisdom we have will help the next generation to guide one more generation and another until Christ returns.

To live with your mortality before your eyes is horrifying.  We personally have lived this way when living in a country at war.  We have seen it in the eyes of those who have fled as refugees from a war.  We have seen it in the eyes of friends and relatives who were dying.

But we have also seen peace and acceptance, even in the eyes of loved ones who were dying.  We have seen trust in a loving Savior who died for them.  They may have been afraid, but in the end they resigned themselves to God’s will and to an inevitable, if sooner than expected end.

We have life as a gift.  It is never, this side of heaven, an endless affair, nor are we promised an endless life here on earth.  Lewis notes that everyone’s death ends their career. 

I’m sure I had read Lewis’ words before I got to Leuven, Belgium, though I didn’t remember them per se.  However, when I was studying there at the University at the Institute of Philosophy I had a class in Personal Identity.  We, as students of philosophy, were invited to consider in fact just who we were.  I recall this professor, as a lovely man, who was a kind and gentle person but one who asked unsettling questions. If we are our memories, what are we when we are so demented that we cannot remember ourselves?  Our professor read us a couple poems and then told the story of a poet with dementia who loved to have his poetry read to him but had no recollection of having written it.  My professor later suffered a stroke after his retirement.  When I saw him a couple years ago, he said to me, “I’m sorry I don’t remember you.  I have had a stroke.” He was his same kind, gentle self, even if his “professional tool,” his brain had failed him.  His kindness and gentleness remained. I dare say, his character remained, even if his memory did not.  He had passed on his knowledge, but he also left a deep impression of kindness and gentleness, of humanity towards others.

Our Christian faith tells us that we are more than mere mortal beings.  We are not just biochemical machines with an epiphenomenon of consciousness.  We are both physical and spiritual beings.  Ultimately this body will die, whether by COVID 19 or “ordinary” cancer.  But this mortal body is not all that we are.  It is a “mortal coil,” but it is only part of who we are.

We are also spiritual beings.  We are a unity of body, spirit and soul. (I don’t speak technically here so don’t whomp me with the distinction between bipartite and tripartite beings.) We live here on earth, but we will live again!

One day we shall live a resurrected life in a new body on a new earth in a new heavens.  Just as Jesus rose from the dead, we too shall rise from the dead to be “clothed” with an immortal body.  We long on this earth for that immortality, but it will not come to us short of death or Christ’s return. In the meantime we must “muddle on.” We must struggle with Greek and Hebrew verb conjugations, math tables, and chemical formulae.  We owe it to the next generation of God’s children here on earth.

“Death, where is thy victory? Grave, where is thy sting?”
For Lewis’ original sermon see
Accessed 18 April 2020

“Lewis preached the sermon “Learning in War-Time” at St. Mary the Virgin Church, Oxford, on Sunday, October 22, 1939.”
Accessed 18 April 2020

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