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A 'Learning in Wartime' introduction by Colin Duriez

On May 5, Oak Hill held a reading of C.S. Lewis': 'Learning in Wartime' for the college community. This was introduced by Colin Duriez who has kindly shared his comments in the article below:

Many have the idea that Lewis is largely an abstract thinker, even a rationalist in some sense. But much of his thinking actually has a real world context, impacted by his life experiences. In the case of the Oxford sermon he read when asked in October 1939 to preach before the University in the Church of St Mary the Virgin, it very much had a context in his experience of war. When introduced to the trenches in France, aged 19, the bookish Lewis had typically responded: “This is War. This is what Homer wrote about.” (1) The title of the sermon was “None Other Gods: Culture in War Time”, later published as “Learning in Wartime”. The pleased vicar made copies of the script that Lewis had given him to look at, to disseminate after the sermon. For the sermon text, Lewis chose Deuteronomy 26:5: “A Syrian ready to perish was my father.”

Writing about the wartime sermon, Walter Hooper commented:

‍Lewis often said that if anyone had told him in his atheist days that he would someday step into a pulpit and preach he would have considered that man raving mad. Nevertheless, he accepted … the curious “about-face” actions which God sometimes requires of a once cheeky atheist. He was at this time writing his essay on “Christianity and Culture” and the sermon is quite obviously an outgrowth of it. (2)

‍Though we are generally used to thinking of the universe very much in material, physical terms, C.S. Lewis came to believe – and argued for – a larger view of reality, a supernatural one.

‍It was clear to him that a battle between good and evil had been in process since the fall of humanity, both in the unseen world and in the physical and psychological horrors of human warfare. Like many of his friends among the Inklings, he had experienced battle in World War One. Like him, some bore physical scars, others mental scars or both. His view, like friends such as J.R.R. Tolkien, was of spiritual conflict behind physical battles, which affected whether or not people could live at peace and free from terror.

‍This is why Lewis was at the forefront of writing on human pain, suffering, devilry, miracles and the supernatural. Here affinities can be seen in the Inklings Tolkien and Charles Williams, in particular, and non-Inklings friends such as Dorothy L. Sayers.

‍As well as particularly modern manifestations of evil such as global war, Lewis was concerned with the perennial problem of what he called “worldliness”, where we focus upon this world alone, losing its context in the infinite vistas of the unseen, supernatural world. The limited perspective of worldliness is explored rigorously in The Screwtape Letters. The fact that other major figures of his literary circle of friends, such as Charles Williams and Tolkien, were also preoccupied with the lure of the dark side, and the spell it casts, gave Lewis moral support and encouragement as he explored difficult issues like devilry and human suffering.

‍Lewis’s concerns with devilry and related issues like human suffering are also there in his writings between the wars and after World War II, but the world wars gave intensity to them. Such writings before and after the war include C.S. Lewis’s The Pilgrim’s Regress (Lewis's first work of fiction), and the Narnian stories, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian and The Last Battle . Writings from friends in these times include Charles Williams’ Descent into Hell, and even Tolkien’s The Hobbit, with the terrifying dragon Smaug, the goblin-ridden mountains and the Battle of the Five Armies. Dorothy L. Sayers’ work, as well as her murder mysteries, include her dramatization of the Faust story. The Devil to Pay, just prior to WW2, and The Just Vengeance, on a war theme immediately after that war.

‍Just as central to Lewis’s vocation were a long list of literary books, many not published until after his death, and mostly still read to this day. One of his largest and best of these works was English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama.

The emotional and physical scars of World War I were reopened when Lewis found himself living through a second global conflict just over two decades later. Between the two modern wars, Lewis had gone through the dramatic changes of his movement from atheism to Christian belief. There are remarkable contrasts and similarities between the younger and older Lewis, as well as his marked concerns in the productive World War II years. It meant focusing for instance upon the emergence of devilry and related themes of the human quest for heaven or descent into hell, and his signature search for a way out of the self.

My memories of the last war haunted my dreams for years.”

Lewis disclosed this in a letter over twenty years after the armistice, on 8th May 1939. War had become for him a deeply embedded image of a grimly persistent cosmic war between good and evil. In his essay we are soon to hear, “Learning in wartime,” written soon after the start of the new world war, he observed:

War creates no absolutely new situation; it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it.” (3) 

During the years of the First World War and immediately after it, the struggle for him was conceived in terms of a battle between nature and spirit, with nature being evil unless touched by beauty and spirit. Bluntly, nature was Satan, the devil. After Lewis’s conversion to theism around the end of the 1920s and to Christian belief in 1931 he accepted an orthodox Christian view of the essential goodness of nature, in which evil rather is a despoiling and absence of good. Nature has been despoiled, rather than being evil in essence. Furthermore evil damaged both nature and spirit, with the origin of evil lying in our human freedom to rebel against God, rather than in nature itself. Lewis’s war experience effectively became part of his inner life, firstly as a materialistic vision of the war of nature and spirit, and then of a cosmic but not eternal battle between good and evil in Christian terms.

‍The recent shock of the coronavirus pandemic perhaps gives us some indication at least of the impact of those modern wars Lewis lived through, at that time marked with conflict between nations. Maybe today Lewis would have wrestled with the notion that the pandemic virus somehow may have been part of the results of the fall of humanity, with nature itself then warring against the human. If so, I think he would still have believed in what he read out from his sermon, “None Other Gods: Culture in War Time”, what we now know by the title, “Learning in Wartime.” To repeat what he said, “War creates no absolutely new situation; it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it.” The pandemic, if Lewis is right, is perhaps like all wars in raising the shadow of death. In the shadow, we are to continue in our lives, with our essential cultural activities, “on the edge of a precipice”. Being in the image of God, putting it another way, doesn’t give ultimate priority to war or killer pandemics.

‍Let’s go back to 1939, to the outbreak of global war.

(1) Surprised by Joy (London, Bles, 1955), p. 196.
(2) Roger Lancelyn Green and Walter Hooper, C.S. Lewis: A Biography (London: Collins, 1974) pp. 184-185 Hooper wrote four chapters, and Green the remaining.
(3) C. S. Lewis, Learning in Wartime, 1939.


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