Friday, October 21, 2016

Learning to the Glory of God

This article is courtesy of

The average person is familiar with C. S. Lewis as the creator of the land of Narnia. BreakPoint readers are probably acquainted as well with “Mere Christianity,” his most famous non-fiction work, and also with “The Screwtape Letters,” which made him a household name in the U.S.

But did you know that Lewis also preached at least a dozen times during his lifetime? Seventy-five years ago today, on October 22, 1939, he gave his debut sermon. Do you know the name of it? Or can you name any of his sermons?

“None Other Gods: Culture in War-Time” is the name of Lewis’s premier effort as a preacher. It was delivered at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Oxford (this was the University church that most students attended). It’s important to recall the historical context of this message from 1939. Besides occurring before “The Screwtape Letters” was published serially, it even happened prior to the release of his initial apologetic work, The Problem of Pain (1940). Yet it is even more important to recall that England had just declared war on Germany the month before this first sermon. Knowing this context makes it easier to understand the beginning of the essay version we have today.
The vicar of St. Mary’s, the Reverend Theodore Milford, was aware that Lewis was a WWI veteran, but this was not the only reason he was asked to address the congregation. The vicar had read Lewis’s “The Pilgrim’s Regress and was impressed by it. Both these factors made Lewis a logical choice to address the parishioners. This last influence is somewhat ironic, because of all the books penned by Lewis, this one from 1933 is one of his least popular books and is considered a very difficult read.
Even if you are a serious reader of Lewis’s shorter works, it is unlikely that you recognized the title of this debut sermon. That is because the essay version—available in the sermon collection “The Weight of Glory”—is better known today as “Learning in War-time.” To make matters even more confusing, that is actually the third title it had within the decade after it was preached. The following year it was included in “Famous English Sermons” as “The Christian in Danger.” This book, edited by Ashley Sampson, collected landmark messages from famous preachers. Sampson felt compelled to add Lewis’s debut effort because even then it was obvious that the message would speak to people for many years to come.
While most people today are not affected by war in the same way they were at the time Lewis preached his sermon, we can still relate to many of the questions of those who first heard this message. Although Lewis did tailor his address to students (the majority of those who were in attendance), he made many points that we need to hear today. One in particular still resonates, and offers a good reason to read the work.
Lewis began by acknowledging the anxieties faced by a majority of his audience. They were young adults fearing being called to service and debating whether they should continue their pursuit of higher learning. Lewis was familiar with their situation because he was initially a new student at Oxford during the First World War. At that time his brother, Warren, was already on active duty, and Lewis himself would eventually spend his 19th birthday in the trenches in France. If anyone could relate to the predicament of these undergraduates, Lewis could. It was now over 20 years later and Lewis had the chance to share wisdom he probably wished had been imparted to him.
Lewis used the fact that most students were doubting whether they should continue their schooling in the context of a war, to ask why even in times of peace a person should get an education. Certainly the future was uncertain, but even in so-called “normal life” (which Lewis reminded his listeners is nonexistent) there are always challenges. So, in good times or bad “plausible reasons have never been lacking for putting off all merely cultural activities.”
Why, in fact (Lewis asked), should a Christian should ever consider a temporal pursuit such as education? After all, when you consider the importance of the eternal destiny of souls, why focus on “such comparative trivialities as literature or art, mathematics or biology”? Of course, Lewis did not consider that perspective to be a valid argument and he gave reasons why, while making passing reference to the false dichotomy of “sacred” vs. “secular.” However, he also underscored the paradox that life cannot be “exclusively and explicitly religious,” and yet, “our whole life can, and indeed must, become religious.”
Near the end of his explanation Lewis delivered the now-familiar line: “Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.” But before that proclamation, Lewis gave examples to clarify why our lives cannot always be religious in the narrowest sense.
First, he recalls that, before he served in WWI he believed his “life in the trenches would, in some mysterious sense, be all war.” This wasn’t the case at all. He found his view (and also most people’s opinion) of active service to be completely wrong. Next, he pointed out that if you lived near a dangerous body of water, it would be important to learn some life-saving skills to help someone drowning. Yet, it would be foolish for someone to devote themselves completely to saving drowning people, to the exclusion of anything else. As Lewis said, it is “a duty worth dying for, but not worth living for.”
In short, a life may be permeated and guided by an ideal without explicitly focusing on it every single moment.
When considering what to do, or not do, even beyond the question of furthering one’s education, he offers: “The solution of this paradox is, of course, well known to you. ‘Whether ye eat or drink or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God’” (1 Corinthians 10:31). This is why, he says, “there is no essential quarrel between the spiritual life and the human activities as such.” As long as one keeps the admonition to do all for God’s glory, nearly any pursuit (in peace or war) is permitted.
Lewis’s sermon of 1939 is truly a timeless message. In it, he showed the ability to expound timeless biblical truths in a fresh and illuminating way that would shape his career and make him one of our most beloved Christian writers.

Image courtesy of Real Clear Religion.
William O'Flaherty created and maintains, where a variety of Lewis-related resources can be found, including a weekly podcast called "All About Jack."

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