CS Lewis on the Holiness of Learning and Work

CS Lewis’s lecture, “Learning in War-Time” provides an excellent defense for Christian study at university. Beyond just that, it shows what is the value of Christian living in everyday life. The question every Christian who comes to the university faces is how it is right 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” (The Weight of Glory, 48-49). In other words, if we really believe people are dying and going to hell, why waste time studying business or chemistry or engineering? On that note, why do anything but preach, speak to people, beg them to believe in Jesus?

Lewis was speaking during World War II about why study during a war is valid and honorable. But Lewis does not limit his argument to war, he immediately expands it to the bigger issue of studying at any time:

“We have to inquire whether there is really any legitimate place for the activities of the scholar in a world such as this. That is, we have always to answer the question, “How can you be so frivolous and selfish as to think about anything but the salvation of human souls?” and we have, at the moment, to answer the additional question, “How can you be so frivolous and selfish as to think of anything but the war?” (50-51).

The challenging thing is that it is clear that our Christian faith, should (must), occupy the whole of life (53). What does this look like? Only do “spiritual” things? Preach and evangelize all the time? Lewis reminds us that Paul told people to get on with their jobs (1 Thess. 4:11-12, for example). He then suggests that the solution is found in the scripture, “Whether ye eat or drink or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31).

Lewis realized that after conversion his life consisted of doing most of the same things he had done before, but in a new spirit, with a new attitude. For example, he still read books. That brings us to one of my favorite quotes: “You are not, in fact, going to read nothing…if you don’t read good books, you will read bad ones. If you don’t think rationally, you will think irrationally” (52). The point is, we continue going to school, going to work, doing many of the same things we did before, but with a new attitude:

“All our merely natural activities will be accepted, if they are offered to God, even the humblest, and all of them, even the noblest, will be sinful if they are not. Christianity does not simply replace our natural life and substitute a new one; it is rather a new organization which exploits, to its own supernatural ends, these natural materials…There is no essential quarrel between the spiritual life and the human activities as such” (54-55).

Of course, Lewis asserts, some activities must be stopped in living the Christian life. But the majority are done still. To perhaps put it most simply, the work of Beethoven, the work of preachers and missionaries, the work of making dinner for your kids or spouse, the work of mowing the lawn, of being an engineer, businessperson or teacher become spiritual as they are offered to God. If done for any other reason, even the holiest things are worthless.

Christians are members of one body, one community, but we remain different people with different vocations (callings). So returning specifically to being at the university, pursuing knowledge is a wonderful thing as far as it is done to the glory of God: “The intellectual life is not the only road to God, nor the safest, but we find it to be a road, and it may be the appointed road for us” (57).

Lewis does not stop at concluding that the academic life of university study is permitted, but he continues in saying that it is essential. It is essential in order for us to be able to communicate with the world around us, to meet people on their own ground.

“To be ignorant and simple now – not to be able to meet the enemies on their own ground – would be to throw down our weapons, and to betray our uneducated brethren who have, under God, no defence but as against the intellectual attacks of the heathen. Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered” (58).

This essay provides vital lessons for campus ministers and Christians at the university. For campus ministers, are we encouraging our students in their calling to their majors and careers? For students, do you recognize that your major is a calling from God and thus your career itself is holy work?

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