I work in an obscure corner of some unfashionable discipline. My ideas will never change the world. How can I justify spending so much of my life on academic research? How does it serve the kingdom of God?
These questions read like a typical diary entry from my time as a doctoral candidate. I still struggle with them, though less frequently now than before, and I have been helped in the struggle by C. S. Lewis’s sermon ‘Learning in War-time’.
Lewis starts with a pressing question for a society on the brink of the Second World War:
why should we — indeed how can we — continue to take an interest in these placid occupations when the lives of our friends and the liberties of Europe are in the balance? Is it not like fiddling while Rome burns?
Rare is the Christian scholar who has not, at some time or other, though of himself as Lewis’s fiddler, ashamed of his frivolous instrument in the midst of “more pressing” “real-world” concerns. Your friends who are doctors and nurses are busy saving people’s lives. The teachers are helping shape the next generation of young minds. The engineers are building the cities of the future, and your friends in IT seem to be dreaming new dreams every week while making millions and having fun. And you? You are reading a bunch of old books in a library somewhere, making notes on them and writing articles that only handful of people will ever read. Do you dread having to explain what you do at parties to people who wish you’d stop wasting tax-payers’ money and start contributing to the economy, and who think you only work for half the year anyway? Join the club.
Anyway, back to Lewis. Before he answers the question, he sharpens it. If academia in wartime is bad enough, then what about academia while souls perish:
I spoke just now of fiddling while Rome burns. But to a Christian the true tragedy of Nero must be not that he fiddles while the city was on fire but that he fiddles on the brink of hell.
every Christian who comes to a university must at all times face a question compared with which the questions raised by the war are relatively unimportant. He must ask himself how it is right, or even psychologically possible, 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.
Quite. It is a question we fail to face at our peril, and perhaps also at the peril of those around us.
For Lewis’s complete response you’ll have to read the sermon, but here are some of the snippets I have found most helpful:
On when it is a “good time” to pursue scholarship:
We are mistaken when we compare war with “normal life”. Life has never been normal. Even those periods which we think most tranquil, like the nineteenth century, turn out, on closer inspection, to be full of cries, alarms, difficulties, emergencies. Plausible reasons have never been lacking for putting off all merely cultural activities until some imminent danger has been averted or some crying injustice put right.
On the unavoidability of ‘culture’:
If you attempted, in either case, to suspend your whole intellectual and aesthetic activity, you would only succeed in substituting a worse cultural life for a better. You are not, in fact, going to read nothing, either in the Church or in the line: if you don’t read good books you will read bad ones. If you don’t go on thinking rationally, you will think irrationally. If you reject aesthetic satisfactions you will fall into sensual satisfactions.
On what is worth living for:
The rescue of drowning men is, then a duty worth dying for, but not worth living for. It seems to me that all political duties (among which I include military duties) are of this kind. A man may have to die for our country: but no man must, in any exclusive sense, live for his country. He who surrenders himself without reservation to the temporal claims of a nation, or a party, or a class is rendering to Caesar that which, of all things, most emphatically belongs to God: himself.
On the necessity of defending God’s truth:
If all the world were Christian, it might not matter if all the world were uneducated. But, as it is, a cultural life will exist outside the Church whether it exists inside or not. 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 then betray our uneducated brethren who have, under God, no defense but us against the intellectual attacks of the heathen. Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.
On the seeming mundanity of much academic endeavor:
The learned life then is, for some, a duty. At the moment it looks as if it were your duty. I am well aware that there may seem to be an almost comic discrepancy between the high issues we have been considering and the immediate task you may be set down to, such as Anglo-Saxon sound laws or chemical formulae. But there is a similar shock awaiting us in every vocation — a young priest finds himself involved in choir treats and a young subaltern in accounting for pots of jam. It is well that it should be so. It weeds out the vain, windy people and keeps in those who are both humble and tough. On that kind of difficulty we need waste no sympathy.
Lewis’s rousing final paragraph:
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. If we thought we were building up a heaven on earth, if we looked for something that would turn the present world from a place of pilgrimage into a permanent city satisfying the soul of man, we are disillusioned, and not a moment too soon. But if we thought that for some souls, and at some times, the life of learning, humbly offered to God, was, in its own small way, one of the appointed approaches to the Divine reality and the Divine beauty which we hope to enjoy hereafter, we can think so still.