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C S Lewis and the War against Coronavirus

This weeks column in Christian Today – You can read the original here – 

C S Lewis and the war against coronavirus

C S Lewis
CS Lewis

We are told that we are at war. It certainly feels like it, with much of the economy being either shut down or mothballed, citizens having wartime restrictions placed upon them and the situation changing from day to day.

C S Lewis faced a similar although graver providence when in the autumn of 1939 the Second World War broke out, and he found himself preaching a sermon in the Church of St Mary the Virgin in Oxford, to the students of the university. It is still a stunning sermon from which we have much to learn and to apply in our own situation.

He argues that we should have “an intimate knowledge of the past” – not because the past is ‘magical’ but because we cannot study the future and yet we need something with which to compare our current circumstances.

“A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village: the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age,” he writes.

One can only guess at what Lewis would have said about the 24/7 outpouring on social media and the internet! There is much we can learn from the past. The trouble is that our news is filled with predictions about the future – about which we cannot know (but fear) – rather than what we do know.

Lewis argues that the war does not create a new situation. 

“It simply aggravates the present human condition so that we can no longer ignore it,” he argues.

We tend to think this situation is new. And in one sense it is – because we personally have not experienced this before. But our experience is not the determiner of reality. Lewis reminds us that human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice and that “human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself”.

In his sermon Lewis warns us of three dangers in terms of our attitudes when we are faced with this kind of war.

The first enemy is excitement: that feeling when we are so caught up in the moment of the current crisis that we can think of nothing else. When the bushfires here in Australia were at their height, every day I checked my bushfire app to see how many there were and what was happening. Now I have a coronavirus app – so I can check the spread of the virus all over the world. It is all too easy to get caught up in something so that nothing else gets into your heart and mind.

The second enemy is frustration. For Lewis, this is the feeling that we will not have time to finish anything so why bother? What’s the point of study, or getting married, or starting a new project when we live in a world in such a state of crisis? The Christian has an answer to that. We know that ‘under the sun’ everything is meaningless. But we know that there is more to life than that which is just ‘under the sun’. We look to the eternal and so we can appreciate the present and work for the future.

The third enemy is fear. I see it in the faces of the people keeping their distance from me on the train. I hear it in the panicked voices on radio call shows. I feel it in my own heart and mind. Lewis points out that war threatens us with death and pain, and that no Christian should be stoically indifferent to that. But then he points out the rationally obvious, but something that is emotionally distant for most of us:

“What does war do to death? It certainly does not make it more frequent; 100 per cent of us die, and the percentage cannot be increased. It puts several deaths earlier; but I hardly suppose that that is what we fear…..Yet war does do something to death. It forces us to remember it. The only reason why the cancer at sixty or the paralysis at seventy-five do not bother us is that we forget them. 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 wise.”

We are at war. The Church is always in the midst of a war – against sin, suffering and Satan. This particular battle is both a test of our faith and an opportunity for us to live and proclaim it. O Church arise and put your armour on…

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  1. Well written David I appreciate your thoughts. As a military veteran this does resonate with me powerfully.

    The quote that the scholar is “immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age” is interesting and how relevant is that to now, just as in 1939 with the outbreak of WWII.

    I hear what you say about fear, and certainly I’m seeing this as well. I’ve not been in the centre of Glasgow for a while but I have heard today that the shops in George Square are all boarded up, presumably with a precaution against rioting and looting.

    What I also see is rage.

    Yes certainly the church is always at war – and sometimes against 5th columnists. The battle of course is against rulers and authorities in this dark world and evil spirits in the heavenly realms. So yes the armour of God needing to be worn in this “war”. Can I suggest also there being a need for being fit for battle with strengthening of feeble arms and weak knees, metaphorically speaking?

  2. As always, C.S. Lewis gives us wisdom to deal with the present situation.
    No, the virus is not increasing the death rate, it’s still one death per person. But it may not even increase the death rate this year. I did hear that countries have had roughly the same loss of life as their usual averages. I haven’t fact checked this, but it makes sense that if 3 major causes of death are auto accidents, drug overdoses, and the regular flu, there are much fewer of these, with people staying home and practicing social distancing, and addicts probably have temporarily lost access to their drugs. (They may be having withdrawal, but not overdosing.) Sorry, digressing …
    Anyway, YES, we need to come to terms with the fact that WE WILL DIE, sooner or later. Why not prepare for eternity now?

  3. Do you have access to the sermon David, would you be able to put the whole thing up online that we may read it? It would be worthwhile I think. Many thanks for your blog – always a breath of fresh air.

  4. Not so sure about the scholar who has lived in many times. The biblical scholar ought to have lived in many times as it were, with knowledge of biblical history, theology, patterns, repetitions, worship, covenants, breaches, judgement, turning to God, backsliding, idolatry, personally, nationally.
    But, on another blog there is a scholars contention between that has arisen with those espousing Open Theism and the Sovereignty of God, Providence and God’s judgements,
    These articles by Peter Saunders seem to have been a catalyst.

    How our idols are being exposed, personally, church- wide, nationally, globally. Fear and self-interest is a terrible combination.
    The need is to turn -turn to Christ.

  5. Does Lewis quote scripture at all? He was a terrible theologian and I would like to see if there was any meat in his sermon.

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