Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 32) rcl c, 2019
Remembrance Sunday, SJE Kitchener
HAGGAI 1:15B-2:9; PSALM 98; 2 THESSALONIANS 2:1-5, 13-17; LUKE 20:27-38
I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land;
and I will shake all the nations,
so that the treasure of all nations shall come,
and I will fill this house with splendour, says the Lord of hosts.
On October 22nd, 1939—roughly ten years after his conversion to Christianity, well before writing his celebrated Narnia books, and just months before the wartime broadcasts that would establish him as a public commentator on matters of faith—C.S. Lewis climbed the flight of stairs and into the pulpit of St. Mary the Virgin, Oxford’s university church, to give a Sunday Evensong sermon.
England had declared war on Germany only seven weeks earlier.
The declaration of war was no surprise to the Oxford English fellows, including Lewis; in 1938, one of Lewis’s colleagues, Somerville College English Fellow, Helen Darbishire, had asked a question at her college council: should university education continue in the event of an international emergency? Or would it be prudent to focus on this one thing, a war effort, no matter the consequences?
By October of 1939 the question as to what one ought to do, or not do, in the face of war, was no longer an abstraction: the world was at war.
And so Lewis climbed those stairs, into that pulpit in Oxford, and preached on the subject, in a sermon he titled “Learning in Wartime.”
My own experience of Remembrance is of reflecting on war in retrospect; and as we come further and further away from the Potsdam Agreement and the end of World War Two, this is becoming increasingly true for us more generally. Increasingly, but not exclusively, for more and more of us war is a story from the past, rather than a living and shared memory.
And so the lessons we might learn from war are often in retrospect too. We remember that war offers opportunities for brutality, and for heroism; in retrospect we can see the occasional necessity and inevitability of violence, alongside the clear desirability of peace.
But Lewis, in his sermon, given after the war had started, with its violence and loss looming over him, didn’t have the space to reflect from a distance. This would be no faraway overseas war for the United Kingdom: for many, the war would be in the sky above their heads, like an earthquake at their feet, and loud as the interior of a thunderhead.
Many were certain to die.
And it brought to mind, for Lewis, neither stories of brutality and heroism, nor questions about violence and peace. It brought to mind, instead, questions of what makes human life good, and when one ought to pursue that good:
“I think it important to try to see the present calamity in a true perspective,” said Lewis. “The war creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it.”
“Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself.”
“If [we] had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until [we] were secure the search would never have begun.”
“We are mistaken when we compare war with ‘normal life’. Life has never been normal.”
Lewis is most certainly NOT saying that life is just like war anyway, so what’s the difference; nor is he saying that life ought to carry on as though the impending destruction of war were something to ignore. He is, rather, asking questions specifically about whether one should stay in university if the country were at war; and more generally about the pursuit of the true, and the beautiful, even when we are under great duress.
His answer is yes, we pursue the true and the beautiful, even in wartime.
For Lewis himself, it would mean taking children from London under his roof in Oxford; it would mean visiting RAF stations to speak on his faith; it would mean giving the wartime BBC addresses on Christianity to a London under air raids; it would mean serving in Oxford’s Home Guard.
It did not though, mean giving up on teaching, reading, and writing, as a Fellow and Tutor in English Literature at Magdalen College, Oxford.
And he said as much to that nave full of students and academics gathered at St. Mary the Virgin, on the inside edge of war. We are not advised to postpone the search for what is good, for knowledge and beauty, until we are fully secure in life.
Otherwise the search would never have begun.
We carry on, always, from where we are—which is often a place of insecurity, and at a time of not knowing what the future will hold.
There are certain advantages to learning the lessons that wartime would teach us. Because we are, in truth, probably not at that great a distance from the sorts social and economic disruptions that the United Kingdom was about to face; and if I were to be honest, I’m partly motivated to do some Christian reflection on the pursuit of the good from the perspective of imminent disruption, because while we may not be facing war, it’s very likely that we are facing the sorts of conditions that are quite possibly just as, and possibly even more disruptive to our common life, than war was for Lewis in 1939.
The predictions about climate change are not simply about the weather; even slowly arrested climate change will disrupt many of our most basic relations, as economic, political, and social institutions come under stress.
And so speculatively, I wonder how close we might be to the same sorts of existential questions faced by Lewis, and the members of Oxford University gathered at St. Mary the Virgin, for Evensong in 1939.
What might we learn from wartime reflections like that of Lewis? We would begin to wonder, I would think: what sort of a humanity do we live for? What do we think is worth keeping? What truly allows humanity to thrive? Is it possible to fight something, but to lose all the things worth fighting for in the process? Just how much ought existential and social duress affect our pursuit of the good, the true, and the beautiful?
In a similar vein to Lewis I would suggest neither ignoring the reality we face, nor allowing it to crowd out all of what is good.
Perhaps though, we would say—to learn this particular lesson from war— That our stresses “[create] no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it.”
That “[h]uman life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself.”
And that “If [we] […] postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until [we] were secure the search would [never begin].”
And so, even as we would see, and address our own particular precipice, we would still have a responsibility to pursue the truth, and to seek out beauty. And so it might be that the church, as it responds to the possibility of our own impending cataclysm, that we would most certainly act appropriately, but we would also pursue the truth of God’s place in all this.
And just as importantly, the church would not lose sight of beauty, either—and so we would read poetry; and we would sing most beautifully.
For us, this would perhaps be what we in this time, and this place, would learn from war. That we would be well advised to keep at hand and in mind, even now, those most humanizing of endeavors: the pursuit of truth and the discovery of beauty.
And to extend Lewis’s thoughts on life on the precipice: as Christians we would remember to place our pursuit of the truth and the discovery of beauty where it most appropriately belongs—in the worship of the God of truth, the God of beauty, and for us, the worship God of grace—even in the middle of the real possibility of impending upheaval.
We would worship the God who would restore Israel to its temple after its destruction, the God who would restore all the world to himself in the death and resurrection of his Son, we would worship the Christ Jesus who rules over all the nations at the right hand of God. The Lord who would shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land; the Lord who would shake all the nations, so that the treasure of all nations would come to Him, the Lord who will fill this house with splendour.
The same Lord Jesus Christ, and God our Father, who loves us, and through grace gives us eternal comfort and the good hope that our hearts might not only be comforted, but that we might be strengthened in every good work … and word.
The Revd Dr Preston DS Parsons