War is all around us indeed. The lives of millions of people are in jeopardy each and every day, and often for reasons they do not even know about. But their earthly lives are not the greatest problem, according to CS Lewis. In his essay “Learning in War-Time,” Lewis reminds us that each person holds a piece of eternity within them, an never-ending spirit that will live on either in heaven or in hell, and that is the real tragedy of war. Death without the knowledge of God leads to eternal damnation, and the premature death of a non-believing soldier in wartime is thus infinitely tragic and eternally sentenced.
As Lewis draws our attention to this tragedy, he draws us also to think about our own situation as students and scholars outside of this war. He raises a throbbing and uncomfortable question: Should we really be studying literature and history and biology when death is at our doorstep? Is a useful, worthwhile use of time? Should we not use every effort make to stop these wars and this death and witness to the ones who are not yet saved? The answer would seem to automatically be “Yes, we are filling our heads with knowledge and savoir-faire, but this ought to be secondary in our list of priorities; our utmost priority is to serve our suffering brethren.”
This reaction is not necessarily wrong, but as Lewis sees it, it cannot be the entire response. Yes, we need to practice service, especially to those whose life might depend on it. And yes, this ought to be a very high priority in our lives. But the fact of the matter is that we cannot give what we do not have; we cannot expect to be of much real help if we do not know what “real help” looks like or how it is administered. As Lewis and Plantinga both say, learning is one of our godly callings in life, and through it we draw closer to Christ and His Word, and so we have a strong duty to learn. As Lewis so cleverly points out, we would never start learning if we waited until all the ailments of the earth were purged. With this knowledge, we can then go out into the tormented world and be of real assistance: nurses on the battlefields, diplomats between warring nations, aid workers in the slums torn by poverty and violence. Through such learned service, we can then attempt to witness to these people and work on their spiritual life, but we will be far more affective if we know how to do it and do not simply want to do it.
Learning, however, does come with a warning. As Lewis says, if you are so self-absorbed by your learning and abilities, then the time has come to “pluck out your right eye.” When learning becomes an idol, it is void of any value to anyone other than the detainer. The slippery slope of self-adoration and narcissism is fatal, and leads to inaction and wasting of skill, which God certainly did not intend.