By Chandler Wiley
On September 1, 1939, Adolf Hitler invaded Poland sparking World War II. Not two months later, on October 22, 1939, C. S. Lewis, the renowned British thinker and theologian, addressed a crowd of Oxford University students at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin. The title of the address was “Learning in War Time.” Apparently, the undergraduate students at Oxford were struggling with the idea of continuing their studies while their peers were being sent off to war. Lewis’ address was meant to encourage the students to press on in their studies until such a time that they were, themselves, called to war.
Currently, the United States of America and the entire world, for that matter, finds itself fighting a sort of war. The enemy is a common threat shared amongst all – regardless of status, race, or nationality. The threat is a virus, a new virus dubbed COVID-19.
How do we go on living, learning and growing as a community and culture when the ripples of invasion threaten all that we know and hold dear? C. S. Lewis encouraged the students at Oxford to avoid three different enemies while they continued to study during war time. I believe we, today, could learn from Lewis’ advice and avoid these enemies as we fight our common threat today.
First, Lewis called on the students to avoid the enemy of excitement. What he meant was that WWII seemed to create an unprecedented situation where all of life was undone. However, Lewis in his book “The Weight of Glory and Other Address”reminded the students that “favorable conditions never come.” While the pandemic is unique, there will always be various enemies and threats to life: sickness, broken relationships, forced career changes, and the list goes on. Therefore, Lewis encouraged the students to do the best they could with the situation and stay committed to their studies. We avoid the fear of excitement by reminding ourselves that COVID-19 will not be the last threat to our community. We must press on together.
Second, Lewis called on the students to avoid the enemy of frustration. Many of the Oxford students had been frustrated that their goals, plans, and pursuits were totally upended by Germany’s invasion of Poland. All that they had been hoping for had been frustrated. Lewis encouraged the students to change their perspective; instead of focusing on the future, he taught them to focus more on the present. “Never in peace or war,” Lewis said, “commit your virtue or your happiness to the future.” Many of us have seen our future plans upended – plans for graduations, careers, retirements, vacations, and on and on – but it would be wise to hold our future plans more lightly and commit the bulk of our energy to the present. In reality, the present is all we have.
Third, and finally, Lewis argued that the students studying in war time needed to avoid the enemy of fear. Lewis said that war changes the way we think of death, which, in turn, creates fear. Lewis, in “The Weight of Glory,” said war “forces us to remember [death].” The pandemic has given us a reality check, as well. COVID-19 has not increased our chances of dying. 100 percent of the population dies. What the pandemic has done, though, is brought death to the forefront and forced us to remember it. Grappling with the certainty of death can be crippling. As we strive to defeat the enemy of excitement and of frustration, what can we possibly do to cope with the enemy of fear of death?
Surely different strategies have been offered for how to cope with fear, but, being that death is the ultimate enemy, not fear, I would argue that it is death that needs to be slayed. Fear is simply a symptom of the greater enemy.
In “The Weight of Glory,” Lewis said, “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.”You see, Lewis and the ancient Christians all knew that death, the great fear generator, had been defeated. The downfall of death happened just over two-thousand years ago when Jesus Christ, the Savior of the World – with all its wars and pandemics – was raised up from the grave. Now, Jesus Christ, the only remedy for fear and the only Victor over death welcomes all individuals regardless of social status, race or nationality to come to Him and, in faith, find life eternal.
St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:54-56).
We fight a common threat and face three distinct enemies. We can defeat the enemy of excitement by knowing COVID-19 will not be the last threat. We can upend the enemy of frustration by focusing more of our energy on the present. But we can only defeat the enemy of fear by coming to know death’s downfall, Jesus Christ.
Chandler Wiley is pastor of Emmaus Anglican Church, a new church in Maricopa. He lives in Maricopa.