The Thomistic Challenge of C.S. Lewis’s Sermon “Learning in War-time”

Any Christian who aspires to be a student faces two great temptations: the belief that their studies must “add up” to something or that their creative power, either to redescribe or to expose and “deconstruct,” is absolute. Often these two go together! C.S. Lewis’s spirited defence of the intellectual life in his address “Learning in War-Time” provides a contrasting vision. Many Christians have found in it a source of tremendous joy and freedom. The English don wrote as an “ordinary layman of the Church of England.” Many of his readers identify with him as a member of a Reformation church and as someone interested in the recovery of classical or “mere” Christianity from that perspective. Yet Lewis’s own outlook is very broad as concerns reformational commitments; his vision in this essay of the intellectual life for the Christian is attractive in no small measure because he refuses to make distinctions along reformational party lines. Rather, he distinguishes between classical Christianity and the spirit of modernity. In this essay readers can thrill to an intellectual and cultural outlook rooted in an ancient commonplace and given Christian expression in the high Middle Ages. The resources of the Christian tradition held in common give contemporary Christians the rationale one sometimes needs to pursue the intellectual life without distraction. They point one to practices in which we resonate with the life-giving joy of a universe sustained by a Word from God, free likewise from the bonds of grim utility and the weightlessness of the arbitrary imposition of creative will.

“Learning in War-time”
C.S. Lewis is no stranger to many Christian students, though some of my own have reported jadedness over the years through sheer over-exposure (to which the recent disneyfication of Lewis may contribute). Nonetheless, Lewis continues to be important and familiarity with him crosses confessional divides. When I was doing a talk for a group of Catholic high school students recently, I was pleased and a little surprised to discover how many of them read him, evidently with some enthusiasm. He continues to be popular among various Protestant groups as well. Interest in Lewis is apparent on a more academic level, too. One prominent theologian, John Milbank, has remarked how French Catholics today have a great appreciation of British figures like George Macdonald, G.K. Chesterton, and the Inklings, of which Lewis was a member (“The New Divide,” Modern Theology 26 (2010), 38n20). He has identified a shift in theological emphasis away from liberalism to what he calls “romantic orthodoxy.” (I have discussed this essay in an earlier posting on this website and will draw on Milbank’s work below.) Lewis’s sermon resonates in this new theological environment, which is at the same time  anti-foundational and postmodern (or even post)postmodern.

“Learning in War-Time” offers great encouragement for Christians involved in any field related to the study of culture.  Lewis is tremendously affirming of what students who undertake the liberal arts do; he frees them from the need to justify their actions when they study. The reader can discern this message early in the essay. I quote at length from the fourth paragraph (this fourteen-paragraph essay being readily accessed online, I will cite by paragraphs for ease of reference):

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. But humanity long ago chose to neglect those plausible reasons. They wanted knowledge and beauty now, and would not wait for the suitable moment that never comes. Periclean Athens leaves us not only the Parthenon but, significantly, the Funeral Oration. The insects have chosen a different line: they have sought first the material welfare and security of the hive, and presumably they have their reward. Men are different. They propound mathematical theorems in beleaguered cities, conduct metaphysical arguments in condemned cells, make jokes on scaffolds, discuss the last new poem while advancing to the walls of Quebec, and comb their hair at Thermopylae. This is not panache it is our nature.

The context preceding this passage addresses the potential difficulty the Christian may have in justifying cultural activities, not only in wartime but also in light of the realities of heaven and hell. How can one engage in cultural pursuits when people are going to hell? Lewis’s answer is simply that engaging in culture is part of who we are. In so saying, he is repeating a sentiment voiced by the great churchman John Henry Newman in the nineteenth century. The studies in a liberal arts university are liberal because they are for enjoyment. They are not for a utilitarian purpose. They have value in and of themselves; they express what it means to be human.

One question that comes immediately to mind is, Do we do something just because it’s “natural.” Do we think, “If it feels good, do it?” Lewis anticipates this objection. In the very next paragraph he reminds his audience that “since we are fallen creatures, the fact that this is now our nature would not, by itself, prove that it is rational or right.” Lewis is being a bit cagey here. His argument is about to break off into two levels: on the lower level, he definitely does not want his audience to rely solely on the natural because that will lead one directly into modernity, represented for Lewis by the cultural sentiments of Matthew Arnold. This nineteenth-century man of letters, the son of a clergyman, lost his faith and replaced it with culture, embuing it with its own inherent spiritual value. He cut culture off from real transcendence and made it the spiritual expression of our natural selves. (Besides C.S. Lewis, two people who have written eloquently about what’s wrong with Arnold’s position are David Lyle Jeffrey, in an article on “Western Literature” in the Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, and Charles Taylor, in A Secular Age.) For his part, Lewis writes, “I reject at once an idea which lingers in the mind of some modern people that cultural activities are in their own right spiritual and meritorious” (para. 9). One cannot pull oneself up by one’s own bootstraps.

Yet there is a second level on which Lewis engages the question of nature. We return to the idea of combing our hair at Thermopylae: cultural activity is simply something we engage in as part of our nature. Lewis’s main point is that “There is no essential quarrel between the spiritual life and…human activities as such” (para. 8); or, a little earlier in the same paragraph, “Christianity does not simply replace our natural life and substitute a new one; it is rather a new organisation which exploits, to its own supernatural ends, these natural materials” (para. 8). The “natural” and “supernatural” flow into one another in these formulations. Especially in the latter quotation, Lewis cites “natural life,” “supernatural ends,” and then “natural materials” to embody in his discourse the relationship between them. Lewis is referring to and embodying stylistically a continuum between the realms of nature and of grace.

Although Lewis importantly gestures towards the role of the will, the need to offer our activities to God, it is the relationship between nature and grace itself that organizes the discussion. Lewis focuses on the mystery of this continuum in the next long paragraph, after dispensing withArnold: “I mean the pursuit of knowledge and beauty, in a sense, for their own sake, but in a sense which does not exclude their being for God’s sake” (para. 9). Despite his easy, conversational prose, Lewis is doing hard work and one can sense the growing sense of paradox. To follow Lewis’s argument one must take absolutely seriously the idea of knowledge and beauty being, in a sense, for their own sake. He offers an attractive summary, though not exactly a respite from tension: “An appetite for these things exists in the human mind, and God makes no appetite in vain” (para. 9). Here again the two-way flow presents itself. Lewis starts out with the natural plane, the appetite in the mind, an appetite for something for its own sake, still on the natural plane (though “appetite” in this context also suggests ongoing, Godward desire). At the same time, Lewis reminds his audience that the appetite is God-given, God-initiated, a flow downward. Then we’re back on our own, as it were, acting naturally: “We can therefore pursue knowledge as such, and beauty as such, in the sure confidence that by doing so we are either advancing to the vision of God ourselves or indirectly helping others to do so” (para. 9). That vision of God, the beatific vision, can only be achieved by grace. We are reminded of Lewis’s earlier language: “supernatural ends.”

Lewis’s argument culminates here. He summarizes it as the teleological argument – “the existence of the impulse and the faculty prove that they must have a proper function in God’s scheme” (para. 9). Almost in passing, he refers to the great scholastic theologian Thomas Aquinas as an exemplar of this way of thinking. In this context the teleological argument is an anti-foundational affirmation of nature as God-given, and the reference to Thomas reminds us of the pre-modern worldview in which Lewis is steeped. The attractiveness of his cultural apologetic depends upon the manifold ancient resources of the Christian tradition brought to bear upon the thinness of the modern conception of culture.

I want to put Lewis’s understanding of the nature-grace question into this historical context, in keeping with his point that “we need intimate knowledge of the past” (para. 10). (I’m not going to say much about the closing section of “Learning in War-time,” though it has fine pastoral advice on how students might confront the distractions, frustrations, and fears that can beset a scholar. I highly recommend it.) I want to explore the richness of the paradox of the natural having value in and of itself, yet being utterly dependent on the supernatural for its own finality, by meditating on a small cluster of theological ideas that involve rival interpretations of Thomas Aquinas.

C.S. Lewis’s paradoxical understanding of the relationship between nature and grace in “Learning in War-time” can be illuminated by his comments elsewhere. In his volume for the Oxford History of English Literature, Lewis explains the worldview of the sixteenth-century Anglican divine Richard Hooker. Throughout his discussion, Lewis stresses how much weight the sixteenth-century figure puts on the natural world in and of itself. He then offers this important qualification:

From what I have already said it might be inferred that the unconscious tendency of his mind was to secularise. There could be no deeper mistake. Few model universes are more filled – one might say, drenched – with Deity than his. “All things that are of God,” and only sin is not, “have God in them and they in him likewise, and yet their substance and his are wholly different.” God is unspeakably transcendent; but also unspeakably immanent. (Lewis, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, excluding drama 460).

A strong trinitarian-incarnational theology, combined with a high view of the destiny of saved humanity, allowed Hooker to focus on nature. This is why, in the quotation, Lewis thinks the reader might infer that Hooker was inclined to secularise. If modern readers do not feel that pull, that possible misunderstanding, then they will be unable to understand how fully Hooker, and Lewis (and others, such as Newman) embrace the natural world for its own sake. A world so drenched in Deity that one can focus on it in and of itself because all things are of God might induce one to entertain the heretical idea of pantheism. It must be rejected not in deference to Cartesian modernism but for a more paradoxical reason, because God is both unspeakably transcendent and unspeakably immanent.

This theology depends upon trinitarianism. The early church worked out the understanding that the trinitarian God contained within himself a fullness of dynamic relationality. Yet the nature of the trinity and of God’s self-revelation in Christ meant that he was simultaneously free to be present in creation as well. The roots of a free inquiry into the world for its own sake, because to trace the movements of creation is somehow to enjoy the very being of God, take hold in this soil. One Eastern Orthodox theologian, David Bentley Hart, calls this period of unfolding doctrine “The Christian Invention of the Human.” Christian humanism stems from its unique understanding of the relationship between Creator God and his creation.

The paradoxical relationship between nature and grace flowing from this theology has been explored in a variety of ways. Rowan Williams, whom I have suggested in a separate posting models a cultural apologetic in keeping with the spirit of Lewis, offers this description:

God makes a world in which created processes have their own integrity, so that they do not need God’s constant direct intervention to be themselves. At a deeper level…the integrity of a created process will, if pursued honestly and systematically, be open to God’s purposes. (Grace and Necessity 9)

He ventures into these waters in describing the Thomistic theology of Jacques Maritain. Created processes, the realm of nature, has its own integrity, yet they are not utterly separate from God’s purposes.

Another theologian standing in the Anglican tradition, John Milbank, has also explored the tension. Like Williams, he has been interested in the recovery of a particular interpretation of nature and grace in Thomas Aquinas by mid-twentieth-century Catholics. Milbank puts the tension this way:

The natural desire [for supernatural finality] cannot be frustrated, yet it cannot of itself be fulfilled. Human nature in its self-exceeding seems in justice to require a gift – yet the gift of grace remains beyond all justice and all requirement. This paradox is to be entertained because one must remember that the just requirement for the gift in humanity is itself a created gift. (Suspended Middle 30)

This is the way we have been made, for communion with God in love and freedom. It involves a connection that is nonetheless beyond human capacity to grasp it.

Thomas lays out the environment of participatory theology this way:

The First Cause is above being (ens) insofar as it is the infinite act of being itself (ipsum esse infinitum). That which finitely participates the act of being (esse), however, is called a being (ens), and this is commensurate with our intellect, whose object is an essence (quod quid est). Thus, only something that possesses an essence which participates in the act of being (esse) is graspable by our intellect; but Gods essence is God’s very act of being, and thus God transcends understanding. (Thomas, Super librum De causis 6.175, cited in Gregory Rocca, Speaking the Incomprehensible God 38-9)

Thomas teaches that God is at once above being and the “infinite act of being itself.” When we as creatures know, we grasp the essence of a being; however, we cannot know the act of being itself and therefore cannot understand God, who is pure act.

We have innately a desire to transcend ourselves, to respond to a gift already given. We find that we cannot be human, let alone fully human, without a supernatural going beyond. The paradox here is that such a “going beyond” would seem to denigrate being “merely human” (to borrow a word Lewis made famous). Indeed, traditional interpretation of Thomas has been at pains to preserve just such a self-contained understanding of being human:

For the first time, the neoscholastics argued, it is clearly allowed by Aquinas and his contemporaries that there is an autonomous natural sphere comprising all of human activity outside the order of salvation. In this way, intrinsic human dignity and autonomy is allowed to emerge, while conversely and concomitantly the true gratuity of grace stands out…. (Milbank, Suspended Middle 20)

Such an understanding accentuates the separation between the spheres of nature and of grace, even if one insists that they do somehow come together (e.g. to effect salvation). Yet it does not do justice to the paradoxical relationship between them. Milbank, like Williams, and like the Catholics they engage, wants to recover a more mystical understanding of their interrelationship. In this more radical understanding of Thomism, the grace of God is intrinsic to our make up. We were made for supernatural completion. There is no true nature without such finality.

Such an emphasis on completion depends on teleology, which as we have seen figures prominently in Lewis’s address. The idea of a self-contained nature, or separate realm of grace, militates against a teleological understanding of being. The development of a notion of discrete nature coincides with a conception of being in terms of a minimal or essential core. Shortly after Thomas wrote, the prevailing intellectual outlook began to shift:

the notion of a purely natural end only becomes plausible when the very idea of teleology has started to lose its sway…. The ‘natural’ mode of being of a creature began to be thought of in terms not of its normative maximum flourishing, but its minimum self-sustainability…. (Milbank, Suspended Middle 20-21)

In a Thomistic vein that truly incorporates the teleological dimension, there can be no human activity that is entirely natural, no ethics, no politics, no philosophy that does not also require the grace of God for understanding what it is in and of itself. In this way, the pursuit of learning for its own sake which nonetheless leads to the vision of God. As Lewis said of Hooker’s system, “All good things, reason as well as revelation, nature as well as grace, the commonwealth as well as the Church, are equally, though diversely, ‘of God’” (English Literature 460).

While Lewis’s theology displays a well-developed trinitarianism, it is nonetheless not entirely clear how much Lewis aligned himself with the recovery of a mystical interpretation of the relationship between nature and grace. Paul Fiddes has argued in an important chapter in the Cambridge Companion to C.S. Lewis that the Englishman shows some ambivalence in his theology on this point. I quote Fiddes at length (who himself quotes Lewis in the process):

At base, then, we are catching the new life by being caught up into the dance of the Trinity. As we take our place in the dance, we come close to a “great fountain of energy and beauty spurting up at the very centre of reality,” and we are bound to become wet with its spray. But then, another question arises: how do we get into this dance? Lewis answers that it is by sharing in Christ’s life, and then explains this participation in activist terms of “laying ourselves open” or “handing over our whole self to Christ” or “shoving back” all our own wishes and hopes at the beginning of each day, in order to let the new life “rush in.” Is it possible to say more about the act of God in drawing us in or “infecting” us? Many modern theologians will want to affirm that all human beings are by their creation already immersed into the triune life, already participating in the dance of the threefold personal God. (“On theology” 100, emphasis his)

On the one hand we seem to benefit from and participate in the life of the Trinity. On the other, we have to choose to lay ourselves open. We observed this very ambiguity in “Learning in War-time,” where Lewis talks on the one hand of a natural appetite leading to the beatific vision and on the other of the need to offer our service to God. Yet Lewis’s affirmation of teleology in the sermon suggests the “already” emphasised by Fiddes.

Modern Christians, students or otherwise, who wish to combine a sensitivity to culture with theological faithfulness sometimes err in treating the cultural object as a given, as if ambiguity and mystery belong to aesthetics defined by secular humanism. To cede this givenness is to engage in aesthetic theology rather than theological aesthetics. Some would-be apologists unwittingly commit the Arnoldian error of thinking culture to be the spiritual dimension of an impenetrable naturalism. Christian cultural apologetics does not involve arbitrary redescription in theological terms or the acceptance of culture as a substitute spirituality. It depends rather on an engagement of the theological mystery of supernatural finality that enables all things to be themselves. In this way the student can resist anxieties about the usefulness of his or her studies or the temptation to consider their work to be only the self-indulgent imposition of their creative will.

Norm Klassen
St Jerome’s University

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