Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Learning in War Time

       Those who are familiar with the writings of C. S. Lewis will remember that he wrote an essay with this title.  They may not remember that it was included in the book, The Weight of Glory, which contains several other fine essays of his.  In that essay, which I will not quote here, he makes a persuasive case that if a Christian finds himself in a time of general war (at the time of his writing, the Second World War), and wonders if the pursuit of learning can be justified in such a time (he was thinking of formal institutional learning at a university such as Oxford), the answer is still yes.  And certainly, I agree.

       I have chosen this title for a slightly different reason.  Granted that the normal, common ways of scholarly learning are an entirely legitimate activity on the part of anybody, in war time as in peace time, is there any aspect of learning that might be especially important to a person who loves his country, when his country is at war?  For we live in just such a time.

       I propose that the following might be important to such a person, myself included:

       1.  Let us learn the ways of peace.  What is peace?  Why do the Hebrew prophets style the Christ as the Prince of Peace?  What are the aspirations of Hebraic shalom and Arabic salaam, both of them ancient and authoritative words for peace?   Are these empty ideals, or even cynical hypocrisies, or do they embody genuine anticipations shared by mortal men, and perhaps by God Himself?  Are they reserved for a future world, or are they to be desired now?  Is there some way, or ways, by which peace -- which certainly includes absence of war -- may be achieved or received?

       2.  Let us learn from our country's history.    Has our nation sought peace -- sometimes, usually, always?  Have we had conspicuous leaders, either inside or outside of government, who have pointed our nation toward peace?  What are their names?  What did they do, or what did they attempt to do?  How successful were they?  Were they opposed by other leaders, either inside or outside of government?  What were their names, and what did they do?  Have there been times when the citizens have been more warlike, and the nation's leadership more moderate?  Have there been times when these sentiments have been reversed?  In our nation's history, which wars have been the "just wars," and which have not?  Does either kind exact a price?  How has our national history led to our current situation?

       3.  Let us learn from human nature.  By any and all means -- diligent research,  personal experience, and whatever other ways we can find -- let us learn as much as we can about people of other cultures, and how they think.  It might be especially good to converse with those with whom we are now on good terms, but were formerly bitter enemies of ours:  Cherokees, Iroquois, Seminoles, Sioux, British,  Mexican, Southerners, Spanish, Filipino, German, Italian, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese,  Cuban, Libyan, Iranian, Iraqi, Afghan.  What are the beliefs and behaviors of their kings and warlords?  Their sages and prophets?  The common people?

       4.  Let us examine our personal motives.  What motivates us -- you and me -- either to peace or to war?  Nearly forty years ago, the Protestant theologian Francis Schaeffer warned that Americans might come to a time when we were motivated merely by a desire for personal peace and affluence.  Was he happily wrong, or was he unfortunately right?

       5.  Let us deeply consider our spirituality.   Almost thirty years ago, in the very depths of the Cold War, the eminent author and Soviet exile, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who had boldly attested to the importance of direct spiritual experience in his own life, warned the intelligentsia of the West that they had "rashly and self confidently pushed away" the "warm hand of God . . . There is nothing else to cling to in the landslide."  Does this dangerous self-delusion of which he spoke only apply to the professional intellectual, or has it filtered down in some measure to the rest of us?   Does your religious tradition urge you, as the Holy Scriptures do, to seek and find the deepest personal experiences of the Holy Spirit's loving power?  Might this contribute not only to your personal peace, but radiate outward from you in some effective and magnificent way?

       6. Here is a meditation from the Hundred Twentieth Psalm.

"I call on the LORD in my distress,
     and he answers me.
Save me, LORD,
     from lying lips,
     and from deceitful tongues.

"What will he do to you,
     and what more besides,
     you deceitful tongue?
He will punish you with a warrior's sharp arrows,
     with burning coals of the broom brush.

"Woe to me that I dwell in Meshek,
     that I live among the tents of Kedar!
Too long have I lived
     among those who hate peace.
I am for peace;
     but when I speak, they are for war."

       This might be the beginning of a good personal syllabus for learning in war time.

*       *       *

       You may enjoy this link to a commentary on C. S. Lewis's essay.

       As always, comments are most welcome, whether pro or con.  Let us learn together.


  1. Great post, Robert. Thanks for putting these thoughts out now. I just hope we don't have to learn things the hard way. Again.... And thanks for bringin shalom back to my mind.

  2. Excellent post. I think we have an absolute responsibility to learn in these areas. Waging war, needless to say, is about as weighty as it gets. If we as individuals have any say on our wars, we ought to fully educate ourselves about them. Points 5 and 6 are particularly good.

  3. Reading this post a bit late, Robert. But here's another one for you. Remember Chaplin's movie The Great Dictator?
    In the beginning when he dances with a globe, he sings -

    All I want is just peace,
    Just a little peace.

    A little piece of Russia,
    A little piece of France
    A little piece of India,
    And Pakistan perchance.

    I wonder sometimes, whether your foreign office means - peace or piece