There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books. Thus I have found as a tutor in English Literature that if the average student wants to find out something about Platonism, the very last thing he thinks of doing is to take a translation of Plato off the library shelf and read the Symposium. He would rather read some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about “isms” and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said…
This mistaken preference for the modern books and this shyness of the old ones is nowhere more rampant than in theology. Wherever you find a little study circle of Christian laity you can be almost certain that they are studying not St. Luke or St. Paul or St. Augustine or Thomas Aquinas or Hooker or Butler, but M. Berdyaev or M. Maritain or M. Niebuhr or Miss Sayers or even myself.~C.S. Lewis, Introduction to On the Incarnation by Saint Athanasius
This is a guest post by my good friend Adam King. Adam King is a husband, father, student at Liberty University Divinity School, Army officer, ordained by Grace Bible Church, and is directing his life toward pastoral ministry. He likes spending time with family, coffee, good discussion with friends, books, and cooking.
“In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb. “How are we to live in an atomic age?” I am tempted to reply: “Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.” In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways.
We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors—anesthetics; but we have that still. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty. This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.”~C.S. Lewis, “On Living in an Atomic Age” (1948) in Present Concerns: Journalistic Essays
C.S. Lewis is often called a prophet. It is clear just from this passage alone that what gives Lewis the quality of a prophet is his understanding that “there is nothing new under the sun.” He recommends that we all read old books so that we do not make the same mistakes that our ancestors have made, and that two heads are better than one because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. Here the clear sea breeze of the past sweeps through and gives us a strong reminder for today.
Our situation in the coronavirus pandemic is not new, and in fact we all have an appointment with death, and since we all have that appointment, we should all be doing “sensible human things.” However, there is something to be reminded of in moments like these. Let this pandemic be a reminder that we are on a sinking ship, and if our hope is only in this life then we of all species are to be pitied most. I mean, that if there is nothing eternal outside this life, and we, having accidently become aware of our situation, are tempted to assign meaning to our truly meaningless life, then “eat and drink for tomorrow we die.”
I am a believer in a more hopeful answer.
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 men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure the search would never have begun. We are mistaken when we compare war with “normal life”. Life has never been normal.
~CS Lewis, Learning in Wartime
C.S. Lewis answering the question- which of the world’s religions is most likely to give it’s followers the greatest happiness:
Which of the religions of the world gives to its followers the greatest happiness? While it lasts, the religion of worshipping oneself is the best.
I have an elderly acquaintance of about eighty, who has lived a life of unbroken selfishness and self-admiration from the earliest years, and is, more or less, I regret to say, one of the happiest men I know. From the moral point of view it is very difficult! I am not approaching the question from that angle. As you perhaps know, I haven’t always been a Christian. I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity. I am certain there must be a patent American article on the market which will suit you far better, but I can’t give any advice on it. (God in the Dock p.58)
Perhaps our problem is that we often consider happiness and comfort to be synonymous. On this way of thinking, my pursuit of happiness boils down to something like, ‘do what feels good.’ This is how you trip over your own happiness and stumble into an existential hangover.
What if, as Lewis recommended elsewhere, we look beyond what lies ‘under the sun’?
“We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at sea. We are far too easily pleased.” (Weight of Glory)
The first quotation shows that our view of what constitutes happiness can be shallow and banal. The second reminds us that our pleasures are echoes of a greater reality spoken of by the Apostle:
“For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” (2 Cor. 4:17-18 ESV)
Far too easily pleased indeed.