How Should We Then Live In a Time of War?
Just how should believers live in times of crisis?
How we live in peacetime is often quite different from how we live in wartime. How people were living in Ukraine a few years ago for example was quite different from how most are living today, with their homes being destroyed, their very way of life put on hold, and many millions being forced to flee the country.
I have often spoken about these matters in terms of the Christian life. Especially during these dark days where the faith is under such sustained attack and where the culture wars seem to be threatening the very existence of the church, we need to think about living in times of war. As I said in one piece in this regard:
In a time of war not everyone stays true. Many surrender, or go over to the other side, or go AWOL. And individual believers risk doing the same thing. In the battles we face today there is no place for sitting on the fence, or trying to stay in the middle of the road.
When warfare is all around us, the only proper response is to engage in the battle. With faith, freedom and family all at risk, this is no time for business as usual. This is not the time to live a normal life. It certainly is not a time to have the fear of man, or a time to seek to please men. Let’s try pleasing God instead, even if it means ruffling a few feathers. https://billmuehlenberg.com/2017/03/22/wartime-not-business-usual/
And one quote I have often used to ram home this point is also worth repeating here. In a 2014 essay called “A Time for Heroism” American Catholic philosopher Melissa Moschella said this:
Perhaps there are times and places in the history of the world in which it is possible to go through life as just an ordinary, good person—a faithful spouse, a loving parent, a concerned citizen, a regular church-goer, an honest and industrious professional—leading a normal, quiet life, not making waves or standing out in any way. Perhaps. But the United States of America in the year 2014 is not one of those times and places. Rather, in our contemporary society, the only way to be good is to be heroic. Failing to act with heroism inevitably makes us complicit in grave evils.
I of course still agree with all those sentiments that I have so often shared. But there is another way that Christians can look at all this. It is perhaps more accurate to say that we are in a state of warfare not just during times of great crisis or upheaval, or when the days are getting especially dark and evil, but ALWAYS.
That is, the Christian will always be in a state of war with the world around him, with the powers of darkness, and with this present evil age. Sure, sometimes the battles seem more intense than other times, but the Christian is never fully living in peacetime.
Even when most of the surrounding culture was Christian or at least fairly sympathetic to Christianity, the true Christian was always a bit of a misfit in this world. Indeed, we will never fully be at home here. We will always be in some sort of warfare – certainly always spiritual warfare.
Thus the practical question is this: how should we then live? When Christians are being heavily persecuted, rounded up into prison camps, and being killed, such a question takes on real urgency and significance. But we always need to be asking these sorts of questions.
And the issue is, do we just drop everything we are doing, head for the hills, and prepare for the end of the world? Or do we just go on living more or less normal lives, but with an eye always on eternity, and an awareness that this is not really our home, and battles will always be with us?
Christians can take differing approaches here. Some simply pull out of the world altogether, either to live as monks or as end-time survivalists. But some Christians live as if there is no war going on, and have very happily made themselves quite at home in this world.
Somewhere in between these extremes might be the biblical way to proceed. And to help me discuss this further, I once again simply draw upon the insights and great wisdom of English academic and Christian apologist C. S. Lewis. As Europe was facing the onset of war in 1939, Lewis preached a sermon in the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Oxford.
With many other academics and students in attendance, the issue of how we should now live was certainly a pressing concern for all those present. So Lewis entitled his address, “Learning in War-Time”. What the academic community was thinking about learning while on the verge of total war was a most pressing matter indeed. Lewis gave those in attendance some very helpful advice. He opened his address with these words:
A university is a society for the pursuit of learning. As students, you will be expected to make yourselves, or to start making yourselves, into what the Middle Ages called clerks: into philosophers, scientists, scholars, critics, or historians. And at first sight this seems to be an odd thing to do during a great war. What is the use of beginning a task which we have so little chance of finishing? Or, even if we ourselves should happen not to be interrupted by death or military service, why should we–indeed how can we–continue to take an interest in these placid occupations when the lives of our friends and the liberties of Europe are in the balance? Is it not like fiddling while Rome burns?
Now it seems to me that we shall not be able to answer these questions until we have put them by the side of certain other questions which every Christian ought to have asked himself in peace-time….
[E]very Christian who comes to a university must at all times face a question compared with which the questions raised by the war are relatively unimportant. He must ask himself how it is right, or even psychologically possible, for creatures who are every moment advancing either to heaven or to hell, to spend any fraction of the little time allowed them in this world on such comparative trivialities as literature or art, mathematics or biology. If human culture can stand up to that, it can stand up to anything. To admit that we can retain our interest in learning under the shadow of these eternal issues, but not under the shadow of a European war, would be to admit that our ears are closed to the voice of reason and very wide open to the voice of our nerves and our mass emotions.
This indeed is the case with most of us: certainly with me. For that reason I think it important to try to see the present calamity in a true perspective. The war creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. 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. Even those periods which we think most tranquil, like the nineteenth century, turn out, on closer inspection, to be full of crises, alarms, difficulties, emergencies. 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.
He quotes the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 10:31: “Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God” and goes on to say this:
All our merely natural activities will be accepted, if they are offered to God, even the humblest: and all of them, even the noblest, will be sinful if they are not. Christianity does not simply replace our natural life and substitute a new one: it is rather a new organization which exploits, to its own supernatural ends, these natural materials. . . . The work of a Beethoven, and the work of a charwoman, become spiritual on precisely the same condition, that of being offered to God, of being done humbly “as to the Lord”.
As to how all this applies to education he said the following:
If all the world were Christian, it might not matter if all the world were uneducated. But, as it is, a cultural life will exist outside the Church whether it exists inside or not. To be ignorant and simple now–not to be able to meet the enemies on their own ground–would be to throw down our weapons, and to betray our uneducated brethren who have, under God, no defence but us against the intellectual attacks of the heathen. Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered. The cool intellect must work not only against cool intellect on the other side, but against the muddy heathen mysticisms which deny intellect altogether. Most of all, perhaps, we need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion. A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village: the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.
I think Lewis got the balance right here. Yes, in one sense every day is a day of wartime for the believer. Every day is a day of crisis. But on the other hand, we are called to live ‘normal’ lives, but for the glory of God, which in a way makes them extraordinary lives.
I encourage you to read his entire sermon. It first appeared in the 1949 English collection, Transposition and Other Addresses. In the US it appeared in the 1965 collection, The Weight of Glory. But you can find it online as well, as here for example: https://www.christendom.edu/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/Learning-In-Wartime-C.S.-Lewis-1939.pdf
6 Replies to “How Should We Then Live In a Time of War?”
This was most helpful. I appreciate you taking time for it. The Lewis Essay, for me, was essential and timely.
Thank you. I haven’t been reading as regularly lately but have been meaning to thank you for your timely thoughts, including recently alerting us to the the Frankfurt declaration and a little earlier, directing my reading to Os Guinness. Keep up the great work.
I’m currently part way through my second of three Guinness books, Impossible People, in which Guinness argues that now is not just like any of the many cultural battles in every decade. This is unprecedented. Western civilization is looking down the barrel at itself. In a mad hatred of our Judeo-Christian roots, the values that the West is built upon, our society is tearing itself up by it’s own roots. These are momentous times indeed.
The allusion by Lewis “to the advancing to the walls of Quebec” refers to the taking of the City of Québec in 1759 by the British (and the end of New France). Odd that Lewis would be aware of such titbits of military history…
Thanks Paul. Well, he read widely and had a great memory.