How should we live in the face of impending doom?
Just how should we live if we thought our present way of life was all but finished, with a dark and uncertain future just around the corner? If we knew almost certainly that everything was about to be turned upside down, how would we approach life? Would we live it any differently?
Many people have discussed this sort of thing over the years. I quite like how Martin Luther spoke to this: “Preach [and live] as if Jesus was crucified yesterday, rose from the dead today, and is returning tomorrow.” Something similar that is attributed to him (but scholars tell us otherwise) is this: ‘If I believed the world were to end tomorrow, I would still plant a tree today.’
The soon return of the Lord is one obvious cataclysmic event that might cause us to live differently. But things like war and pestilence and great social upheaval can also force us to radically reconsider our lives and how we are living. The past century certainly had many people reconsider life in the face of things like World Wars and atomic and nuclear weapons.
One very incisive and wise thinker who dealt with this was C. S. Lewis. He spoke about this in “On Living in an Atomic Age” – an article he had written for a magazine in 1948. The version I have of it is found in Present Concerns: Essays by C. S. Lewis, edited by Walter Hooper (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986). I will quote from it in a moment.
But recall that Lewis had addressed similar ideas a few years earlier when he gave a sermon in Oxford just at the outset of WWII. His 1939 address was entitled, “Learning in War-Time”. I wrote about it here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2022/09/10/how-should-we-then-live-in-a-time-of-war/
Just one quote from that talk informs us of his attitude on the matter:
[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.
By 1948 the war was of course over, but a new threat emerged in the form of the atomic bomb. With this new weapon of mass destruction, many people were again wondering, ‘How shall we then live?’ As can be seen, the advice Lewis had given in his earlier talk was basically to just carry on.
And in his newer piece he said much the same. So let me offer some choice quotes from that brief article. It begins this way:
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.
“But,” you will reply, “it is not death — not even painful and premature death — that we are bothering about. Of course the chance of that is not new. What is new is that the atomic bomb may finally and totally destroy civilization itself. The lights may be put out for ever.”
He goes on to say that the material world will of course come to an end one day – with or without atomic bombs:
What the wars and the weather (are we in for another of those periodic ice ages?) and the atomic bomb have really done is to remind us forcibly of the sort of world we are living in and which, during the prosperous period before 1914, we were beginning to forget. And this reminder is, so far as it goes, a good thing. We have been waked from a pretty dream, and now we can begin to talk about realities.
We see at once (when we have been waked) that the important question is not whether an atomic bomb is going to obliterate “civilization.” The important question is whether “Nature” — the thing studied by the sciences — is the only thing in existence.
He then spends some time discussing the claim made by many that matter is all there is – that naturalism alone is our only option. He refutes this, in part by saying that if nature was all there was, then we would not know it: “If that were so, then the sciences themselves would be chance arrangements of atoms and we should have no reason for believing in them.” He continues:
We are strangers here. We come from somewhere else. Nature is not the only thing that exists. There is “another world,” and that is where we come from. And that explains why we do not feel at home here. A fish feels at home in the water. If we “belonged here” we should feel at home here. . . . . If this world is the only world, how did we come to find its laws either so dreadful or so comic? If there is no straight line elsewhere, how did we discover that Nature’s line is crooked?
But what, then, is Nature, and how do we come to be imprisoned in a system so alien to us? Oddly enough, the question becomes much less sinister the moment one realizes that Nature is not all. Mistaken for our mother, she is terrifying and even abominable. But if she is only our sister — if she and we have a common Creator — if she is our sparring partner — then the situation is quite tolerable. Perhaps we are not here as prisoners but as colonists…
He concludes with these words:
[I]t is part of our spiritual law never to put survival first: not even the survival of our species. We must resolutely train ourselves to feel that the survival of Man on this Earth, much more of our own nation or culture of class, is not worth having unless it can be had by honourable and merciful means.
The sacrifice is not so great as it seems. Nothing is more likely to destroy a species or a nation than a determination to survive at all costs. Those who care for something else more than civilization are the only people by whom civilization is at all likely to be preserved. Those who want Heaven must have served Earth best. Those who love Man less than God do most for Man.
Wise words indeed that we must keep in mind as we contemplate whether it is Covid or climate change or whatever that is said to bring about an end to life as we know it.