Pruning the Mind in a Time of Crisis

Delivered at St. Mary the Virgin at Oxford University in October 1939, just after England plunged into the Second World War, C.S. Lewis’s remarks, published later as an essay entitled Learning in War-Time[1] begins with two provocative questions very relevant to our own crisis: Why should anyone focus on the life of the mind when individual and societal survival is threatened? Beyond that, at any point in history, why should a Christian who is worried about eternal damnation or salvation ever care about the life of the mind?

Lewis’s essential contention is that, in reality, “human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice…[therefore] if men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure, the search would never have begun” (p. 49). What we tend to think of as “normal” times are “full of crises, alarms, difficulties, emergencies” (p. 50).

Why does Lewis argue that we seemingly put aside our concern for the welfare and survival of our brothers and sisters and focus on the pursuit of knowledge and experiences of beauty? Because, he contends, it is part of human nature that we not just live and die like bees. Even when faced with suffering, human fill with humor and art. We bury our dead with eloquent orations. In other words, times of crisis are not times to reduce the human person to merely its biological needs, as severely threatened as those needs are. Our learning can help us suffer with joy and bury the dead well.

Nor does he think times of crisis are times to think only of the spiritual salvation of souls whose existence on earth might be reaching its end. When he went off to fight in World War I, he learned that people in the trenches did not live solely or even mostly thinking or talking about the war. He argues that, “Christians and soldiers are still men… if you attempted, in either case, to suspend your whole intellectual and aesthetic activity, you would only succeed in substituting a worse cultural life for a better” (p. 52).

Lewis is quite right, I think, when he points out that being a Christian entails doing mostly the same things any human does, albeit infused with a deeper spirit. I further agree with him that, in times of crisis, when material and spiritual needs seem more important than knowledge, we simply can’t stop being influenced by ideas and symbols which may not prolong our life or fall easily into the category of sacred. His challenge to anyone who values the life of the mind during a crisis is that, “if you don’t read good books, you will read bad ones. If you don’t go on thinking rationally you will think irrationally. If you reject aesthetic satisfactions, you will fall into sensual satisfactions” (p. 52).

But what about the need to save lives? By no means does Lewis want us to abandon our obligations to serve our neighbors or save our lives if we can; he simply asserts that it would distort our humanity if all we ever thought about was our need to save others’ lives. Do any of us really want our closest friends and family to do nothing else right now than talk about all the deaths and illnesses and preach 24-7 about preventative measures so we can survive this?

Let’s face it: even in times of crisis, we are going to spend part of our day thinking about something else than that crisis. Lewis is challenging us to be thoughtful about what it is we shall think about when we choose not to focus on the crisis at hand.

For Christians, Lewis reminds us that the balance between sacred and secular activities may get disrupted at various points of our lives, such as this one. The reality is that what happens in times of crisis is that our normal routine gets interrupted, and we may be asked to lay down one or another activity and do more of a different one. But to simply replace all secular activities for sacred activities would go against the holistic understanding of the human person that Christianity gives us. Shifting daily schedules and shifting the balance of how we spend our time can be disruptive. We are called to offer up those sacrifices, while longing for a return to a schedule which balances sacred and secular activities according to our profession and family situation.

Lewis’s point is quite simply to avoid the either/or dualistic thinking that pervades simplistic approaches to crises. That simplistic thinking goes something like this: if I care about the suffering [substitute the problem or crisis], I don’t have time for music [substitute any non-material human pursuit]. Rather, Lewis leads us to say: care passionately for the suffering, expend your gifts to alleviate that suffering, and listen to music. Our material circumstances influence but should not determine our consciousness: times of crisis are a time to resist the dehumanization of a single-minded narrow focus on one aspect of our humanity to the detriment of others. For Lewis, our cultural and religious side must be nurtured and expressed at the same time we struggle for material improvements in human lives.

Times of crisis are times to use our conscience and ask ourselves: what and how can I respond to the material dimensions of this crisis and care for my mind and soul? To ask oneself that question is something of a gift: for we spend most of our days assuming we know what duty requires of us and what kind of leisure and worship we should engage in.

In the over-achieving intellectual circles I run in of academics on the hunt for prestige and productivity, it is easy to identify our value as a person with our intellectual work and neglect our own emotional life, personal life, and sometimes spiritual lives. Why? Because supposedly one day we will reach a point where we are famous enough or tenured and then we no longer have to work so hard. If that sought-after professional stability ever arrives [which it won’t for many people earning Ph.D.s], we have become so habituated to a life of total work (as Josef Pieper calls it) that we can’t separate our identity from the product of our work. It may very well take a crisis to wake up to the reality of what our total humanity requires for flourishing, including the need to nurture the contemplative, joyful, and vulnerable aspects of our humanity.

Rather than abandoning my intellectual work to attend to the crisis with 100% of my energy, Lewis’s words reaffirm that the scholarly life is a vocation. That is not to say that my Ivy League degrees and teaching position at Princeton make me a more worthy person or a more holy person. They do not.

Perhaps what is hardest for me to accept in what Lewis says is, in fact, that my decades of dedication to scholarship have produced many products that are largely irrelevant. Our calling as scholars is not to this-worldly recognition, but to “humble obedience to our vocation” (p. 57), not the pursuit of recognition or reward. The challenge for me is to affirm that as Lewis says, the pursuit of knowledge and beauty is a way to advance the glory of God and to accept that it is simply not up to us to know how that actually may happen.

The products of the intellectual life—that Ph.D., that next article, that next book, that superb lecture—are interspersed with days, if not weeks and months, that I feel like my mind has turned to mush, that the paper I’m working on looks like the scribble of a 2-year old, that even if I finish what I’m doing no one will read it or care what I’ve said.

But if we think of the life of the mind not only as a task with a concrete end but, more importantly, a passion to be purified by exercising it well [which often feels like we are exercising it badly], then what we do as scholars gives glory to God. Most of the time we are pruning our passions to get them under control so that our integrate mind and passions may produce works that sprinkle a few good seeds somehow, through God’s grace.

The greatest threat to a scholar is not the days and hours lost in wandering seemingly to no end.  Rather we are threatened more by the successes that make us fall in love with our own mind and elevate our human gifts somehow above the omnipotent good of our creator and giver of all good gifts. The great danger for the learned is to come to love what we know more than to love the pursuit of knowledge for the glory of God.

For me, it is precisely because most of what I’ve ever written has ended up in the recycling bin that I know that when I do finally occasionally say something that is important, true and correct, I did not do it on my own. I was inspired, led in my mind somehow through the working of grace. For decades, I have started my day of intellectual work with prayer to purify my mind and my intentions, to offer my humble efforts for the glory of God, to accept the pain of failure while begging God to give me some successes sometimes.

Lewis concludes with a few intentions that anyone dedicate to the life of the mind as a teacher, scholar, student or parent of a student can apply in this crisis.

First, do not think about the crisis all the time, especially not when you are setting yourself down to do your intellectual work. Distractions to the life of the mind abound. The crisis is a chance to learn to fight them. If sometimes you get overwhelmed by the excitement of the crisis and abandon your work, don’t be too hard on yourself. Try again tomorrow.

Second, fight the feeling that we don’t have enough time to finish a task, or that what we finish is no good. Perfectionism is a sin that plagues academics, with yours truly being a prime example. Frustration at our lack of progress or excessive self-criticism for what we produce quite simply eradicates the grace of the present moment. The crisis we face now is a loud reminder that we don’t decide when we die. We are not in control of time.

The third and final threat to the life of the mind during a crisis Lewis writes about is fear. Death and pain are all around us, and it’s human to feel that pain, just as Jesus himself felt his own suffering and lamented his friends’ suffering. People of faith should not aim for “a stoic indifference” (p. 61) but neither should we give into catastrophic thinking stoked by the imagination run wild. Perhaps the most important statistic to ponder is this one: “100% of us die, and the percentage cannot be increased” (p. 61). The many quick deaths we are hearing about remind us of the reality that we all know that one day we will die.

The gift of this moment is precisely to be confronted with our fragility as humans. Lewis soberly writes, “if we thought we were building up a heaven on earth, if we looked for something that would turn the present world from a place of pilgrimage into a permanent city satisfying the soul of man, we are disillusioned, and not a moment too soon” (p. 63.)

But, if we wish to pursue the life of the mind in a time of crisis, and do so in humility before God, giving gratitude for this particular vocation, we should not feel we are abandoning our duty but rather purifying it to make it more what it is supposed to be.

I pray to God ever more fervently to take my efforts and turn them into something for the greater good. I’ve shifted the balance of my day to provide psychological support to friends in need; I’ve shifted my personal budget to provide financial support to others as much as I can; I’ve offered preventative care advice to friends; I’ve offered countless extra prayers for the suffering and dying.

I’ve also shed tears at the impact this crisis will have on my plans for productivity. I’ve felt the psychological pain of isolation in my home. But I’m also finding God in the work of charity and solidarity I’m called to right now. I’m purifying my love of learning to make it for the glory of God.

Earlier this week, I convened an online meeting of alumni from the Scala summer program on educational philosophy and practice to discuss Lewis’s essay. At the end of a lively discussion, I proposed we read together Dante’s Inferno, a classic work of literature I have never read. Great works of literature are timeless because they put before us the very questions we need to be asking right now about human nature, good and evil, beauty and suffering.

When I proposed we just read the first three canticles of Inferno for next week, an English Ph.D. student smirked and told me that will take us right up to the gates of hell. Perhaps if I can help students ponder with me what it means to look at the gates of hell, and then ask what it means to enter into eternal paradise Dante wants to lead us too, I will have done my duty as an educator during this crisis.

[1] Pp. 47-63 in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses. New York: Harper One, 1976 [1949].