The year was 1939. Hitler had just invaded Poland, with ambitions of world domination. Soon after, Great Britain and France declared war on Germany. Europe quaked. With memories of the first great war that killed 21 million men, and left another 20 million wounded, people wondered, what fresh horrors would this new war bring?
In the shadows of that dark night, an Oxford don delivered a sermon to a fearful congregation. C.S. Lewis focused on a surprising theme — the meaning of nonessential work in a time of war.
“A university is a society for the pursuit of learning. As students, you will be expected to make yourselves … into philosophers, scientists, scholars, critics, or historians. … And at first sight this seems to be an odd thing to do during a great war … 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?”
That sounds like a sermon for 2020. Of the 160 million people in the United States labor force, about 70 million are “nonessential workers.” With doctors and nurses and epidemiologists and makers of PPE doing all they can to stave off a global pandemic, and civil rights leaders and policymakers seeking to confront racial injustice, what could possibly be the meaning of washing cars, or mowing a golf course, or making lattes when so many people’s lives are in the balance?
According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal titled, “As Pandemic Slows Business, Workers Fret: Is My Job Relevant?” a little over a quarter of workers surveyed felt their work wasn’t particularly important or meaningful. Writ large, that’s about 40 million workers who don’t see the point of their day job.
Lewis’ words in “Learning in Wartime” ring true 80 years later.
First, Lewis said that if we are realists, we all must contend with an even weightier backdrop than war (or a global pandemic) — the fact that at every moment all people are “advancing either to heaven or to hell.” If that is true, how can anyone focus at any time on trivialities such as “literature or art, mathematics or biology”?
Lewis answered that, whether we like it or not, Christianity does not replace our normal lives, even during global upheaval. “Before I became a Christian I do not think I fully realized that one’s life, after conversion, would inevitably consist in doing most of the same things one had been doing before, one hopes, in a new spirit, but still the same things.”
John the Baptist once answered a young soldier who wanted to live for God but had vocational angst to demonstrate his repentance not by leaving his station for something nobler, but doing the same work in a different manner — without intimidation or stealing.
Likewise, Lewis reminded his audience that work hangs in the balance of being meaningful on one condition, and one condition alone. “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.”
That is the glory of today’s schedule. However essential our work may or may not feel, as an act of faith, we must offer every bit of it to God, as he works out his hidden agenda through our ordinary circumstances. And though in this present darkness we only see in a mirror dimly, one day we will see clearly — it was in our mundane tasks that the kingdom of God came near.