by Joel Heck
In 1938, Somerville College English Fellow Helen Darbishire told the Somerville Council in Oxford that “it would be advisable to ascertain, if possible, whether in the event of an international emergency, university education would continue, and, if so, on what basis.” One can imagine conversations between Darbishire, Lewis, and other English Fellows in Oxford that addressed this topic during a time when war seemed imminent.
That the possibility of war had been on everyone’s mind for quite some time, including Lewis’s, is clear from many sources, one of them a letter published by E. L. Mascall in Theology in January 1939, to which Lewis responded in May 1939.
In “The Christian and the Next War,” Mascall set forth six conditions for a just war. In his response, “The Conditions for a Just War,” Lewis argued that determining the justice of war was a complex issue best reserved for government officials who knew the full international political story. Then war broke out on September 1, 1939 with Germany’s invasion of Poland. England declared war on Germany on September 3, and the question of learning in war-time became prominent.
Since the fall term, Michaelmas, began in October, this sermon was delivered by Lewis, a veteran of World War One, quite early in the term. The wartime BBC broadcasts that would eventually become Mere Christianity were still a couple of years away. Lewis preached the sermon “Learning in War-Time” at St. Mary the Virgin Church, Oxford, on Sunday, October 22, 1939. “Learning in War-Time” presented Lewis’s defense of traditional humanistic learning at a time when many thought that educational pursuits were unnecessary in the light of the war, or worse, irresponsible. The sermon attempted to answer the question, “What is the use of beginning a task which we have so little chance of finishing?” When the world is advancing to heaven or hell, when the liberties of Europe hang in the balance, Lewis wrote, how can students and faculty spend time on what seem to be trivialities in comparison?
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