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  • C.S. Lewis on Vocation in the Economy of Wisdom

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    By Joseph Sunde

    In Abraham Kuyper’s newly translated Scholarship, he addresses students of Free University in Amsterdam, asking, “What should be the goal of university study and the goal of living and working in the sacred domain of scholarship?”

    Though he observes similarities with other forms of labor — between teacher and farmer, professor and factory worker — and though each vocation is granted by God, Kuyper notes that the scholar is distinct in setting the scope of his stewardship on the mind itself. “That is your field of labor,” he writes, “Not merely to live, but to know that you live and how you live, and how things around you live, and how all that hangs together and lives out of the one efficient cause that proceeds from God’s power and wisdom.”

    Having just read this excerpt, I was delighted to stumble upon a different sermon (“Learning in War-Time”) given at a different university (Oxford) by a different intellectual heavyweight (C.S. Lewis), which touches on many of these same themes, but with a slightly different spin.

    Included in Lewis’ book, The Weight of Glory, the sermon was given in 1939 (the beginning of World War II), and explores how, why, and whether Christians should pursue learning during times of extreme catastrophe. More broadly, it asks how we might consider the life of the mind among the many competing priorities, demands, and obligations of life, and the Christian life, at that.

    “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?” he asks. “Is it not like fiddling while Rome burns?”

    To answer the question, Lewis steps back a bit, examining the vocation of Christian scholarship through God’s broader design for human nature. Much like Kuyper, Lewis reminds us that understanding the vocation of scholarship requires a clear vision of the harmony between “sacred” and “secular.”

    There is no question of a compromise between the claims of God and the claims of culture, or politics, or anything else. God’s claim is infinite and inexorable. You can refuse it: or you can begin to try to grant it. There is no middle way. Yet in spite of this it is clear that Christianity does not exclude any of the ordinary human activities. St. Paul tells people to get on with their jobs. He even assumes that Christians may go to dinner parties, and, what is more, dinner parties given by pagans…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…..There is no essential quarrel between the spiritual life and the human activities as such.

    Once we understand this, we see the connection between this and that — the material and the transcendent, the “practical” and the mysterious — and can, if we are indeed called to it, rest in peace and proceed with confidence unto the task God has set before us.

    Yet just because we take up the activity of scholarship, even if we are called to it, doesn’t mean that we ourselves are engaged in God-glorifying work. Like any other vocation or activity, Christians who follow this path must obey the voice of the Holy Spirit and render their hearts, minds, and resources unto God in all that they do, whether in researching, writing, teaching, mentoring, exploring, administering, or simply thinking:

    I reject at once an idea which lingers in the mind of some modern people that cultural activities are in their own right spiritual and meritorious — as though scholars and poets were intrinsically more pleasing to God than scavengers and bootblacks…Let us clear it forever from our minds. 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’. This does not, of course, mean that it is for anyone a mere toss-up whether he should sweep rooms or compose symphonies. A mole must dig to the glory of God and a cock must crow. We are members of one body, but differentiated members, each with his own vocation. A man’s upbringing, his talents, his circumstances, are usually a tolerable index of his vocation. If our parents have sent us to Oxford, if our country allows us to remain there, this is prima facie evidence that the life which we, at any rate, can best lead to the glory of God at present is the learned life.

    By leading that life to the glory of God I do not, of course, mean any attempt to make our intellectual inquiries work out to edifying conclusions. That would be, as Bacon says, to offer to the author of truth the unclean sacrifice of a lie. I mean the pursuit of knowledge and beauty, in a sense, for their own sake, but in a sense which does not exclude their being for God’s sake. An appetite for these things exists in the human mind, and God makes no appetite in vain. We can therefore pursue knowledge as such, and beauty, as such, in the sure confidence that by so doing we are either advancing to the vision of God ourselves or indirectly helping others to do so. Humility, no less than the appetite, encourages us to concentrate simply on the knowledge or the beauty, not too much concerning ourselves with their ultimate relevance to the vision of God. That relevance may not be intended for us but for our betters — for men who come after and find the spiritual significance of what we dug out in blind and humble obedience to our vocation…The intellectual life is not the only road to God, nor the safest, but we find it to be a road, and it may be the appointed road for us. Of course, it will be so only so long as we keep the impulse pure and disinterested. That is the great difficulty. As the author of the Theologia Germanicai says, we may come to love knowledge – our knowing – more than the thing known: to delight not in the exercise of our talents but in the fact that they are ours, or even in the reputation they bring us. Every success in the scholar’s life increases this danger. If it becomes irresistible, he must give up his scholarly work. The time for plucking our the right eye has arrived.

    Stewardship in the Economy of Wisdom is in many ways like stewardship of all else, but the scholar will do well to recognize the unique degrees of humility, patience, courage, faith, and faithfulness that it requires.

    Such a sacred task will be necessary both in times of peace and seasons of profound struggle, but when done unto the Lord, stewarding well in this area will serve others in illuminating the “thing known,” diminishing the darkness, and illuminating truth for the life of the world.

    As Kuyper echoes in his address, “Every man of learning should be fired with a zeal to battle against the darkness and for the light,” for it is the scholar’s “high calling to wrest the light of God’s splendor from the hidden recesses of creation, not in order to seek honor for yourself but honor for your God.”

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