Learning in War-Time

Fellow fans of C.S. Lewis (aka “our father among the saints”) will perhaps recognize the title of this piece as taken from an essay of Lewis’ own.  This was the title of a sermon he preached at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Oxford in October 1939.  His country was trembling in fear as they entered another unwanted war, and students in Oxford inevitably were asking themselves the question, “What is the use of beginning a task which we have so little chance of finishing?”—the task, of course, being their Oxford education.  Lewis, a teacher in Oxford, strove to deal with that question by providing answers that were timeless.

The war to which Lewis referred was war in the strictest and most literal sense; I use the title here more metaphorically.  We Christians in North America are involved in a war, but the enemy in this war is not flesh and blood (St. Paul reminds us that for Christians it never is; see Eph. 6:12f).  The foe is not another nation, nor international terrorism.  Our enemy is the devil, and the frontlines of the battle are found in the school, the workplace, the media and the offices of government.  The enemy’s forces wear all sorts of labels, and are not confined to any one political party.  The frontline of battle, in fact, runs across every human heart, and parents, who bear the main responsibilities for raising their children, need to be aware of this as they teach.  Our children are learning in war-time.

What then do we need to teach them if they are to survive this war?  Three things.

First, Christian children must be taught to define themselves counter-culturally. I remember tucking my own young daughters into bed, and telling them that as they grew up they would be different from their little friends. Their friends would be getting drunk, doing drugs, having sex, and generally living lives without God. Not so for you, I said—you are Christians, disciples of Jesus, and we live differently than the world lives. The fatherly exhortation was offered a little before they knew what getting drunk, doing drugs and having sex meant, but that was okay (and deliberate). What came across was that Daddy expected them to act differently, because they were different. Daddy expected them to define themselves counter-culturally. (Permit me to add that the lesson “took”.)

This is imperative. In my day, if you followed the herd, you sooner or later ended up in church, at least for Christmas and Easter. You knew the Ten Commandments, even if you bent or broke them fairly regularly. If you stayed away from Church, you generally had a reason at the ready, because you felt it needed justifying. None of this is true today. If you follow the herd, you will almost certainly never come within sight of a church, and the average person today could no more list the Ten Commandments than I could quote at length from the Bhagavad Gita. In the reigning secular culture, few echoes of a real Christian worldview remain.

In this, our day resembles that of the early Church.  In those days, being baptized meant leaving one moral universe and entering another. In the moral universe of the pagan, fornication was expected and normalized, abortion was an institution, idolatry omnipresent and a social duty. In the new moral universe of the Christian, these things were shunned as hateful, and doing any of them resulted in instant expulsion from the community of faith. Conversion to Christ was an act of defection from the world, and the world reacted to the Christians as people have always reacted to those they regarded as defectors and traitors. To be a Christian back then meant renouncing the values of the reigning culture of the day, with all the resultant unpopularity that such a choice produced. As North American culture becomes increasingly secularized, the situation of the early Church will rapidly become ours as well. It is no good dodging this challenge, crossing our fingers and hoping that secularism will somehow not invade our family like it has invaded everywhere else. We must pro-actively teach our children that they are different from others. Yes, Virginia, your little secular friends can sleep over. But don’t forget that your little secular friends are secular, and therefore different.

Secondly, we must teach our children how to distinguish between things of value and things that are worthless. We must show them, by example and precept, how to discern what is truly strong and how it differs from things that only look strong. We must help them to see for themselves how virtue leads to strength and joy and freedom, and how vice leads to weakness and depression and slavery (“addiction” it is now usually called). This is a daunting task, because everything in our current culture labels things wrongly. Open any book or magazine, watch any movie or TV show, listen to any newscaster or media pundit—all alike will point us in precisely the wrong direction. They mean well, of course. They are not evil, simply misled. They actually believe that virginity is abnormal and tragic, that promiscuity (I use the old terms from the Jurassic period) leads to contentment and peace, that being openly religious is laughable at best and dangerous at worst, and that all the wars and problems in the world can somehow be laid at the door of the Church. The propaganda is relentless and universal. Common experience teaches exactly the opposite, of course, but people are trained to accept the dogmas of secular propaganda, not to consult their own experience. We are even trained to gauge the legitimacy of our experience on the basis of the propaganda: if I really think that getting drunk every week and having innumerable sexual partners is a bad idea, then there must be something wrong with me. Everybody says so.

The challenge therefore is to teach our children how to think. It is odd that secular people talk as if they are the only ones who think, whereas Christians just accept dogmas mindlessly. In my experience, it is the secular people and the atheists who mindlessly accept whatever popular culture says, and never feel the need to back up their assertions with arguments. The Christians, having rejected the dogmas of the reigning culture, often are able to justify that rejection, and give a reason for the hope that is in them. Their reasons may or may not sound compelling, but the point is that at least they have thought it through.  We must teach our children how to examine underlying presuppositions, and to be able to justify what they believe. They must not simply suck up the values around them like a vacuum-cleaner sucking up whatever lies about on the floor; ideas must be examined before being accepted. I am not suggesting that all our children are called to become intellectuals, but rather that we should teach them how to question and push for real answers.  Sloppy thinking and intellectual laziness are not fruits of the Spirit.

Thirdly, we must teach our children the value of history. In doing so, we are once again swimming against the current, because we live in an age of historical amnesia. This amnesia is, I suspect, rooted in pride. Some have called this prideful attitude “chronological snobbery”; it may be defined as the conviction that the human race is getting smarter with every generation, so that you are smarter than your parents, and twice as smart as your grandparents, and smarter still than your great-grandparents. Without really examining it, we have bought into the notion that since my great-grandfather did not know how to operate an I-pad, he must’ve been an idiot. No one says this openly, of course, but the unacknowledged attitude persists in our culture just the same. In this kind of approach to history (which makes evolution the key to everything), it is obvious that the ancients can have nothing to teach us. They all thought the world was flat (they didn’t actually, but that is another matter), so they have zero credibility with us moderns. The medieval centuries and anything people believed then is instantly disqualified and discredited, not because it has been proven wrong, but simply because it is old. “Medieval” is no longer simply a chronological term, but a designation of value (or in this case, lack of value). If someone says to me, “That’s a very medieval attitude you have”, he is not making an historical observation; he is swearing. There is a prejudice against the ancients simply because they are ancient.

Our children must be taught that this unthinking rejection of the past is not only arrogant, but erroneous. As a matter of historical fact, many of the ancients were superb thinkers, men (and women) of insight and even genius. There were, of course, just as many dullards then as now. That is the point: each age has its own insights and its own blind-spots, and we cannot fully benefit from previous ages until we examine them carefully to see where they were insightful and where they were blind. But at least their blind-spots are not likely to be the same as ours, and so older generations can help provide a needed corrective to ours. Everyone can learn from history, sifting through it to find teachers and wisdom. As Orthodox, we are especially grateful for the teachers we call “the Fathers” and the wisdom we call “Holy Tradition”. But everyone, Orthodox or not, can still approach the thinkers of previous generations with the humility to learn from them.

Scripture tells us that if we train up a child in the way he should go, even when he is old, he will not depart from it (Prov. 22:6). This is not a written guarantee that if you send your little one to Sunday School and pray at home, then he or she will grow up to be devout. Our children have just as much free will as we do, and they may use it unwisely. But it does mean that the formation given to a child in early years will be enduring. As long as the war rages on, that formation will be essential.