In 1948, not long after World War II, C.S. Lewis was asked how humanity should live in the atomic age with the horrific threat of extinction hanging over their heads.
Most of us cannot imagine how traumatic that moment in history was. The world had just endured a second world-wide war. It had experienced the disruptions of wartime, the loss of loved ones, the evils of national socialism, and the holocaust. At the war’s end, it had learned of the immense destructive power of atomic weapons. As the superpowers faced off in the post war period, a new cold war began with the threat of “mutually assured destruction.”
The atomic age, with the new threat of nuclear attacks, resulted in a new wave of paralyzing fear. C. S. Lewis spoke to this fear by writing an essay entitled, “On Living in an Atomic Age,” (which can be found in his book Present Concerns: A Compelling Collection of Timely, Journalistic Essays).
His insights speak powerfully to our own world which has been recently disrupted by the spread of the invisible, COVID-19 virus. The worldwide pandemic and the single-minded focus of the media on the virus, has unleashed a new wave of deep fear throughout our society. It’s easy to become fixated on the virus, and to keep asking the question I heard one news commentator again ask last night, “what are my odds?” What are my odds of catching it, and dying from it? It is here that C. S. Lewis offers some help.
Let me quote some of his essay. To directly catch its impact, just replace the word “atomic bomb” with the word “coronavirus.”
In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb. “How are we to live in an atomic age?” I am tempted to reply: “Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.”
In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors—anesthetics; but we have that still. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.
This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.
If C. S. Lewis had written this in our day, I suspect he would not want us to exaggerate the uniqueness of our own situation either, where we “stay huddled together like frightened sheep” thinking about the virus. He would probably call us to “pull ourselves together” and “do sensible and human things.”
Later in the essay, he writes,
What the wars and the weather (are we in for another of those periodic ice ages?) and the atomic bomb have really done is to remind us forcibly of the sort of world we are living in and which, during the prosperous period before 1914, [we might insert 2020], we were beginning to forget. And this reminder is, so far as it goes, a good thing. We have been waked from a pretty dream, and now we can begin to talk about realities. (p. 75)
With or without the bomb, (and we might add, with or without the virus), Lewis reminds us that “nature is a sinking ship.” He adds, “nature in the long run, does not favor life.”
I’ll go further and say that nature, and viruses, often remind us of the reality of death. They act as a kind of Memento mori. They make us conscious of how fragile, how vulnerable we are. Like the skull inserted in many medieval paintings they remind the viewer that he or she is mortal.
Latter in his essay, Lewis writes that the important thing is to decide whether nature is the only thing in existence or not. If it is the only thing, then nothing really matters at all. If it is not the only thing, if there are transcendent things, then perhaps this crisis is really God’s way of waking us up to those eternal and final realities.
What realities? Realities like death and our eternal state which Lewis brings up at the end of his essay.
When life comes to a standstill, when the theaters are shut and the sports competitions are cancelled, there are fewer distractions to occupy our minds. All we seem to think about is the spread and the consequences of catching this virus.
It’s time to pull ourselves together, to lift our eyes, and get perspective. It’s time to realize the opportunity of this strange season that we are all in and do some “sensible and human things.” Besides “praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music,” etc., it’s time to remind ourselves of gospel hope, eternal life, the glory of heaven, the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting, the promise of a new heaven and earth, and to share that good news with others.
It’s time to remember that the gospel sets us free from anxious panic, that the fear of the Lord shrinks lesser fears, and that each day is a day of grace.
It’s time to do what we can do to help others stay healthy, keep afloat, lift their eyes, and get through what will be a challenging season. Yes, and it’s time to help those who are serving on the front lines, providing health care and support for the rest of us.
I’m grateful to C. S. Lewis for pointing us in this direction.