On ‘Learning In War Time’

It is hard to describe the impact of Mike Ovey’s death on our little community at Oak
Hill. Mike’s influence was pervasive across the life of the college and no aspect of its existence will be untouched by his passing. All of us, student, staff and faculty, held him in esteem, affection and admiration. And yet, tomorrow, a few having been postponed today, we start sitting the exams due to take place this week, which for me is Hebrew, Greek and Old Testament. It is an odd prospect. Suddenly, that which held our attention and shaped our time last week, now seems unspeakably trivial in the shadow of such a great sadness.

Since Saturday night, C.S. Lewis’s sermon, ‘Learning in War Time’, has kept coming to mind. Given in the first few weeks of the second world war to Oxford undergraduates, when some had asked whether the academic activities of the university should carry on given the outbreak of war, Lewis spoke to defend the value of study in such terrible times. He opened by explaining that, in fact, for the Christian, the question is not whether it is worth studying on the brink of war but whether it is worth studying on the brink of eternity,

The moment we do so we can see that every Christian who comes to a university must at all times face a question compared with which the questions raised by the war are relatively unimportant. He must ask himself how it is right, or even psychologically possible, for creatures who are every moment advancing either to heaven or to hell, to spend any fraction of the little time allowed them in this world on such comparative trivialities as literature or art, mathematics or biology

Of course, in this sense, Lewis’ situation is different from the Oak Hill student since
the stark realities of life highlight the urgency and necessity of knowing God’s promises and the one who made them; the topics around which Mike built the whole curriculum at Oak Hill. And yet, what about the work of recognising Hiphils and Hophals, classifying genitives, and identifying participles, the apparently banal tasks that each exam paper will demand? Here, I think, Lewis has something to say to us. Having made a sweeping case for the value of human civilization and thus study from a Christian perspective he says,

The learned life then is, for some, a duty, At the moment it looks as if it were your duty. I am well aware that there may seem to be an almost comic discrepancy between the high issues we have been considering and the immediate task you may be set down to, such as Anglo-Saxon sound laws or chemical formulae. But there is a similar shock awaiting us in every vocation – a young priest finds himself involved in choir treats and a young subaltern in accounting for pots of jam. It is well that it
should be so. It weeds out the vain, windy people and keeps in those who are
both humble and tough.

Lewis’ point is that if academic study is currently our duty then that duty includes the detailed and often banal work of learning that verbal paradigm or the date of that prophetic book. Indeed, doing so proves that we are serious about pursuing the lofty vision of theological study that Mike himself cast since he was both humble and tough. The question is whether the course of academic study, of which this weeks’ exams are a part, are a worthy enough cause to engage our energies even in the gloom of grief and tragedy. Lewis concludes his sermon like this,

All the animal life in us, all schemes of happiness that centered in this world, were always doomed to a final frustration. In ordinary times only a wise man can realize it. Now the stupidest of us know. We see unmistakable the sort of universe in which we have all along been living, and must come to terms with it. If we had foolish un-Christian hopes about human culture, they are now shattered. If we thought we were building up a heaven on earth, if we looked for something that would turn the present world from a place of pilgrimage into a permanent city satisfying the soul of man, we are disillusioned, and not a moment too soon. But if we thought that for some souls, and at some times, the life of learning, humbly offered to God, was, in its own small way, one of the appointed approaches to the Divine reality and the Divine beauty which we hope to enjoy hereafter, we can think so still.

Like Lewis’ wartime undergraduate audience, no one at Oak Hill will be able to sit their exams this week with an inflated sense of their importance, as if life depended on the grade we will receive. But, if Mike Ovey stood for anything, it was that theological study could be ‘the life of learning, humbly offered to God…one of the appointed approaches to the Divine reality and the Divine beauty’. It was that his teaching provided that approach to divine reality and beauty, and his life exemplified one who knew it in his heart, that makes Mike’s passing so painful. Yet, one of the comforts at this time was that Mike preached and lived out precisely the kind of truths that we need for consolation and hope at this hour. It was those truths, of God’s promises in Christ of redemption and life, that he spent his life training others to teach and that training involved the kind of exams that we will take this week.

It will be very strange to walk into the academic centre tomorrow and know that Mike will not be sitting chatting to a student or ringing the bell to announce his lecture. It will be strange to sit down to an exam paper in the wake of the sadness and pain of his sudden departure. But I will put my pens into a clear bag or pencil case, read all the instructions carefully, and try to spot the pathach under the preformative (it can be done) and distinguish between a dative of means and a dative of sphere and everything else, as a small way of honouring the memory of Mike and glorifying His saviour Jesus Christ, that he loved so much and served so well.

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