“Sacred things may become profane by becoming matters of the job” by C.S. Lewis

“To Sheldon Vanauken

Magdalen College,
Oxford
January 5, 1951

Dear Mr. Van Auken,

We must ask three questions about the probable effect of changing your research subject to something more theological.

(1.) Would it be better for your immediate enjoyment? Answer, probably but not certainly, Yes.

(2.) Would it be better for your academic career? Answer, probably No. You would have to make up in haste a lot of knowledge which could not be very easily digested in the time.

(3.) Would it be better for your soul? I don’t know.

I think there is a great deal to be said for having one’s deepest spiritual interest distinct from one’s ordinary duty as a student or professional man.

St Paul’s job was tent-making. When the two coincide I should have thought there was a danger lest the natural interest in one’s job and the pleasures of gratified ambition might be mistaken for spiritual progress and spiritual consolation: and I think clergymen sometimes fall into this trap.

Contrariwise, there is the danger that what is boring or repellent in the job may alienate one from the spiritual life. And finally someone has said ‘None are so unholy as those whose hands are cauterized with holy things: sacred things may become profane by becoming matters of the job.

You now want truth for her own sake: how will it be when the same truth is also needed for an effective footnote in your thesis?

In fact, the change might do good or harm. I’ve always been glad myself that Theology is not the thing I earn my living by.

On the whole, I’d advise you to get on with your tent-making. The performance of a duty will probably teach you quite as much about God as academic Theology would do.

Mind, I’m not certain: but that is the view I incline to.

Yours,

C. S. Lewis”

–C.S. Lewis, The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume 3: Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy, 1950 – 1963, Ed. Walter Hooper (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), 3: 82-83. Vanauken had asked Lewis his opinion as to whether he should continue with his postgraduate work in history or study theology.

  1. Francis Bacon, Essays (1625), ‘Of Atheism’: ‘The great atheists, indeed are hypocrites; which are ever handling holy things, but without feeling; so as they must needs be cauterized in the end.’

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