The War and the Churches/Preface

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The War and the Churches by Joseph McCabe
Preface

PREFACE

The searching crisis through which the nation is passing must have the effect of securing grave consideration for many aspects of our life and institutions. We have already traversed the acute stage of suspense, and are gradually becoming sensible of these wider considerations. It was natural that for a prolonged period the disturbance of our economic conditions, the anxiety for the safety of our nation in face of an appalling menace, the personal concern of millions about the lives of sons or brothers who have bravely responded to the call, should keep our thoughts enchained to the daily or hourly fortunes of the field of battle. Now that the initial disorder has been allayed and we have attained a quiet and reasonable confidence in the issue, we turn to other and broader aspects of this mighty event of our generation. How comes it that the most enlightened century the world has yet seen should be thus darkened by one of the bloodiest and most calamitous wars that have ever spread their awful wings over the life of man? Where is all the optimism of yesterday? Must we reconsider our reasoned boast that our civilisation has lifted the life of man to a level hitherto unattained? Is there something entirely and most mischievously wrong with the foundations of modern civilisation?

A dozen such questions will press for an answer, but it will be granted that one of the most urgent and most interesting of the many grave considerations which the war suggests is its relation to the prevailing creeds and standards of conduct. The war coincides with an advanced stage of what is called the spread of unbelief. In each of the nations of Europe which are engaged in this awful struggle complaints have been made every year for the last two or three generations that Christianity is losing its moral control of the white race. In the cities, especially in the capitals, of Europe there has been a proved and acknowledged decay of church-going; and, however much we may be disposed to think that these millions who no longer attend church retain in their minds the beliefs of their fathers, the slender circulation of religious literature makes it plain that the vast majority of them do not, in point of fact, receive either the spoken or written message of the Christian Church. In the great cities—and it is undoubted that the life of a nation is mainly controlled by its cities—there has been an increasing reluctance to listen to the authoritative exponents of the Christian gospel.

A number of the clergy have very naturally noticed and stressed this coincidence. Prelates of high authority have, as we shall see, even declared that the war is a scourge deliberately laid on the back of mankind by the Almighty on account of this spreading infidelity. As a rule, the clergy shrink from advocating a theory which has such grave implications as this has, and they are content to submit the more plausible suggestion, that the decay of the Christian standard of conduct in the mind of a large proportion of our generation accounts for this tragic combat of nations. A distinguished Positivist writer, Mr. J. Cotter Morison, commenting in the last generation on the decay of Christian belief, expressed some such concern in the following terms:

“It would be rash to expect that a transition, unprecedented for its width and difficulty, from theology to positivism, from the service of God to the service of Man, could be accomplished without jeopardy. Signs are not wanting that the prevalent anarchy in thought is leading to anarchy in morals. Numbers who have put off belief in God have not put on belief in Humanity. A common and lofty standard of duty is being trampled down in the fierce battle of incompatible principles.”[1]

It is true that in the work from which I quote[1] the learned, if somewhat nervous, Positivist does not, by his masterly survey of the moral history of Europe, afford us the least reason to think that we have really deteriorated from the standard of conduct set us by earlier generations, but his words do tend to press on our notice the claim of many writers, clerical and non-clerical, that we are returning from Christianity to Paganism, from a settled moral discipline to an unhealthy moral scepticism. Can one entirely and safely reconstruct the bases of personal and national conduct in one or two generations?

This very plain and plausible theory is, however, exposed to criticism from other points of view. The clergy as a body are not at all willing to concede that the decay of belief has spread as far as the theory would suggest. In order to suppose that the life of Europe has, in a matter of the gravest importance, been directed by a non-Christian spirit, one must assume that at least the majority in each nation have deserted the traditional creed. It is by no means conceded or established that the fighting nations have ceased to be predominantly Christian. Indeed, if we confine the awful responsibility for this tragedy, as the evidence compels us, to Germany and Austria-Hungary, we are casting it upon the two nations which have been the chief representatives in Europe of the two leading branches of the Church. Most assuredly no prelate of either country would admit that his nation has ceased to be Christian or surrendered its life to non-Christian impulses; and in our own country we have frequently been assured of late years that the real power of Christianity was never greater.

Clearly these conflicting claims and this contrast of profession and practice suggest a problem that deserves consideration. The problem becomes the more interesting, and the plausible theory of non-Christian responsibility is even more severely shaken, when we reflect that war is not an innovation of this unbelieving age, but a legacy from the earlier and more thoroughly Christian period. Had mankind departed from some admirable practice of submitting its international quarrels to a religious arbitrator, and in our own times devised this horrible arbitrament of the sword, we should be more disposed to seek the cause in a contemporary enfeeblement of moral standards. This is notoriously not the case. Men have warred, and priests have blessed the banners which were to wave over fields of blood, from the very beginning of Christian influence, not to speak of earlier religious epochs. There is assuredly a ghastly magnitude about modern war which almost lends it an element of novelty, but the appearance is illusory. That intense employment of resources which makes modern war so sanguinary tends also to shorten its duration. No military struggle could now be prolonged into the period of the Napoleonic wars; to say nothing of the Thirty Years War, which involved the death, with every circumstance of ferocity, of immensely larger numbers than could be affected by any modern war. Nor may we forget that it is the modern spirit which has claimed some alleviation of the horrors of the field, and that the majority of the nations engaged in the present struggle have observed the new rules.

These considerations show that the problem is less simple and more serious than is often supposed, and I set out to discuss each of them with some fullness. That the war has no relation to the Churches will hardly be claimed by anybody. Such a claim would mean that they were indifferent to one of the very gravest phases of human conduct, or wholly unable to influence it. Nor can we avoid the issue by pleading that Christianity approves and blesses a just defensive war, and that, since the share of this country in the war is entirely just and defensive, we have no moral problem to consider. I have assuredly no intention of questioning either the justice of Britain's conduct or the prudence of the Churches in adapting the maxims of the Sermon on the Mount to the practical needs of life. If and when a nation sees its life and prosperity threatened by an ambitious or a jealous neighbour, one cannot but admire its clergy for joining in the advocacy of an efficient and triumphant defence. But this is merely a superficial and proximate consideration. Not the actual war only, but the military system of which it is the occasional outcome, has a very pertinent relation to religion; the maintenance of this machinery for settling international quarrels in an age in which applied science makes it so formidable is a very grave moral issue. It turns our thoughts at once to those branches of the Christian Church which claim the predominant share in the moulding of the conduct of Europe.

But these questions of the efficacy of Christian teaching or the influence of Christian ministers are not the only or the most interesting questions suggested by the relation of the war to the prevailing religion. The great tragedy which darkens the earth to-day raises again in its most acute form the problem of evil and Providence. More than two thousand years ago, as Job reminds us, some difficulty was experienced in justifying the ways of God to men. The most penetrating thinker of the early Church, St. Augustine, wrestled once more with the problem, as if no word had been written on it; and he wrestled in vain. A century and a half ago, when the Lisbon earthquake destroyed forty thousand Portuguese, Voltaire attempted, with equal unsuccess, to vindicate Providence with the faint hope of the Deist. Modern science, prolonging the sufferings of living things over earlier millions of years, has made that problem one of the great issues of our age, and this dread spectacle of human nature red in tooth and claw brings it impressively before us. Is the work of God restricted to counting the hairs of the head, and not enlarged to check the murderous thoughts in the human brain? Nay, when we survey those horrid stretches of desolation in Belgium and Poland and Serbia, where the mutilated bodies of the innocent, of women and children, lie amidst the ashes of their homes; when we think of those peaceful sailors of our mercantile marine at the bottom of the deep, those unoffending civilians whose flesh was torn by shells, those hundreds of thousands whom patriotic feeling alone has summoned to the vast tombs of Europe, those millions of homes that have been darkened by suspense and loss—how can we repeat the ancient assurance that God does count the hairs of the head and mark the fall of even the sparrows? Does God move the insensate stars only, and leave to the less skilful guidance of man those momentous little atoms which make up the brain of statesmen?

These are reflections which must occur to every thoughtful person in the later and more meditative phases of a great war, when the eye has grown somewhat weary of the glitter of steel and the colour of banners, when the world mourns about us and the long lists of the dead and longer list of the stupendous waste sober the mind. Something is gravely wrong with our international life; and, plainly, it is not a question whether that international life departs from the Christian standard, but why, after fifteen hundred years of mighty Christian influence, it does so depart. Is the moral machinery of Europe ineffective? One certainly cannot say that it has not had a prolonged trial; yet here, in the twentieth century, we have, in the most terrible form, one of the most appalling evils which human agency ever brought upon human hearts. We have to reconsider our religious and ethical position; to ask ourselves whether, if the influence of religion has failed to direct men into paths of wisdom and peace, some other influence may not be found which will prove more persuasive and more beneficent.

J. M.

Easter, 1915.

  1. 1.0 1.1 The Service of Man (6d. edition), p. 16.