The War and the Churches/Chapter IV
In the leading Catholic periodical of this country there has been some nervous discussion of the attitude of the Pope. A new man, a strong and enlightened man, happens to have mounted the chair of Peter in the midst of the war. For more than a century his predecessors have bemoaned the increasing wickedness of the world: Pius VII, tossed like a helpless cork on the waves of the Revolution; Leo XII and Pius VIII, the associates of the Holy Alliance; Gregory XVI, eating sweetmeats or mumbling his breviary while young Italy sweated blood; Pius IX, grasping eagerly his tatters of sovereignty; Leo XIII, the unsuccessful diplomatist; Pius X, the medieval monk. They saw their Church shrink decade by decade, and they witnessed the prosperity of all that they denounced. Benedict XV came to save the Church, and a great moral opportunity awaited him. But, while claiming to be the moral arbitrator of the world, he avoids his plain duty, and is content to repeat the worn phrases about the iniquity of the modern spirit. His apologists say that the war is politics, and that Popes must not interfere in politics.
I have earlier explained in what sense this war presents a political aspect to Benedict XV, and given the reason for his reluctance. It is typical of the whole failure of Christianity. A little over nineteen centuries ago, it is said in the churches, a star shone over the cradle of the Saviour, and choirs of angels announced his coming as a promise of "peace on earth and good-will among men." I am not in this little work examining the whole question of the influence of Christianity. But it is well to recall that, according to its own records, its first and greatest promise to the world was peace; and to that old Roman Empire, and to Europe at any stage in its later history, no greater blessing could have been brought. Has Christianity succeeded?
But the religious interest of the war is by no means exhausted when we have concluded that it marks, in one of the most important departments of human action, the complete failure of historical Christianity. My purpose is to discuss this relation to the Churches, and it would not be completed unless I considered the war in relation to their fundamental doctrine, the moral government of the universe by a Supreme Being. In a few months, we hope, the war will be over: the Allies will have triumphed. We know, from experience and from history, what will follow in the Churches. From end to end of Britain, from Dover to Penzance and from Southampton to Aberdeen, there will rise a jubilant cry that God has blessed our arms and awarded us the victory. Now that we are in the midst of the horrors and burdens of the war God is little mentioned. One would imagine that the great majority of the clergy conceived him as standing aside, for some inscrutable reason, and letting wicked men deploy their perverse forces. When the triumph comes, gilding the past sacrifices or driving them from memory, God will be on every lip. The whole nation will be implored to come and kneel before the altars. Royalty and nobility and military, judges and stockbrokers and working men—above all, a surging, thrilling, ecstatic mass of women—will gather round the clergy, and will avow that they see the finger of God in this glorious consummation. The relation of the war to God will then become the supreme consideration for the Christian mind. It may be more instructive to consider it now, before the last flood of emotion pours over our judgments.
I have already discussed some of the clerical allusions to the share of God in the war. They are so frankly repellent that one cannot be surprised that the majority of the clergy prefer to be silent on that point. They prefer to await the victory and build on its more genial and indulgent emotions. The war is either a blessing or a curse. One would think that there was not much room for choice, but we saw that some are bold enough to hint that the spiritual good may outweigh the bodily pain. They remind us of a Treitschke or a Bernhardi writing smugly of the moral grandeur of war, the need to brace the slackness of human nature periodically by war, the chivalry and devotion it calls out, and so on.
Still worse is the theory of those who regard war frankly as a curse, yet put it to the direct authorship of the Almighty. This theory is natural enough in the minds of men and women who believe in hell. In earlier ages men could not distinguish between the law of retaliation and the need to deter criminals by using violence against them when they transgressed. In many primitive systems of justice the law of retaliation is expressly consecrated. It is even introduced, inconsistently and as a survival of barbaric times, in the Babylonian and the Judaic codes, side by side with saner views. It is, of course, merely a systematisation of brute passion. In the beginning, if a man knocked your tooth out, you knocked one of his teeth out. With the growth of law and justice, the barbarous nature of the impulse was recognised, and the community, by its representatives, inflicted a "punishment" on the offender instead of allowing the offended to retaliate. With the modern improvement of moral sentiments we have realised that this is an imperfect advance on the barbaric idea. The community has no more right to "punish" than the offended individual had. We now impose hardship on an offender only for the purpose of intimidating him from repeating the offence, or of deterring others from offending. The idea is still somewhat crude, and a third stage will in time be reached; but it is satisfactory that we now—not since the advent of Christianity, but since the rise of modern humanism—all admit that the only permissible procedure is deterrence, and not punishment as such.
It may seem ungracious to be ever repeating that these improvements did not take place during the period of Christian influence, but in the recent period of its decay. There is, however, in this case a most important and urgent reason for emphasising the fact. I say that we all admit the more humane conception of punishment, but this must be qualified. In human affairs we do: Carlyle was, perhaps, the last moralist to cling to the old conception. But in the religious world the old idea has been flagrantly retained. The doctrine of eternal punishment is clearly based on the barbaric old idea that a prince whose dignity has been insulted may justly inflict the most barbarous punishment on the offender. Theologians have, since the days of Thomas Aquinas, wasted whole reams of parchment in defending the dogma of hell, because they knew nothing whatever of comparative jurisprudence and the evolution of moral ideas. To us the development of the doctrine is clear. In the Christian doctrine of hell we have a flagrant survival of the early barbaric theory of punishment. Modern divines—while continuing to describe the non-religious view of life as "superficial" and the Christian as "profound"—have actually yielded to the modern sentiment, and in a very large measure rejected one of the fundamental dogmas of the Christian tradition. In order to conceal the procedure as far as possible, some of them are now contending brazenly that Christ never taught the doctrine of eternal punishment, and are deluding their uncultivated congregations with sophistical manipulations of Greek words.
This does not mean that Christians have lower moral sentiments than non-Christians, but that the rigidity of their traditions, which they regard as sacred and unalterable, imposes restrictions on them. Hence the fact that, while Protestants have so very largely rejected the doctrine of hell, Roman Catholics, with their more rigid conservatism and claim of infallibility, still cling to it, and offer the amazing spectacle of a body claiming to possess the highest ideals in the world, yet actually cherishing an entirely barbaric theory. There is probably not a Catholic lawyer in the world who does not reject the old idea of punishment as barbaric, yet he placidly believes that God retains it. That is why we find a Catholic archbishop like Carr putting forth so revolting an idea of the war, while Protestant preachers as a rule shrink from mentioning God in connection with it. These things make it impossible for one to understand how non-Christians can say, as they do sometimes, that if they were to accept a creed, it would be the Roman creed.
Any theory of the war which proceeds on the lines of the hell-theory is simply barbaric, and is beneath serious discussion. We know to-day that both ethics and religion are in a state of constant evolution. We look back over a stream of several thousand years of historically traceable development; we follow that stream faintly through earlier tens of thousands of years in the ideas of primitive peoples; and we see the evolution going on plainly in the creeds and ethical codes of our own time. But the practice of registering certain stages of this evolution in sacred books or codes, which are then imposed on man for centuries or millennia as something unalterable, has been and is a very serious hindrance to development, both in ethics and religion. It is all the worse because these codes and sacred books always contain certain elements which belong to even earlier and less enlightened stages, and whole regiments of philosophers or theologians are employed for ages in putting glosses on ancient and barbaric ideas at which the world eventually laughs. However, we need not linger here over these ancient ways of regarding life. The man who keeps his God at a moral level which we disdain ourselves rarely listens to argument. He protects his "faith" by believing that it is a mortal sin (involving sentence of hell) to read any book that would examine it critically. It is a most ingenious arrangement by which the doctrine of a vindictive God protects itself against moral progress.
Now any suggestion that God sent this war upon Europe—whether as a judgment on the clergy, or a judgment on unbelievers, or a judgment on the arrogance of the Germans, etc.—is part of this old barbarism, and may be disregarded. It conceives that God is vindictive, and at the same time assures us that Christianity sternly condemns vindictiveness. It allows God to deal mighty blows at those who affront him, and tells men to bear affront with patience and turn the other cheek to the smiter. It is simply part of that mixture and confusion of old and new ideas which a codified religion always exhibits. We pass it by, and turn to more serious considerations. I pass by also eccentric ideas of Deity like those of Sir Oliver Lodge or Mr. G. B. Shaw—two oracles who have been singularly silent on the religious aspect of the war. Let us examine the main religious problem as broadly and as honestly as we can.
The first and chief reflection that occurs to any man who does thus seriously examine the relation of the war to theism is that, after all, it is not so easy to disentangle theology from the crude old doctrines which our more liberal divines think they have abandoned. They tell us that they do not believe in a vindictive Deity, they disdain the doctrine of eternal punishment, they smile at many of the Judaic conceptions of Jehovah in the Old Testament. God is the all-holy and benevolent ruler of the universe. They refuse to believe that the souls of sinners and unbelievers are tortured for ever after death, and trust the whole scheme of things to the love and justice of God.
The grave difficulty of this enlightened theology, indeed of all theology, is the immense amount of pain and evil in the universe, and this mighty war we are considering puts it in a very acute form. It is amusing to look back on some of the lines of apologetics in recent years. There was a school of people, following some "profound" religious thinker, who held that evil was "only relative." They made the wonderful discovery that everything real is good, in the metaphysical sense, and evil is unreal. Evil, they said, is merely the negation, the falling-short, of good; and you do not ask for the creator or cause of a negative thing. More recently a school endeavoured to come to their assistance with the discovery that pain does not really exist at all. One did not need to know philosophy or science in order to realise that a sensation of pain is just as positive and real a thing as a sensation of pleasure; or that, although death is only the negation of life, one is really entitled to ask why one's dear child is thus "negated" at the age of six or twelve. Then there came this new school with its discovery that pain does not exist. Death, of course, is an entry into a more glorious life beyond; pain is an illusion to be banished by resolute thought. These childish symposia were interrupted every few years by some disastrous earthquake, the sinking of a great liner, an epidemic of disease, a famine, and so on; but the pious philosophers bravely struggled on. One may trust that the war has reduced them to silence, and that we need not linger over them.
Then there was the school which sought desperately to find good in evil. A man or woman is stricken with disease. Very often it brings with it a softening, an improvement, of character; either in the patient or in the nurses, or in both. Our religious philosophers fancied they caught in this a glimpse of the divine plan: cancer was an instrument of righteousness in the hands of the Almighty, the bacillus of tuberculosis was a moral agency. They detected cases in which adverse fortune had sobered and softened a man: the finger of Providence. In France there was a very considerable return to the Catholic Church, and recovery of its power, after the disastrous war of 1870. In the south of Italy there is always much less sexual freedom for a time after an earthquake has buried a few tens of thousands under the ruins of their houses. I would undertake to fill a quarto volume with instances of good things which arose out of or followed upon evil experiences. We saw that the present war is being examined in the same respect. There are "great spiritual opportunities": hundreds of thousands of young men are being compelled (by the authorities) to go to church who had not been for years; the different denominations are fraternising as they never did before; the churches are rather fuller than they had been of late: charity is awakened on a prodigious scale; zeal for an ideal (the violated peace of Belgium) is dragging men even from our slums to the colours. Here again one could at least fill a moderate treatise with the things achieved; and beyond them all is the unuttered vision of the crowded churches at the triumphant close of the war, perhaps that long-coveted religious revival.
There is no doubt whatever that this theory of the war will be assiduously pressed when nature has drawn her green mantle once more over the blackened area of the war and our hearts are lifted up by thought of victory. It is already being urged, and I would add a little to the comments I have already passed on it.
The clergy would do well to realise that, whatever virtue this theory may have in soothing the minds and dissolving the doubts of their followers, to an outsider it seems monstrous. In the first place, it includes no sense of proportion, and amounts to a colossal untruth. We must surely take into account the amount of evil inflicted and the amount of good that ensues. Take sickness, for instance. One would imagine that, if Christians seriously believe that illness is sent by God to achieve certain salutary modifications of character, they ought strenuously to oppose the modern determination to reduce disease to a minimum. They do not, and would, on the contrary, soon reduce to silence any religious crank who proposed it. They know perfectly well that the cases of "spiritual advantage" from illness bear no proportion whatever to the amount of suffering in the world. Slight but painful illnesses rarely have any beneficent effect on character; very frequently the reverse. Any large city, at any given moment, is racked with pains which do but give rise to curses, or a polite equivalent. Most of the irritation and perversion of character is due to morbid influences. And for every case in which a long illness issues in some signal advance of character, a hundred others could be quoted in which the illness was an unmitigated calamity. So it is with bereavement and with adversity of fortune. Look honestly into the experience of any class of the community, and ask in what proportion of cases narrowness of means, especially after comfort, brings a "spiritual advantage."
So it is above all with this war. Any man who thinks that the awful perversion of the character of a great European people, the death of such vast numbers in such painful circumstances, the ruin of further millions, and all the innumerable ugly results of a great war, were worth bringing about in order to secure a few spiritual advantages has neither sense of proportion nor sense of decency nor sense of humour. The theory would be too repulsive if it were put in this plain form, and it is more usual merely to point out these good results and hint that war is not absolutely and in every respect an evil. As if any person ever said that it was. The point is simple, and ought not to be obscured. A few incidental advantages do not reconcile us to this colossal misery, suffering, and waste, and do not in the slightest degree alleviate the position of the man who thinks that God directed human events to this awful consummation. If an earthly ruler employed such agencies to educate his subjects, with such an extraordinary disproportion between the suffering inflicted and the results attained, what should we think of him?
The parallel reminds us that of infinite wisdom we expect infinitely more than of a human ruler. Once unintelligent nature had a crude, wasteful, hard method of producing new and higher types of life. Man, having intelligence, produces the same result without waste or suffering. We expect immeasurably higher procedure of such an intelligence as Christians ascribe to God. One can understand the man who says that the plan of such an intelligence might be beyond human ken, but I am discussing the opinions of people who contend that they bring it within human ken. In fact, there is no need here to remind us of the mysteriousness of the ways of an infinite intelligence. If the war was designed for certain practical uses, such as those we have had suggested by various divines, one may reply at once that a more brutal and unjust way of attaining those ends could not have been devised. It is almost impossible to conceive any man seriously entertaining the notion. Yet all the jubilation and thanksgiving that will follow the war, all the supplication that accompanies its fortunes to-day, and the whole teaching of Christian theology, imply that God did direct the political movements and military ambitions which have culminated in the war. Even a human statesman could have devised a less terrible method of attaining any end that has yet been conceived for the war. The idea of the war as a punishment is quite logical and intelligible, though five hundred years out of date. But the idea of the war as a medicinal or an educative process has neither logic nor intelligibility, and does not even attain that consistency with modern ethical sentiments which it seeks. The colossal amount of suffering inflicted on innocent people and on children puts it entirely out of court.
Thirdly, this theory, as I said, raises the question whether the end justifies the means. Here we have another illustration of the way in which Christian dogma keeps the Christian conscience in many matters behind the ethical sentiment of the age. Many liberal divines would express genuine repugnance at Archbishop Carr's view of the war; yet some of the most liberal of these divines and laymen are almost as backward in another direction. They justify the world-process through which we are struggling on the ground that it will, we hope, issue in a nobler order of things: of the war, in particular, that hope is entertained, and to the war, accordingly, this theory of justification is applied. That is a case of the end justifying the means. Christian thinkers are advancing so rapidly and erratically that in some cases we are not clear whether the writer does or does not regard God as infinite in power and intelligence. We may ignore these few cases. The vast majority emphatically hold that view. In their regard we can say only what has been said a hundred times. Whether you speak of the world-process in general or any particular cruel phase of it, such as this war, you maintain that God chose, out of many conceivable ways, the one way that is marked by cruelty and suffering. An infinite God is not so confined in the choice of means. And just as we say of the world-process in general, that to build the sunnier lives of a remote generation on the sufferings of this and earlier generations implies a grave injustice to us, so we must say of the war. No spiritual advantages to those who survive will reconcile us to the suffering and the loss of those who fell in the tragic combat. I speak impersonally. It happens that I have no near relatives of military age, and neither I nor any near relative is likely to suffer by the war. But when I brood over the agony of the less fortunate millions, over the harrowing experience of Belgians, Poles, and Serbs, over the whole ghastly orgy of blood and tears in Europe, I feel unutterable disdain of these paltry efforts to justify the ways of God to man.
Let us look a little deeper into the matter. No doubt the plain statement that God "sent" or caused this war will excite a certain repugnance in many Christian minds. They will prefer to say that God "permitted" it. Man has "free will," and it is the plan of providence to give a certain play to this free will. When man has bruised his shins—more frequently the shins of other people—God may, on being supplicated sufficiently, issue his veto and put matters right. I am quite acquainted, from a severe theological education, with the more learned language in which this theory is expressed by theologians, but I prefer to deal with it as it exists in the words of most preachers and the minds of most Christians.
It would be impossible here to deal at any length with the doctrine of free will. Unless you conceive it in some novel and irrelevant sense, as Professor Bergson does, it is a very much disputed thing amongst the experts whose business it is to inform us on the subject—our psychologists. The majority of modern psychologists seem to reject it altogether. On the other hand, no theologian has ever yet reconciled it in any intelligible scheme with the supposed omnipotence of God. But it is not necessary to enter into these abstruse considerations. Let us take the matter in the concrete.
We look back to-day on a long series of processes and circumstances which culminate in the war. There is the whole history of Germany for a hundred and fifty years inspiring the German people with a bias toward aggressive war; there are the economic and geographical circumstances which, at the end of the nineteenth century, begin to make it think again of aggressive war; there is the overflowing population, bred by order of the clergy who stupidly condemn an artificial restriction of births; there is the coincident trouble of Austria with the Slavs, of England with its subject peoples, and so on. In the eyes of the careful student a hundred lines of circumstance and development have led to this war. The melodramatic idea that it all springs from the free will of the Kaiser, or of a group of soldiers and statesmen, need not be seriously considered. Moreover, even when we introduce the personal element—and the personality of the Kaiser has had a very considerable influence—it is foolish to throw the whole burden on free will. The mood and outlook and ambition of the Kaiser take their colour from his notoriously morbid nervous frame. In a word, you have a mighty concurrence of movements, whether acts of will or otherwise, converging in all parts of Europe toward this war. Was God indifferent to the whole of those movements?
Those movements are particularly traceable in Europe during the last fourteen years. Before that there was a similar concurrence of movements eventuating in the South African War; and in the meantime a series of processes and circumstances had given us the Russo-Japanese War and the Balkan-Turkish War and the Mexican War. So we might go over the wars of the nineteenth century and all earlier wars. The "permissiveness" or indifference of the ruler of the universe grows amazingly. In the meantime we had mighty catastrophes like the sinking of the Titanic and other ships, the earthquakes at Messina and elsewhere, famines and epidemics and floods in various places, and great numbers of murders, railway and other accidents, etc. We begin to ask where the ruling of the universe comes in at all, and, as far as human events go, all that we can gather in the way of reply is that sometimes individuals who pray very fervently get their diseases healed or their coffers filled; and even these claims do not pass rational inquiry.
Now here is the precise difficulty of the unbeliever, and this present tragedy makes it acute. We ask our neighbour, or seek in some learned theological treatise, what are the indications of this government of the universe, and we are told about the making of stars and the decoration of flowers and the putting of instincts into animals or pretty patterns on their skins. But when we point out that the really important thing in our part of the universe is this human life of ours, imperfectly protected as yet against disease and malice (which is largely disease) and natural forces, the theologian has no clear evidence to produce. Even the evidence he draws from stars and flowers and peacocks' tails and sunsets, with which he is, as a rule, very imperfectly acquainted, is, of course, heatedly disputed, and the proper authorities on these subjects are, on the whole, not well disposed toward his interpretation. But we need not consider that here. Where we should most logically expect the hand of Providence is in the human order, because in that order catastrophe is infinitely more important, in view of man's capacity for pain. Yet it is precisely in regard to this order that the theologian is vaguest and least satisfactory. He talks grandly of God moving every atom in the universe, counting the hairs of our heads, numbering (but not preventing) the fall of the sparrows, and so on; but when we ask for the evidence of God's concern with contemporary human events he is very vague if they are good events, and, if they are evil, he hastily disclaims any interference of the Deity. Some of our more advanced theologians are claiming that the finest improvement they have made in their science is to have brought God from without the universe (where no theologian had ever put him) and make him immanent in it. But they seem just as incapable as the others to trace his interposition in human events.
Theologians still maintain a valiant and stubborn fight against scientific men, but they do not fight historians. They are very keen on maintaining the influence of God over atoms and stars and roses and birds, but not half so keen to vindicate it in the life of man. The story of the world, our world, may be divided into three chapters: a chapter describing the moulding of the globe and the rocks, a chapter describing the slow evolution of the plants and animals, and a chapter describing the antics and fortunes of man. Some may surrender the first chapter to science, some the second chapter, but it looks as if they all surrender the third. They have long been accustomed to surrender the early part, and very much the longer and more laborious part, of man's story to natural forces, or the devil. Then there was a melodramatic notion that God, after the lapse of hundreds of thousands of years, began to take an interest in one very small people and kept revealing things to it, and smiting its enemies, until Christianity was given to the world. History tells the story in a totally different way. We find the stream of moral and religious evolution flowing steadily on nineteen hundred years ago, much as we do to-day. At this point, of course, the theologian does make a struggle with the historian. In proportion to the imperfectness of his culture and the backwardness and conservatism of his Church, he fights for miraculous interpositions in human events nineteen hundred years ago. But we need not delay to examine that difference of opinion, because the later period suffices for my purpose.
A few theologians, not well acquainted with history, see another miraculous interposition in the fourth century, when Christianity was established; and the Roman Catholic—in the intellectual rear, as usual—believes in hundreds of miraculous interpositions, in small matters, as late as the year 1914. But in order to take a broad view of the matter we may leave these controversies with the more reactionary on one side. The history of Europe for the last fifteen centuries at least is now entrusted to able laymen, and it has been purged of divine interpositions. Innumerable myths and legends, often based on what are now acknowledged to be spurious documents, have been cast out of the science, and we are presented with a quite continuous and purely natural sequence of events. Religious historians like Bishop Creighton or Lord Bryce do not find their periods broken by divine interpositions; the writers of the Cambridge History do not occasionally arrest us before some great event and warn us that the chain of human causation seems to be obscure or discontinuous. There are, of course, problems of history, but they are not obscurities which, like the obscure places in science, tempt the theologian to enter and claim a divine interposition. The story is from beginning to end—to use Nietzsche's phrase—"human, all too human." On the whole, as it has been hitherto written, it is a story of wars, and, though patriotic piety puts its gloss on the issue of a war here and there, the historian does not find any serious problem in them. No French historian will now claim divine action in the Napoleonic wars, and assuredly few of us are prepared to see the finger of God in the fortunate issue of Prussia's many campaigns since Frederick the Great.
Whatever we may think of the cosmic process generally, the human part of that process does not encourage a theological interpretation. Man is working out his own destiny, and doing it ill. We see him, like some pedlar plodding along a country road under his burdens, carrying through whole centuries institutions and ideas and follies that he will eventually shed. When he drops them, there is no more element of miracle or revelation in his action than when he discovers the use of steam or of aluminium or of the spectroscope. His mind expands and his ideals rise. It is a little incongruous to suppose that some infinitely wiser and affectionate parent was looking on all the time and giving no assistance. In the dialogue between Mephistopheles and God which Goethe prefixes to his Faust, the devil obviously scores. In the sight of such an intelligence man must have made a pretty fool of himself during the last 1500 years. We human beings are more charitable. Take the whole story as the gradual development of human intelligence and emotion under unfavourable political conditions, hampered by a despotic and perverse clergy, and it seems natural enough.
This is the impression one gets from history, and the nearer history is to our own time and the better we know it, the less it suggests a divine guidance. There is something parochial or rural about the average Christian way of looking at events. One day the German Christian goes to church to thank God for driving the Russians out of East Prussia; the next day the English Christian thanks the same God for killing or wounding 20,000 Germans at Neuve Chapelle—with the help of 350 guns. Yet such things as these are the only claims we have offered to us of the action of God in human events. Neither the steps that man takes onward nor the steps that he takes backward are ascribed to divine influence. All that is claimed is that when a ship goes down, for instance, he saves the saved, and "permits" the rest to be drowned; when a war has been raging for a few months by his "permission," he puts a stop to it when one army is worn out. The unbeliever is really entitled to a good deal of sympathy for his inability to follow this tortuous reasoning with confidence. One cannot entirely blame him for being more interested in the heart of man than in the petals of a rose.
These considerations are, of course, not novel. I am only applying to this special case of the war a difficulty that has been discussed in all ages, and has been acutely felt by very able religious thinkers. How a group of bishops can sit down to write, in very deliberate and elegant language, that such a calamity as this makes the soul more sensible of "the approach of Christ" is one of the many little mysteries of the clerical mind. It has precisely the opposite effect in any logical mind. When the way of life is smooth, and our nation or home is prospering, we may be genially disposed to think that God is near and is looking after us as well as the sparrows. But when a black storm bursts suddenly and disastrously on us; when the earth shakes their roofs on ten thousand of our fellows, or a great ship strikes a rock and pours a laughing crowd suddenly into the lap of death; when vast provinces are laid desolate by war, and we see the tens of thousands clasping the hand of their loved ones for the last time, it seems rather uncanny that this should suggest to any person the approach of Christ. To very many people it is a confirmation of the general impression they get from the world-process and the story of man: that these great forces deploy and interlace and build up and destroy without the slightest intervention from without.
In our time, we must remember, this difficulty had already been enormously increased. St. Augustine, who felt the problem acutely in the prime of his intelligence, had really a very much lighter task than the modern divine. He had merely to suggest why evil was permitted in the narrow world he knew; and he had the great advantage of being able to appeal to a primitive sin and primitive punishment of the race. The problem became more serious when original sin, or at least the notion that the race might justly be damned for one man's fault, was abandoned. It became graver still when science discovered the tombs of inhabitants of this globe who had lived during millions of earlier years, and showed that the very law of their life and progress was struggle against evil. Every attempt to minimise the struggle of those earlier ages has failed. At a time when there was no possibility of "spiritual advantage" there was acute consciousness of pain, the struggle and suffering were prodigious. Theistic literature of the last half century, growing more weary and more wistful in each decade, reflects the increasing difficulty. If any man can see in this war a relief of the difficulty, and not an appalling accentuation and illustration of it, he must be gifted with a peculiar type of mind and emotion. It is more probable that an increasing number will conclude that, if God is indifferent to these things, they will be indifferent to him. Professor William James, in his Varieties of Religious Experience, declared that the only gods the men of the new generation would recognise would be gods of some use to them. The war does not encourage the chances of the Christian God.A few modern religious thinkers seem to imagine that they have found some relief by devising the formula that God's plan is to "co-operate with man," and in those modern advances which I have freely admitted they see indications of this co-operation. This new formula is not a whit better than the other phrases which have, at various stages, been regarded by religions people as profound thoughts. In the recent history of moral progress we have, as a rule, a minority of high-minded men and women struggling to impress their sentiments on the inert majority. The new theologian is not daunted in the application of his theory by the fact that a large proportion of these pioneers did not believe in God at all, so I will not discuss that aspect; though no doubt the plain man will find it interesting to trace how, in the earlier and more difficult days of modern humanism, so few of the reformers were Christian ministers and so many Rationalists. From the historical point of view, however, we find this line of development quite intelligible. We find, for instance, Robert Owen (a great Rationalist) advocating the substitution of arbitration for war nearly a century ago, and we discover the earlier sources of Owen's enthusiasm in English Radicals like Godwin, who were affected by the early French Revolutionaries, who had been influenced by Rousseau, and so on. It is a quite natural evolution of ideas, as they find a congenial soil in each generation in certain types of temperament. But where are the traces or what was the nature of God's co-operation with these men? Looking to their generally heterodox character and the hostility of the Churches to them, the idea is not without humour; but, even if we reconcile ourselves to this peculiar feature, anything in the nature of positive evidence of divine action is wholly lacking, and we can understand the whole process without it. The theory is merely a desperate and unfounded assertion of men who are determined that God shall not be left out.
There is a further grave difficulty. One would imagine that the kind of paternal affection which is ascribed to God would have induced him to intervene at an earlier stage. The kind of father who co-operates with the more gifted and ambitious of his children, and does nothing for the less gifted and sluggish, is a narrow-minded and narrow-hearted man. Affection turns rather to those who cannot help themselves, or who need judicious and constant inspiration. This view we are considering is even less flattering to God, because the aspiring children of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries seem able to dispense with his co-operation, while the ignorant and priest-ridden children of earlier ages could do little of themselves. The theologians who have found this new formula are of the more liberal school. They do not attribute all the blunders and crimes and failures of the Middle Ages to free will, to a sheer and deliberate obstinacy in clinging to evil. They realise the overpowering nature of the environment and the drastic discouragement by the clergy of anything like novelty or initiative in ethics. It was then that man needed God, if there is a God. But, on this theory, God argued with the academic wisdom of a medieval theologian; he concluded that medieval men were quite capable of originating modern ideas, and he would not co-operate until they did. The theory is preposterous in every respect.
Finally, we have the very large class of candid or of hopelessly puzzled Christians who give up the matter as a mystery. They do not understand how this ruling of the universe which they seem to see clearly in stars and flowers should become so obscure or disappear altogether in the human order. They realise that, if this war were an isolated occurrence, they might imagine God holding his hand for a season, for some reason unknown to us; but they know that it is not an isolated occurrence: it is part of the human order of things. It has been preceded by other wars at intervals of every few years, and war itself is only one of a series of catastrophes and calamities that splash the human chronicle with innocent blood. They give it up, sorrowfully, and find a thin consolation in learned formulæ about the impossibility of a finite mind understanding an infinite mind, and so on: which give, as I say, thin consolation, for one may at least see that an infinite benevolence ought not to act worse than a moderate human benevolence.
Now if there were any very strong evidence of divine ruling outside the human order, we might find a certain amount of logic in this position. The mystery of a God who moves the stars and inspires the bees, yet leaves man to his own unhappy impulses (after putting those impulses in him), would be, one imagines, painful enough; but if there were irresistible evidence that God does move the stars and quicken the bird and beast, we might be compelled to reconcile ourselves to that unhappy dilemma. There is, however, no such irresistible evidence. This is not the place to examine such evidence as is adduced. I must be content to recall the fact that it is all highly controverted; that theologians tear to pieces each other's "proofs" of the existence of God; and that a large and increasing body of cultivated men and women discard the evidence entirely. So that, in the last resort, the situation is this: on the one hand we have a number of very disputable suggestions, which are growing fainter in proportion as science investigates these matters, of divine action in stars and rocks and reptiles, and on the other hand we have a stupendous mass of suffering, starting millions of years ago at the very birth of consciousness and piled up mountains high in this year 1915, which no thinker has ever yet reconciled with the notion of a divine ruling of the life of man. This is a very grave and plain situation, and if the clergy have nothing more to say about it than to borrow from an ancient Hebrew certain offensive gibes at the unbeliever, or to offer us the kind of apologies we examined in the last chapter, one must conclude that they do not realise the situation. The war has terribly accentuated the most terrible difficulty they ever had to face. Whether there is intelligence manifested in nature is, after all, an academic question which does not profoundly stir the modern world. Whether there is benevolence, a moral personality, reflected in the course of man's history is the much more important question. And this appalling calamity will induce many to take a more candid view of the world-process and conclude that, as far as the critical eye can see, man's world seems to be left entirely to his own efforts, to his own crimes and blunders and aspirations.