Thoughts On Religion At The Front - Ch. 5
( Originally Published 1917 )
I RECUR, then, to my verdict that on the whole there is not a great revival of the Christian religion at the front.
Why is this ?
First, war is war, and, what is more, this war is this war. I will not attempt to paint the picture. Every one must realise by now that the main concentration of all military effort is directed at creating in the trenches an ever-intenser inferno of heavy shells. In a great army there is every degree of risk to be run or immunity to be enjoyed ; but at the very front, where all is stripped and laid bare, modern warfare is at times a furnace of horror. Its smoke darkens the heavens, thickening the " clouds and darkness " round about God, and deepening His silence. Its white heat scorches out human confidence in Him.
He does not seem to count. There are stars in the darkness of war stars which are the achievements of man's indomitable spirit. But Godward there seems sometimes to be great darkness.
Further, war, despite all the easy things said in its praise, is a great iniquity. It is, as others have said, hell. As an environment to the soul it is, for all the countervailing heroisms of men, a world of evil power let loose.
And, again, war abounds in a number of trials— mostly associated with the extremes of heat and cold and damp and fatigue—for which, as the phrase goes, religion seems not to afford the slightest relief. It is a very physical business, squeezing out or overlaying the spiritual in men, though powerless wholly to extinguish it. War being what it is, the absence of religious revival during its course is not surprising. I have come to be very doubtful whether there is truth in the prevalent notion that war as such and automatically makes men better.
Secondly, that element in religion which can survive the weather of war must be a very hardy growth, something deeply engrained and habitual something rock-built. And that is just what is lacking among men of our race. As an Anglican priest I reach here a glaring fact about the English Church. The war reveals that there are few men in its loose membership who are possessed by arid instructed in its faith. Religion, as taught by the Church of England, has a feeble grip on the masses. They hold it in no familiar embrace. And if reasons are sought, they are partly found in the want of cutting edge to her sober comprehensive teaching, partly in the characteristics often theoretically so justifiable but practically so awkward, of the Prayer Book. There is little in our Church which corresponds to that elemental regimen or discipline which possesses simple-minded Roman Catholics. The power of cultus, of institutional and family religion, is largely absent.
To explain this brings me to a third reason why, under the stress of war, English Christianity is hardly in revival, namely, Bible difficulties. The Prayer Book comes down to us from men who were held by a belief in the literal truth of the whole Bible. In so far as it has been an effective manual for ordinary people, it has been on the strength of an absolute dogma in their minds as to the " Word of God." That dogma has in a vague and somewhat insensible way lost its hold on the common mind.
It has not the absolute and simple authority which in religion is a necessity for the little-educated. Few of the general public have thought very much about the matter, but all the more they are influenced by that which has percolated through to them from the more learned, loosening what before was firm and tight, confusing and complicating what before was starkly plain. This has been brought home to me as I have sat at sing-songs and have heard a coon-song sung entitled " The Preacher and the Bear." With apologies to the easily-shocked I will quote. The hero of the song is a coloured minister who, against his conscience, went out shooting on a Sunday, and, after good sport, on returning home was met by a grizzly bear. Taking refuge up a tree this was his prayer :
0 Lord, who delivered Daniel from the lions' den,
Here is an epitome of a far-spreading incredulity about the Bible. It is the higher criticism in its crudest popular form, and men are at the mercy of it. I have known a mess of officers engage in argument about the Bible with a sceptical Scots doctor, cleverer than they. As old-fashioned believers in the Bible they had to admit to being thoroughly "strafed " in the argument, yet they had no way out, such as an intelligent understanding of the Bible affords. One at least of them maintained stoutly that nevertheless he was going to stick to the old view, however indefensible. Such men are not free intellectually to follow the movements of religious revival. They are immo- bilised by the dead weight of Biblical literalism.
Yet if the main verdict to which I have committed myself is to be radically accounted for, it is necessary to reach deeper reasons than any I have mentioned. I sympathise with those who have high hopes of the good effects of Church and Prayer Book and Bible-teaching reforms. Yet such are relatively superficial matters. The main reason for the comparative absence of religious revival among men at the front is that we all have been overtaken by the cataclysm of war in a condition of great poverty towards God.