Morning coffee on arrival at the Front, near Verdun, in 1916. The man on the right of the group is Teilhard de Chardin, the French scientist and religious mystic. A moment of normality and comradeship in the midst of hell. How did they find the courage to go on? And how did it shape Teilhard’s theology? (This image was published in the Teilhard Album, published by Collins, its provenance and copyright are being sought.)
I’m working on a book about the First World War and the impact it had on two religious thinkers – Paul Tillich and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin – the one a German Protestant chaplain, the other a French Catholic stretcher-bearer. By chance, they found themselves on opposite sides of the exactly the same ridge to the west of Verdun in 1916. The experience of the war was to shape their thinking and their lives, until both found themselves living as exiles in New York, the one having been banned from Germany by the Nazis, the other from France by the Jesuit hierarchy.
In exploring their lives, I find that their story touches on many issues in philosophy and theology that have developed over the last century. With just one chapter to go in the penultimate draft, here is the concluding paragraph of Chapter 10, where I have been exploring how men found the courage to enter into the hell of the trenches.
‘It is a feature of the best philosophy and theology that, beyond critical analysis or dogma, it encourages us to think about the values and goals to which we commit ourselves. Its value is illustrated by the courage of those who act, with their eyes open, in a world where the future always appears uncertain but the past, with hindsight, sadly inevitable.’
Does the world make sense? Are we fated to attempt to make sense of it? How, in times of confusion or trauma, do we find the courage to act decisively? War – and especially the monstrous experience of entering a killing ground across mud and barbed wire – sets a question mark over all our easy philosophical and religious assumptions.
Through Mud and Barbed Wire is scheduled to be self-published (my first attempt at circumventing the conventional publishing route) this autumn.