Responding to the Great War


My recent book Through Mud and Barbed Wire explores the way in which two religious thinkers – Paul Tillich, a German Lutheran, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a French Jesuit – responded to their experience of the Western Front.  It looks at their experience of battle, the emotional impact it had on them, and the ideas that took shape as a result of witnessing death and destruction on such an unprecedented scale. It asks whether any religious beliefs can withstand such experiences and what belief in God can and should mean in such a situation.  What did they do? How did they cope? How did they end up offering a positive view of humanity and its future?  Is religious belief simply delusion, or a form of therapy?

Here’s how the Personal Introduction ends…

‘It was, for both men, an experience like no other. For Tillich, it was the one and only significant turning point in his life, while Teilhard, looking back, considered the mud of Douaumont – the largest of the forts around Verdun, lost and won back by the French at terrible cost – to be of greater importance for him than all the intellectual possibilities of Paris or the enticements of the orient, which were to influence his later life. Both men went to war full of conventional optimism and, although shaken by their experience, they re-built – each in his own idiosyncratic way – an optimistic philosophy. How was that possible?

Of course, Tillich and Teilhard were not the only ones to ponder matters philosophical under fire. The French philosopher Emile Chartier was working on the first draft of his book Mars, or the Truth about War, during the battles of 1916 and, on the Eastern front, Ludwig Wittgenstein, having opted for the most lonely and potentially suicidal of posts, guiding artillery from a dugout in no-man’s-land, started noting down ‘The world is all that is the case’ for his seminal work Tractatus. While back on the Western front, a frustrated young artist by the name of Adolf Hitler was reading Schopenhauer, brooding on the perceived injustices wrought upon his fatherland, and hoping one day to become a philosopher and a great leader. They too will have a part to play in this story.

Individually, Tillich and Teilhard fascinated me; together they beguiled me. This book attempts to pay them critical homage. So let us try to enter imaginatively into their thinking as they joined the millions of others who marched into the madness and horror of The Great War.

To see more about the book click here.


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