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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Through Mud and Barbed Wire

What does the experience of war do to belief in God?  Can faith survive the trenches of Verdun? Should religion be regarded as a form of therapy for those traumatised when their world falls apart?  What can ‘God’ mean in the 21st century?

The sub-title of my new book is ‘Paul Tillich, Teilhard de Chardin and God after the First World War’ – and it’s exactly that.  It moves from the battlefields of the Great War to New York in the 1950s.

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This is my first self-published book, after 37 conventionally published titles. I’ve done this in order to produce it quickly and cheaply.  The e-book is only 99p /$0.99 and the paperback £7.99 / $11.50.  No excuse for anyone not to risk buying a copy!

It’s historically based, but also seriously theological, challenging what ‘God’ has come to mean over the last hundred years.here

Here’s how it starts…

‘After they died, I discovered a strange coincidence. Among those who survived the carnage of the Great War, two of the 20th century’s greatest religious thinkers had faced one another across exactly the same stretch of the Front on the devastated hillsides to the west of Verdun in June 1916. Both went on to describe their war service as the most formative experience of their lives and, out of that hell of exploding mud and body-parts, they were to forge radical new ideas about the role of religion and the future of humanity.

They could not have been more different: one was a Lutheran pastor and philosopher, proud to be Prussian and brought up to be politically and religiously conservative; the other a French Jesuit, fascinated by science and evolution and soaked in traditional Catholicism. Separated by no more than a few hundred yards of mud and barbed wire, they struggled, each in his own way, to make sense of their faith in the face of the horrors they witnessed on the battlefield. Paul Tillich served as a Lutheran chaplain, often also as a gravedigger, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin as a stretcher-bearer. Their subsequent writings do not simply illustrate their own personal struggles with faith and their courage in the face of opposition, but shed light on some of the ways in which our thinking has changed over the last hundred years.’

For more information about this book, visit its website page here

 

Water, shade and a sense of home

Frejus

It is hard emotionally to live in a world of uniform space and time. We seek out special places and celebrate special times. ‘Home’ means more than a description of a place; it is where we belong.  Perhaps our whole life is a matter of looking for, or creating, a sense of home.  So, in the heat of what’s left of summer sunshine (we hope!) we may seek cool shade, with the sound of water in a fountain, symbolising and making real a sense of refreshment – as here in the Cathedral square in Frejus, in southern France. To me, life is all about finding such places, points on the map where we can suddenly feel comforted or ‘at home’ and develop a sense of ourselves. Our life is spread over the surface of the globe, like an overlay on a map with particular places taking on special significance for us.

Curiously, I do not choose places in which to feel ‘at home’; they choose me. No doubt they select themselves out of my on-going experience on account of memories stored in my conscious or unconscious mind, but they present themselves quite naturally, as inviting a comfortable rest and a sense of belonging. The world would be a poorer place without them.

That’s partly who I love photography; I can regularly visit places that evoke a sense of home, and in the cold of a winter’s evening recall summer’s heat and the blessing of shade and water.

An existential ladder?

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How’s this for an image of existentialism? We are in the mud, soaking wet and the tide is rising. But we come across a ladder, which itself appears to be without any visible means of support, offering the prospect of escaping upwards out of life’s sticky, downward-sucking mud. We mount, hoping that we can reach… But no, other than a general sense of satisfied authenticity, it is difficult to specify exactly where the ladder will lead us. We may end up with little more than an elevated view of the surrounding mudflats.

Having said that, I’d rather be climbing the ladder than stuck in the mud, for at least a ladder suggests that there is something we can do about our situation; somewhere to climb; some token of hope.

Personally, I think the existential questions are the most fundamental for philosophy. Let sciences deal with the nature of the physical world; what concerns me is making sense of life from a personal point of view. The quest for meaning is not like the quest for information about some external object: it’s a process to be gradually developed and refined, never complete.

I’m not sure whether existentialism should be regarded as a branch of religion, or religion as a branch of existentialism. Both offer hope and quest for meaning. Religions would not flourish were it not for existential questions and the longing that they represent; existential philosophy would not achieve much without some overall idea that life can be made meaningful and that we benefit from a sense of integrity and direction.

The only advantage existentialism has over conventional religious enquiry is that it does not require any prior supernatural or metaphysical beliefs, which can be a stumbling block to many (myself included) who tend to take a naturalistic view of life.   Perhaps the best way to relate religion and existentialism is that taken by the theologian Paul Tillich, whose ‘Systematic Theology’ sought to relate existential questions to the symbols and ideas of religion. Without existential questions, religion may appears irrelevant, or be mistaken for ancient science. As a response to existential questions, any religion may provide a form of ladder out of the mud. Just don’t expect it to be leaning up against anything solid!

And – in case you’re wondering – this photo is not Photoshopped. The ladder was just there, stuck upright. How it got there, I have absolutely no idea.  Much like religion really.

 

Commonsense and the Embodied Mind

Brain

For too long, the Philosophy of Mind has been struggling to get out of the 17th and 19th centuries – represented by the basic mind-body dualism of Descartes and the materialist reductionism which, rooted in 18th century empiricism, flowered in the 19th century, with the growing assumption that science would eventually tell us all we need to know about everything. It was not helped by the 20th century debates about meaning and the argument put forward by the Logical Positivists that empirical verification alone constituted a valid basis for factual claims, and the more recent materialist assumption that the mind is no more than a description of brain activity, an illusion to be dispelled by neuroscience.

A commonsense view of the mind recognizes that it is not the same thing as the brain, although acknowledging that the brain is the motor of mental activity. Nor does it make any sense to try to ‘locate’ the mind elsewhere. The mind is what we know and use as we experience ourselves as embodied human individuals, dependent upon our physical bodies, but enmeshed in a social and cultural world. We know what minds are because we read biographies, make friendships and interact with other people in a way that recognizes them as separate beings but in most ways much like ourselves. We also have a fundamental sense of who we are, not just through our experience of reasoning and reflecting, but in our engagement with and acknowledgement by others.

It is therefore refreshing to see that commonsense is at last breaking into the dead ends of traditional dualism and neuro-determinism. It has been a long time coming, but exemplified by such major 20th century thinkers as Husserl, Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty. The key thing – emphasized by Merleau-Ponty – is that the mind is embodied. Neatly summarized by Rachel Paine (in The Philosophers Magazine, 1st quarter, 2016), it is expressed as ‘4EA’. The four ‘E’s are:

Embodied – we are living beings within the world.

Embedded – within a social as well as a biological environment

Enactive – we build up and share our ‘world’ along with others

Extended – we are not ‘in’ the brain, but our selves extend out into the world.

added to which is the ‘A’…

Affective – we feel ourselves to be within a world with others; we do not observe a world our ourselves in a detached way, simply because we are part of the world.

To me, it makes sense to think of ourselves in this way; whereas both the reductionist approach of neuroscience and the attempt to revive a rather crude form of mind-body dualism seem to be creating problems by straining after theories that simply do not match experienced reality.

At last I sense the old cognitive log-jam in the Philosophy of Mind, is starting to shift, aided of course, by the very sensible criticisms of neuroscience offered by Raymond Tallis amongst others. Commonsense might eventually prevail.

This is my second blog post on the issue of the mind and neuroscience. If you’re interested in reading more on this topic, visit my website:

www.philosophyandethics.com

 

Walking on unsafe ground

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To me, there is is something fascinating and threatening about walking through an area of volcanic activity, as here amidst the ‘Craters of the Moon’ in North Island, New Zealand. Steam hissing from fissures in the earth; bubbling pools of hot mud; the glooping sound as bubbles of mud bust into the air; the small of sulphur. They are reminders that the habitable world is fragile, and that most of the universe is hostile to what we celebrate as life. We are, as the Buddha put it, like froth on the crest of a wave. We have nothing as of right; no environment – however carefully controlled – can ever give total protection; we tread carefully, recognising that life may not provide quite what we expect of it.

I’ve been reminded of unsafe ground recently, working on a book about two theologians who fought on opposite sides of the same part of the Front in 1916. The ground over which they worked, bringing back the dead and wounded, was as unsafe and unreal as one might possibly imagine: an interlocking series of deep and flooded shell-holes, each deadly for anyone chancing to slip down their glutinous sides.  For Paul Tillich and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, their conventional world of the pre-war years had been shattered and they spent the rest of their lives walking on what must have seemed very unsafe ground.

How we deal with the fragile and uncertain nature of life is a question for philosophy and a challenge for religion. Mostly we avoid thinking about it, comforted by the familiar. But it does not take much – a medical examination, an accident, an unexpected redundancy or bereavement or, as in today’s news, a horrendous mudslide, to rekindle the sense of our own vulnerability.

Morbid thoughts?  Perhaps, but also realistic ones. Celebrate when you can, but always count yourself lucky; you never know what’s ahead.

Courage, action and philosophy

Teilhard

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.