For as long as I’ve been a teacher of theology, I’ve been telling students that the very best theology of the 20th century was written in an environment of War. This was true for Karl Barth’s famous Epistle to the Romans (1916) – certainly the most important protestant theological work written in the context of World War I. This book, more than any other, offered a devastating critique of liberal optimism, which tended to equate the kingdom of God with the best aspirations of European civilization in much the same way that so many Americans conflate our Christian hope with one party platform or another, or perhaps with technical and economic progress. For Barth, liberal protestantism’s inability to make sense of a war where Christians slaughtered each other by the millions was proof enough that something was terribly wrong with the reigning paradigm. Thus, he insisted that “God is not Man Writ Large.” Barth was among the most important theological voices to oppose Nazism and Facism during the Second World War as well, but he was certainly not alone. Indeed, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Henri de Lubac, and many others produced much of their best work in Wartime. Why is this?
In his sermon, “Learning in Wartime,” C.S. Lewis has a few answers for us. For instance, in the passage below, he suggests that War brings the inevitability of death into focus. It helps us to see life in light of an end which has always been there but which we may be too easily inclined to ignore.
What does war do to death? It certainly does not make it more frequent; 100 per cent of us die, and the percentage cannot be increased. It puts several deaths earlier; but I hardly suppose that that is what we fear. Certainly when the moment comes, it will make little difference how many years we have behind us. Does it increase our chance of a painful death? I doubt it. As far as I can find out, what we call natural death is usually preceded by suffering; and a battlefield is one of the very few places where one has a reasonable prospect of dying with no pain at all. Does it decrease our chances of dying at peace with God? I cannot believe it. If active service does not persuade a man to prepare for death, what conceivable concatenation of circumstance would? Yet war does do something to death. It forces us to remember it. The only reason why the cancer at sixty or the paralysis at seventy-five do not bother us is that we forget them. War makes death real to us: and that would have been regarded as one of its blessings by most of the great Christians of the past. They thought it good for us to be always aware of our mortality. I am inclined to think they were right.
From time to time, I’ll post some of my favorite “theology in wartime” gems in the hope that they will enable us to “be always aware of our mortality,” as Lewis recommends.