World War I’s impact on world religion

Philip Jenkins’ new book on World War I’s religious dimensions, The Great and Holy War, sounds fascinating. In a post about how culture can change rapidly, he sums up the changes that he describes in the book:

The First World War’s impact on faith and faiths was immense. Reacting to the war’s horrors, thinkers of many shades rebelled against claims for human reason, culture and civilization, and sought new fundamental bases for religious authority – in Catholic terms, this would be a return to original sources, or ressourcement. In Protestant Christianity, we see this reaction in the work of Karl Barth and Paul Tillich, both directly inspired by their responses to the war. More broadly, we look at thinkers like Martin Heidegger and Rudolf Otto. In the same years, the war destroyed one ancient realm of Christianity – in the Middle East – and laid the foundations for a new Christian world, in Africa.

Judaism was transformed by the war, which for the first time made the Zionist dream feasible. At the same time, the widespread sense of national betrayal – of failed participation in the ultimate apocalyptic struggle – powerfully motivated the Anti-Semitism that flourished from the 1920s onwards. Neither of the two greatest events in modern Jewish history – the Holocaust and the establishment of the state of Israel – would have been possible without the First World War, and its religious underpinnings.

Finally, the war’s outcome was critical to the modern history of Islam. The end of the Caliphate left the world’s Muslims in quest of alternatives, of a return to fundamental sources of religious authority. All the various solutions that we know in the Islamic world – from state secularism to radical Islamism – have their roots in the First World War and its immediate aftermath.

So the war sparked huge changes, and we are still living with the consequences. It marked a global religious revolution.

Studying the densely packed events of the Great War, it is often easy to forget just what a shockingly brief span of time they covered: just four years for formal hostilities, with several more years of chaos immediately following—but still less than a decade in all. And yet, as we have seen, the world changed totally in this time. Although Norman Stone was speaking chiefly of military and political trends, we readily echo his observation that “in four years, the world went from 1870 to 1940.” In religious terms, we might prefer to set the dates still wider apart—perhaps from 1850 to 1950.

I posted once before on Jenkins’ summary of the dark mood in Europe before World War I.


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