Folk religious practices in World War I

Philip Jenkins writes that there is quite a bit of evidence that World War I soldiers were quite a bit more attuned to the supernatural than is often portrayed:

Numerology came into its own, as soldiers tried to calculate the war’s end by adding together the digits in special dates such as the beginning and end of the war of 1870–71. One popular attempt cited by Bächtold-Stäubli predicted the end of the current war as November 11, 1915—an impressive coincidence in terms of the month and day, although off by three years on the actual year. The prophecy demonstrates the widespread expectation that such a war could not conceivably last more than a year or so, which helps to explain the stupefied despair that resulted as it dragged on into its fourth and fifth years.

Catholics in particular had access to a rich arsenal of protective supernatural resources, in the form of rosaries and holy medals. A German soldier tasked with burying the dead noted that most of the soldiers bore a medal of the Immaculate Virgin. Devout Catholics wore the scapular, a pair of simple holy images worn over the chest and back and tied together with light woolen cloth over the shoulders. As scapulars were believed to give protection, from 1914 they became hugely popular among the soldiers and sailors of all the fighting nations.

Whether French or German, Irish or Austrian, Catholic groups sent scapulars and holy images to the fighting forces, and anecdotal evidence suggests these were widely accepted, even by individuals whose peacetime politics might have been strongly anti-religious. Protestant soldiers too developed a real affection for crucifixes and the protection they could afford. French Catholic papers delighted in reporting miracles attributed to scapulars and sacred images—of units escaping casualties during artillery barrages, of vital supplies kept safe by the Sacred Heart. Orthodox Russians, Romanians, and Serbs followed their own traditions of supernatural intervention, commonly by the Virgin or the saints.

Even these resources proved inadequate for believing families who sought to equip their menfolk with still stronger spiritual weapons. Bächtold-Stäubli tells of German mothers and wives pronouncing ritual verses and spells before sending men to the front. They even gave them a Schutzbrief, a heaven-sent letter of protection, in a model that would not have been out of place in the Thirty Years War.

Secularization in the Netherlands

A two-part analysis of Abraham Kuyper’s impact in the Netherlands by David Koyzis recently appeared at the First Things site. The first part explained Kuyper’s approach to Christian politics in the early 20th century: “During his political career, Kuyper worked, not to turn the Netherlands into a godly commonwealth, but more modestly to secure a place in the public square for his Reformed Christian (Gereformeerd) supporters in the face of the secularizing ideologies spawned by the French Revolution. He did so primarily by means of his Anti-Revolutionary Party (ARP), which would come to govern the Netherlands at various times in coalition with the Christian Historical Union (CHU) and the Roman Catholic State Party (RKSP), thus anticipating by almost a century the ecumenical effort known as Evangelicals and Catholics Together, spearheaded by Fr. Richard John Neuhaus and Chuck Colson.”

Koyzis’ second piece offers an explanation of why the Netherlands has become so secular.

During the 1960s and ’70s a number of political scientists, including Arend Lijphart and Hans Daalder, turned their professional attentions to a phenomenon they called consociationalism. In a consociational polity the leaders of mutually hostile subcultures have learned to collaborate for proximate political purposes, even as their respective constituents remain fairly isolated from the others. Power-sharing occurs at the elite level, while at the grassroots each subculture has its own churches (if applicable), labor unions, hospitals, charitable organizations, fraternal associations and so forth. This social segmentation is often referred to by the Dutch word verzuiling, or pillarization. Kuyper’s efforts led to the establishment of a variety of explicitly Christian organizations parallel to their secular counterparts. (The painter Piet Mondrian grew up in this Gereformeerd subculture.)…

Nevertheless, I have found myself wondering whether Kuyper’s perhaps too peaceful coexistence with the forces of secularization in 1917 might not have been sufficient to maintain the subculture he led over the long term. Kuyper certainly wouldn’t have been pleased by his followers’ failure to evangelize, and pillarization needn’t lead to a lack of outward strategy, but historically such power-sharing agreements place a premium on reaching a least-common-denominator form of consensus and toning down differences. In a pillarized society, the distinct subcultures became adept at erecting and maintaining barriers against the other subcultures, yet the consociational arrangements they come up with have tended to be short-lived. Lebanon’s National Pact lasted from 1943 until civil war broke out in 1975. A similar arrangement in newly independent Cyprus lasted only three years. The classic era of Dutch verzuiling endured from 1917 to around 1966, when the divisions among the subcultures began to break down.

religious community focused only on its own survival in a hostile environment may already have lost the battle, and this is where the efforts of Kuyper’s followers perhaps fell short. If we genuinely believe that the redemptive story contained in the Bible is not just our story but the world’s story, then we have reason, not to keep it to ourselves, but to proclaim that news with urgency and enthusiasm and to live accordingly. A political ceasefire may serve the proximate good of intercommunal peace, but it can never be a substitute for the biblical command to preach the Gospel to the world, whose salvation ultimately depends on it. Different confessional groups may agree to disagree for the present, but the followers of Jesus Christ must manifest a confidence that the truth that sets us free is everyone’s truth, and not just a subjective truth peculiar to our own community. We should, in short, not be content to turn inward defensively but ought always to reach out to the larger world. If we lose confidence in the transforming power of the Gospel, we run the risk of losing ground in a conflict we may forget is still being waged, even under formal conditions of a political ceasefire.

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.

Liberal Christianity in the US and Britain

Ross Douthat’s July 15 column on the decline of liberal denominations produced some discussion on the definition of liberal Christianity. Douthat defined it as focused on social reform, while British Baptist pastor and theologian Steve Holmes took a more philosophical view, arguing that liberal Christianity essentially bases itself on the idea that the “human experience” can be spoken of in the singular (and thus the various religions are ways of interpreting this experience). Holmes also makes two arresting observations in his post. First, that Anglican liberals tended to support British imperialism, eugenics, and racism, before taking a turn that is more recognizably “liberal” to Americans in the 1960s and after with support of the sexual revolution, “racial equality,” and environmentalism.* He believes that this comes from liberal Christianity’s tendency to follow the culture in which it is embedded. Secondly, this tendency has become a weakness in the postmodern age. The section in italics reflects my emphasis:

This also explains the reason that the, heretofore extremely successful, liberal tradition of Christianity is currently in meltdown. It is not difficult to see that the idea that true notions of the divine can be derived from an examination of universally shared human experience is vulnerable to at least two, apparently devastating, lines of criticism: the claim that human experience is no guide to reality (a claim made classically by Feuerbach in his Essence of Christianity, and forming the basis of neo-orthodox criticisms of liberalism in the first half of the twentieth century); and the claim that there is no universally shared human experience to serve as a basis for the argument. This latter line has become extremely powerful in contemporary theology. The early liberation theologians developed a postcolonial critique of such claims: supposed accounts of ‘normative’ human experience are in fact an attempt to force others to conform their experience to norms created by white male Europeans. The explosion of contextual theologies demonstrated the power of such a criticism in contemporary culture: every proposed account of shared human experience is, on this analysis, a hegemonic attempt to impose a false consciousness on others. So African-American women properly refused to be assimilated to the project of feminist theology, seeing the accounts of human experience offered as too white, and properly refused to be assimilated to Black theology, seeing the accounts of human experience offered as too male. Instead, they constructed their own narration, womanist theology. (The great womanist theologians are poets, not just theologians: Emilie Townes somewhere entitles a chapter ‘To love our necks unloosed and straight’ – why can’t I write like that?!).

The effect of all this is to make classical liberalism – ‘we all feel like this, so…’ – culturally incredible. For two centuries, it caught the mood of a culture which believed in metanarratives; for the last two decades (or more) the culture has been incredulous towards metanarratives, and so has been profoundly unreceptive to classical liberalism. Today, liberalism sounds like cultural imperialism; when it tries not to, it simply sounds incoherent. (The best example is also the obvious and tedious one: White, metropolitan, Western culture regards the acceptance of gay/lesbian relationships to be an ethical imperative; the churches of sub-Saharan Africa (to give only one example) see the matter differently; one may be affirming of gay/lesbian people by dismissing the moral intuition of Black Africans, but not otherwise. To claim that gay people and Nigerian people share moral intuitions, or to claim to be simultaneously attentive to gay people and non-Western people, alike appear simply incredible.)

This observation fits with my own, less informed sense that pre-1950s liberal theology seemed much more grounded and Christian, even though deficient, than its current form. This seems to me a good explanation of why this is the case.

Douthat’s response, through which I became aware of Holmes’ post, grants the point on the definition, but contends that liberal Christianity has been different in the American and British contexts:

However, this quest has gone in different directions in different times and places, and in the United States from the late-19th onward, it found its most important and enduring expression in the Social Gospel idea that Christianity would be vindicated in an age of science and skepticism to the extent that it confronted social evils as well as private sins, and made the kingdom of heaven more visible on earth. Certainly other theological traditions, Catholic as well as evangelical, have linked personal conversion and social reform; certainly liberal Christianity can’t be reduced to that link and that link alone. But for a long time, from the era of Walter Rauschenbusch down to the era of Martin Luther King, Jr., the liberal churches had good reason to see themselves as the primary custodians of a socially-engaged Christianity. Indeed, the historical importance of their role explains why many religiously-literate Americans today still simply conflate ”liberal Christianity” with “the religion of Christians who are politically liberal.” That’s far too broad a definition, certainly, and one that gives theologians hives with its capaciousness. But it’s also one that reflects the lived reality of American politics and religion for long periods of the twentieth century….

Some of [what Holmes says about British liberal Christians’ mirroring of British culture] maps on to the American experience: The United States, too, had its liberal Protestant imperialists and eugenicists, and of course we have our liberal Christian environmentalists today. But the Social Gospel and the civil rights movement are both absent from this story (in this country, liberal Christians were arguing for civil rights long before the 1980s), and when you lose them you lose a huge part of liberal Christianity’s direct impact on American religion and public life, not to mention its second-order impact on movements (from WWII and Cold War-era neo-orthodoxy to post-1970s neoconservatism) that were both its critics but also to some extent its practical heirs. Nor, in turn, can you understand the point that the intellectual historian Gary Dorrien makes in the essay that my column quoted, about how the leading liberal Christians of the American past often managed to ground progressive politics on “a gospel of personal faith” expressed “in biblical terms,” rather than just on the kind of ecumenical appeals to “shared human religious experience” that are more characteristic of, say, liberal Episcopalianism today. (I think of Bayard Rustin’s line about M.L.K., which I quote in my recent book: “I was always amazed at how it was possible to combine this intense, analytical philosophical mind with this more or less fundamental — well, I don’t like to use the word ‘fundamentalist’ — but this abiding faith.”) Such a biblical and even dogmatic grounding was possible, I think, precisely because in the American landscape the specific cause of social reform was often more central to the self-definition of religious liberalism than the general prioritization of personal experience that came in with Schleiermacher.

The end of Holmes’ post includes an update in response to similar comments from Alan Jacobs:

UPDATE: Wesley Hill kindly pointed me to some comments made by Alan Jacobs of Wheaton (@ayjay) on Twitter, to the effect that in the above I wrongly conflate American and English (sic…) liberalism, ignoring the profound effect of Rauschenbusch had in redefining US liberalism. This seems to me a very fair point in terms of my account of liberal ethics in ‘so what point 1′ above, which I accept is rather parochial and based on UK examples; I think my broader point, ‘if you have to come up with a one sentence journalistic definition of the heart of liberal Christianity, what would it be?’ stands; Rauschenbusch provided a compelling narration of a particular set of religious experiences – pastoring in Hell’s Kitchen for him, but of course wider for others – that gave the US conversation a particular shape (just as the experience of the 1914-18 war gave the European conversations particular shapes – very different in Germany and the UK), but I think the heart of the issue remains the same.

*This is just a broad characterization of “liberal” and “conservative,” I realize. Even the word “liberal” has been used differently in American and British politics, I believe. And I also realize that liberal denominations in America supported eugenics and imperialism. And racism is not an essentially “conservative” position either, although certainly some conservatives have been racists along with people of different persuasions.

My notes: Lessons from Bonhoeffer’s “Life Together”

I taught a lesson based on Life Together in our Twenties and Thirties group today.  I figured I’d post the notes for anyone’s dissections, comments, and criticisms.

–          Text: Romans 5:1-11 [group discussion]

  • If we believe what Paul has written, what does this mean for our relationship with God?
  • If we believe what Paul has written, what does this mean for our relationship with each other?

–          Importance of the gospel

  • Bonhoeffer has a lot of good advice, but it’s all rooted in the good news [I borrowed this illustration from John Piper’s summary of a Doug Wilson sermon – should have made this clear in class when I taught it!]
  • If we don’t believe in the gospel, all of this just becomes “how to be nice” or won’t make any sense, because it’s all rooted in the reality of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ: bringing us into fellowship with him and with each other
  • Ephesians study [we studied this over the summer]:[Two members of our group] both pointed out that the first three chapters explained the glory of salvation and the wonder of being united together in Christ – then came the moral teachings, which only truly make sense in the light of the first three chapters

–          Why Life Together?

  • If God has united us all in Christ and we seek to be a close group, it’s good to consider the perspective of someone who’s thought about this
  • Not just TNT, but generally: I get the sense that when there are awkward moments, offense is taken, mistakes are made, that these get talked about with everyone except the people that should be talking about it
  • Bonhoeffer challenges our radical cultural individualism, but doesn’t erase us as individuals – he roots our value as individuals firmly in God

–          Lessons

  • Community is great, but we also must be alone with God
    • We shouldn’t seek fellowship simply because we can’t be bear to be alone: aloneness and fellowship feed on each other
    • Our times of meditation on the Bible and prayer are tested by this standard: do they truly equip us for the task of living holy lives in the world?  This is better than having an emotional experience.
  • Rest in our justification
    • We have the tendency to justify ourselves: my sin is not as bad as this person’s, my value is determined by what I am, I deserve God’s favor, my mistakes are understandable, I need to protect my rights all the time
    • But these things aren’t true and also choke community with others
    • Instead, we can substitute two ministries
      • Holding our tongues from speaking judgment or condemnation about each other, in most cases, allows others to be themselves in Christ
      • Meekness, which refrains from always asserting our rights and bears wrongs of others, understanding where their sins come from
      • All of us can find forgiveness only in Christ
  • Listen to each other
    • We need to truly listen to each other without the feeling that we know what they are going to say
    • Within this context, we can also confess our sins to each other
      • Sin can make us feel isolated from each other, which is what Satan wants
      • Can assure us of forgiveness and can break any trap of self-forgiveness as we confess to another person
  • Loving each other through Christ
    • He’s very interested in the idea that we are all individuals who are both bound together in Christ but still independent from each other – we’re called to bear with each other, which we must do because people are different from us and have freedom from us
      • They sin, which means that we must forgive and bear with each other
      • Even when people don’t sin, they call for us to bear with differences
      • Human love wants to control: it sees the object of my love as my project, molding that person into my image
      • Spiritual love loves through Christ: that person is God’s project being shaped into the image of Christ by God, and therefore we leave that person “the freedom to be Christ’s”
  • Within the context of listening, helping, meekness, and forgiveness, we can proclaim God’s word to each other, spur one another on, and even help to redirect someone heading in the wrong direction

–          In groups, what helps you to have a sense of Christian community?  What more can we do?

Loving others by respecting their independence from us

In Life Together, Bonhoeffer seems really interested exploring the implications of the idea that we’re individual people justified in Christ who are bound together in Christ (I discussed some this here).  While his words offer a challenge to the radical individualism of our culture, he does not erase individuals but rather roots the value of individuals in God.  He writes that we often have a tendency to engage in “self-justification,” which can lead to criticism of others and easily taking offense at others, rather than resting our justification by God’s grace.  Confidence in our justification by grace means that we can forgive others in light of God’s forgiveness and see them as people who display “the richness of God’s creative glory” (93).

For Bonhoeffer, a major part of living with other Christians is recognizing that we cannot and should not control them to shape into what we wish them to be; they are God’s people as we are.  This means that they are not our projects, but God’s projects, just as we are.  Therefore, even when we must confront a believer in his or her sin, it must be in the knowledge that God and His Word judge them, not us.

Life Together doesn’t get into the issue of how we can love non-Christians, and there are sometimes that the version that I read sounded universalistic (whether because of the original or the translator).  But from my reading, the rest of the book wouldn’t support that interpretation of those passages.  I tried to think about how Bonhoeffer’s paradigm for loving other Christians might apply to loving non-Christians, and I think that the teachings about love in Life Together can be extended in two ways.  First, the unbeliever is still an individual independent from us whom we cannot and should not control.  Like our fellow Christians, we should not want to mold this person but rather we should pray that God will do it; an unbeliever is no more our personal project than a fellow believer is.  Second, just as we relate to our fellow Christians through Christ, we can recognize that we have nothing to offer the world except through Jesus Christ.  Even our talents and service we offer in Christ’s name.  And so we hope to be used by God to bring those who are alienated from Him into relationship with Him through Jesus.

Locating ourselves in God’s narrative

Bonhoeffer writes in Chapter 2 of Life Together that a fellowship of Christians should engage in “consecutive reading” of the Bible, reading daily one chapter of the Old Testament and half a chapter of the New Testament, rather than reading brief selections of texts (though those have their place).  This “forces everyone who wants to hear to put himself, or to allow himself to be found, where God has acted once and for all for the salvation of men” (53).  This changes the usual need to feel that God is present:

A complete reversal occurs.  It is not in our life that God’s help and presence must still be proved, but rather God’s presence and help have been demonstrated for us in the life of Jesus Christ.  It is in fact more important for us to know what God did Israel, to His Son Jesus Christ, than to seek what intends for us today.  The fact that Jesus Christ died is more important than the fact that I shall die, and the fact that Jesus Christ rose from the dead is the sole ground of my hope that I, too, shall be raised on the Last Day.  Our salvation is “external to ourselves.”  I find no salvation in my life history, but only in the history of Jesus Christ.  Only he who allows himself to be found in Jesus Christ, in his incarnation, his Cross, and his resurrection, is with God and God with him.

In this light the whole devotional reading of the Scriptures becomes daily more meaningful and salutary.  What we call our life, our troubles, our guilt, is by no means all of reality; there in the Scriptures is our life, our need, our guilt, and our salvation.  Because it pleased God to act for us there, it is only there that we shall be saved.  Only in the Holy Scriptures do we learn to know our own history.  The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is the God and Father of Jesus Christ and our Father. (54)