The First World War and the Crisis of European Christianity – an Excerpt from Global Gospel

The following is an excerpt from Global Gospel, by Douglas Jacobsen.

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The First World War (1914–1918) never should have been fought. The immediate trigger was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, which set off a cascade of escalating military responses. The deeper roots of the war lay in the military ideal itself (the manly glories of battle) and in inflated national and ethnic pride that pushed Europeans toward confrontation at the slightest hint of disrespect.

Cover ArtOnce the war began, the churches quickly got into the business of hyping it. German Protestant theologians portrayed the war as a holy crusade for Christ and the German nation. Russian Orthodox leaders argued that the war was necessary to defeat the Western European antichrist and to defend Mother Russia. French Catholics sewed images of the Sacred Heart of Jesus to their national flag, indicating that faith and the nation were one. Anglican bishops told British soldiers to kill Germans whether they were good or bad or young or old in order to save the world from Teutonic dictatorship.

Almost all the war rhetoric, on all sides, mixed God, glory, and gutsiness into a hot soup of righteous fervor. For ordinary foot soldiers, none of it made much sense. Harry Patch, the oldest survivor of the war who died in 2009 at the age of 111, said bluntly, “What the hell we fought for, I now don’t know.”

The barbarity of the war was shocking. More than ten million soldiers died along with five million civilians, and many millions more were maimed and wounded. Pope Benedict XV, one of the few religious leaders to speak against the war, called it “the suicide of civilized Europe.” Who, he asked, could imagine that the belligerents, so full of hatred for one another, were “all of one common stock, all of the same nature, all members of the same human society?” Who could imagine they were all followers of the same Lord Jesus Christ? How could followers of Christ hate one another so much?

After the war, these questions prompted a radical reconsideration of theology all across Europe. For German-speaking Protestants, the writings of the Swiss pastor Karl Barth became especially important. His reformulation of Protestant theology stressed the sinfulness of humankind and the”otherness” of God, a God who could never be corralled into the confines of any nationalistic, war-mongering ideology. In Catholic Europe, a group of French theologians (including Jacques Maritain, Yves Congar, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and Henri-Marie de Lubac) developed a new theological approach (nouvelle theologie) that reaffirmed the radicalness of the gospel, suggested firm limits on the power of the state, and championed the dignity of all persons regardless of national or ethnic identity.

These were important responses, and they helped the churches of Europe dissociate themselves from the mindless nationalism that had shaped their behavior during the war. But for many ordinary believers, people who did not read academic texts about Christian theology, the more common response was disillusionment with the churches and with religion in general. To some degree, modern European secularism was birthed by the First World War.

©2015 by Douglas Jacobsen. Published by Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

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