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Part 2: Stare Into the Abyss

“Rebellions are Built on Hope”
Jyn Erso // Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Cagnicourt, France // March, 21 1918

“There was another whistle high up in the air. Everyone had the choking feeling: this one’s heading our way! Then there was a huge, stunning explosion – the shell had hit in our midst.”

“Half stunned I stood up. From the big crater, burning machine-gun belts spilled a coarse pinkish light. It lit the smoldering smoke of the explosion, where a pile of charred bodies were writhing, and the shadows of those still living were fleeing in all directions. Simultaneously, a grisly chorus of pain and cries for help went up. The rolling motion of the dark mass in the bottom of the smoking and glowing cauldron, like a hellish vision, for an instant tore open the extreme abysm of terror”.1

The spectral image that Ernst Junger describes in Storm of Steel is just one vignette of what Europe would look like by November 1918. Death, destruction, and despair cast a ghastly shadow and a lingering stench from the English Channel to the Swiss Alps. After four years of combat, 20 million people lay dead (with another 20 million wounded), and more than half were non-combatants. The events of World War I turned out not to be the “war to end all wars” after all; it reached its hellish critical mass in two fireballs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan just 27 years later. Indeed the extreme abysm of terror had been torn open. The world was brutally primed for the questions and categories of existentialism. 

The contemporary lament of The High Kings for Willy McBride in “The Green Fields of France” and J. Robert Oppenheimer’s declaration, “Now I have become Death, the destroyer of worlds” after the first successful test of the atomic bomb show both the futility of war and the awesome destructive forces that can be released on mankind – both individually and globally. Which is why following the Armistice of 1918 and the collapse of the Axis powers in 1945, the victors, defeated, and survivors all asked one singular question, “What just happened?” 

Before we can get too deep in the weeds of existentialism (that will begin in earnest next week), we must first investigate the intellectual forces leading up to the 20th century and beyond because ideas never erupt in a vacuum, nor do they arise ex nihilo from the ether. 

Long before the “guns of August” began raining a storm of steel, Europe was ravaged by war many times. Protestants and Catholics, Calvinists, and Jesuits were at each other’s throats for the better part of 130 years following the Protestant Reformation of 1517. All of this culminated in the Thirty Years’ War that hovered over Germany like the angel of death until the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. The details of the combatants and the complexities of the war and its peace treaty are nearly as incongruous as the annual St Ubaldo’s Day ‘Running of the Saints’ in Jessup, PA, but my friend and European history expert, Jared Lovell, rightly argues that the modern myth that blames Europe’s past on the church is related to the modern myth that considers the medieval period to be the “dark ages”, again blaming the church/Christianity for a stunted view of reality – neither myth is accurate.  But myths sometimes morph into and are accepted as fact without actually being so. From this modern vantage point, it appears that a highly contentious church softball game somehow went nuclear. Yes, religion played a role in the early modern “worship wars”, even though there is much more involved, but secular history would have us believe that the major divisions of Christianity decided it was high time to start playing nicely with one another because reason prevailed. The continent’s nations could peacefully invest in their preferred state churches, whether they be Catholic, Lutheran, or Calvinist. However right or wrong any of these actions may have been, the simple(ton) observer could assume that religion was the ultimate root cause. Add to this stew the crusades of the middle ages and the Muslim incursions in France, Spain, and the Balkans one might assume that religion really was the problem. The world was taking another liberating step away from God. I can just picture a hair shirt-clad village minstrel intoning John Lennon’s “Imagine” while being accompanied by lute, flute, lyre, and sackbut. Rapturous. 

If religion, or what some might deem as silly “dark ages” superstition, was the cause, what was the solution? The answer was just beneath the surface of western civilization waiting for its moment in the sun. Nearly 2,000 years before our minstrel’s solo, a golden-age Athenian, Protagoras, famously quipped, “Man is the measure of all things.” His observations of Persian defeat, the explosion of art and technology, and the supremacy of democracy all were his demonstrations that man is all mankind needs and the gods do nothing. Man’s reason2 would carry the day. This line of thinking did not receive good press in a culture built on the ancient tradition of the gods.3 But it survived. Was it possible that we don’t need “god” at all?

The flimsy gossamer of ancient Protagoras held on; evolving to string, cord, rope, cable, and finally mighty chain. He would have been very pleased to see Europeans awakening from their long slumber and imprisonment to religion to discover new continents, invent life-changing technologies, develop sophisticated means of commerce and banking, and rediscover Classical texts, like his. He would have been thrilled that much of this progress was centered on an end to religious wars and superstition and instead built on the dignity of man. The Renaissance was in full swing and the dream was being realized. 

The Athenian’s vision was realized at the philosophical center of the Renaissance in an idea called humanism. Humanism has several components, but our interest is in two key areas. One, already mentioned, is the dignity of humanity which would seek to replace the bitter piety of the middle ages. The second is the centrality of man’s reason and knowledge; the quest to subdue and master nature had begun. 

Beginning in the 17th century, the next big “download” for Europe was the Enlightenment. The lights finally “went on” as thinkers began to unlock the mysteries of the cosmos. Scientific instruments were invented, literacy increased, human freedom was championed, and another step was taken toward man being the measure of all things. Isaac Newton’s4 laws of motion demystified the movement of heavenly bodies and David Hume worked overtime to demonstrate belief without proof is nonsense. If the enlightenment had a t-shirt it would simply read, “Prove It!”

As the 19th and 20th centuries dawned, it was obvious that the enlightenment paved the way for the Industrial Revolution. There was an exponential increase in technological developments that was furthering the Protagorian ideal. Of course, there were some inventors, philosophers, and scientists that still clung to a Christian worldview, or perhaps merely stuck in the chalk outline of it, but there were certainly others, more in line with Hume, who did not need God and saw believing in him at best as a benign impediment and at worst the root cause of human suffering. 

In 1859 Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species seemed to give, finally, a god-less explanation as to how organisms change, adapt, and become more complex.5 Similarly in 1876, one of Darwin’s greatest prophets mounted the stage to give the opening address at the brand new Johns Hopkins University. Thomas Huxley (whose son, Aldous, would go on to write Brave New World) made it plain that the pursuit of knowledge would be hindered by neither politics nor “ecclesiastical sectarianism”. John M. Barry in The Great Influenza points out that “God” is never mentioned once in the speech, and that is by design.6 “Ain’t no deity getting in our way!” Building on Darwin and Hume, contemporary atheist Richard Dawkins takes another swing at the God hypothesis by arguing that physics is the moving force behind all things, and this force is blind.7 There is no “who”, only a “what”.  

The first 10 years of the 20th century saw many life-changing inventions:

EscalatorCompact vacuum cleaner
Transatlantic radio signalAir conditioner
Lie detectorNeon light
Manned flightSteam turbine generators
Color photographyTalking motion pictures
Instant coffee (Is this progress?)Isolation of radium
Mass-produced carsTheory of relativity8

Man had measured himself and mastered his world. Protagoras, Hume, and Huxley would all probably agree that the gods of Olympus had been finally displaced by the Titans of technology. What Tolkien and Lewis referred to as the “myth of progress” was seen as the savior. 

The preachers of the new hope thought that the Crusades, the Thirty Years’ War, and the Napoleonic wars were all relics of an unfortunate past. European leaders, political and church alike, preached a gospel of progress that saw no need for widespread war ever again. “Man has conquered the mysteries of the universe and we are inventing our way toward utopian reality!” The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand on June 28, 1914, proved all of them wrong. By the way…utopias are really bad ideas. Anytime you attempt to establish heaven on earth you are sure to raise hell! 

By August 1914,  Ernst Junger along with millions of young men across Europe enlisted and armies were on the move. National alliances and arrogances were tipping over the edge. The myth of progress was unable to stop them. The world was about to be changed forever. 

It was in the aftermath that questions birthed in the 19th century seemed suddenly very relevant. Any person with at least two wits to rub together knew they were in crisis mode. Existential crisis mode. The chorus of voices wanted to know, “What just happened?” All of the old assumptions have collapsed. 

Next week we will begin looking at “The Father of Existentialism” Soren Kierkegaard.  Join me?

Andy Giessman is the Executive Director and founder of Addison’s Walk. He is available to speak at your church, retreat, school, or camp for pulpit supply, missions conferences, and full weekend seminars.

  1. Junger, Ernst. Storm of Steel. Penguin, 2016. 225. Junger’s personal account is among the first published after the Armistice of 1918.
  2. It should be noted that reason is in no way the enemy of Christianity. Beginning with Paul’s conversion in chapter 9, a simple reading of Acts will demonstrate that reason is to be used in effective witness. See also II Corinthians 10:5 and I Peter 3:15. Reason is a gift from God. But it can, of course, be abused.
  3. Athens was an extremely religious environment. See Acts 17.
  4. Newton was a devout Christian who saw his work as an act of worship.
  5. Loconte, Joseph. A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War: How J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friendship, and Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914-1918. Nelson Books, an Imprint of Thomas Nelson, 2017. 12
  6. Barry, John M. The Great Influenza. Penguin Books Ltd, 2005. 12
  7. Abel, Donald C., and Richard Dawkins. “Chapter 7: The Blind Watchmaker.” Fifty Readings plus: An Introduction to Philosophy, McGraw-Hill Higher Education, Boston, 2010. 
  8. Loconte, Joe. A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War: How J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friendship, and Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914-1918. Nelson Books, an Imprint of Thomas Nelson, 2017. 11
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