Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Theology after Verdun

After almost a century without a lengthy, devastating European war, came the Great War — The First World War — a war that still affects us. The United States was in it for only about a year — the final year — and it certainly had less impact on us than those who had endured the previous three years. Battles on the Western Front, in Belgium and France, were among the worst in history: killing grounds to little purpose or effect. One of them, the Battle of Verdun lasted almost a year with perhaps as many as 800,000 dead Germans and French. In "Operation Judgment" Philip Jenkins reviews a new history of that battle and how that kind of event affected Christian theology:
.... Struggling to comprehend the slaughter they were living through, both sides resorted freely to religious imagery. Given the overwhelmingly Christian foundations of European culture in that age, how could matters have been otherwise? From its beginnings, the attack on Verdun was codenamed Operation Gericht, "Judgment," and both military and media sources readily lapsed into God-talk. By far the commonest image was that of sacrifice, with its implications of voluntary redemptive bloodshed. On both sides, soldiers shed their blood for national resurrection, dying that others might live. Already too, both sides were adopting the language of immolation, of (voluntary) holocaust. For participants, though, the battle raised fundamental questions about all religious assumptions and rhetoric, and the nature of Christian societies. The reigning deity of Verdun was Moloch. ....

Was it possible to witness Verdun without facing searching questions about the whole basis of Christendom? Was "Christian civilization" an oxymoron? As the battle raged that summer, one non-combatant thinker was agonizing over that question. Just two hundred miles from the battlefield, in neutral Switzerland, Karl Barth was seeking answers in Paul's Letter to the Romans, which described how even the best-intentioned human beings succumb to the world's temptations. Barth portrayed a world fallen into illusion and self-deception, a world prepared to annihilate a whole continent in the name of the false gods they erected—such idols as patriotism, nationalism, and honor. He demanded that Christians reject the world's false claims to allegiance, its Prestige Trap. ....

Philosopher Theodor Adorno famously declared, "To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric." Pursuing theology after Verdun was scarcely easier—but nevertheless imperative. [more]