War and the Christian Faith/The Incredible Things

War and the Christian Faith

The Incredible Things

We never can be wise—in us there is too much of imperfection and bewilderment, as of the blind man opening his eyes and seeing men as trees walking, for that—but perhaps we shall begin to be wise when we realise that there are many things in Heaven and earth that we have got to assent to and confess, though we do not understand them, and never shall understand them so long as we walk in this vesture of mortality.

Take two insistent and unavoidable examples, space and time. No man who strolls from his armchair to the mantelpiece and watches the hands of the clock move round can deny the existence of either, since he has walked from point to point in one, and seen the other measured before his eyes. But as to understanding space and time, what highest philosophy can attain to such a pitch? The limitless cannot so much as be imagined in the mind, not imagined in a nightmare: but that space which you have traversed by some eight or ten feet is limitless, and must be so.

It is a sea without a shore. And time, that which your two-guinea clock ticks off for you, as you watch the dial: it had no beginning that you can picture; it can have no end save with God. You cannot understand; you must believe; and so on your very hearthrug the infinities and eternities are before you and confront you, as truly as the clock face confronts you. There is no escape from it; these things are contradictions in terms, but, willy-nilly, they are there. And, by the way, I have never yet heard of a man who knew what electricity was, who pretended to begin to know what it was. But on the other hand, I never knew a man who refused to avail himself of the easements of the telegraph, the telephone, or of the electric light, because he could not comprehend the nature of electricity.

Thus, then, the case stands. In the material world we are confronted by absolute contradictions which are yet undeniable, by forces absolutely unintelligible; which we can yet use and make the servants of our comfort. We can send messages and read letters and roast beef by that electric force which remains an absolute mystery; we can move across the room through that unintelligible space; we can—some of us—keep appointments by that paradoxical time. Can we not then admit that in the higher sphere of the Divinity there are paradoxes and enigmas and contradictions and deep concealments, and yet for all that believe in God?

It is with some impatience, I confess, that I note the constant tendency to repeat the question: "Is it possible, in face of this war, to believe in an 'Almighty and most merciful Father'?" It must be repeated and again repeated that the war has stated no new problem. Ever since the world of men began mothers have looked on the faces of their innocent and blameless little children, have seen those poor faces tortured and grow dim with the shadow of death, have seen unmerited anguish stilled only in the grave. The mothers have listened to the cries for help and comfort of these poor little ones; and there is no help and no comfort, save only death. And the children have not offended in anything; but their portion is torture and death.

That has been so from the beginning, that ever will be so till the end. It is as intolerable as time that it should be so, as unintelligible as space that it is so. But it is the order of the world; and I cannot admit for a moment that the apparent contradiction between this order and the mercy of God is in any way changed by the horrible circumstances of the present war. Water, in certain cases, drowns. That is the proposition. It is not rendered more true by the drowning of a hundred men or a million men.

As to the task of justifying the ways of God to men, of showing by human analogies that apparent ferocious, undeserved cruelty may be sweet mercy: that were indeed, the task for a high theologian. I do not think that the problem should be very difficult for the orthodox Christian. For he, by the very definition of his belief, grounds all his faith on the fact of the most infamous and hideous act of cruelty and injustice, pursued to the very death, that the world has ever seen. The Christian religion is founded on a certain undeserved punishment, on the story of the Grand Master who was foully and unjustly killed by the rebellious craftsmen: it will not be strange, then, to Christians if the lower grades share the calamity of the highest grade of all; indeed, they are instructed that it is only by this imitative ceremony—called, technically, taking up the Cross—that they can be exalted to the Master's place. And as to the point of view which is not distinctively Christian, that point of view which confesses the creed: "There is a God of infinite amiability ruling over a world which is an extremely pleasant place, or which can be made an extremely pleasant place by the passing of a few short Bills in Parliament"—well, let us never heed them. For there is no God of infinite amiability—infinite love is a different matter—and the world of the natural order isn't a very pleasant place, never has been a very pleasant place, and never will be a very pleasant place, so long as water drowns and fire burns and steel cuts flesh, and lightning destroys this body.