As a society we are far past the general disaffection of Europe in the 20’s, following the Great War, when repudiation of religious sensibility was traceable to eye-opening atrocity joined to soul-deadening ideology. Now a similar disaffection from great questions exists, but seems to be more the result of a wide-scale spiritual listlessness.
We sometimes think of the re-set of the Great War and its 17 million war dead as the end of religion (in the West) and the beginning of fatalistic hedonism. It’s actually much worse than that. From the perspective of today, that working-day charnel house was no sooner concluded, than our worst natures turned to mass civilian genocides – materialist ideologies stripped of transcendent meaning, unleashed. It would have been hard before 1939 to imagine that the savagery of that first great war could be eclipsed by the killing fields and camps and ovens of the materialism-driven regimes of Pol Pot, Stalin, and Hitler.
In the last 30 or 40 years, our experience of these kinds of upheavals has seemed more localized and seemingly contained. We live with perhaps as much existential fear, but certainly less blood. It’s hard to understand how one could embrace materialism when he has been the recipient of relative peace, ease and comfort, as most Americans have been, now, for a generation.
It’s also difficult to understand how the very metaphysical outlook responsible for so many millions of innocent deaths could now be the default position for those strolling through the flea-market of metaphysical ideas.
One way to attempt to do so would be to harken back to the Great War, and the disaffection which followed. If we were to look for a point in history at which the predominant point of view shifted to materialism, a good place to start would be the 1920’s, in the wake of that war. Certainly there were stirrings of “freethought” and “skepticism” that had currency in “elite” circles prior to that time, but there was a major shift to irony, despair, and darkness as the prevailing point of view following that pointless adventure. Several generations now have marinated in the disaffected art of writers like Remarque and Hemingway, absorbing the thesis of loss of innocence and recognition of the world as it is – a place, they say, of unredeemable bleakness but for an existentialism that places the self above all else.
But this is the bleating of lost sheep. Consider the counterculture that arose. Consider C.S. Lewis. We’ll skip the remarks on Lewis’ genius. His magnificent works speak for themselves. Likewise consider J.R.R. Tolkien. The world is now full of nerds embracing with undiluted enthusiasm the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Surely there are no more than a handful who do not see the obvious religious underpinnings of that work which shine through: the hopefulness of a world redeemed.
We tend to think of Tolkien and Lewis as mid-century phenomena running against the grain of the existentialist avant garde and the fake-Christian orthodoxy. They were that, but they were more. Far from arising after a great forgetting of that first, awful world war, their points of view were forged in it.
Joseph Loconte is a professor at King’s College in Manhattan, an island of Christian thought in a sea of secular orthodoxy. At ground zero of the culture, he and his academic brothers and sisters share their glimmers of light in a dark world. Professor Loconte has done so with “A Hobbit/A Wardrobe/and a Great War.” From this excellent work, we know this (and much more) about Lewis’ spiritual journey. The beauty of Lewis’ and Tolkien’s work can be said to have arisen from the ashes of that great conflict.
Lewis was an ardent atheist during the time he served in the hell-on-earth of trench warfare. For many years afterward, he joined with other intellectuals in disdain for church platitudes, as over against the horrors of inhumanity we create for ourselves. Still, the trauma of the war did not overwhelm him completely. While recuperating from war injuries, Loconte reports, Lewis wrote from a hospital bed about his train travel to that location:
Can you imagine how I enjoyed my journey to London? First of all the sight and smell of the sea, that I have missed for so many long and weary months, and then the beautiful green country seen from the train. . . . I think I never enjoyed anything so much as that scenery – all the white in the hedges and the fields so full of buttercups that in the distance they seemed to be of solid gold.
Loconte, A Hobbit . . . (ch. 4).
Lewis was seeing beauty, despite the grim backdrop for it. Perhaps because of that backdrop. He wrote, around the same time, that “the conviction is gaining ground on me that after all Spirit does exist.” Although he had not at that time embraced a Christian point of view, he had made the first, essential, movement away from the materialism prevalent among his peers. We should pause and take note, that this occurred because of what transcendental value? Truth? Honesty? Integrity? Bravery? No to all. Beauty compelled him.
By 1925, as Loconte reports, Lewis’ commitment to materialism had waned, but it was still some years before the light broke through. That happy event was in September, 1931, and occurred as a result of the influence of such luminaries as J.R.R. Tolkien. Both he and Lewis were enthralled with the idea of epic myth. Tolkien believed that myth was of God, not in place of Him. Further, that the story of Jesus the Christ was a kind of myth. Unlike the pagan myths, however, this Dying God myth was also real. God entered history in the person of Jesus, lived a real life, and died a real death. Lewis began to understand, Loconte tells us, when he asked of Tolkien “Do you mean that the story of Christ is simply a true myth, a myth that works on us in the same way as the others, but a myth that has really happened?”
If you’re familiar with The Lord of The Rings, or of the Chronicles of Narnia, or Mere Christianity, or The Hobbit, or the Silmarillion, you see the beauty. Recall henceforth the ashes whence they arose.