WW1

Troops in the trenches

Exactly 100 years ago today, Britain entered the First World War.  All year there have been documentaries, dramatisations and memorials, and no doubt these will continue.  Much has been reported about the military, political and social consequences of the war, but few commentators will have discussed the theological outcomes.

The outbreak of war brought to a close an unprecedented period of peace in western Europe – La Belle Epoque – and was the first pan-European war since the end of the Napoleonic wars 99 years earlier.  During the 19th century a belief in universal progress had emerged.  People prospered, and science, technology, medicine and industry advanced.  This high point of modernism fostered a belief that given enough time and money all humanity’s problems would ultimately be solved.

War gravesWorld War I blew a Dreadnought-sized hole in this optimistic outlook.  As the realisation began to dawn that the old world had been blown away by the war, and that killing millions of brave people in battle was not a glorious sacrifice but a tragic mistake, people began to realise that all technology had brought them was a way to kill each other more rapidly and effectively.  During the war, 8 million people died and 37 million were injured making it one of history’s worst conflicts.  Small wonder then that the 20th century turned out to be the bloodiest in human history – so far.

Martin Heidegger (1889-1976)

Martin Heidegger (1889-1976)

This crisis of belief took hold first in artistic and philosophical circles.  War poets became celebrated as contemporary prophets rather than vilified for their lack of patriotism.  Within a decade of the end of the war, Martin Heidegger was teaching nihilism in German universities.  A generation later existentialism emerged.  God was, in philosophical terms, well and truly dead.  It takes a few generations for new ideas to permeate society, so the soldiers who had endured so much trauma and suffering during the war did not immediately stop attending church services, though privately their trust in God may have been shattered.  But their grandchildren, in the 60s, led the exodus from churches.  Established religion began to lose its grip on society as people abandoned any pretence of a belief in God.  Churches closed down, and their buildings were converted into bars, apartments and gurdwaras.  People believed Christianity was finished.

Ironically, the children of that generation took a different approach.  Many of them realised that in abandoning organised religion, their parents had also surrendered any belief in spirituality.  Recognising that humanity has spiritual needs, some of them began searching for meaning in esoteric religions, paganism and New Age beliefs.  Turning their backs on the discredited scientific materialism of their forebears, they were free to embrace belief.

Young people at the Christian festival Soul Survivor

Young people at the Christian festival Soul Survivor

Their children, Generation Y, has become western Europe’s first largely unchurched generation since the start of the Dark Ages.  They are the first European generation in 1500 years who have absolutely no understanding of Christianity, no knowledge of biblical stories, and no awareness of the Lord’s Prayer or the Ten Commandments.  Paradoxically they are also history’s most open generation to Christianity.  With none of the disillusion of their parents and grandparents, or the preconceptions of their forebearss who thought Christianity had failed, they are willing to explore faith, spirituality and belief.  To them, Christianity is one facet of that exploration, and they have no prejudices against it.  Small wonder then that the church once again is starting to grow, as a new generation turns to Jesus in increasing numbers.

A century on from the most destructive conflict in European history, the European church is just beginning to recover.