Today is the official observance of Veteran’s Day. However, much of the weekend and corresponding celebrations have marked the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. It is fitting that the “war to end all wars” and the first great conflict of the twentieth century be remembered. The forces of nationalism and militarism which drove the great powers of Europe to battle have become resurgent since the late 20th century. In many of the same places which first sparked conflict a hundred years ago, troops still fight over conflicts that were unable to be solved in Versailles, Yalta, Dayton, or Paris.
World War One is an essential moment for many reasons. Many of the theologians who’ve shaped my understanding of God and God’s interactions with humanity were themselves formed as persons of faith (no faith) in the trenches of the western front. I would not be who I am and carry what understanding I do of faith were it not for John Ronald Reuel Tolkien and Clive Staples Lewis. Both men, junior officers at the western front, experienced some of the most horrific combat at the height of the war. The barbaric, bloody slaughter of humanity, witnessed by both men, shaped their ideas of good and evil.
Tolkien was already a committed Roman Catholic. On joining the Lancashire Fusiliers, he went “over the top” on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. Almost sixty thousand British soldiers died on the first day alone. By the end of the battle, over four hundred thousand were dead.
Lewis, the emerging agnostic/atheist, was a lieutenant in the Somerset Light Infantry. Wounded in the spring of 1918 in the Somme Valley, he too saw the worst of trench warfare. As the shells landed, he watched his friends die, and his life was spared.
Neither man knew each other at the time. When their paths crossed, not through pure theology or philosophy, but via fiction, new worlds opened. It became possible to talk about God in ways the world had forgotten. God lived in the larger myths that our souls, for too long, had willingly ignored. Both of them discovered that there was a hunger for stories for which our own personal history might connect.
I believe that buried in the gore of the trenches, amid the unspeakable horrors, seeds were planted for stories that would grow above the dark days of the Somme. Neither Tolkien or Lewis probably didn’t realize the impact of their ideas. They only knew they were there, inside them, not part of the war. “There” is a huge place; until you put in on paper, draw a map, and invite people to go on a journey. That’s what they did. They drew us a map. Look what we found. Look who’s here! Who know knew what lay beyond middle earth or past a simple wardrobe? I found God. What about you?
Richard Lowell Bryant