Through Mud and Barbed Wire
At last! This is the book I've been wanting to write for years - the story of two great theologians, their response to the horrors of the Great War, and the impact of their ideas on the question of 'God'.
The story moves from the trenches at Verdun, via theological discussions at Marburg, Tillich's expulsion by the Nazi regime and Teilhard's exile in China, to New York in the 1950s.
Available in both e-book and paperback formats. 276 pages
This is an account of the courage of two brilliant men. Tillich had two nervous breakdowns during the war, and Teilhard suffered from severe anxiety, but they overcame their problems and - each in his own way - developed a positive vision for the future of humanity and the relevance of religious ideas. It explores faith and philosophy in the most difficult of situations.
The book also traces my own struggle with religious belief, and my criticism of supernaturalist and fundamentalist views.
From the review of this book in the on-line edition of 'The Philosopher'...
'... the tale draws the reader in as it progresses. Within a few chapters, we are captivated.'
'... Thompson takes a fairly uncommon approach to his subject. This is not just about issues. It is just as much about context: people, geography, history, society, religion—and his own, personal passion. In short, he takes an holistic approach. It is reflected in the title: Through Mud and Barbed Wire. This book will be about tangibles, not mere ideas. The strategy greatly enriches the book.'
A Personal Introduction
1. Through Mud and Barbed Wire: ... on opposite sides in Hell
2. The Stretcher-bearer: ... trying to see a positive outcome
3. The Chaplain: ... breakdown and the loss of 'God'
4. The Problem of Action: ... finding the will to go on
5. Hitler and the Gods of Marburg: ... the existential shaping of theology
6. Wittgenstein, Science and the Desert: ... when theology is banned
7. The Shaking of the Foundations: ... religion when the world crumbles
8. Integrating the Vectors: ... sex and motivation
9. Patching up the Fortress: ... defending the indefensible
10. Courage and Self-affirmation: ... facing what life brings
11. Exiles in New York: ... shaping their legacy
12. Ending up: ... reflections as the world moves on
An extract... To the west of the Meuse
Tillich and Teilhard arrived on opposite sides of the front line at about the same time, but to find the place where they faced one another, one needs to leave Douaumont and the Ossuary and head out on a quieter road and away from Verdun. Here on the west bank of the Meuse, a series of hills runs east-west, wooded now above rolling farmland.
At first glance, the countryside is beautiful, with undulating hills and small villages glorying in autumn colour. Then, as you turn north from the village of Chattancourt, along a lane that appears little more than the back entrance to a farm, splattered with mud, you see ahead of you a line of low hills, crowned with woodland. Moving away from the comforting familiarity of agricultural life, the lane winds upwards and into a terrible silence.
It is a place of peace; yet you want to shudder. It is not just the monuments tucked in among the trees – although they are poignant enough – it is the woodland itself. One might have expected the trees to have transformed this place, and so they have to the casual glance. But they have also preserved the shape of the ground beneath their carpeting leaves. It is as though they stand above the waves of a choppy sea, now transformed into earth. Surveying the uneven ground, you become aware that you are walking among shell holes and trenches.
During 1916, the hill, appropriately known as Mort Homme, saw one of the most intense battles of the First World War. Literally thousands of shells landed upon it every day, and for month after month its heights saw the front line move a few yards one way and then the other. It was the point at which the French were determined, at whatever cost, to halt the German advance. It became a landscape shaped and re-shaped by the exploding shells, and with them the spumes of mud and bodies as thousands of men were hurled against one another. Here Tillich arrived with his regiment in May.
A question for everyone
Traditionally, the religious response to suffering has been to ask why a good, all-loving and all-powerful God should allow such things to happen – the ‘problem of evil’ – and many will have had their belief in God shattered through suffering.
But the broader issue, for atheists and believers alike, is how to find anything positive to say about life when confronted by the experience of warfare and death on this scale.
What does it say about humanity and its future, if this could happen in Europe in the 20th century? What now, for us, as we witness slaughter continuing in the 21st?
Atheistic humanism, as a creed, is as threatened by the horror of deliberate human self-destruction as is theism. The former believer, rejecting God, may fall back on a trust in human goodness. But what happens when that trust too is lost?