Monday, 30 September 2019

REVIEW: Through Mud and Barbed Wire

From The Philosopher, Volume CVII No. 2  Autumn  2019  

The scars of Verdun’s battle today


Reviewed by Thomas Scarborough

Two soldiers fighting on opposite sides in the Battle of Verdun—one of the most costly battles in history. It is a scene of unthinkable devastation and carnage. The historian Antoine Prost wrote, ‘Like Auschwitz, Verdun marks a transgression of the limits of the human condition.’ Not only was it catastrophic for its toll in human life. Hopes and dreams—in fact, first philosophies and ideologies—were here destroyed.

Against the odds, both Paul Tillich and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin survived—Tillich a German army chaplain, and Teilhard a French stretcher-bearer—on opposite sides of the battle. Both went on to become monumental philosophical theologians. Tillich ‘brought a huge body of knowledge and a fierce intellect to the question of the meaning of life’, while Teilhard ‘was a natural mystic with a profound love of all things physical’. Yet both sought to mediate between Christian theology and secular thought. Above all, both wrestled with the same existential and philosophical challenge: why carry on? Teilhard called it ‘the fundamental problem of Action’, while Tillich wrote, ‘On what can one base the courage to be?’

And then, three generations later, our author, Mel Thompson, finds himself chaplain in a cancer ward. He likens it to the battlefield of Verdun. ‘The experience of cancer and its treatment is not unlike that of entering a trench under fire—waiting helplessly for the next shell or mutating cell, trusting that the treatment will work, that the next step in the battle will be decisive...’ Together with Teilhard and Tillich, Thompson asks, ‘What if our way forward is blocked? What if we are trapped with no hope of escape? How do we find the courage to act at all?’

Teilhard and Tillich each dealt with the carnage very differently—and adopted very different answers to their fundamental questions—although, as we shall see, they may not be that far apart.

Teilhard was full of irrepressible optimism: ‘More than ever I believe that life is beautiful, in the grimmest circumstances’. Yet Tillich asks, ‘Who can say to us, that the light is stronger than the darkness?’ He lost his faith in the God he once thought he knew. He suffered ‘a failure of nerves’. Today it is thought to have been PTSD: post-traumatic stress disorder.

The book gets off to a rather muddling start—perhaps some maps of the battlefield would have helped—although the quick sketches of the ‘war to end all wars’ are deftly done. In any case, the tale draws the reader in as it progresses. Within a few chapters, we are captivated. How does anyone keep up hope, in the midst of devastation and desolation? How did Teilhard and Tillich do it? How did Thompson—not to speak of the patients he ministered to—find an answer in the cancer ward? What is it that makes it worth carrying on?

For me, three things make Thompson’s approach particularly intriguing. Firstly, that after his experience in the cancer ward, he quit the priesthood for want of belief. It is to his credit that, unlike many, he examines both Teilhard and Tillich—not to speak of the issues they were concerned with—with a clear-headed rationalism. These theologians tend to be discussed ambiguously in seminaries and universities—sometimes by theologians with one eye on their careers, their seminaries, or the common people. Thompson has no cause to reason ‘within the circle of believers’, as he puts it. He is free to step outside.

Secondly, Thompson writes this book at the end of his career as the author of many popular works in philosophy, who is returning to his ‘first love’. This is ‘deeply personal’, he writes. His postgraduate studies covered Tillich and Teilhard—then his experience in the cancer ward—in fact, his first book was entitled Cancer and the God of Love. Now, at the close of his career, he comes full circle. It is the backward look, reassessing it all after a lifetime of thinking and writing on philosophy and religion.With this in mind, I looked forward in anticipation: what would be his verdict?

And the third attractive element of this study is that 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.

Both Teilhard and Tillich are deep and complex thinkers—difficult reading even for experienced philosophers and theologians. While, for some, the book might seem to be too superficial, Thompson would seem to strike a good balance that would satisfy even the newcomer to the philosophical plot. Both theologians, explains Thompson, developed a radical philosophical theology. Both sought certainty amidst a world where, as Tillich put it, ‘life itself is not dependable ground’.

Teilhard, in particular, sought to unite God with an evolving universe, for God to become an integral part of the evolutionary process. Every step of this evolution was moving with certainty towards a supreme centre, which he called ‘Point Omega’. Evil and sin were mere by-products of this evolution, and put the world ‘in better shape’ each time. Tillich, on the other hand, developed a radical faith in a ‘God above God’, whom we trust when trust itself seems meaningless. Thompson sums it up perceptively: ‘Teilhard fought against doubt, while Tillich embraced it.’

As the tension builds, one reads on, eager to find what Thomspon has to say about the answer to it all—and he anticipates our questions well, along the way. He rejects Teilhard—but gently. Teilhard, he says, is unscientific, and sometimes seems bizarre. Teilhard  has created a necessary fiction, an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’, a therapy against the threatening abyss of life. Thompson sides instead with Tillich, whose philosophical theology offers an ‘ultimate concern’ in every situation of life.

Yet Thompson’s Tillich would not seem to be quite the same as the real Tillich—for two reasons. Firstly, while Thompson gives what seems to be a perfunctory nod to Tillich’s commitment to an ‘ultimate concern’ and ‘the ground of being’, he seems far from Tillich’s true heart. He praises ‘little things’ which enhance meaning, and affirm life. He writes, ‘Tillich uses the term “ulitimate concern” for that more general sense of life’s meaning and purpose ...’ Yet the real Tillich seemed to be living in the face of desperation. Has Thompson missed how radical Tillich truly is?

Secondly, while it is hard to deal with a concept of ‘God beyond God’, Tillich truly seems to have believed—beyond all existents, beyond all idols, all metanarratives and ideologies—in a God whom he calls ‘really real’. By comparison, Thompson’s interpretation is that Tillich ‘effectively redefined God as depth’. It seems to miss the singular, powerful ideas of Tillich. Is Thompson’s view of God adequate to Tillich?

Thus, while the journey is interesting, and the book is deeply thought-provoking—beyond what one can here describe—the result seems to come as something of an anti-climax. We seem to have, in the end, another weary philosopher who merely makes do with Tillich—but it is not quite Tillich.

Thompson sees various similarities between Teilhard and Tillich, in spite of their differences: their histories, their questions, and their conclusions. I shall venture my own comparison.

While Teilhard and Tillich might seem poles apart, yet one may be able to reconcile them as follows. They both had the problem, in the midst of war, of seeing anything as still being meaningful. Tillich wrote:
‘If life is as meaningless as death, if guilt is as questionable as perfection, if being is no more meaningful than non-being, on what can one base the courage to be?’ 
The problem occurs, he says, when one equates life and death, guilt and perfection, being and non-being. We have no world to hold up to the world any more, because we have finally seen the world for what it is. Our mental models fail.

There is a concept like it in rhetoric and philosophy: we reach an aporia—a strait—where no action or word will help us. How then shall we escape where there is no escape? When we are world-weary, how might we hold a view of the world which is not born of the world itself? One has to introduce something from the outside. This is what both Teilhard and Tillich do—but as Thompson observes, Tillich seems the more convincing of the two.

Curiously, the two theologians spent their twilight years on opposite sides of Central Park, New York—now separated by peaceful greens—yet it is not known whether they ever met. It seems hard to believe that they did not. One wonders what they might have said to each other if they did. Perhaps Tillich would have said that he wrote for those who have been broken, while Teilhard perhaps for those who seek not to be.

The Philosopher’s verdict: An orchestral work, albeit with missing crescendos. 

Through Mud and Barbed Wire: Paul Tillich, Teilhard de Chardin and God After the First World War.
By Mel Thomspon 

Createspace, 2017
ISBN-10: 1979281033