From World War I Document Archive
Revision as of 19:54, 7 September 2008 by Hirgen (talk | contribs)

(diff) ← Older revision | Latest revision (diff) | Newer revision → (diff)
Jump to: navigation, search


THERE has been a great deal of talk since the war began of "the Church's opportunity." It is one of those vague phrases which are the delight of the man who has no responsibility in the matter, and the despair of those who have. It suggests that "somebody ought to do something," and in this case the "somebody" darkly hinted at is obviously the unfortunate chaplain. I have seen letters from chaplains complaining bitterly of the phrase. What did it mean? Did it mean that there was an opportunity of providing soldiers with free notepaper and cheap suppers? If so, they agreed. There was an opportunity, and the Church had risen to the occasion. But if it meant that there was an opportunity of bringing the erring back to the fold, they wished someone would come and show them how it ought to be done. They had tried their hardest, and it seemed to them that men were as inaccessible as ever. They admitted that they had hoped that the war would make men more serious, and that when confronted daily by the mysteries of death and pain they would naturally turn to the Church of their baptism for comfort and ghostly strength. But this had not happened to any marked extent. The men still appeared to be the same careless, indifferent heathen that they had always been.

To sit at a typewriter and tell a man how to do his job is a despicable proceeding, and yet I suppose that it is more or less what I am attempting in writing this article. To avoid being offensive, it seems best to begin by explaining how I came to think that I ought to be able to shed some light on the subject.

It all began with a Quest. It is quite legitimate to call it a quest. It was the Romance of the Unknown that enticed us, just as it enticed necromancers and alchemists and explorers in former days. Only our Unknown was quite close to our hand. It looked up at us from. the faces that we passed in the street. As we stood on the Embankment it frowned at us from across the river, from that black mass of factories and tenements and narrow, dismal streets that crowns the Thames' southern bank. The very air that we breathed was pungent with it. It was simply humanity that was our Unknown---the part of humanity which earns its daily bread hardly, which knows what it is to be cold and hungry and ill, and to have to go on working in spite of it. Just as the Buddha left the sheltered life of his father's palace to become a vagabond in the quest of truth, so we, who had been guarded from hardship, and who were confused by the endless argument "about it and about," thought that we might gain a truer perspective by mingling with men whose minds had not been confused by artificial complications, and whose philosophy must have grown naturally from their naked struggle with the elemental realities. We thought that we could learn from them what were the truths which really mattered, what really was the relative value of the material, the mental, and the spiritual.

To cut a long story short, we went and lived in a mean street, opened clubs where we could meet the working man or boy, enticed him to our rooms and regaled him with buns and Egyptian cigarettes, and did our level best to understand his point of view. The venture was not a complete success. We did get some value out of our experiences. We did sometimes see our vague ideals reappear as consummated heroism, while what had been termed pardonable weakness in a milder atmosphere was seen to be but an early stage of sheer bestiality. This was certainly stimulating. But all the time we had an uncomfortable feeling that we only knew a very small part of the lives and characters of the men whom we were studying. They came to our clubs and played games with us, until suddenly the more vital matter of sex took them elsewhere, and they were lost to us. They came to our rooms and talked football, but when we got on to philosophy they merely listened. I think that we mystified them a little, and ultimately bored them. We did not seem to get any real grip of them. We were always starting afresh with a new generation, and losing touch with the older one.

Then came the war, and for a moment it seemed as if the quest would have to be abandoned. The men enlisted and our clubs became empty. Several of the followers of the quest felt the imperious summons of a stronger call, and applied for their commissions. Suddenly to one or two of us came an inspiration. The war was not the end, but the beginning. We had failed because we had not gone deep enough. We had only touched the surface. To understand the workingman one must know him through and through ---live, work, drink, sleep with him. And the war gave us a unique opportunity of doing this. We knew that we could never become workingmen; but no power on earth could prevent us from enlisting if we were sound of wind and limb. And enlisting meant living on terms of absolute equality with the very men whom we wanted to understand. Filled anew with the glamour of our quest, we sought the nearest recruiting office.

In the barrack-room we certainly achieved intimacy; but the elemental realities were distinctly disappointing. We were disappointed to find that being cold and rather hungry did not conduce to sound philosophizing. It was merely uncomfortable. Cleaning greasy cooking-pots, scrubbing floors, and drilling produced no thrills. They simply bored us. Life was dull and prosaic, and, as we have said, uncomfortable. No one ever said anything interesting. We never got a chance to sit down and think things out. Praying was almost an impossibility. It is extraordinarily hard to pray in a crowd, especially when you are tired out at night, and have to be up and dressed in the morning before you are properly awake.

These were first impressions; but as time went on, and life became easier through habit, we were able to realize that we had actually been experiencing the very conditions which prevent the workingman from being a philosopher. We grasped the fundamental fact that he is inarticulate, and that he has no real chance of being anything else. We perceived that if you wanted to find out what he believed in you must not look to his words, but to his actions and the objects of his admiration. And, after all, it did not necessarily follow that because a man was inarticulate he therefore had no religion. St. James compares those who state their faith apart from their works with those who declare it by their works, and his comparison is by no means favorable to the former. Actions and objects of admiration, these were the things that we must watch if we would discover the true religion of the inarticulate.

I have said that the life of the barrack-room is dull and rather petty. In point of fact, it bears somewhat the same relation to ordinary working-class life as salt-water baths do to the sea. We used to read that Brill's Baths were "salt as the sea but safer." Well, barrack life is narrow and rather sordid, like the life of all workingmen, and it lacks the spice of risk. There is no risk of losing your job and starving. Your bread-and-margarine are safe whatever happens. As a result the more heroic qualities are not called into action. The virtues of the barrack-room are unselfishness in small things, and its vices are meanness and selfishness in small things. A few of the men were frankly bestial, obsessed by two ideas---beer and women. But for the most part they were good fellows. They were intensely loyal to their comrades, very ready to share whatever they had with a chum, extraordinarily generous and chivalrous if anyone was in trouble, and that quite apart from his deserts. At any rate, it was easy to see that they believed whole-heartedly in unselfishness and in charity to the unfortunate, even if they did not always live up to their beliefs. It was the same sort of quality, too, that they admired in other people. They liked an officer who was free with his money, took trouble to understand them if they were in difficulties, and considered their welfare. They were extremely quick to see through anyone who pretended to be better than he was. This they disliked more than anything else. The man they admired most was the man who, though obviously a gentleman, did not trade on it. That, surely, is the trait which in the Gospel is called humility. They certainly did believe in unselfishness, generosity, charity, and humility. But it was doubtful whether they ever connected these qualities with the profession and practice of Christianity.

It was when we had got out to Flanders, and were on the eve of our first visit to the trenches, that I heard the first definite attempt to discuss religion, and then it was only two or three who took part. The remainder just listened. It was bedtime, and we were all lying close together on the floor of a hut. We were to go into the trenches for the first time, the next day. I think that everyone was feeling a little awed. Unfortunately we had just been to an open-air service, where the chaplain had made desperate efforts to frighten us. The result was just what might have been expected. We were all rather indignant. We might be a little bit frightened inside; but we were not going to admit it. Above all, we were not going to turn religious at the last minute because we were afraid. So one man began to scoff at the Old Testament, David and Bathsheba, Jonah and the whale, and so forth. Another capped him by laughing at the feeding of the five thousand. A third said that in his opinion anyone who pretended to be a Christian in the Army must be a humbug. The sergeant-major was fatuously apologetic and shocked, and applied the closure by putting out the light and ordering silence.

It was not much, but enough to convince me that the soldier, and in this case the soldier means the workingman, does not in the least connect the things that he really believes in with Christianity. He thinks that Christianity consists in believing the Bible and setting up to be better than your neighbors. By believing the Bible he means believing that Jonah was swallowed by the whale. By setting up to be better than your neighbors he means not drinking, not swearing, and preferably not smoking, being close-fisted with your money., avoiding the companionship of doubtful characters, and refusing to acknowledge that such have any claim upon you.

This is surely nothing short of tragedy. Here were men who believed absolutely in the Christian virtues of unselfishness, generosity, charity, and humility, without ever connecting them in their minds with Christ; and at the same time what they did associate with Christianity was just on a par with the formalism and smug self-righteousness which Christ spent His whole life in trying to destroy.

The chaplains as a rule failed to realize this. They saw the inarticulateness, and assumed a lack of any religion. They remonstrated with their hearers for not saying their prayers, and not coming to Communion, and not being afraid to die without making their peace with God. They did not grasp that the men really had deep-seated beliefs in goodness, and that the only reason why they did not pray and go to Communion was that they never connected the goodness in which they believed with the God in Whom the chaplains said they ought to believe. If they had connected Christianity with unselfishness and the rest, they would have been prepared to look at Christ as their Master and their Saviour. As a matter of fact, I believe that in a vague way lots of men do regard Christ as on their side. They have a dim sort of idea that He is misrepresented by Christianity, and that when it comes to the test He will not judge them so hardly as the chaplains do. They have heard that He was the Friend of sinners, and severe on those who set up to be religious. But however that may be, I am certain that if the chaplain wants to be understood and to win their sympathy he must begin by showing them that Christianity is the explanation and the justification and the triumph of all that they do now really believe in. He must start by making their religion articulate in a way which they will recognize. He must make them see that his creeds and prayers and worship are the symbols of all that they admire most, and most want to be.

In doing this perhaps he will find a stronger faith his own. It is certainly arguable that we educated Christians are in our way almost as inarticulate as the uneducated whom we always want to instruct. If we apply this test of actions and objects of admiration to our own beliefs, we shall often find that our professed creeds have very little bearing on them. In the hour of danger and wounds and death many a man has realized with a shock that the articles of his creed about which he was most contentious mattered very, very little, and that he had somewhat overlooked the articles that proved to be vital. If the workingman's religion is often wholly inarticulate, the real religion of the educated man is often quite wrongly articulated.