The Weekly Machen

The Great War brought a long-brewing crisis of faith in Britain to its boiling point. It was during these difficult years that Arthur Machen wrote most openly in the mode of a Christian apologist. In fact, his fiction of the 1910s, such as The Bowmen, The Great Return and The Terror, is essentially apologetic in nature. Between these fictional forays, Machen penned many articles in defense of the beleaguered Church. The following example is a review of a collection of essays entitled The Faith and the War. (It is available for reading here.) Without abandoning his classic stance on the apophatic way, or the mystical path of unknowing, Machen nonetheless balances the argument with a rational approach, thereby meeting each reader where he stands.


God and the War:
To Those Whose Faith Is Truly Tried
by
Arthur Machen
December 7, 1915

This terrible war has brought something in the nature of a challenge to Christianity. Many minds are perplexed by the old, old problem of how far the existence of tremendous suffering, cruelty and anguish in the world can be reconciled with the loving kindness and omnipotence of God. A striking book has just been released on this question, and below are some views of our contributor Arthur Machen.

We all know what is implied by the sentence: “Here is a great and tremendous war upon us, death touches household after household, sorrow and loss are on every side of us: How then can we believe in the goodness (or rather, in the existence) of God?”

No doubt some such thoughts and questions are in many hearts, and everyone must sympathise with those who are thus a perplexed and distressed. And yet, clear thinking will show us that the perplexity aroused by this present horror of war has no logic behind it. That is no new discovery has been made by which existing faith should be in the least disturbed. True, the war is horrible; true, its anguish pierces our hearts like a sword; true, our enemies are wicked and abominable. But there have always been wars on earth, there have always been anguish on earth, there have always been wicked and abominable men upon it. These are facts of life, they have been so from the beginning. They are not discoveries dating from August 1st, 1914.

It is true enough that no war had ever pressed with such harshness and horror upon us in England before; but I hope we are not such miserable egotists as to think that a Balkan war, or a Franco-Prussian war, or an American Civil war, or any sort of war that is far enough away from England, is quite consistent with the benevolent ruling of the world, while a war that hurts us is strong evidence against the existence of God. That is, clearly, too gross an absurdity; nor can I suppose that the enormous scale on which the present conflict is being fought is held by anyone to constitute a fresh element in the great argument. A spark is proof enough of the existence of fire, and candle flame does not make the fact of fire more of a fact; the burning of a city is not needed to convince us that fire exists.

Thus I fail to see that the “religious difficulties aroused by the present condition of the world” are legitimate difficulties; that is if it is to be argued that we have suddenly been confronted by an entirely new set of facts, by fresh evidence, which must be met successfully if we are going to hold to our belief in God. The difficulties have always been there since the foundation of the world; and even Mr. Hardy’s doctrine of a malignant President of the Immortals who sports and takes delight in the misery of mortals, is no solution. There is certainly misery in the world, but there is also happiness; there is foul aggression and violence, but there is also noble sacrifice. It is idle to deny the existence of these “difficulties,” and after reading The Faith and the War, I am more fully convinced than before that it is idle to attempt to explain them.

For it is so abundantly clear that man is a creature bounded on every side by insoluble enigmas. He has the power of asking all manner of questions which he cannot answerwhich he never will answer so long as he is man. If we think of it, the demands raised by The Faith and the War are, in the main, demands that the mortal shall understand the immortal, that the candle-flame shall contain the sun. Such a demand is essentially unreasonable; in the making of it we deny our own hypothesis: that God, whatever He be, is something infinitely above man. True wisdom surely consists in discerning between the questions that we may ask successfully and those which lead into regions altogether beyond the power of our vision.

Here and there, on minor issues there are some good things said, things very necessary to the present time. Thus Mr. Percy Gardner, President of the Churchmen’s Union, deals rightly and righteously with “the weak sentiment of a softened age,” with the gospel that had so grown among us that a man need not reap what he sows, that every villain ought to escape the punishment of his villainy.

And the editor of the volume, Dr. Foakes-Jackson, does well in his essay on “Providence” to call attention to our national delusions on the subject of “progress,” to our belief that there was salvation, permanent salvation, in getting richer and more comfortable, that the “humanising influences” of popular education and a good train service had finally closed the gates of Janus’s Temple. I suppose there really were people silly enough to believe that if every child knew the height of Mont Blanc and the date of the Magna Charta heaven would come down to earth. I am afraid that I have met people who were sure that most of our stripes would be healed by the adoption of electric cookers, by clever contrivances in which you press a button and the mechanism does the rest. An another writer in this volume says very well, man does not live by bread alone, “nor even by the very varied and perfect bake-meats with which the late age of comfort to conceal from him his spiritual hunger.”

The essay from which this extract is taken, signed Edward Arthur Burroughs, is for me by far the most illuminating in the series. The author, I think, seizes the kernel of good in the evil of the war: “We cannot believe that an order of things which held back so many from attaining true life was so wholly good that its bankruptcy warrants the dethroning of Providence.” But Mr. Burroughs has what has always seemed to me the true method in these matters. He begins climbing from the bottom of the ladder; he speaks of the wonders and the miracles that are before us, actual as well as real, and altogether undeniable; the wonders of the artist, the miracles that the lover knows. Here indeed we have the open entrance to the closed palace of the King.

On one dictum, I should like to argue with the author of this essay on “Faith and Reality.” He declares that the ecstasy with which the artist apprehends art depends upon there being something there for the artist to be inspired by. But, since another man may “listen to the same harmonies,” or “gaze at the same scene” quite unmoved, it is clear, the writer says, that this “something” is not in the work of art as hydrogen is in water, because the presence of hydrogen can be demonstrated in a way which is equally cogent for all. You could not demonstrate the presence of hydrogen in water in such a way that a savage would be convinced; you cannot demonstrate the truths of the higher mathematics to me so that I should be convinced.

True, if the savage and I set our teeth, and determined to make a great experiment, to begin at the beginning and to persevere to the end, he and I would alike be convinced. So with art, so with religion.


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Introduction and supplementary material – Copyright 2022 by Christopher Tompkins. All rights reserved.

2 thoughts on “God and the War

  1. This is a piece in which Machen exhibits a kinship of thought and feeling with C. S. Lewis. Compare Lewis’s “On Living in an Atomic Age” (in the collection Present Concerns).

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