In Christian circles, we often talk as though the truthfulness of Scripture was the most crucial doctrine to uphold. Once you lose the Bible, you lose everything.
There’s a great degree of truth to that. But one of my seminary professors pointed out that there are some doctrines that strengthen or weaken this one, and in particular the doctrine of total depravity. He said something like “Man will not deny his need for Scripture until he has denied his need for a Savior.”
There is much wisdom here as well. When we fail to take our sins seriously and instead puff ourselves up, we are likely to see the Bible as irrelevant.
But as I’m listening to The American Mind, I’m reminded of another ancient explanation for why a people walk away from the faith: the experience of depravity. That is, denying depravity will cause you to doubt you need God, but drowning in depravity will cause you to doubt God could help to begin with.
Historically the problem of evil is the one that has driven people away from the faith. How could a God who is all-powerful, all-good, and all-knowing allow the evils we find in the world?
Guelzo makes this point specifically with the Civil War. According to Guelzo, the Civil War permanently changed the relationship between America and Christianity. Before, the church was taken for granted, and America’s intellectuals were often clergy. But afterward you find the accelerated growth of secular America.
And when you think about the millions dead, of all the destruction, all the brutality, of the great resources wasted, should we be surprised?
It reminded me that many historians trace the end of modernity to World War II. Enlightenment rationalism filled the void that Christianity left behind, first on a small scale, and then across the West. But after World War II, people lost confidence that reason could bring about a better world. Reason gave us the atomic bomb.
And when I think back to how Descartes began his exercise in methodological doubt, it seems the pattern continues. Rather than beginning with received wisdom as Christian thinkers in past generations did, he began by doubting everything he could to try and find something certain, something we could all agree on. Why? Because in his day, Europe was ravaged by perpetual religious war.
So it seems to me that while the problem of evil may cause a person to doubt, there is a deeper problem—the problem of war. War seems to be the worldview crusher. It doesn’t simply cause you to doubt your relationship with God, it causes you to doubt the world’s relationship to God. Or reason. Or whatever else you have put your trust in.
It seems to me that long ago war didn’t have this effect. For example, Israel’s military victories over the Canaanites in the Bible sometimes cause people today to doubt God. But at the time, those same victories caused the nations to fear Israel’s God and even to believe in Him. Or in later centuries, Augustine and Aquinas spoke of just war, war undertaken for the right reasons and in the right ways.
So what changed? How could war in one era have the opposite effect of war in another?
I don’t know much about war. I’ve never served, and the wars fought during my lifetime have been waged on other continents. But I can easily understand why it is devastating. The horrors of modern war are in the magnitude of their destruction, but the horrors of classical war are in their intimacy. Either way, war is horrible.
But if I had to wager a guess, I would say war causes us to doubt only because our frame of reference for evil is so much smaller in peacetime. In peace, we turn to God for help in our sickness, in our injury, in our lack, in our personal conflicts, in our everyday temptations. When war comes, I suspect we think the kind of God who handles all this relatively small peacetime strife isn’t up for the challenge of modern warfare. It’s easier to trust God with a skinned knee than a severed knee.
Even so, maybe my professor is still right. Maybe war is so devastating to our worldviews simply because we’ve underestimated our need for God to begin with. We were too hopeful about who we are, and even more than our trust in God, our faith in humanity ends up shattered.
I like to quote Tim Keller when he says, “The gospel is this: We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope.”
War is the most extreme reminder of that first reality, of the sins and flaws of the human race. We must learn that God is bigger even than this, that the grace, mercy, forgiveness, kindness, and love He offers is that much greater than we dared to hope. And if people see that hope in us, maybe they will be able to find it for themselves when the world has turned upside down.