When I was six years old a German bomb went off just outside our backyard.
I was in bed at the time, where I was supposed to be, together with Peter our cat, who was where he was not supposed to be. The blast from the bomb blew in the bedroom windows. Actually, it seemed to suck them out and then blow them in. I know, because I was watching. For a moment the glass seemed to bend as if it were fluid. Then it splintered and came crashing in over the farther end of the bed. Fortunately the lower part of me and the entire cat were under the covers, so neither of us was hurt.
My mother came in after a few minutes, and very sensibly decided it was unlikely I was going to get much sleep that night. So someone put a tin hat on my head (everyone in London in those days seemed to have a tin hat) and I was taken out to watch. That was the night they straddled Paddington Station with incendiaries, just opposite our house, and also got another incendiary onto the gas main at the junction of Harrow Road and Warwick Avenue. Very spectacular that was, with flames leaping yards into the air. It was also quite impossible to put out, until finally someone had the brains to go and telephone the gas company, and they turned it off.
The next day when I walked to school I had to go by a different route from the way I had gone the day before, because my usual road had an unexploded bomb in it and the police had cordoned it off with yellow ribbons. But that was nothing unusual. During the London Blitz I frequently had to change my route to school. And despite the ribbons I could still see the bombed houses, sometimes only partly destroyed, so that there were rooms just like the rooms in our house, with furniture and ornaments and pictures on the walls. Except that with these houses one wall was missing, as if the front had been sliced off with a giant knife.
All this means, incidentally, that to this day I invariably have a good deal of sympathy for the ordinary people whenever I hear of cities being besieged or bombed, whatever side they or I are supposed to be on, simply because most of those ordinary people probably have about as much idea what is going on as I had. I remember watching television live from Iraq when we were bombing it in the 1990-91 war, and hearing dogs barking. Faithful creatures, doing their best to defend those they loved. Our dog would have done the same. I have the same thoughts when I watch those poor people in Syrian cities that have been gassed—though God knows, what is being done to them is far worse than anything the the Nazis ever were able to do to us.
I remember one other moment during the Blitz. I was in the kitchen with my mother. In those days we regularly talked about the good things that would come “when we’ve won the war.” This involved all sorts of expectations, from “When we’ve won the war daddy will come home,” to “When we’ve won the war we can have as many bananas as we like.” I suppose that’s why I’ve never had too much trouble with futurist eschatology. I grew up with it.
There’ll be bluebirds over
The white cliffs of Dover
Just you wait and see
And peace ever after
When the world is free
we sang, and believed it, or at least I did. All right, so I was wrong, but at least it got me used fairly early to the idea that the way things are is not necessarily the way they should be, nor the way they will be.
Only this time was different. I happened to say something about a good thing that would happen “when we’ve won the war,” and my mother, not one normally to be downbeat, said quietly, “We might not win the war.” It was not, as I say, at all like her, and I never heard her say anything like it again. But she said it that time, and I did not forget it.
All this means, I suppose, that I grew up with a sense of insecurity. I did not have the insecurity that many people younger than I seem to have, insecurity springing from experience of a broken home, cruelty and abuse from family members and things of that kind. But I have always had a fairly vivid sense that society in general, civil order and discipline, the entire structure that makes possible day-to-day life for ordinary people, can easily fall apart. We need then to be rather protective of it, at least so far as we can do that with honour. This, I suppose, is why I am rather fussy about keeping society’s norms in small ways—paying taxes, saying please and thank you, being kind to those less fortunate than myself, and so on. These are easy things to do. And if we cannot do what is easy, what shall we do when things get difficult? If they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry? For the answer to that question we have only to look at pictures of refugees in World War II, or the horrors in Iraq or Afghanistan, or the people in the Syrian cities, or … but there is always something new.
When I was ten years old going on eleven, I came down to breakfast one day and my mother seemed very perturbed. Again, I emphasize that she was in general an upbeat sort of person. In view of what I am about to say, I should also mention that she took a common-sense view of the world, and was not at all one to talk of her dreams or claim revelations. On this occasion, however, she told me that she had had a terrible dream, in which the whole world seemed to have caught fire. I suppose she told me because she needed to tell someone and I was the only person there. Anyway, I didn’t take much notice of dreams myself, and I dare say, having listened with as much polite interest as a ten-year-old could muster, I might soon have forgotten about it. Except that then we switched on the BBC news and learned that the Allies had dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
A few days later there was Nagasaki.
And about that time (although I think my parents tried to keep it from me) I began to learn something about Auschwitz and the Holocaust.
We were, of course, also told the proper way to understand these things. The allies had dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in order to save allied lives… right? And of course it was the Germans who had run the death camps, not us… right? It was to be years before I began to understand there were questions about this: that perhaps the Japanese had been trying to surrender already, that if only we had made clear sooner that we would allow the Emperor to remain, they would have already surrendered, that perhaps there were some on our side who wanted to try out the bombs in case we ever needed to use them against the Russians.(1) To this day I would not pretend to have done the research that might validate or invalidate these rumours. I only know that I saw pictures of what had happened at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and had (and have) the uncomfortable feeling that we had participated in something very wicked. Of course the Japanese had done very wicked things too, and no doubt we were right to fight them. But we were supposed to be the good side, weren’t we? So did we have to fight them like that? And hadn’t I been taught that “two wrongs don’t make a right”?
As for the Holocaust, the Germans had done that to the Jews… Yes. But then as I grew older I became uncomfortably aware how much anti-Semitism there was in the world in which I grew up. I heard people whom I was supposed to respect say things like, “The only thing Hitler was right about was the Jews.” Of course such people would not have countenanced the death camps. But wait! Wasn’t that just what they were saying they would countenance? Well, of course they did not really mean it. No, I honestly think they didn’t. But how long do we go on saying something that we do not mean before it becomes something that we do mean? And the more I grew older and got to know some Germans, the more I came to discover that they were really very little different from us—as my father, who was a soldier, and therefore perhaps inclined to be more realistic about these things than either politicians or news-reporters, had told me long ago. So… if they could do such terrible things to the Jews, what stopped us? Just Providence, perhaps?
So, what? All this means that I not only have a sense that things can very easily fall apart, but also a sense that I could very easily find myself on the wrong side in any dispute. I am not the stuff of which heroes are made. If I had been living in Nazi Germany during the 1930s, would I have had the courage to stand alongside Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church? I should love to think so, but the truth is, probably not.
Were this all I had gained from my upbringing I would, I suspect, be a rather depressed person. As it was, I also encountered the poets and the church—a wonderful Anglo-Catholic church in a tough, working-class district just off London’s Edgeware Road—where I was given a vision of something beyond all this.
I am grateful to the European Christian culture to which I am heir precisely because it gave me the poets and the church. But it also, of course, gave me the other stuff. So what is my attitude to that culture? I think I like it best, indeed I think it truest to itself and its Christian heritage, when it is profoundly self-questioning and deeply uncertain of itself. I find it most dangerous when it is self-confident and sure of its destiny. It sometimes seems to me that Americans think they can fix everything and Europeans think they can fix nothing. I dare say, in my cooler moments, that the truth lies somewhere between the two. Be that as it may, in this matter I am by inclination European.
The poets and the church taught me Christianity. But what kind of Christianity? You did not have to be an Anglo-Catholic for very long in London in the 1950’s, with the headquarters of the Protestant Truth Society just down the road, to realize that there was more than one kind of Christianity. One must pick and choose. It took perhaps longer to discover that all forms of Christianity as institutions could be corrupted, that in and of themselves they were rather useless. It took Karl Barth to teach me that. Barth is often remembered for having reminded us of the inadequacy of religions to save us. What is not always made clear is that he included Christianity, insofar as it is a human institution—a system of belief, a way of piety—among the religions.(2)
So what do I look for in a Christianity that is faithful? (Yes, I know that I am using the word “Christianity” in different senses. That ambiguity and ambivalence, that double meaning, reflect the reality as I experience it.)
First, I am suspicious of any form of Christianity that encourages me to think of myself as essentially different or separate from other people. “In Adam,” St. Paul said, “all die.” I am certainly bound with all in that fellowship of death. If, being so bound, I have come to feel that there is hope for me (and I have), then certainly I must believe that same hope is available for all. “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Cor. 15.22). Shakespeare is one of the two greatest European poets because (among other things, admittedly) the breadth of his human understanding enabled him to appreciate—in a sense, to enjoy—every type of humanity, and because he encourages us to share that joy. “For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all” (Rom. 11.32). Shakespeare evidently, if instinctively, knew that.
Second, I am suspicious of any form of Christianity that purports to see itself as a solution to the world’s ills. Christianity per se has been anything but a solution to the world’s ills. Christians, alas, perpetrated the Holocaust, not to mention Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As I write, Christians are carrying out atrocities in Kosovo. To be frank, I am suspicious even of “social” gospels. Always they involve the assumption that we know what to do about the world’s ills and are capable of doing it. The truth is, most of the time we don’t and we aren’t. Of course that is no reason for not doing our best, but along with that we do well to concede that, even when we are doing our best, we generally proceed like blindfolded children walking across a minefield. Paul admitted on more than one occasion that he did not know what to pray for or what to desire (Rom. 8.26; Phil. 1.23–24). His awareness of his uncertainties was surely the fruit of his wisdom.
Third, I am suspicious of all forms of Christianity that present themselves as if now they could convey to us the joy of the last things. Of course there is a sense in which already Christians are risen with Christ (Col. 3.1). Already we know something of the joy to come. How could I write these words in Eastertide, and not know that? What is more, there is already, as the hymn says, “joy in creation”—there are love and laughter and friends and wine and flowers and children and dogs and cats and a host of good things for us to celebrate. Would our Lord have been known by some as “a glutton and drunkard,” would mothers have wanted to bring their children to him, if he had not been seen to appreciate these things? But there is also a sense in which we do not yet know the Easter joy at all—for in the same moment in which we celebrate and give thanks, we switch on our televisions, and there are the refugees. “Already you are rich! Already you reign!” Paul said sarcastically to the Corinthians, who were full of gifts of the Spirit and thought they had it all, and then he added, “Would that you did reign, that we might reign with you!” (1 Cor. 4.8). “Blessed,” our Lord said, “are those that mourn, for they will be comforted… Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matt. 5.4, 6). They will be comforted, and they will be filled, but not yet. When Christians are true to Christ, then always they stand both as those giving thanks and also as those mourning and hungering, questioning the present age, protesting the state of the world, praying for some better thing, and looking for the forgiveness of sins—their own and others’. Dante, the second great pillar of European literature, knew very well that he would eventually be encountered by the love that moves the sun and the other stars—indeed, was already encountered by it. But he also knew that from where he stood the only road to complete union with that love passed through Hell and Purgatory.
I believe that as communities and as individuals we are truest to Christ when, remembering the Messiah and with no confidence in ourselves,
first, we give thanks for our creation and God’s gift to us in Christ;
second, as best we can, we give alms, act mercifully, and promote justice for others—for then we give away ourselves;
and third, when we pray that God’s will be done, asking forgiveness and blessing for ourselves and for all—for that is surely the most useless act imaginable, unless there is one who reigns and will reign and finally will not be mocked.
As I said, I grew up with futurist eschatology, so it comes easy to me.
- In the opinion of Fleet Admiral William D. Leahy, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during World War II, who might be supposed to have known something about it, “the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were almost defeated and ready to surrender… in being the first to use it, we… adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages” (cited in Gar Alperovitz, Atomic Diplomacy: Hiroshima and Potsdam [New York: Simon and Schuster, 1965], 238). See also Martin J. Sherwin, “Forgetting the Bomb: The Assault on History,” The Nation, 260.19 (1995): 692–94.
- For example, Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 1.2.III, §17.