The Church and the Veteran: Prisoners' Quest


DOES God appear in every foxhole? Do pilots fly with faith as their co-pilot? Do the survivors at sea bring back to us who are safe on shore an instinctive reliance which we have been too careless to recognize? The answer is unclear, for in each case the testimony must narrow down to the individual.

On a certain day in 1942 a British chaplain in a prison camp in Germany inserted this notice on the bulletin board: “QUEST: It is proposed to hold a series of discussions on such subjects as Is God a Myth? Is Religion an Opiate? What is Religion? What is the Bible? Will those proposing to attend please initial below.”

The initials appeared slowly. The first meeting was held in the dressing room next to the shower baths, and about twenty-five turned up. But the next meeting overflowed. The discussion group moved to new quarters and from then on there was a steady audience of from fifty to sixty. The audience consisted of army officers captured in France, Greece, Crete, and Libya. The talks, which were stimulated by questions, continued through the spring and summer of 1942. They were mainly the utterance of the Reverend Captain D. H. C. Read, who is still a prisoner in Germany. The complete series of talks will he published shortly in book form under the title of Prisoners’ Quest by the Macmillan Company.


MOST of us probably have memories, dating from our schooldays, of what was known as a Prefects’ Meeting. You remember the solemn inquiry that was held before judgment was passed on some offender against school law or custom. But you wilt also remember that this inquiry was not always a disinterested search for truth. There was a distinct feeling, at least on the part of the victim, that the inquiry was a mere ritual and that no consideration of abstract truth was likely to rob the prefects of their prey.

I imagine that some such feeling may be yours about this inquiry we are holding into the reality of God’s existence. It may possibly seem to you a mere pretense on my part to attempt to hold an impartial inquiry on a subject on which my mind must surely be already closed. You parsons, it may well be said, cannot approach the subject with an open mind. Apart from anything else, your very job in life is dependent on a belief in God. You have a vested interest in theological orthodoxy. To all this I’m going to reply by admitting the charge but denying the reason adduced.

It’s a good thing to lay one’s dogmatic cards on the table. I do not believe that God is a myth. And I have never really believed it in the past, even during the most acute period of adolescent agnosticism. But the reason for my belief is not the chain of dogma to which I must own myself bound; still less is it mere professional necessity — a padre who believes just because he is frightened to think is a miserable sort of worm. No, the real reason why the question is in a sense closed for me is that disbelief in God happens to be for me an intellectual and moral impossibility. I can no more doubt God’s existence than I can doubt yours.

There have been thinkers who imagined that they doubted the existence of other people. Yet we know that they were wrong. Why? Because we meet and make contact, mind with mind, soul with soul. And so we find it impossible to doubt the other man’s existence.

In the same way I feel that it really is impossible to doubt God’s existence, because He is always present — perfect Mind with imperfect; Soul with our soul; true Person over against our incomplete personality. I do not hope to bring anyone to God by logical process. I can only attempt to throw some light on the grounds of our belief in God’s reality, and to defend the belief against open or veiled attack. It is for me practically blasphemy either to prove God or to defend God. For if God exists He must be immeasurably greater than the furthest bounds of the human mind, and to defend Him would be like setting out in a canoe to defend the British Navy.

In view of all this you may well ask why I am presuming to stand up in front of you to discuss the hypothesis that God is a myth. I do so chiefly for three reasons: —

1. Because I believe there are many people today who believe in God, but have a lurking suspicion that such belief is not quite intellectually respectable. I hope that our free discussion on the subject may help them to rid themselves of inhibitions of this kind, and to integrate their belief in God in the general framework of their intellectual life. So often we progress in our knowledge of every subject except religion: it is kept in a thought-tight compartment of the mind, inviolable since childhood, To let thought in here is sometimes a painful process, but often it is only through such travail of the mind that a deeper and truer faith is reached.

2. I believe there are others who have felt themselves compelled by certain trends in contemporary science and philosophy to reject the faith which they once had in God. This discussion wall compel us to face their difficulties, and may serve to point to a solution where it is seen that no movement of human thought can affect our belief in God Himself, although our ways of thinking about Him may be profoundly modified.

3.This leads me to this further justification for our discussion: that, although I cannot accept the proposition that God is a myth, it may well be that many of our ways of thinking about God are mythological. And that is, in fact, inevitable. If we are to talk about God at all, we must at some point use myths. What matters is whether the myths are good ones or bad.

No one should resent criticism if it has any spark of sincerity behind it. It is vitally important that the keen edge of intellectual criticism should be continually applied to the doctrines of the Church. It was through the mills of such criticism that our creeds were originally ground out, and the New Testament itself is largely a product of the Church’s reaction to external pressure of this kind. We must be prepared, as believers, to meet this attack on its own ground without scuttling back to a theological fortress and hurling anathemas from behind its bleak and uninviting battlements.

What are the main reasons which have led men to say that “God is a myth”? With what seem to me the more cogent of these I want now to come to grips.


THERE is first of all the argument from origins — what we might call the “historical argument.” Your belief in God, says the skeptic, has a terribly shady family-tree. Man is incurably superstitious, and right back at the beginning of his appearance as Man he sought help from the beyond in his struggle for existence. Faint traces of this can be seen in the caves of prehistoric man which have been discovered. There we see, for instance, the outline of a bison scratched upon the wall. In some strange way by this crude drawing prehistoric man was seeking to influence some other power to help him to kill the animals he needed for food and clothing. He then began to attribute power to his picture. Later he made stone images. He made requests to them. In the end he worshiped them. In the Old Testament we see the process by which this idol-worship in turn gave place to the worship of an invisible tribal god, then to a national god, and finally to one universal God, such as we commonly find today.

Now, in this account of the rise and progress of religious belief, there is more than a suspicion of credulity attaching to those who assent to it. Any description of prehistoric events is, ipso facto, guesswork; and modern discoveries are tending to cast doubt on this neat evolutionary diagram of religious history. But suppose we accept it for the moment — what does it prove?

Nothing is more fallacious than the belief that we can fully understand and account for anything by dwelling on its origin. On the contrary, most things can be better understood from their end than from their beginning. We should probably claim that a boy of twelve is better understood from the point of view of his development into a mature man than from his origin in a cell within his mother’s womb. Again, no one would judge and condemn the modern ballet because its origin is to be found in the belly-wobblings of savages (primitive or contemporary). Nor does anyone pour scorn on modern medical science because its historical origins lie in the stockpot of the witch doctor. Therefore, even if this account of the origins of belief in God were meticulously accurate, it would prove nothing as to the validity of that belief. The very persistence of mankind in believing in the existence of Something Beyond indicates that, when properly understood, God is not a myth but a Reality — and a Reality who takes the only possible method of revealing Himself to man: that is, according to his capacity to receive. Once we truly see in what sense the bison was a symbol we are more than halfway to seeing that God is not a myth.

There is a variety of this historical argument which runs like this: God is not only a myth, but a myth so peculiarly convenient to certain people that it was nourished, protected, and imposed on man from the earliest days. Who were these people to whom it was so useful? Put briefly, kings and priests. According to this view, priests are the eternal parasites of humanity. They batten on man’s superstition, carefully keeping alive belief in the reality of God in order to enslave mankind in a religious system on the profits of which they not only live, but live exceedingly comfortably. In other words, religion is the father of all rackets.

To others, the king and not the priest is the real villain of the piece. He sees that belief in God provides certain extremely useful sanctions for his own usurped authority. You can argue against a royal decree accompanied with trumpet blasts, but not with a royal decree accompanied by a flash of lightning. And so the king keeps the priest to provide the lightning. And it worries him not at all if he does suspect that the lightning comes from a box of matches in the priest’s pocket. This is the age-old combination of throne and altar which, it is maintained, has led to the enslavement of the nations of mankind.

Here again I must allow a large slice of truth to the argument. It is a fact that priestcraft has been a shocking fraud at more than one period of history, and a serious barrier to intellectual, cultural, and scientific development. It is a fact that privileged classes have often maintained power by the aid of the priestly class. But what does all this prove as to the reality of God? Every single activity of mankind has been perverted by man’s primeval sin — lust for power. We could take every art and science, one by one, and show how at all periods some have perverted them for selfish ends. And the nobler the activity of man, the more devilish is the corruption that ensues. Corruptio optimi pessima.

It appears, then, that these two arguments from religious history are rather conditioning factors of unbelief than compelling arguments for the assertion that God is a myth. It is as if I should dwell on the uglier port ions of the history of the monarchy in England, elaborate on some injustices that once received official sanction, and then draw the conclusion that the King of England does not exist.


THE third line of argument is perhaps the most compelling for minds inclined to skepticism. It is the psychological. Its strength lies in the fact that it claims to provide an answer to the question: How is one to account for the rise and persistence of such a myth as the existence of God? The psychological version seems to me to take two main forms, which we might summarize in two slices of current jargon: (a) mother complex, and (b) wishful thinking.

(а) The “mother complex” argument runs roughly like this: Every child finds his first environment in the womb. Here he is surrounded by warmth, food, comfort, and protection from the outside world. This environment conditions all his later reactions. Once launched into the world, he seeks and finds this comfort and protection in the bosom of the family. Sooner or later, however, the draft of the cold world blows in. Then he is compelled to look beyond the family for this essential environment. He is inevitably led to postulate a “Mother” on a universal scale. He finds this already provided for him in the idea of God — a creation of the similar need of his ancestors. God, then, is nothing more than a human invention to meet a need.

(b) The “wishful thinking” argument is similar. Man is fundamentally incapable of straight thinking. At every point his thinking is dictated by his desires. He desires this Great Being in whom he can trust and believe, and so he comes to believe that He really exists. This argument probably weighs more with skeptic minds today than any other. God is a myth, they say, and now we know why the myth has appeared.

Now, I cannot help noticing that there is an ingredient in this belief in God which can hardly be ascribed to our desires. The God in whom humanity has tended to believe cannot be analyzed into projected desires of the human heart without remainder. The remainder is that element in God which condemns our sin. I can imagine mankind forming a god after their own hearts — a god who will permit any sort of behavior and look with a benevolent smile on the favorite vices of mankind. And, in fact, man has often created such a god.

But never has such a conception been allowed to stand long unchallenged. Religious symbolism speaks of God not only in terms of comfort and warmth, but as Judge, Divider, and Flaming Fire. The God of moral demand returns continually with His awkward and devastating challenge to human conscience. To put the matter simply: I cannot believe God to be a myth arising out of any projected desires, for these desires would certainly not include a god who relentlessly condemns my sin.


WHAT then about science? There is an idea abroad that modern discovery in this field has eliminated God by quietly edging Him out of the world of nature and mankind. Belief in God, then, grew up in the gaps of scientific knowledge; as these gaps are rapidly being filled in, the need for God is as rapidly disappearing. In spite of its obvious falsity, the Christian Church has continually fallen into the temptation of basing its theistic arguments on the principle of supplying a “supernatural” explanation where natural description breaks down — the principle of “God in the gap.” Thus the theologian has often come to be considered as a cheat, with an extra ace up his sleeve. We must be quite clear about this: if we are to maintain the reality of God it is not because we require an unknown x to explain that which science has still to acknowledge mystery. If God is real, He is most real in knowledge and not in ignorance, in light and not in darkness.

It might be worth while to illustrate how science came to modify and demonstrate the inadequacy of previous arguments for the existence of God. You remember Paley and his watch. This famous Christian teacher illustrated his argument from design by the finding of a watch. The complicated structure of the watch suggests a watch-maker. Paley argued straight from this to the structure of the world as suggesting a world-maker, or God. But in the nineteenth century, evolutionary theory seemed to provide quite as good an answer to the question raised by the structure of the world. The design is not the result of a Designer, but of the forces of nature and “natural selection.” The butterfly has that lovely color, not because God designed it so, but because the butterflies that did not have this protective coloring perished in the struggle for existence. Later, of course, this hypothesis of “natural selection” itself came in for acute criticism, and now has ceased to trouble the mind of the believers in God. But this example will show you how contemporary scientific discovery tended to upset the faith of our grandfathers.

The influence of scientific thought on religious belief has gone much further than this. Today we are not really worried about the validity of abstract argument for establishing the existence of a Supreme Being. What is more important is the unfavorable atmosphere to belief in God which is the result of the explicit or implicit acceptance of the doctrine of materialism. This is the arch-enemy of belief in God. It is a doctrine which grew out of the predominance of the physical sciences at the end of last century, and has left a deep scar on the religious thinking of succeeding generations.

The thesis of materialism is that nothing is real which cannot be investigated according to the methods of physical science — that is, measured by an instrument, weighed, handled, or seen in some fashion. The crude statement of the position is summed up in the remark of a certain surgeon that he had carefully examined all parts of the human body and could find no trace of a souk In such a system of thought God has no place.

There are a hundred answers which the believer in God can make to this kind of materialism. But what I have read in this field suggests that for science ultimate reality now consists rather in energy and movement than in anything material. Still, it can be observed and measured, and that remains a difficulty for certain minds. How can we believe in the existence of something that cannot be observed and measured?

The question we are really concerned with is this: How do we know what is real? Science says, “By making observations of phenomena and deductions therefrom. God cannot be observed in this way; therefore we deduce that He is a myth.” But surely this is not the whole truth about reality? Isn’t there another method of approach? The artist, for instance, would maintain that for him beauty is real. We should nearly all admit that goodness is real. Yet we have no instrument which will detect it and weigh it.

A name has been found for this kind of approach to reality. It is called a “judgment of value.” And it has been maintained that judgments of this sort are just as valid guides to the nature of reality as judgments based on scientific observation. I suggest that our judgment that God is real may be of this direct, intuitive nature. We know it — just as we know that a symphony is beauliful without being able to prove it by scientific formulas.


THERE is, however, another distinction in our way of “ knowing” things which I would insist upon, and it leads to the most important as well as the most difficult part of what I am trying to say. Of recent years philosophy has been much occupied with what are called “ ways of knowledge.” Knowledge is not such a simple thing as we sometimes imagine. I can know an object such as this wall I can also know you, which is quite a different kind of knowledge. I can study your body in the same way as I study this wall, analyzing it into component parts. But to know YOU is quite different.

Wherein lies the difference? In this: that at the very moment when I am knowing you, you are knowing me. That is to say, I cannot know you simply as an object, because you are at the same time yourself a subject. My knowledge of you, then, doesn’t depend simply on me. It depends to a large extent on you. Hence the reciprocal nature of friendship. When we say a person is “hard to get to know,” we do not mean that we cannot fully analyze him because we lack time or opportunity. We mean that he is reserved. He keeps himself back. Thus my knowledge of you is largely dependent on your revealing yourself to me.

Another kind of knowledge is that of oneself. This faculty, which we call “self-consciousness,” is a puzzle. It is only necessary to start thinking about it to get tied in knots. As I have said, I can know you — if you wish me to. But I can do more. I can know myself knowing you. I am conscious of myself in the act of knowing you. We have this amazing ability to stand aside, as it were, and watch our own minds at work. This self-consciousness is not innate and simple. A baby is not self-conscious. It has been affirmed that we do not become self-conscious until we are conscious of other selves. And so I must know others before I know myself. That’s worth thinking over in view of our tendency to live unto ourselves.

I’ve spoken of knowledge of objects, of persons, of self. But our immediate problem is knowledge of God. Is He a myth? It is surely now obvious that we cannot speak of knowing God in the same sense as knowing this wall. He is not an object like that. That is what makes nonsense of the materialist’s argument against God’s existence. To know God must be to know another Self. It is somewhat analogous to knowing you. That is to say, any knowledge of God must be dependent on His being willing to reveal Himself. But the analogy is not complete. Other persons come and go. God is eternally present, and so is eternally and constantly challenging our recognition and response as persons.

Let us now try to summarize what I have been attempting to say to you: —

1. God is real — more real than this wall, more real than you, more real than myself. His reality is best thought of in terms of Another Person, who is perpetually present.

2. We cannot get to know God as an object of our thinking. We come to know Him after the manner in which we come to know one another; that is, by His revealing Himself to us.

3. That He has shown Himself to be real is attested by the universal phenomenon of belief in Him. No purely atheistic society has ever existed. The testimony of millions of religious men to the reality of God can no more be disregarded than the testimony of millions of artistic men to the reality of beauty.

4. No arguments drawn from history, psychology, or “scientific” materialism can ever prove that God is a myth. The most they can do is to show that on occasion it is necessary to speak of God in a mythological way.

5. Finally, I want to say that it is probable that many these days have a belief in God hidden in their hearts which needs to be brought to the surface of thought. Our notions of right and wrong, good and evil, are ultimately inexplicable unless they have their origin in some germ of an idea of perfection. And an idea of perfection is the shadow cast in the mind of a belief in God in the heart. Listen to what Pascal heard God saying in a vision: “Thou wouldest not be seeking me, hadst thou not already found me.” The very desire to know that God is real is already an indication that He is. We did not fabricate this questing spirit within us. We did not spin our ideas of perfect goodness, truth, and beauty out of nothing. And so, to seek is already to have found.