Henri de Lubac lived and worked during some of the most violent and confused years in modern European history. In addition to the losses caused by the several wars that ravaged Europe, the violent events of the early twentieth century led to an acute emotional and intellectual anxiety for many citizens of the continent. The First World War, in particular, brought European confidence in unending technological and moral progress to a halt.[i] In 1922, the French poet Paul Valéry wrote,
The Storm is over, and yet we are still uneasy . . . anxious . . . as though it were just now going to break. Nearly all human affairs are still in a state of terrible uncertainty. We ponder on what is gone, we are almost ruined by what has been ruined; we do not know what is to come, and have some reason to fear it. We hope vaguely, but dread precisely; our fears are infinitely clearer than our hopes; we recognize that pleasurable living and abundance are behind us, but confusion and doubt are in us and with us.[ii]
Although war and atrocity are not recent inventions, there was something distinctive, and even surprising, about the violence witnessed during the European wars of the past century. On the one hand, people were surprised by the scale of those wars. Modern technology, which held such promise in agriculture, communications, medicine, travel, and more, also enabled the production of much deadlier weapons than previous eras had known, and the millions of soldiers and civilians killed during the first half of the twentieth century were unprecedented.[iii] On the other hand, the World Wars were shocking because they “contrast[ed] with the expectations, at least in Europe, with which the twentieth century began,” expectations of unrestrained social progress.[iv] Those expectations were inspired, in large part, by a philosophical revolution that took place during the nineteenth century.