"Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly." – G. K. Chesterton

Posts tagged ‘Islam’

Who is G. K. Chesterton? (Part 4)

(Continued from part 1, part 2, and part 3.)

Part 3 dealt with Chesterton’s religion.  Before going on to other topics, we must say a little bit more about this one.  We’ve already noted that Chesterton had a rational faith in Christianity.  He found that Christianity corresponded with all the basic facts that he could observe in the world around him.  He was excellent with logic and had a keen ability to reduce an argument to its fundamentals and then point out it flaws.  In this way he sliced through the arguments of lesser thinkers like a hot knife through butter.  One of Chesterton’s two top influences was Saint Thomas Aquinas, the great medieval monk whose philosophy treatises gave the logical underpinnings for Christian dogma.

But if Chesterton was sure and thorough in providing reasons for his beliefs, he also knew that strict logic alone was not the answer to human existence.  He lived at a time–the late 19th and early 20th century–when doubt and skepticism were rampant in the intellectual world.  Bold, brainy men were promoting Marxism, Freudianism, social Darwinism, postmodernism, and more other -isms than anyone could count.  Chesterton was aware of them all and tackled them one by one.  However, he didn’t just crush their results but investigated their philosophical underpinning.  Beneath each one he found the same rotten foundation, namely an absolute rejection of tradition and religion coupled with total dedication to materialist thinking.  If so many bad ideas emerged from the same source, it was reasonable to conclude that the source itself had a problem.  As he put it:

Let us begin, then, with the mad-house; from this evil and fantastic inn let us set forth on our intellectual journey. Now, if we are to glance at the philosophy of sanity, the first thing to do in the matter is to blot out one big and common mistake. There is a notion adrift everywhere that imagination, especially mystical imagination, is dangerous to man’s mental balance. Poets are commonly spoken of as psychologically unreliable; and generally there is a vague association between wreathing laurels in your hair and sticking straws in it. Facts and history utterly contradict this view. Most of the very great poets have been not only sane, but extremely business-like; and if Shakespeare ever really held horses, it was because he was much the safest man to hold them. Imagination does not breed insanity. Exactly what does breed insanity is reason. Poets do not go mad; but chess-players do. Mathematicians go mad, and cashiers; but creative artists very seldom. I am not, as will be seen, in any sense attacking logic: I only say that this danger does lie in logic, not in imagination. Artistic paternity is as wholesome as physical paternity.

Having thus identified the problem, Chesterton offered a solution with an -ism of his own.

Mysticism keeps men sane. As long as you have mystery you have health; when you destroy mystery you create morbidity. The ordinary man has always been sane because the ordinary man has always been a mystic. He has permitted the twilight. He has always had one foot in earth and the other in fairyland. He has always left himself free to doubt his gods; but (unlike the agnostic of to-day) free also to believe in them. He has always cared more for truth than for consistency. If he saw two truths that seemed to contradict each other, he would take the two truths and the contradiction along with them. His spiritual sight is stereoscopic, like his physical sight: he sees two different pictures at once and yet sees all the better for that. Thus he has always believed that there was such a thing as fate, but such a thing as free will also. Thus he believed that children were indeed the kingdom of heaven, but nevertheless ought to be obedient to the kingdom of earth. He admired youth because it was young and age because it was not. It is exactly this balance of apparent contradictions that has been the whole buoyancy of the healthy man. The whole secret of mysticism is this: that man can understand everything by the help of what he does not understand. The morbid logician seeks to make everything lucid, and succeeds in making everything mysterious. The mystic allows one thing to be mysterious, and everything else becomes lucid.

Here, in one masterful stroke, Chesterton defeats the charge that religion is irrational.  Strict, dogmatic adherence to logic while excluding all else is illogical.  True rationality means acknowledging that the world is just slightly too complicated to be squeezed into a strict logical scheme.  In this way, Chesterton married rational faith to mysticism, and the creative tension that results from these two underpins everything that Chesterton believed.
In these quotes, both taken from the first chapter of Orthodoxy, we see Chesterton defending “religion”, and one might get the impression that he was a fan of all religions as long as they opposed the destructive force of materialism.  This would be entirely wrong.  The abstract concept of “religious tolerance”, the notion that all religions are fundamentally alike, was among his favorite targets for attack.

We talk much about “respecting” this or that person’s religion; but the way to respect a religion is to treat it as a religion: to ask what are its tenets and what are their consequences. But modern tolerance is deafer than intolerance. The old religious authorities, at least, defined a heresy before they condemned it, and read a book before they burned it. But we are always saying to a Mormon or a Moslem–”Never mind about your religion, come to my arms.” To which he naturally replies–”But I do mind about my religion, and I advise you to mind your eye.”

And  he also noted:

Historians seem to have completely forgotten the two facts– first, that men act from ideas; and second, that it might, therefore, be as well to discover which ideas.

Recall that Chesterton was a big fan of common sense.  That all religions are the same, or close to the same, or the same in their major points, or that they teach the same morals, is obviously nonsense.  Different religions teach vastly different things: different theologies, but different morals as well.  Chesterton was not afraid to right about religion.  He looked carefully at what the various religions believed and responded to them.  In some cases he was not afraid to label ridiculous claims as such.  If Christian Scientists insisted that all disease was purely spiritual and thus shouldn’t be treated with medicine, that’s crazy and Chesterton said as much.  If Mormons claimed that God favored polygamy until the year 1890 and then changed His mind, that’s absurd and Chesterton said so.  He also didn’t hesitate to connect the dots between religious beliefs and visible results.  If Hinduism caused millions to suffer under the caste system or Islam produced a large number of violent fanatics, he made the connection bluntly.

In addition, Chesterton had strong opinions about the correct interpretation of Christianity.  Some churches he opposed.  Calvinism was one another of his favorite targets; he viewed Calvinist belief in an all-powerful God and a helpless humanity as cruel and dehumanizing.  He was keenly aware of Christian history and knew exactly when, where, and why each tenet of Orthodox Christianity came from.  He also understood their implications.  Just as he could draw the lines between other religions and their results social effects, he also knew why the unique aspects of western society were inexorably woven together with Christian beliefs.  Hence Chesterton’s religious standpoint was inseparable from his social, political, economic, and even artistic mores.

Chesterton on visiting the Middle East

In honor of everybody’s favorite dead Al Queda leader, I present some thoughts about Islam and the Middle East.  These come from Chesterton’s visit to Egypt and Palestine, and he later gathered and published them as The New Jerusalem.

It may sound strange to say that monotony of its nature becomes novelty. But if any one will try the common experiment of saying some ordinary word such as “moon” or “man” about fifty times, he will find that the expression has become extraordinary by sheer repetition. A man has become a strange animal with a name as queer as that of the gnu; and the moon something monstrous like the moon-calf. Something of this magic of monotony is effected by the monotony of deserts; and the traveller feels as if he had entered into a secret, and was looking at everything from another side. Something of this simplification appears, I think, in the religions of the desert, especially in the religion of Islam. It explains something of the super-human hopes that fill the desert prophets concerning the future; it explains something also about their barbarous indifference to the past.

We think of the desert and its stones as old; but in one sense they are unnaturally new. They are unused, and perhaps unusable. They might be the raw material of a world; only they are so raw as to be rejected. It is not easy to define this quality of something primitive, something not mature enough to be fruitful. Indeed there is a hard simplicity about many Eastern things that is as much crude as archaic. A palm-tree is very like a tree drawn by a child—or by a very futurist artist. Even a pyramid is like a mathematical figure drawn by a schoolmaster teaching children; and its very impressiveness is that of an ultimate Platonic abstraction. There is something curiously simple about the shape in which these colossal crystals of the ancient sands have been cast. It is only when we have felt something of this element, not only of simplicity, but of crudity, and even in a sense of novelty, that we can begin to understand both the immensity and the insufficiency of that power that came out of the desert, the great religion of Mahomet.

In the red circle of the desert, in the dark and secret place, the prophet discovers the obvious things. I do not say it merely as a sneer, for obvious things are very easily forgotten; and indeed every high civilisation decays by forgetting obvious things. But it is true that in such a solitude men tend to take very simple ideas as if they were entirely new ideas. There is a love of concentration which comes from the lack of comparison. The lonely man looking at the lonely palm-tree does see the elementary truths about the palm-tree; and the elementary truths are very essential. Thus he does see that though the palm-tree may be a very simple design, it was not he who designed it. It may look like a tree drawn by a child, but he is not the child who could draw it. He has not command of that magic slate on which the pictures can come to life, or of that magic green chalk of which the green lines can grow. He sees at once that a power is at work in whose presence he and the palm-tree are alike little children. In other words, he is intelligent enough to believe in God; and the Moslem, the man of the desert, is intelligent enough to believe in God. But his belief is lacking in that humane complexity that comes from comparison. The man looking at the palm-tree does realise the simple fact that God made it; while the man looking at the lamp-post in a large modern city can be persuaded by a hundred sophistical circumlocutions that he made it himself. But the man in the desert cannot compare the palm-tree with the lamp-post, or even with all the other trees which may be better worth looking at than the lamp-post. Hence his religion, though true as far as it goes, has not the variety and vitality of the churches that were designed by men walking in the woods and orchards. I speak here of the Moslem type of religion and not of the oriental type of ornament, which is much older than the Moslem type of religion. But even the oriental type of ornament, admirable as it often is, is to the ornament of a gothic cathedral what a fossil forest is to a forest full of birds. In short, the man of the desert tends to simplify too much, and to take his first truth for the last truth. And as it is with religion so it is with morality. He who believes in the existence of God believes in the equality of man. And it has been one of the merits of the Moslem faith that it felt men as men, and was not incapable of welcoming men of many different races. But here again it was so hard and crude that its very equality was like a desert rather than a field. Its very humanity was inhuman.

This sort of analysis is exactly what’s lacking when anybody today talks about religion in general or Islam in particular.  We all know Islam is a religion, and that it’s one of the “great” (i.e. large) religions.  We all know that Muslims believe in God and call him “Allah” and that they have a book called the Koran, but most of us couldn’t say much more than that.  Chesterton actually understood Islam.  He understood why it had enough appeal to grow and sweep up a large chunk of the world.  He also understood its flaws.  The appeal comes from Islam’s strong notions of God, human nature, and the need for ritual–all things that a human civilization can’t survive for long without.  The flaws are that Islam lacks any complexity at all beyond the basics.

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