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.