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

Posts tagged ‘religion’

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.

Who is G. K. Chesterton? (Part 3)

(Continued from part 1 and part 2.)

Let’s begin by reviewing two main points.  First, Chesterton wrote an enormous amount of stuff covering almost any topic that you could name.  Second, Chesterton’s goal was to help the reader see what was unseen, not because it was hidden, but rather because it was obvious.  That leads us to the next question: what, exactly, did Chesterton want us to see?

We note in passing that Chesterton’s writing is stupendously entertaining.  Sometimes it’s funny, other times flashy, other times dramatic, or romantic, or intriguing–he could do it all.  But while he was always entertaining, he was never merely entertaining.  Everything that he wrote had a purpose.  Even the more farcical stories and poems always contained a bit of meaning carefully hidden in a corner somewhere.  In the lingo that we teach kids in language arts classes, every Chesterton work has a theme.  To be perfectly precise, most of his works have a plethora of themes, but all have at least one.  Chesterton was a man of strong beliefs who wrote to convince other people.

Chesterton’s strongest belief was Christianity.  He was a self-described orthodox Christian and most people associate him with the Catholic Church, though he was actually a member of the Church of England for most of his life before converting to Catholicism in 1922.  One cannot talk sensibly about Chesterton without talking about his religion.

There are now and always have been a lot of silly explanations offered for religious beliefs by the enemies of Christianity, as for instance that Christians are mentally ill, or seek an imaginary God as a substitute father figure, or are victims of childhood indoctrination, or so forth.  Chesteron serves as a one-man rebuttal to all of these.  Anyone reading his work can see that he was clearly in robust mental health and he had a fine father figure in the form of his father.  Most significantly he was not raised to be a strong Christian.  In his teenage years he experimented with the occult and wrestled with violence, depression, and suicidal thoughts.  Only in adulthood did he come to understand and accept the tenets of Christianity.  His most famous book, Orthodoxy, charts this remarkable transformation.

Because of how he arrived at it, Chesterton had an extrordinarily broad and deep understanding of what Christianity meant.  His massive intellect allowed him to swat aside the simpler objections with ease.  For instance, responding to Marxist claims that religion is the opiate of the masses, Chesterton compared the Irish to English.  The Irish were obviously poorer and more religious, yet obviously not dull or drugged.  If either nation met that description it would be the English.  Chesterton offered up countless rebuttals of this kind to mealy-mouthed skeptical arguments.  His faith was a rational faith.  He studied history, science, literature, arts, scripture, psychology, and every other relevant field in great depth, and perceived that no matter where he looked, the facts were pointing him towards Christianity.  As he explained it:

The first answer is simply to say that I am a rationalist. I like to have some intellectual justification for my intuitions. If I am treating man as a fallen being it is an intellectual convenience to me to believe that he fell; and I find, for some odd psychological reason, that I can deal better with a man’s exercise of freewill if I believe that he has got it. But I am in this matter yet more definitely a rationalist. I do not propose to turn this book into one of ordinary Christian apologetics; I should be glad to meet at any other time the enemies of Christianity in that more obvious arena. Here I am only giving an account of my own growth in spiritual certainty. But I may pause to remark that the more I saw of the merely abstract arguments against the Christian cosmology the less I thought of them. I mean that having found the moral atmosphere of the Incarnation to be common sense, I then looked at the established intellectual arguments against the Incarnation and found them to be common nonsense.

That being true, Chesterton’s faith was based on more than a large collection of factoids, even if it was a very large collection.  He saw orthodox Christianity as a unified system that accounted for all aspects of human experience: moral, ethical, aesthetic, and historical.  To him the system’s unity proved its truth, along with the fact that it offered him abundant life and possibilities for growth.  As he explained in his best known and most quoted paragraph:

I have another far more solid and central ground for submitting to it as a faith, instead of merely picking up hints from it as a scheme. And that is this: that the Christian Church in its practical relation to my soul is a living teacher, not a dead one. It not only certainly taught me yesterday, but will almost certainly teach me tomorrow. Once I saw suddenly the meaning of the shape of the cross; some day I may see suddenly the meaning of the shape of the mitre. One free morning I saw why windows were pointed; some fine morning I may see why priests were shaven. Plato has told you a truth; but Plato is dead. Shakespeare has startled you with an image; but Shakespeare will not startle you with any more. But imagine what it would be to live with such men still living, to know that Plato might break out with an original lecture to-morrow, or that at any moment Shakespeare might shatter everything with a single song. The man who lives in contact with what he believes to be a living Church is a man always expecting to meet Plato and Shakespeare to-morrow at breakfast. He is always expecting to see some truth that he has never seen before. There is one only other parallel to this position; and that is the parallel of the life in which we all began. When your father told you, walking about the garden, that bees stung or that roses smelt sweet, you did not talk of taking the best out of his philosophy. When the bees stung you, you did not call it an entertaining coincidence. When the rose smelt sweet you did not say “My father is a rude, barbaric symbol, enshrining (perhaps unconsciously) the deep delicate truths that flowers smell.” No: you believed your father, because you had found him to be a living fountain of facts, a thing that really knew more than you; a thing that would tell you truth to-morrow, as well as to-day. And if this was true of your father, it was even truer of your mother; at least it was true of mine, to whom this book is dedicated.

That explains Chesterton’s Christianity with crystal clarity.  Christianity offered him exactly what scripture says it offers: a new life, a second birth, a chance to experience anew the joys and childhood without giving up on the joys of adulthood.  These things convinced Chesterton to become a committed, lifelong Christian.  As we’ll see, Chesterton wrote on a great many other topics and was equally passionate about those others, but nothing that he wrote can be separated from his religion.  It was the trunk from which all the other branches grew.

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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