Friday, April 26, 2013

Orthodoxy, by G. K. Chesterton

"Angels can fly because..."

Months ago, on the advice of C. S. Lewis, I downloaded Chesterton's book The Eternal Man but have yet to read it. Last month, a friend in Scotland recommended Orthodoxy, and that was the nudge I needed to dive into Chesterton's Christian apologetics, although he's possibly better known for his Father Brown mysteries.

When in polite company, avoid the topics of religion, politics and money, correct?  Mr. Chesterton is unflaggingly polite, yet his book is proof positive that one cannot discuss religion without kicking up a fuss from one quarter or another. My own reactions ran the gamut from admiration to spluttering anger.  On the whole, however, I can see why C. S. Lewis found him so influential.

When Chesterton published Orthodoxy in 1908, he decried that modern man seemed to feel that science and modernity had made religion obsolete.  In the intervening century, this trend has certainly increased. Science explains, self-help books teach, industry and cleverness bring material success. Who needs God, and for what?  We've got way too big for our britches, Chesterton retorts. We are arrogant.
I had heard it once too often, and I saw suddenly that there was nothing in it. The publisher said of somebody, "That man will get on; he believes in himself." ...
Actors who can't act believe in themselves; and debtors who won't pay. It would be much truer to say that a man will certainly fail, because he believes in himself. Complete self-confidence is not merely a sin; complete self-confidence is a weakness.
Those who do still claim to be religious have assumed an untoward familiarity with the deity, or as Chesterton puts it, maybe the lunatic in Hanwell (the asylum) who claims to be God really is, simply another incarnation or modern prophet. They maintain that God is to be found everywhere on earth, in every one and in every thing, including the madman and the post box. This, replies Chesterton, is simply belittling. How can we feel awe for a deity who lives next-door? Where's the mystery in that?
...if the man in Hanwell is the real God, he is not much of a god. And, similarly, if the cosmos of the materialist is the real cosmos, it is not much of a cosmos. The thing has shrunk. The deity is less divine than many men; and (according to Haeckel) the whole of life is something much more grey, narrow, and trivial than many separate aspects of it. The parts seem greater than the whole.
As I look back on my own angry adolescent rebellion against my Catholic upbringing, I realise that I tossed out the baby with the bathwater. Because I could not believe in certain teachings -- the virgin birth, the bodily resurrection -- I turned my back on the whole lot. Chesterton asks readers to shift the emphasis from what they cannot to believe, looking instead for ways to believe what they can.  He presages Joseph Campbell in his insistence that we need elements of the mythical, the mysterious, the ineffable in our lives. We are happy to allow ourselves to believe in fables, romances and fairy tales -- perhaps not literally but to allow them to transport us to psychic states that we would not otherwise experience and to learn the lessons they teach. Why, I had to start asking myself, could I not allow myself to read the Gospels in the same way? Accepting not by coercion, this time, but by choice?
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...
Pragmatism is a matter of human needs; and one of the first of human needs is to be something more than a pragmatist.
I recall listening to an interview with Richard Dawkins in which the scientist veritably spat at religion, attacking it on every level. The vitriol of his attack struck me as every bit as blinkered and intransigent as the arguments posed by religious fundamentalists who refute the possibility of evolution on the grounds of Genesis. I realised then that fundamentalism equals closed-mindedness, no matter what the belief system, and Dawkins is in fact a fundamentalist atheist. Chesterton invites us to revisit the Christian story. At least approach it again with a more open mind.  Maybe we can accept some of it on some level, as opposed to those who have planted their feet in mulish refusal to even venture a glimpse into what they've dismissed as superstitious nonsense. As Augustine noted, "If I be asked why these could not believe, I immediately answer, because they Would Not."

One of the steps in the 12-step programmes for substance abuse is acknowledging that there is "a higher power", and it's up to the individual how to define or even ponder that term, but the point is that he must concede that he is not the only or even the most powerful force affecting his life; there is something greater and more vast than us humans. Chesterton is even more blunt on this point.
Thinking in isolation and with pride ends in being an idiot. Every man who will not have softening of the heart must at last have softening of the brain.
Of course, even then (and more so now), avowing Christian faith is unfashionable and suggests a lack of rational thought.  And what, Chesterton wonders, will replace the sacred wonder, the awe, the grandeur?  Microbiology? Politics? He finds more solid grounding in his Christian values.
They said that I should lose my ideals and begin to believe in the methods of practical politicians. Now, I have not lost my ideals in the least; my faith in fundamentals is exactly what it always was. What I have lost is my old childlike faith in practical politics. I am still as much concerned as ever about the Battle of Armageddon; but I am not so much concerned about the General Election.
Since Chesterton's time, countless scientists and religious leaders have written about the connections (or lack of them) between their fields.  E. O. Wilson, venerable biologist and entomologist, writes movingly about being constantly amazed by the natural world; the Dalai Lama is fascinated with advances in neuroscience and how they can inform Buddhist ideas about consciousness.  To me, any astrophysicist who contemplates the cosmos with astonishment is having a religious experience. He needn't hold the belief that a deity created it in seven days; the awe at its enormity and complexity is enough. Those who insist, on the other hand, that the universe is a mere prosaic assortment of energy and matter, all of which we humans will likely one day comprehend and manipulate, strike Chesterton as psychologically fettered.
But the expansion of which I speak was much more evil than all this. I have remarked that the materialist, like the madman, is in prison; in the prison of one thought. These people seemed to think it singularly inspiring to keep on saying that the prison was very large. The size of this scientific universe gave one no novelty, no relief. The cosmos went on for ever, but not in its wildest constellation could there be anything really interesting; anything, for instance, such as forgiveness or free will. The grandeur or infinity of the secret of its cosmos added nothing to it. It was like telling a prisoner in Reading gaol that he would be glad to hear that the gaol now covered half the county. The warder would have nothing to show the man except more and more long corridors of stone lit by ghastly lights and empty of all that is human. So these expanders of the universe had nothing to show us except more and more infinite corridors of space lit by ghastly suns and empty of all that is divine.
I have some atheist friends who are generally content with their lives, and a handful of others who are unsettled and seeking a larger purpose. One in particular adamantly refuses to have truck with anything he can't perceive with his five senses. (He doesn't read fiction, either, because it "isn't real".) I've often pointed out to him that his present views are not serving him very well, as he's so chronically miserable, but he will not budge from his view that his perceptions are the only truth. He is also very quick to ridicule anyone who possesses any type of religious or spiritual faith. Chesterton had a comment for people like this.
Perhaps, those might not be the very best judges of the relation of religion to happiness who, by their own account, had neither one nor the other.
When Chesterton begins comparing Christianity to Buddhism, however, I began to fume. His ignorance of the latter is plain, and his arguments crumble into this gap in his knowledge. He repeats the common misconception that the Buddhist practice is all inward-facing in its attempts to avoid the sufferings and messy realities of this world. This is maddeningly incorrect. He claims that Buddhists believe that "we are really all one person; that there are no real walls of individuality between man and man".  Again, this is simply wrong: Buddhism posits that all beings are interconnected, but not that all humans are one and the same. Because his understanding of Buddhism is so skewed, the contrasts that Chesterton draws between it and Christianity are nearly worthless.  For example, his insistence that Buddhists are essentially navel-gazing introverts, while Christians are actively involved in the world around them...  Oh, really, Mr. Chesterton!
By insisting specially on the immanence of God we get introspection, self-isolation, quietism, social indifference -- Tibet. By insisting specially on the transcendence of God we get wonder, curiosity, moral and political adventure, righteous indignation --Christendom.
He did, however, win my heart back after this gaffe of a chapter. I came across a familiar passage and wondered that he hadn't cited the original author.  Then, laughing at myself, I realised -- Chesterton was the original author!  This famous line was his.
A characteristic of the great saints is their power of levity. Angels can fly because they can take themselves lightly.
Notice the extra word, please.  I've always heard this line quoted as "Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly."  The original text actually reads:  "Angels can fly because they can take themselves lightly."  It's a minor difference, but an important one, I think.  Because an angel or a saint can take himself lightly doesn't mean that he always does so. To say that they take themselves lightly makes them sound frivolous.  On this point, anyway, I do agree with Chesterton.  I think there must be a sense of levity in the heavens, and we'd do well to nod to it now and then.


  1. I would not take advice from C.S. Lewis. He was, after all, a man who thought it fitting to end a series of children's fantasy novels with the horrific death of all the children and their parents in a train crash.

    Funny how a Christian believes himself to be an authority on Buddhism. Reminds me of all those people who have never volunteered for any cause who tell people not to volunteer for particular causes. And people who have never donated money to any cause telling others why they shouldn't donate money to particular causes. The world is full of laughable and pitiable idiots. If only they aren't quite so dangerous.

    1. Did the Narnia books end in a train wreck?! How bizarre... I remember reading and loving them when I was an adolescent, but I have no memory of so much carnage at the end. Time to re-read them, I think.

      But yes, Chesterton's gaffes about Buddhism reminded me of the dangers of lashing out against anything with which we are less than intimately familiar. As you said, one's credibility goes into the toilet when one's rant reveals enormous gaps of knowledge or understanding.

      P.S. If you ever come across a copy of C.S. Lewis' book 'The Four Loves', give it a go.


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