Chesterton Knew The Importance of Ecumenical Dialogue

Chesterton Knew The Importance of Ecumenical Dialogue

Saturday, 20 August 2011

GK's Weekly, The Thing, What Do They Think?


ALL science, even the divine science, is a sublime detective story. Only it is not set to detect why a man is dead; but the darker secret of why he is alive. The Catholic Church remains in the best sense a mystery even to believers. It would be foolish of them to complain if it is a riddle to unbelievers. But in a more practical sense we may well ask a question. What do they think it really is? What do they think we think it really is? What do they think it is all about, or even supposed to be all about? That problem becomes darker and darker for me, the more I stare at it. It becomes black as midnight, for instance, when I stare at such a sentence as I saw recently in TRUTH, a singularly intelligent and often a highly valuable paper. It stated that Rome tolerates, in her relation with the Russian Uniats, "strange heresies and even bearded and wedded clergy."

In that one extraordinary phrase, what formless monster begins to take form in their visions? In those eight words it is not too much to say that every term is startling in its inconsequence. As somebody tumbling down the stairs bumps upon every step, the writer comes a crash upon every word. The word "strange" is strange enough. The word "heresy" is stranger. Perhaps at first sight the word "bearded," with its joyous reminiscences of the game of Beaver, may appear the most funny. "Wedded" is also funny. Even the "and" between bearded and wedded is funny. But by far the funniest and most fantastic thing in all that fantastic sentence is the word "even."

It is not everybody who can thus bestrew a page with comic conjunctions and farcical particles of speech. Only a wild unreason, about the whole way the thing hangs together, could thus make even the joints and hinges of that rickety statement rattle and creak with laughter. We can hardly say of this version of the Roman Catholic faith that it is a false version, or that it differs from the true version, or even that it differs from our version. What is the version; and how can it be even their version? There is in the world, they would tell us, a powerful and persecuting superstition, intoxicated with the impious idea of having a monopoly of divine truth, and therefore cruelly crushing and exterminating everything else as error. It burns thinkers for thinking, discoverers for discovering, philosophers and theologians who differ by a hair's breadth from its dogmas; it will tolerate no tiny change or shadow of variety even among its friends and followers; it sweeps the whole world with one encyclical cyclone of uniformity; it would destroy nations and empires for a word, so wedded is it to its fixed idea that its own word is the Word of God. When it is thus sweeping the world, it comes to a remote and rather barbarous region somewhere on the borders of Russia; where it stops suddenly; smiles broadly; and tells the people there that they can have the strangest heresies they like. Strange heresies, by the standard of strangeness likely to exist in an experience so long as that of the Roman Church, may well be very strange indeed. The Church is no stranger to heresies that involved human sacrifice, or the worship of demons, or the practice of perversions. We might well suppose, therefore, that the Church says benevolently to these fortunate Slavs, "By all means worship Baphomet and Beelzebub; say the Lord's Prayer backwards; continue to drink the blood of infants--nay, even," and here her voice falters, till she rallies with an effort of generous resolution, "--yes, even, if you really must, grow a beard." And then, I suppose, we must call up yet darker and more dreadful visions, of the heretic hiding himself in secret places, in caverns of witchcraft or sealed gardens of black magic, while the blasphemous beard is grown. Nobody explains why these particular Eastern Europeans should be regarded with so much favour, or why a number of long hairs on the chin should be regarded with so much disfavour. It is presumably a problem on which this intolerant spiritual tyranny will suffer no question to be asked.

Does the reader realise the despair that falls upon the hapless Catholic journalist at such moments; or how wild a prayer he may well send up for the intercession of St. Francis of Sales? What is he to say; or at what end of that sentence is he to begin? What is the good of his laboriously beginning to explain that a married clergy is a matter of discipline and not doctrine, that it can therefore be allowed locally without heresy--when all the time the man thinks a beard as important as a wife and more important than a false religion? What is the sense of explaining to him the peculiar historical circumstances that have led to preserving some local habits in Kiev or Warsaw, when the man at any moment may receive a mortal shock by seeing a bearded Franciscan walking through Wimbledon or Walham Green? What we want to get at is the mind of the man who can think so absurdly about us as to suppose we could have a horror of heresy, and then a weakness for heresy, and then a greater horror of hair. To what does he attribute all the inconsistent nonsense and inconsequent bathos that he associates with us? Does he think we are all joking; or all dreaming; or all out of our minds; or what does he think? Until we have got at that, we have really got very little further.

The notion that he merely thinks the Church is all nonsense is not very consistent with the way in which he talks about her in other aspects; as when he says she has always resisted such and such changes, which he perhaps approves; or that she can be counted on as an influence for such and such principles, which he perhaps dislikes; or that she is forbidden to accept this doctrine or committed to defending that. But what he can possibly suppose to be the principle upon which she accepts or rejects doctrines I never can imagine. And the more we really come in contact with the puzzle, the more we shall feel, I think, something quite unique and even creepy about it. It is like the old fable of the five blind men who tried to explore an elephant; a fable that used to be told as a sort of farce; but which I can well imagine being told by Maeterlinck or some modern mystic so as to make the flesh creep with mysteries. The thing is at once so obvious and so invisible; so public and so impalpable; so universal and so secret. They say so much about it; and they say so little. They see so much of it; and they see so little. There is a sort of colossal contradiction, such as can only be conceived between different dimensions or different planes of thought, in the coexistence of such familiar fact and such utterly unknown truth. Indeed, there is only one combination of words I know of,
which ever did exactly express so huge a human and historical paradox; and they also are familiar and unfathomable: "The light shone in the darkness and the darkness comprehended it not."

Some part of the difficulty is doubtless due to the odd way in which so many people are at once preoccupied with it and prejudiced against it. It is queer to observe so much ignorance with so little indifference. They love talking about it and they hate hearing about it. It would seem that they especially hate asking about it. If, for instance, a man contributing to TRUTH, in the middle of educated London, really were a little puzzled by Rome making an exception of the Uniats, and were perhaps especially puzzled by an exception to the celibacy of the clergy (I omit his dark and inscrutable broodings on the subject of Beavers) might it not have occurred to him to go and ask some Catholic priest, or for that matter, some Catholic layman, and thus gain some sort of rough idea of the relative importance attached in our system to celibacy and heresy and hair on the face? Could he not have gained a glimpse of the usual order or hierarchy of these ideas, which would have prevented him from writing the staggering word "and" or the stunning word "even"? But I am inclined to suspect that even this omission, negative as it may seem, has in it something deeper than mere negligence. I fancy that there is more than meets the eye in this curious controversial attitude; the desire to ask rhetorical questions and not to ask real questions; the wish to heckle and not to hear. It may well be connected with more mystical aspects of the whole question, on which I am certainly not going to speculate, since they are admittedly the most subtle problems of the trained theologian; all those questions about the will to believe and the operations of grace; and the fact that something more than reason is needed to bring any of us into the most reasonable of all philosophies.

But apart from these mysteries, I think there is another reason that is human and historical. The thing that causes Catholic philosophy to be neglected is the very thing that really makes it impossible to neglect. It is the fact that it was something left for dead; and now rather incredibly come to life. An ordinary man would not mind very much whether he knew the exact ritual with which Roman augurs examined the entrails of beasts or watched the movements of birds; because he is certain that the world will not go back to that Roman religion. The world was once almost as certain that it would not go back to this other Roman religion. A man would not be very much ashamed of having put the metals in the wrong order in the imaginary formula of an alchemist, described in a historical romance; because he is convinced that alchemists can only return in romance and can never return in history. There was a time when he felt quite as safe about abbots as about alchemists. That time has already passed. That mere confident contempt, as I have said, has already been succeeded by a rather restless curiosity. But mental habits overlap; and the dead momentum of the old disregard of facts goes along side by side with a new movement of anxiety about possibilities. They would not be so ignorant about it if they had not decided that it was dead. They would not be so irritated about it if they had not discovered that it was alive. For ignorance accumulates like knowledge; and these newly aroused critics are the inheritors of the accruing interest of four hundred years of an ignorance that became an indifference. At this moment they are no longer indifferent; but they are still ignorant. They have been awakened suddenly in the watches of the night, and what they see they can neither deny nor understand. For they see one that was dead walking; and the blaze of that living death blasts or obliterates all the older details of life; and all the fables they have believed and all the facts they have forgotten are alike swallowed up in the miracle they can neither believe nor forget.

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