Chesterton Knew The Importance of Ecumenical Dialogue

Chesterton Knew The Importance of Ecumenical Dialogue

Saturday, 7 January 2012

GK's Weekly, The Thing, What We Think About


I WAS looking the other day at a weekly paper of the sort that is supposed to provide popular culture; in this case rather especially what may be called popular science. In practice it largely provides what its supporters optimistically call Modern Thought and what we more commonly call Modernism. It is, however, a paper by no means unfair or exclusive of the opposite point of view; it has more than once permitted me to reply to these views; and in looking at the issue in question, my eye was arrested by my own name.

It occurred in an article on the religious doctrines of Mr. Arnold Bennett. Indeed the prominence in the press of this name in this connection is one of the standing mysteries of modern journalism. I have not only a great admiration for the artistic genius, but in many ways a strong liking for the human personality of Mr. Arnold Bennett. I like his liveliness and contempt for contempt. I like his humanity and merciful curiosity about every thing human. I like that essential absence of snobbishness that enables him to sympathise even with snobs. But talking about the religious beliefs of Mr. Arnold Bennett seems to me exactly like talking about the foxhunting adventures of Mr. Bernard Shaw or the favourite vintages of Mr. Pussyfoot Johnson or the celestial visions of Sir Arthur Keith or the monastic vows of Mr. Bertrand Russell. Mr. Arnold Bennett has never disguised, as it seems to me, the essential fact that he has not got any religious beliefs; as religious beliefs were understood in the English language as I learnt it. That he has a number of highly estimable moral sentiments and sympathies I do not for a moment doubt. But the matter of Mr. Arnold Bennett is, for the moment, a parenthesis. I mention it here merely because it was in the course of such an article that I found myself mentioned; and I confess I thought the reference a little odd. It will not surprise the reader to learn that the writer found me less Modernist than Mr. Arnold Bennett. My religious beliefs did not present so pure and virgin and blameless a blank, but were defaced with definite statements about various things. But the writer professed to find something dubious or mysterious about my attitude; and what mystifies me is his mystification. He delicately implied that there was more in me than met the eye; that I had that within, which passed all these Papistical shows, but that it was hopeless to vivisect me and discover the secret. He said: "Mr. Chesterton does not mean to enlighten us; for all we now he is Modernist enough in his own thoughts."

Now it would be thought a little annoying if an atheist were to say of some harmless Protestant Christian like General Booth; "For all we know, he is atheist enough in his own thoughts." We might even venture to enquire how the atheist could possibly form any notion of what General Booth thought, in such complete contradiction to everything he said. Or I myself, on the other hand, might seem less than graceful, if I were to suggest that Mr. Arnold Bennett must be concealing his conversion out of cowardice; and were to express it in the form: "Mr. Bennett will never tell us the truth about it; for all we know he is Papist enough in his own thoughts." I might even be cross-examined about how I had come to form these suspicions about the secret thoughts of Mr. Arnold Bennett; as to whether I had hidden under his bed and heard him muttering Latin prayers in his dreams, or sent a private detective to verify the existence of his hair-shirt and his concealed relics. It might be hinted that, until I could produce some such PRIMA FACIE case for my suspicions, it would be more polite to suppose that the opinions of Mr. Bennett were what he himself said they were. And if I were sensitive on such things, I might make a rather sharp request, that people who cannot possibly know anything about me except what I say, should for the sake of our general convenience believe what I say. On the subject of Modernism, at any rate, there has never been the least doubt or difficulty about what I say. For, as it happens, I had a strong intellectual contempt for Modernism, even before I really believed in Catholicism.

But I belong, as a biological product of evolution, to the order of the pachyderms. And I am not in the least moved by any annoyance in the matter; but only by a very strong mystification and curiosity about the real reason for this remarkable point of view. I know that the writer did not mean any harm; but I am much more interested in trying to understand what he did mean. And the truth is, I think, that there is hidden in this curious and cryptic phrase the secret of the whole modern controversy about Catholicism. What the man really meant was this: "Even poor old Chesterton must think; he can't have actually left off thinking altogether; there must be some form of cerebral function going forward to fill the empty hours of his misdirected and wasted life; and it is obvious that if a man begins to THINK, he can only think more or less in the direction of Modernism." The Modernists do really think that. That is the point. That is the joke.

Now what we have really got to hammer into the heads of all these people, somehow, is that a thinking man can think himself deeper and deeper into Catholicism, and not deeper and deeper into difficulties about Catholicism. We have got to make them see that conversion is the beginning of an active, fruitful, progressive and even adventurous life of the intellect. For THAT is the thing that they cannot at present bring themselves to believe. They honestly say to themselves: "What can he be thinking about, if he is not thinking about the Mistakes of Moses, as discovered by Mr. Miggles of Pudsey, or boldly defying all the terrors of the Inquisition which existed two hundred years ago in Spain?" We have got to explain somehow that the great mysteries like the Blessed Trinity or the Blessed Sacrament are the starting-points for trains of thought far more stimulating, subtle and even individual, compared with which all that sceptical scratching is as thin, shallow and dusty as a nasty piece of scandalmongering in a New England village. Thus, to accept the Logos as a truth is to be in the atmosphere of the absolute, not only with St. John the Evangelist, but with Plato and all the great mystics of the world. To accept the Logos as a "text" or an "interpolation" or a "development" or a dead word in a dead document, only used to give in rapid succession about six different dates to that document, is to be altogether on a lower plane of human life; to be squabbling and scratching for a merely negative success; even if it really were a success. To exalt the Mass is to enter into a magnificent world of metaphysical ideas, illuminating all the relations of matter and mind, of flesh and spirit, of the most impersonal abstractions as well as the most personal affections. To set out to belittle and minimise the Mass, by talking ephemeral back-chat about what it had in common with Mithras or the Mysteries, is to be in altogether a more petty and pedantic mood; not only lower than Catholicism but lower even than Mithraism.

As I have said before, it is very difficult to say how we can best set about these things. We and our critics have come to talk in two different languages; so that the very names by which we describe the things inside stand for totally different things in the absurd labels they have stuck upon the wall outside. Often if we said the great things we have to say, they would sound like the small things they accuse us of saying. A philosophical process can only begin at the right end; and they have got hold of everything by the wrong end. But I am myself disposed to think that we should begin by challenging one very common phrase or form of words; a thing that has become a catch-word and a caption; or in the ordinary popular phrase a headline. Because the journalists incessantly repeat it, and draw attention to it by repeating it, we may possibly draw attention by denying it.

When the journalist says for the thousandth time, "Living religion is not in dull and dusty dogmas, etc." we must stop him with a sort of shout and say, "There--you go wrong at the very start." If he would condescend to ask what the dogmas are, he would find out that it is precisely the dogmas that are living, that are inspiring, that are intellectually interesting. Zeal and charity and unction are admirable as flowers and fruit; but if you are really interested in the living principle you must be interested in the root or the seed. In other words, you must be intelligently interested in the statement with which the whole thing started; even if it is only to deny it. Even if the critic cannot come to agree with the Catholic, he can come to see that it is certain ideas about the Cosmos that make him a Catholic. He can see that being Cosmic in that way, and Catholic in that way, is what makes him different from other people; and what makes him, at the very least, a not uninteresting figure in human history. He will never get anywhere near it by sentimentalising against Catholic sentiment or pontificating against Catholic pontiffs. He must get hold of the ideas as ideas; and he will find that the most interesting of all the ideas are those which the newspapers dismiss as dogmas.

For instance; the doctrine of the Dual Nature of Christ is in the most genuine sense interesting; it ought to be interesting to anybody who can understand it, long before he can believe it. It has what can be called with all reverence a stereoscopic interest; the interest of having the two eyes in the head that create an object; of having the two angles in the triangle that determine the third. The old Monophysite sect declared that Christ had only the one divine nature. The new Monophysite sect declares that He had only the one human nature. But it is not a pun or a trick, but a truth, to say that the Monophysite is by nature monotonous. In either of his two forms, he is naturally on one note. The question of objective historical truth is another question, which I am not arguing here, though I am ready to argue it anywhere. I am talking about intellectual stimulation and the starting point of thought and imagination. And these, like all living things, breed from the conjunction of two, and not from one alone. Thus I read, with sympathy but a sympathy that hardly goes beyond sentiment, the studies of the modern Monophysites in the life of the limited and merely mortal Jesus of Nazareth. I respect their respect; I admire their admiration; I know that all they say about human greatness or religious genius is true as far as it goes. But it goes along one line; and cannot convince like the things that can converge. And then, after reading such a tribute to an ethical teacher in the manner of the Essenes, perhaps I turn another page of the same or some similar book; and come upon some phrase used about a real though a pagan religion; perhaps some supposed parallel of what is called a Pagan Christ. I find it said, if only of Atys or Adonis, "There was a conception that the god sacrificed himself to himself." The man who can read those words without a thrill is dead.

The thrill is deeper for us, of course, because it is concerned with a fact and not a fancy. In that sense we do not admit that there is any such parallel with the legends of the ancient pagans as is implied in the books of the modern pagans. And indeed we are surely entitled to call it mere common sense to say that there can be no complete parallel between what was admittedly a myth or mystery and what was admittedly a man. But the point here is that the truth hidden even in myths and mysteries is altogether lost if we are confined to the consideration of a man. In this sense there is an ironic and unconscious truth in the words of the modern pagan, who sang that "the heathen outface and outlive us," and that "our lives and our longings are twain." It is true of the Modernists, but it is not true of us, who find simultaneously the realisation of a longing and the record of a life. It is perfectly true that there were in many pagan myths the faint foreshadowing of the Christian mysteries; though even in saying so we admit that the foreshadowings were shadows. But when all imaginative kinship has been explored or allowed for, it is not true that mythology ever rose to the heights of theology. It is not true that a thought so bold or so subtle as this one ever crossed the mind that created the centaurs and the fauns. In the wildest and most gigantic of the primitive epic fancies, there is no conception so colossal as the being who is both Zeus and Prometheus.

But I only advert to it here, not as arguing its truth against those who do not believe it, but only as insisting on its intense and intellectual interest for those who do believe it. I only wish to explain to those who are worried in this way, that a mind filled with the true conception of this Duality has plenty to think about along those lines and has no need to dig up dead gods to discredit the Everlasting Man. There is no necessity for me to be Modernist in my own thoughts, or Monophysite in my own thoughts; because I think these views much duller and more trivial than my own. In the beautiful words of the love-song in THE WALLET OF KAI LUNG, one of the few truly psychological love-songs of the world: "This insignificant and universally despised person would unhesitatingly prefer his thoughts to theirs."

Any number of other examples could of course be given. This person (if I may use once more the graceful Chinese locution) would very soon exhaust the excitement of discovering that Mary and Maia both begin with an M, or that the Mother of Christ and the Mother of Cupid were both represented as women. But I know that I shall never exhaust the profundity of that unfathomable paradox which is defined so defiantly in the very title of the Mother of God. I know that there are not only far deeper, but far fresher and freer developments of thought and imagination, in that riddle of the perfectly human having once had a natural authority over the supernaturally divine, than in any sort of iconoclastic identification which assimilates all the sacred images by flattening all their faces. By the time that Christ is really made the same as Osiris, there can be very little left of either of them; but Christ, as conceived by the Catholic Church, is himself a complex and a combination, not of two unreal things, but of two real ones. In the same way an Ashtaroth exactly like one of Raphael's Madonnas, or vice versa, would seem a somewhat featureless vision in any case; whereas there is something that is, in the most intellectual sense, unique about the conception of the THEOTOKOS. In short, in all this mere unification of traditions, true or false, there is something that may be quite simply described as dull. But the dogmas are not dull. Even what are called the fine doctrinal distinctions are not dull. They are like the finest operations of surgery; separating nerve from nerve, but giving life. It is easy enough to flatten out everything for miles round with dynamite, if our only object is to give death. But just as the physiologist is dealing with living tissues, so the theologian is dealing with living ideas; and if he draws a line between them it is naturally a very fine line. It is the custom, though by this time; already a rather stale custom, to complain that the Greeks or Italians who disputed about the Trinity or the Sacrament were splitting hairs. I do not know that even splitting hairs is any drearier than bleaching hairs, in the vain attempt to match the golden hair of Freya and the black hair of Cotytto. The subdivision of a hair does at least tell us something of its structure; whereas its mere discoloration tells us nothing at all. Theology does introduce us to the structure of ideas; whereas theosophical syncretism merely washes all the colours out of the coloured fairy-tales of the world. But my only purpose in this place is to reassure the kind gentleman who was troubled about the secret malady of modernity that must be eating away my otherwise empty mind. I hasten earnestly to explain that I am quite well, thank you; and that I have plenty of things to think about without falling back on a Baconian madness of pagan parallels, or establishing the connection between the tale of the bull killed by Mithras and the tune the old cow died of.

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