Wednesday, September 03, 2008

The Christian God of Divorce

Yes, that's a stunning title, isn't it? You'll have to read the rest of this posting if you want to really understand it - it's not as simple as it sounds. (Just in case you suspect something, I will tell you that GKC wrote a pamphlet called "Divorce Versus Democracy" (in CW4); neither he nor I approve of it. But that's all the more you get for now.)

Today, we conclude our study of the chapter called "The Flag of the World" in GKC's Orthodoxy. There are just seven more paragraphs to examine, and they are very rich - not only with allusions and with new tools and insights - but with a grand unity of tying together much of the foregoing arguments and allusions. The density and importance are such that I must forgo my dull "stage-setting" - so let us plunge right in.

((click here to plunge in))

Good... here we go.
It is commonly the loose and latitudinarian Christians who pay quite indefensible compliments to Christianity. They talk as if there had never been any piety or pity until Christianity came, a point on which any medieval would have been eager to correct them. They represent that the remarkable thing about Christianity was that it was the first to preach simplicity or self-restraint, or inwardness and sincerity. They will think me very narrow (whatever that means) if I say that the remarkable thing about Christianity was that it was the first to preach Christianity. Its peculiarity was that it was peculiar, and simplicity and sincerity are not peculiar, but obvious ideals for all mankind. Christianity was the answer to a riddle, not the last truism uttered after a long talk. Only the other day I saw in an excellent weekly paper of Puritan tone this remark, that Christianity when stripped of its armour of dogma (as who should speak of a man stripped of his armour of bones), turned out to be nothing but the Quaker doctrine of the Inner Light. Now, if I were to say that Christianity came into the world specially to destroy the doctrine of the Inner Light, that would be an exaggeration. But it would be very much nearer to the truth. The last Stoics, like Marcus Aurelius, were exactly the people who did believe in the Inner Light. Their dignity, their weariness, their sad external care for others, their incurable internal care for themselves, were all due to the Inner Light, and existed only by that dismal illumination. Notice that Marcus Aurelius insists, as such introspective moralists always do, upon small things done or undone; it is because he has not hate or love enough to make a moral revolution. He gets up early in the morning, just as our own aristocrats living the Simple Life get up early in the morning; because such altruism is much easier than stopping the games of the amphitheatre or giving the English people back their land. Marcus Aurelius is the most intolerable of human types. He is an unselfish egoist. An unselfish egoist is a man who has pride without the excuse of passion. Of all conceivable forms of enlightenment the worst is what these people call the Inner Light. Of all horrible religions the most horrible is the worship of the god within. Any one who knows any body knows how it would work; any one who knows any one from the Higher Thought Centre knows how it does work. That Jones shall worship the god within him turns out ultimately to mean that Jones shall worship Jones. Let Jones worship the sun or moon, anything rather than the Inner Light; let Jones worship cats or crocodiles, if he can find any in his street, but not the god within. Christianity came into the world firstly in order to assert with violence that a man had not only to look inwards, but to look outwards, to behold with astonishment and enthusiasm a divine company and a divine captain. The only fun of being a Christian was that a man was not left alone with the Inner Light, but definitely recognized an outer light, fair as the sun, clear as the moon, terrible as an army with banners.[Song of Songs, 6:9-10]
Wow, did you catch that great joke? "They will think me very narrow (whatever that means)..." This, from the man who replied "I have no sideways" when he was trying to get out of a car and someone quipped, try getting out sideways"! Yes. It would be easy enough (though I am no historian or lit'ry scholar) to consider how Homer or Virgil's Aeneid reveal pagan pity and piety - but more important is these essential phrases:
Christianity ... was the first to preach Christianity.
Its peculiarity was that it was peculiar...
Christianity was the answer to a riddle...
Christianity came into the world specially to destroy the doctrine of the Inner Light...
Christianity came into the world firstly in order to assert with violence that a man had not only to look inwards, but to look outwards, to behold with astonishment and enthusiasm a divine company and a divine captain.
Words which might make a great hymn - or at least a great rock song. (Hmm...)
Who was Marcus Aurelius? He lived from 121 to 180 A.D. and was a Roman emperor (161-180) and an eminent Stoic philosopher; he wrote a collection of precepts of practical morality called Meditations. This bit about "looking outwards" - remember we were talking about eyes and sight a few pages back? In a future chapter we will read this about eyes: "the Christian saint always has them very wide open" [CW1:336] And there is the famous "vision statement" about all the educational institutions which base themselves on the writings of GKC: "the object of my school is to show how many extraordinary things even a lazy and ordinary man may see if he can spur himself to the single activity of seeing." [Tremendous Trifles 6] Ah, yes. But we must proceed, for GKC does not want us to leave that paragraph with a mistaken notion:
All the same, it will be as well if Jones does not worship the sun and moon. If he does, there is a tendency for him to imitate them; to say, that because the sun burns insects alive, he may burn insects alive. He thinks that because the sun gives people sun-stroke, he may give his neighbour measles. He thinks that because the moon is said to drive men mad, he may drive his wife mad. This ugly side of mere external optimism had also shown itself in the ancient world. About the time when the Stoic idealism had begun to show the weaknesses of pessimism, the old nature worship of the ancients had begun to show the enormous weaknesses of optimism. Nature worship is natural enough while the society is young, or, in other words, Pantheism is all right as long as it is the worship of Pan. But Nature has another side which experience and sin are not slow in finding out, and it is no flippancy to say of the god Pan that he soon showed the cloven hoof. The only objection to Natural Religion is that somehow it always becomes unnatural. A man loves Nature in the morning for her innocence and amiability, and at nightfall, if he is loving her still, it is for her darkness and her cruelty. He washes at dawn in clear water as did the Wise Man of the Stoics, yet, somehow at the dark end of the day, he is bathing in hot bull's blood, as did Julian the Apostate. The mere pursuit of health always leads to something unhealthy. Physical nature must not be made the direct object of obedience; it must be enjoyed, not worshipped. Stars and mountains must not be taken seriously. If they are, we end where the pagan nature worship ended. Because the earth is kind, we can imitate all her cruelties. Because sexuality is sane, we can all go mad about sexuality. Mere optimism had reached its insane and appropriate termination. The theory that everything was good had become an orgy of everything that was bad.
What's this about showing the cloven hoof? Well, the Jews had specific laws governing what they were allowed to eat (see Leviticus 11:3-8) - but of course there is also the allusion to the devil being represented with goat feet. (Why a goat? See St. Matthew 25:31-46 for one explanation.) Pan? He was the Greek god of the forest and - uh - other things; I must defer that to another time. (There is more about him The Everlasting Man; also you ought to know that there is a pun in Greek because pan means "all" as in "pantheism" = "all gods".)
How about Julian the Apostate? Again we will hear some more about him in TEM if we ever get to it, but you need to know at least this much. Julian reversed the orders of Constantine, and restored (as far as he could) the pagan forms of worship: "If there really was something that began with Constantine, then it ended with Julian." [TEM CW2:359] I have also read a very strange report of how he attempted to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem, in a pamphlet by Fr. Jaki. But we must defer that too.
Then we have a superlative defeat of all the global-warmer, ecology, physical-fitness and "tree-hugger" mentality: "The mere pursuit of health always leads to something unhealthy. Physical nature must not be made the direct object of obedience; it must be enjoyed, not worshipped. Stars and mountains must not be taken seriously." In a few weeks we shall hear why that must be so: "The main point of Christianity was this: that Nature is not our mother: Nature is our sister. We can be proud of her beauty, since we have the same father; but she has no authority over us; we have to admire, but not to imitate." [CW1:317] Finally, someone not only stands up to these heretics, but defeats them and wipes them completely off the playing field! Ah.

But let us proceed.
On the other side our idealist pessimists were represented by the old remnant of the Stoics. Marcus Aurelius and his friends had really given up the idea of any god in the universe and looked only to the god within. They had no hope of any virtue in nature, and hardly any hope of any virtue in society. They had not enough interest in the outer world really to wreck or revolutionise it. They did not love the city enough to set fire to it. Thus the ancient world was exactly in our own desolate dilemma. The only people who really enjoyed this world were busy breaking it up; and the virtuous people did not care enough about them to knock them down. In this dilemma (the same as ours) Christianity suddenly stepped in and offered a singular answer, which the world eventually accepted as the answer. It was the answer then, and I think it is the answer now.
This answer was like the slash of a sword; it sundered; it did not in any sense sentimentally unite. Briefly, it divided God from the cosmos. That transcendence and distinctness of the deity which some Christians now want to remove from Christianity, was really the only reason why any one wanted to be a Christian. It was the whole point of the Christian answer to the unhappy pessimist and the still more unhappy optimist. As I am here only concerned with their particular problem, I shall indicate only briefly this great metaphysical suggestion. All descriptions of the creating or sustaining principle in things must be metaphorical, because they must be verbal. Thus the pantheist is forced to speak of God in all things as if he were in a box. Thus the evolutionist has, in his very name, the idea of being unrolled like a carpet. All terms, religious and irreligious, are open to this charge. The only question is whether all terms are useless, or whether one can, with such a phrase, cover a distinct idea about the origin of things. I think one can, and so evidently does the evolutionist, or he would not talk about evolution. And the root phrase for all Christian theism was this, that God was a creator, as an artist is a creator. A poet is so separate from his poem that he himself speaks of it as a little thing he has "thrown off." Even in giving it forth he has flung it away. This principle that all creation and procreation is a breaking off is at least as consistent through the cosmos as the evolutionary principle that all growth is a branching out. A woman loses a child even in having a child. All creation is separation. Birth is as solemn a parting as death.
Fr. Jaki's Genesis 1 Through the Ages contains a discussion of the Hebrew word bara, the word used for "create" in the Bible, and its "human" meaning of "to divide or hack". This is a deep and very interesting matter, and I must spend just a little time on it.

Division. People misunderstand this term , and think division evil. (I don't mean the mathematical operation here, not at all.) But Jesus Himself told us He had come to divide: "Think ye, that I am come to give peace on earth? I tell you, no; but separation." [Luke 12:51] And at the End of Time, He will perform an everlasting division, removing death and all evil permanently from the Land of the Living. This is an important matter and worth more consideration than I can give it now. But GKC is not going to this relatively shallow matter here, he is going to something far more deep, and far more mystical: the ontological division which is creation: the idea that God made something exterior to Himself, independent and simultaneously utterly dependent. GKC means creation has a divisive component. A great fantasy talks about someone (the Ring-maker!) putting his power into his art; the scientist in "Tron" said that programmers put something of themselves into their software, and I know this to be the case! But this is always necessarily true of all art, indeed, even of all making - for we have been made in the image and likeness of The Maker. (See Genesis 1:26) And Chestertonians recall "The medieval word for a Poet was a Maker, which indeed is the original meaning of a Poet." [Chaucer CW18:155]

So deep, so touching, so artistic, so warm and so well known to us that GKC immediately gives us the analogy of a mother giving birth. But even the male of the species can struggle with this mystery: Tolkien wrote an essay (perhaps his greatest work, "On Fairy-Tales") and Sayers wrote a book (also one of her mightiest, The Mind of the Maker) on the lesser human "creations" of art - with the power of the trained wordsmith, Tolkien gives us the unique term "sub-creation" to clarify what it is we are doing. GKC strews his insights on this all over his works, most densely in TEM's chapter called "The Escape from Paganism". But here we have a more grand insight, in the mystery of motherhood (remember this book is dedicated to his mother!)

It was the prime philosophic principle of Christianity that this divorce in the divine act of making (such as severs the poet from the poem or the mother from the new-born child) was the true description of the act whereby the absolute energy made the world. According to most philosophers, God in making the world enslaved it. According to Christianity, in making it, He set it free. God had written, not so much a poem, but rather a play; a play he had planned as perfect, but which had necessarily been left to human actors and stage-managers, who had since made a great mess of it. I will discuss the truth of this theorem later. Here I have only to point out with what a startling smoothness it passed the dilemma we have discussed in this chapter. In this way at least one could be both happy and indignant without degrading one's self to be either a pessimist or an optimist. On this system one could fight all the forces of existence without deserting the flag of existence. One could be at peace with the universe and yet be at war with the world. St. George could still fight the dragon, however big the monster bulked in the cosmos, though he were bigger than the mighty cities or bigger than the everlasting hills. [see Genesis 49:26] If he were as big as the world he could yet be killed in the name of the world. St. George had not to consider any obvious odds or proportions in the scale of things, but only the original secret of their design. He can shake his sword at the dragon, even if it is everything; even if the empty heavens over his head are only the huge arch of its open jaws.
Here, from GKC's first line, you now understand my title. Our Christian God is indeed a god of divorce - not of the supposed (and false) breaking of the marriage bond, but One Whose transcendent power and authority can govern being in itself and truly create and so make things to Be, other than Himself: the ultimate divorce.

In this paragraph, the term "play" appears as a suggestion for understanding just how it was that God created the universe (that is, in the specific sense of the universe with humans bopping around within it). It is important, because this very idea GKC made into a play of his own, which is called The Surprise. You can find it in CW11, or order the video edition from the ACS. (But I can't say any more about it here, I don't want to spoil it for you.) But you are about to receive another surprise, along with GKC as you read on:
And then followed an experience impossible to describe. It was as if I had been blundering about since my birth with two huge and unmanageable machines, of different shapes and without apparent connection - the world and the Christian tradition. I had found this hole in the world: the fact that one must somehow find a way of loving the world without trusting it; somehow one must love the world without being worldly. I found this projecting feature of Christian theology, like a sort of hard spike, the dogmatic insistence that God was personal, and had made a world separate from Himself. The spike of dogma fitted exactly into the hole in the world - it had evidently been meant to go there - and then the strange thing began to happen. When once these two parts of the two machines had come together, one after another, all the other parts fitted and fell in with an eerie exactitude. I could hear bolt after bolt over all the machinery falling into its place with a kind of click of relief. Having got one part right, all the other parts were repeating that rectitude, as clock after clock strikes noon. Instinct after instinct was answered by doctrine after doctrine. Or, to vary the metaphor, I was like one who had advanced into a hostile country to take one high fortress. And when that fort had fallen the whole country surrendered and turned solid behind me. The whole land was lit up, as it were, back to the first fields of my childhood. All those blind fancies of boyhood which in the fourth chapter I have tried in vain to trace on the darkness, became suddenly transparent and sane. I was right when I felt that roses were red by some sort of choice: it was the divine choice. I was right when I felt that I would almost rather say that grass was the wrong colour than say it must by necessity have been that colour: it might verily have been any other. My sense that happiness hung on the crazy thread of a condition did mean something when all was said: it meant the whole doctrine of the Fall. Even those dim and shapeless monsters of notions which I have not been able to describe, much less defend, stepped quietly into their places like colossal caryatides of the creed. The fancy that the cosmos was not vast and void, but small and cosy, had a fulfilled significance now, for anything that is a work of art must be small in the sight of the artist; to God the stars might be only small and dear, like diamonds. And my haunting instinct that somehow good was not merely a tool to be used, but a relic to be guarded, like the goods from Crusoe's ship - even that had been the wild whisper of something originally wise, for, according to Christianity, we were indeed the survivors of a wreck, the crew of a golden ship that had gone down before the beginning of the world.
This is a glorious image GKC paints, of how he suddenly saw a grand unity: the puzzle of the world, and its solution in Christianity. In TEM he extends this argument of Christianity as the thing that fits perfectly into the mess of our broken world, using the concept of "key" [CW2:346 et seq; also see Jaki's The Keys of the Kingdom: a Tool's Witness to Truth] But the key comes up even in our current book, in the next chapter: "A stick might fit a hole or a stone a hollow by accident. But a key and a lock are both complex. And if a key fits a lock, you know it is the right key." [CW1:287] For the GKC fiction enthusiast, more about the projecting spike can be found in The Ball and the Cross.
Yes, like Watson's delight as Holmes explains the mystery, or like the denouement of any good mystery or even any good novel, all the little details, even those almost insignificant asides of the author, are now linked up and seen in their right light as forming a perfect whole... but you are shaking my arm - eh? What are "caryatides"? Oh. They are the gigantic pillars, often seen in ancient temples, sometimes carved as women, that hold up the roof. NO! This is not a mean dig at women - just the opposite. Remember, all the really great "abstract nouns" of Greek - words like sophia = Wisdom, or aletheia = Truth, or agatha = Good - these are all feminine, and we still use some as female names! But they, like the mother in the home, are the supporting members, which make the home. But let us talk about that another time, for we are nearly finished.
But the important matter was this, that it entirely reversed the reason for optimism. And the instant the reversal was made it felt like the abrupt ease when a bone is put back in the socket. I had often called myself an optimist, to avoid the too evident blasphemy of pessimism. But all the optimism of the age had been false and disheartening for this reason, that it had always been trying to prove that we fit in to the world. The Christian optimism is based on the fact that we do not fit in to the world. I had tried to be happy by telling myself that man is an animal, like any other which sought its meat from God. [see Psalm 103(104):21] But now I really was happy, for I had learnt that man is a monstrosity. I had been right in feeling all things as odd, for I myself was at once worse and better than all things. The optimist's pleasure was prosaic, for it dwelt on the naturalness of everything; the Christian pleasure was poetic, for it dwelt on the unnaturalness of everything in the light of the supernatural. The modern philosopher had told me again and again that I was in the right place, and I had still felt depressed even in acquiescence. But I had heard that I was in the wrong place, and my soul sang for joy, like a bird in spring. The knowledge found out and illuminated forgotten chambers in the dark house of infancy. I knew now why grass had always seemed to me as queer as the green beard of a giant, and why I could feel homesick at home.
This is a wonderful conclusion, but alas, I must add something. GKC give us this strange self-evaluation: "I myself was at once worse and better than all things." In a few pages we shall hear a fuller expression, that Christianity "separated the two ideas and then exaggerated them both. In one way Man was to be haughtier than he had ever been before; in another way he was to be humbler than he had ever been before. In so far as I am Man I am the chief of creatures. In so far as I am a man I am the chief of sinners." [CW1:298-299]

Ah. Note carefully the use of the article: I am Man, I am a man. This is the note of paradox. In Gregorian chant (and I write this on September 3, the feast of St. Gregory!) there often appears a tiny "hint" note at the very end of one line, so when you are singing, you will know what note the next line begins with. I have given you the hint note. The next chapter is called "The Paradoxes of Christianity." Get ready to sing.

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