Thursday, September 11, 2008

Illumination through an Unexpected Juxtaposition

In Memoriam
September 11, 2001

"...a date that ought to be among the most famous in history - September 11, 1683..."
-- H. Belloc, The Great Heresies

"...part of what historians call 'the specious present' for Muslims."
-- in an essay by W. Cinfici in The Annotated Lepanto
Yes. This was the day, seven years ago. Last year I posted a fictional account of how I experienced it. But for today, I wish to proceed with our study of Orthodoxy - which is a very Chestertonian way of marking the day.

Why? Well, there is a extremely famous GKC quote, which will seem to be utterly unrelated to the matter. But I shall quote it for you anyway, so that you may contemplate it and learn:
It is wrong to fiddle while Rome is burning; but it is quite right to study the theory of hydraulics while Rome is burning.
[GKC What's Wrong With the World CW4:43]
We ought to be studying the theories which underpin our society, even if it is under attack - perhaps thereby we shall acquire the tools we must have.

Also, I did the math (yes, I do that from time to time, even without a computer to help me) and I am appalled to see that while we have covered five chapters of Orthodoxy and have four more to go, we have not yet reached the halfway point in total pages. So we must proceed.

The chapter we have reached, the sixth of our text, which (alas) is still not the halfway mark, is called "The Paradoxes of Christianity". Now we all know that GKC is considered the "master of paradox", though I think that title correctly belongs to Another Man, whom some of us call "Master" (with bended knee). You see, to be accurate, all that GKC has done is point out and write about the paradoxes which already decorate our cosy universe called home. But there will be some (perhaps even out here in the e-cosmos) who will argue with me about this. People always make a big deal over GKC's "paradoxes" - so much so that "paradox", especially in connection with Christianity, is expected to have something to do with GKC:
Q. What was Jesus Christ like in real life?
A. He was a good man - so good as to be called the Son of God. He is to be identified in some way with God the Son. He was meek and mild and preached a simple religion of love and pacifism. He had no sense of humour. Anything in the Bible that suggests another side to His character must be an interpolation, or a paradox invented by G. K. Chesterton. If we try to live like Him, God the Father will let us off being damned hereafter and only have us tortured in this life instead.
[Dorothy L. Sayers, "The Dogma is the Drama" in Creed or Chaos?]
Anyway, GKC uses the term over a thousand times according to the latest AMBER. Even during his life, people stumbled over his dramatic verbal fireworks and puzzles, and called him "an inveterate paradox-monger" [Ward, Return To Chesterton 2] But for the authentic explanation, let us hear from his good friend, Hilaire Belloc:
His [Chesterton's] most concise and epigrammatic judgments are often taken as mere verbal exploits, and the half-educated and uncultured, who are of the stuff by which modern opinion is ruled, use of him the term "paradoxical", in that special meaning of their own which they give to this word, meaning "nonsense through contradiction"; not the original and cultured meaning of "paradox": "illumination through an unexpected juxtaposition".
[HB, On the Place of Gilbert Chesterton in English Letters, 21]
There you have it. Please repeat those mystic tongue-twistic words:
Paradox is an illumination through an unexpected juxtaposition.
That is what you need to know. In that marvellous Chestertonian book called The Miracle of the Bells, our hero the publicity agent Bill (White Spats) Dunnigan tells Father Paul something to the effect that "maybe your God could use a publicity agent!" Which might sound blasphemous, until one reads Saint Paul:
How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? Or how shall they believe him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? [Romans 10:14]
Well, looks like Bill Dunnigan was right! Therefore, let us now hear some unexpected juxtapositions from a great preacher, who will lead us to the illumination of the Master of Paradox...
((click here to proceed))
Our next chapter begins with what we might call a Chestertonian meditation upon the curious power of vision, and how it can lead us astray. Remember that so much of GKC's work is about seeing old things in a new way, or common things from an uncommon vantage point? He also knows just where the dangers lie in such a strategy:
The real trouble with this world of ours is not that it is an unreasonable world, nor even that it is a reasonable one. The commonest kind of trouble is that it is nearly reasonable, but not quite. Life is not an illogicality; yet it is a trap for logicians. It looks just a little more mathematical and regular than it is; its exactitude is obvious, but its inexactitude is hidden; its wildness lies in wait. I give one coarse instance of what I mean. Suppose some mathematical creature from the moon were to reckon up the human body; he would at once see that the essential thing about it was that it was duplicate. A man is two men, he on the right exactly resembling him on the left. Having noted that there was an arm on the right and one on the left, a leg on the right and one on the left, he might go further and still find on each side the same number of fingers, the same number of toes, twin eyes, twin ears, twin nostrils, and even twin lobes of the brain. At last he would take it as a law; and then, where he found a heart on one side, would deduce that there was another heart on the other. And just then, where he most felt he was right, he would be wrong.

It is this silent swerving from accuracy by an inch that is the uncanny element in everything. It seems a sort of secret treason in the universe. An apple or an orange is round enough to get itself called round, and yet is not round after all. The earth itself is shaped like an orange in order to lure some simple astronomer into calling it a globe. A blade of grass is called after the blade of a sword, because it comes to a point; but it doesn't. Everywhere in things there is this element of the quiet and incalculable. It escapes the rationalists, but it never escapes till the last moment. From the grand curve of our earth it could easily be inferred that every inch of it was thus curved. It would seem rational that as a man has a brain on both sides, he should have a heart on both sides. Yet scientific men are still organizing expeditions to find the North Pole, because they are so fond of flat country. Scientific men are also still organizing expeditions to find a man's heart; and when they try to find it, they generally get on the wrong side of him.

Now, actual insight or inspiration is best tested by whether it guesses these hidden malformations or surprises. If our mathematician from the moon saw the two arms and the two ears, he might deduce the two shoulder-blades and the two halves of the brain. But if he guessed that the man's heart was in the right place, then I should call him something more than a mathematician. Now, this is exactly the claim which I have since come to propound for Christianity. Not merely that it deduces logical truths, but that when it suddenly becomes illogical, it has found, so to speak, an illogical truth. It not only goes right about things, but it goes wrong (if one may say so) exactly where the things go wrong. Its plan suits the secret irregularities, and expects the unexpected. It is simple about the simple truth; but it is stubborn about the subtle truth. It will admit that a man has two hands, it will not admit (though all the Modernists wail to it) the obvious deduction that he has two hearts. It is my only purpose in this chapter to point this out; to show that whenever we feel there is something odd in Christian theology, we shall generally find that there is something odd in the truth.
Here we have what must be a brilliant tour-de-force in epistemology, that is the study of knowledge. Indeed, as you shall learn when you read GKC's book on Aquinas, GKC is getting at something about we learn, and how we know - what GKC says "might be called the appeal to Reason and the Authority of the Senses" [St. Thomas Aquinas CW2:429] I wrote more on this here; for now we just need to understand not so much how the interior of our bodies is arranged, but a much larger idea: it is fine to be able to catch on to obvious patterns - but when someone can give good information about something that is not obvious - in fact, is contrary to the obvious - why then that person must have hold of some powerful means of knowing.
Father Jaki quoted [in his Brain, Mind and Computers] an insight by the First Computer Scientist, Charles Babbage, to the effect that God as Master Designer (that is, Programmer) of the Universe, could know the depths of His system in a way that someone looking at it might not grasp - in fact Babbage saw his programming as a means to understanding miracles!
Now, that may seem like I am wandering - no, because that's what GKC is also saying here. Read that last line again: "whenever we feel there is something odd in Christian theology, we shall generally find that there is something odd in the truth." Ah. Remember, I said that GKC is merely calling attention to these odd things - the odd things are all there before he even gets to them? Yes. (You do not blame the hike leader for the rough rocks you climb over, the steepness of the path - or the grandeur of the view at the summit....)

But what are these odd things? Well, I expect an example, and there is one in the next paragraph - though some people, including perhaps some non-Catholic Christians, may feel a bit uneasy. But GKC is not getting into that matter here, so just read it and then we'll discuss the issue:
I have alluded to an unmeaning phrase to the effect that such and such a creed cannot be believed in our age. Of course, anything can be believed in any age. But, oddly enough, there really is a sense in which a creed, if it is believed at all, can be believed more fixedly in a complex society than in a simple one. If a man finds Christianity true in Birmingham, he has actually clearer reasons for faith than if he had found it true in Mercia. For the more complicated seems the coincidence, the less it can be a coincidence. If snowflakes fell in the shape, say, of the heart of Midlothian, it might be an accident. But if snowflakes fell in the exact shape of the maze at Hampton Court, I think one might call it a miracle. It is exactly as of such a miracle that I have since come to feel of the philosophy of Christianity. The complication of our modern world proves the truth of the creed more perfectly than any of the plain problems of the ages of faith. It was in Notting Hill and Battersea that I began to see that Christianity was true. This is why the faith has that elaboration of doctrines and details which so much distresses those who admire Christianity without believing in it. When once one believes in a creed, one is proud of its complexity, as scientists are proud of the complexity of science. It shows how rich it is in discoveries. If it is right at all, it is a compliment to say that it's elaborately right. 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.
First, some little details for enrichment:
Mercia: the sixth century Anglo-Saxon kingdom in the Midlands of England.
Midlothian - the county in Scotland where Edinburgh is located.
The maze at Hampton Court - a famous maze made of shrubbery, big enough to walk through.
The allusion I expect may concern some readers was to the term "keys" which are blazoned on the Papal flag. GKC has a much longer discussion of the analogy of the keys at the beginning of the chapter called "The Witness of the Heretics" in The Everlasting Man [CW2:346] and Fr. Jaki has wonderful book on the key, both as tool and as a biblical term: The Keys of the Kingdom: a Tool's Witness to Truth. But as GKC points out in his preface to TEM, "this study is not specially concerned with the differences between a Catholic and a Protestant", and I state the same emphatically - while iterating the first part of GKC's sentence: "It is impossible, I hope, for any Catholic to write any book on any subject, above all this subject, without showing that he is a Catholic..." But there are others among our readers who are squirming, and for quite a different reason!

I mean the scientists.

Did you ever hear such a strange thing? "When once one believes in a creed, one is proud of its complexity, as scientists are proud of the complexity of science. It shows how rich it is in discoveries." Well, don't squirm. Have you forgotten so quickly what we heard a few chapters ago? Let us all recite these words again:
It is idle to talk always of the alternative of reason and faith. Reason is itself a matter of faith. It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all.
Scientists have a creed, they have a faith: in science! They believe that there will always be order to be found in what they study - they must, or they would never bother doing such boring things: measuring steam pressures in machine after machine, sequencing the DNA from yet another tray of bacteria, doing spectroscopic studies of yet another batch of rock samples, taking photographs of the same tiny wedge of the sky... day after year after century. I have no space to go into the whole philosophical foundations of modern science, based on Christianity and on the work of the Schoolmen of the 13th century - that can be found in the work of the great French thermodynamicist and historian, Pierre Duhem, and in Jaki's Science and Creation and other books. You ought to know about this: it is simply because Christianity divided God from the Universe that there could be science at all!
And you lit'ry guys must not be smug here. You are not hearing a "dissing" - a negative statement about science from GKC. No, not at all. You are hearing grand, stupendously good science, from a grand and stupendously good lit'ry man, GKC. If you don't like the non-fiction, try the fiction, it's lots easier to chew and even tastier:
"...there are only two things that really progress; and they both accept accumulations of authority. They may be progressing uphill or down; they may be growing steadily better or steadily worse; but they have steadily increased in certain definable matters; they have steadily advanced in a certain definable direction; they are the only two things, it seems, that ever progress. The first is strictly physical science. The second is the Catholic Church."
"Physical science and the Catholic Church!" said Turnbull sarcastically; "and no doubt the first owes a great deal to the second."
"If you pressed that point I might reply that it was very probable," answered MacIan calmly.
[GKC, The Ball and the Cross]
Which might be the shortest possible synopsis of Duhem's and Jaki's work ever written. But GKC is not arguing about that. He is trying to show us something in the nature of faith which is like the advance of science. It not easy to see, or for GKC to explain, as he goes on to point out:
But this involved accuracy of the thing makes it very difficult to do what I now have to do, to describe this accumulation of truth. It is very hard for a man to defend anything of which he is entirely convinced. It is comparatively easy when he is only partially convinced. He is partially convinced because he has found this or that proof of the thing, and he can expound it. But a man is not really convinced of a philosophic theory when he finds that something proves it. He is only really convinced when he finds that everything proves it. And the more converging reasons he finds pointing to this conviction, the more bewildered he is if asked suddenly to sum them up. Thus, if one asked an ordinary intelligent man, on the spur of the moment, "Why do you prefer civilization to savagery?" he would look wildly round at object after object, and would only be able to answer vaguely, "Why, there is that bookcase... and the coals in the coal-scuttle... and pianos... and policemen." The whole case for civilization is that the case for it is complex. It has done so many things. But that very multiplicity of proof which ought to make reply overwhelming makes reply impossible.
Science (as GKC implies) has advanced so far that nowadays, 100 years later, things are taught in elementary and high schools which were once the staggeringly novel insights and advances known only to the most brilliant workers after long years of study. If you need a proof (pun intended) just go to the library and check out Euclid's Elements - the great Greek geometer of ca. 300 BC. You will be overwhelmed, but high school sophomores are busy working out lessons he and his school once puzzled over. Even grade school children hear of elements that the greatest chemists of the early 1800s could not imagine, and high school seniors learn the formal proofs of the infinitesimals on which all calculus is based - an insight that neither Newton nor Leibnitz had, and which escaped all of the great mathematicians for nearly 200 years - until Cauchy solved it!
You laugh that I recall such things... but you see I have sat and thought about this, like GKC's ordinary intelligent man. Why don't you try it? No, not a list of extreme cutting edge science now taught to children, but the advances of our human world, in sewing or in literature, in art or bread-making... but unite them in one, and learn from the unity you have formed. That is the insight GKC is aiming for: "that very multiplicity of proof which ought to make reply overwhelming makes reply impossible". You hem and haw - then burble, as I did, a few funny examples. Because you really do find the answers everywhere.

Next time GKC goes further with this, and proceeds into the even more paradoxical discovery that GKC made: Christianity was being defended, indeed, the best arguments for her were coming from her greatest opponents!

Yes. Unbelieveable! I won't mind if you read ahead...

--Dr. Thursday

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