Thursday, September 25, 2008

The One Real Objection to Christianity: GKC Answers

A real objection to Christianity? Perhaps you thought there wasn't any such thing? Well, you are going to have to eat a better breakfast before you go on these jaunts with us. (No, this time I had lunch before I wrote this!) Perhaps you need to try standing on your head. You need to begin seeing things upside down, at least on occasion. You need to begin to see the world through Chestertonian eyes - which sometimes means seeing the opposite of what you expect.

This is nothing new with Chesterton: the "Schoolmen" - the Scholastic Philosophers of the Middle Ages - trained themselves to be able to argue both sides of a topic. This is not at all restricted to philosophers, or lawyers! This technique is a kind of compass (Didn't I recently quote an R.E.M. song about carrying a compass? Hee hee.) - and a compass is a great tool to give direction, yet it contains two polar opposites. Direction to what? It is a tool in the search for truth.

If you don't have a copy of the Summa you might perhaps wish to get one - or at least find it at the library and borrow it or examine it. (If you do, just check out the "First Part" for now.) You will be grandly surprised by it, as it is gigantic. It will seem to be quite dull and very confusing if you just jump into it at random. But it is almost unsettlingly dramatic in import if not in style, and only confusing if one does not know a handful of special terms, and if one has not started from its beginning. You will find as you flip through it that it sticks with a very standard shape of writing, which is of course the whole idea, and part of what makes the dullness. Each entry starts with a question, followed by "It seems that" and an answer, with two, three, or four explanations about why that answer is right. Then comes the very famous words "On the other hand" - followed by two, three, or four explanations of why the given answer is wrong. Then comes more famous words: "I answer that", followed by his own explanation, with details of why the reasons for the original answer were wrong. He quotes pagans and heretics without concern, whoever and whatever helps him get the right answer. But just as people get shocked to learn that there's a verse in the Bible that says "there is no God" [Ps 13(14):1] they are even more amazed to hear this:
...St. Thomas Aquinas begins his inquiry by saying in effect, "Is there a God? it would seem not, for the following reasons..."
[GKC The Thing CW3:289]
Yes, this is really what you will find if you go to the Summa First Part, Question 2 Article 3. Of course, like that quote from the Psalm, there's a little more besides. And there's a little more to our discussion today - so when you are ready...

((click here to read more))

Even if you are not a lawyer who may have to argue either side of the case, there is a better reason (better even for the lawyers) for you to know about this technique - because it is a fair way of proceeding. It also happens to be effective in getting to the truth, and as I have said somewhere, this trick (which IS the real form of "argument") is actually better when it happens with friends. It's also more fun. GKC has a famous quote about the Schoolmen (Scholastics) in general, and St. Thomas Aquinas in particular:
Now the Schoolman always had two ideas in his head; if they were only the Yes and No of his own proposition. The Schoolman was not only the schoolmaster but also the schoolboy; he examined himself; he cross-examined himself; he may be said to have heckled himself for hundreds of pages. Nobody can read St. Thomas's theology without hearing all the arguments against St. Thomas's theology. Therefore, even when that sort of faith produced what many would call ferocity, it always produced what I mean here by fairness; the almost involuntary intellectual fairness of one who cannot help knowing that the universe is a many-sided thing.
[Chaucer CW18:367]
And this is precisely the issue GKC brings up in our next paragraph of Orthodoxy, when he tells us of another example - remember, he is showing us how strange Christianity must be, because it seems to have all the most appalling opposites all mixed together.
I take a third case; the strangest of all, because it involves the one real objection to the faith. The one real objection to the Christian religion is simply that it is one religion. The world is a big place, full of very different kinds of people. Christianity (it may reasonably be said) is one thing confined to one kind of people; it began in Palestine, it has practically stopped with Europe. I was duly impressed with this argument in my youth, and I was much drawn towards the doctrine often preached in Ethical Societies - I mean the doctrine that there is one great unconscious church of all humanity founded on the omnipresence of the human conscience. Creeds, it was said, divided men; but at least morals united them. The soul might seek the strangest and most remote lands and ages and still find essential ethical common sense. It might find Confucius under Eastern trees, and he would be writing "Thou shalt not steal." It might decipher the darkest hieroglyphic on the most primeval desert, and the meaning when deciphered would be "Little boys should tell the truth." I believed this doctrine of the brotherhood of all men in the possession of a moral sense, and I believe it still - with other things. And I was thoroughly annoyed with Christianity for suggesting (as I supposed) that whole ages and empires of men had utterly escaped this light of justice and reason. But then I found an astonishing thing. I found that the very people who said that mankind was one church from Plato to Emerson were the very people who said that morality had changed altogether, and that what was right in one age was wrong in another. If I asked, say, for an altar, I was told that we needed none, for men our brothers gave us clear oracles and one creed in their universal customs and ideals. But if I mildly pointed out that one of men's universal customs was to have an altar, then my agnostic teachers turned clean round and told me that men had always been in darkness and the superstitions of savages. I found it was their daily taunt against Christianity that it was the light of one people and had left all others to die in the dark. But I also found that it was their special boast for themselves that science and progress were the discovery of one people, and that all other peoples had died in the dark. Their chief insult to Christianity was actually their chief compliment to themselves, and there seemed to be a strange unfairness about all their relative insistence on the two things. When considering some pagan or agnostic, we were to remember that all men had one religion; when considering some mystic or spiritualist, we were only to consider what absurd religions some men had. We could trust the ethics of Epictetus, because ethics had never changed. We must not trust the ethics of Bossuet, because ethics had changed. They changed in two hundred years, but not in two thousand.
Who is Bossuet? Jacques-Benigne Bossuet (1627-1704) was a French bishop whom GKC calls "the greatest Catholic controversialist of all time" [The Superstitions of the Sceptic 44] and GKC refers to him a handful of times - just about as often as he mentions Epictetus (55-135 A.D.) who was a Greek Stoic philosopher who taught in Rome. Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) was an American essayist and poet, also a Universalist minister, he devised something he called Transcendental Philosophy, best characterised here: "And while they [ordinary people] might easily get more satisfaction out of a screaming article in The War Cry than out of a page of Emerson about the Oversoul, this would not be because the page of Emerson is another and superior kind of literature. It would be because the page of Emerson is another (and inferior) kind of religion." [GKC Charles Dickens CW15:99] Of course there is a really funny bit here about that brag of the agnostics how "science...was the discovery of one people" - once one has looked into the actual history, one will find that the "one people" is Christianity - the argument is a bit too long for us to examine here, but if you want to learn more, get Science and Creation by S. L. Jaki. The short version is simply that Christianity divided God from the cosmos (as we heard GKC tell us a few pages back, CW1:281), because the ancient Christian creeds state "I believe ... in Jesus Christ... the only-begotten Son of God". Pagans and others who believe that it's the universe that was the only-begotten always get stuck and cannot do science at all. But we must proceed.

Now that GKC has given us three examples of these odd contraries of Christianity, he will examine the situation, and see what he can learn - but just in case we missed the point he will give us three more bonus examples, even funnier than the others:
This began to be alarming. It looked not so much as if Christianity was bad enough to include any vices, but rather as if any stick was good enough to beat Christianity with. What again could this astonishing thing be like which people were so anxious to contradict, that in doing so they did not mind contradicting themselves? I saw the same thing on every side. I can give no further space to this discussion of it in detail; but lest any one supposes that I have unfairly selected three accidental cases I will run briefly through a few others. Thus, certain sceptics wrote that the great crime of Christianity had been its attack on the family; it had dragged women to the loneliness and contemplation of the cloister, away from their homes and their children. But, then, other sceptics (slightly more advanced) said that the great crime of Christianity was forcing the family and marriage upon us; that it doomed women to the drudgery of their homes and children, and forbade them loneliness and contemplation. The charge was actually reversed. Or, again, certain phrases in the Epistles or the marriage service, were said by the anti-Christians to show contempt for woman's intellect. But I found that the anti-Christians themselves had a contempt for woman's intellect; for it was their great sneer at the Church on the Continent that "only women" went to it. Or again, Christianity was reproached with its naked and hungry habits; with its sackcloth and dried peas. But the next minute Christianity was being reproached with its pomp and its ritualism; its shrines of porphyry and its robes of gold. It was abused for being too plain and for being too coloured. Again Christianity had always been accused of restraining sexuality too much, when Bradlaugh the Malthusian discovered that it restrained it too little. It is often accused in the same breath of prim respectability and of religious extravagance. Between the covers of the same atheistic pamphlet I have found the faith rebuked for its disunion, "One thinks one thing, and one another," and rebuked also for its union, "It is difference of opinion that prevents the world from going to the dogs." In the same conversation a freethinker, a friend of mine, blamed Christianity for despising Jews, and then despised it himself for being Jewish.
I am sure you have yourselves heard some of these hilarious whines. You can find them almost everywhere, in newspapers, TV shows, bloggs. Charles Bradlaugh (1833-1891) was a freethinker and reformer, and champion of birth control. A Malthusian is one who ascribes to the views of Malthus the economist - who apparently thought that humans were an infection of the earth. These names are as upsetting to read or think about as Darwin or Marx - and in fact they are cross-linked in their evil - but lest you think I am putting my own ideas out too much, hear GKC about this important matter:
For Scrooge, though not perhaps a very real character in fiction, was a very real character in history. There really was a time when the determining mind of England (which was the mind of the more ambitious middle class) came within an ace of admitting the philosophy of Scrooge, with all its frost-bitten efficiency and ungainly bustle. People did say 'let them die and decrease the surplus population.' Many of the followers of Malthus said so openly; and, what is more important, were not kicked for saying it. Now that Malthus has intellectually disappeared (as diabolists always do when they have done all the harm they can); now that their successors, the sociologists of to-day, are much more frightened of the population drying up than of it developing extravagantly, it is really difficult for us to imagine how iron and enormous this economic argument appeared to our grandfathers.
[GKC's introduction to A Christmas Carol and Other Tales by Charles Dickens; reprinted as "Dickens As Santa Claus" in GKC as MC]
Here I might observe that GKC predicted the future all too well - there are a horrible lot of people running around with that "surplus population" cant again, though the population of Europe is actually vanishing. But I wanted you to see those precise words - where he stands "Malthus" in apposition to "diabolist". It is better that we are warned, even if this means getting into big arguments. But there is another phrase here which might lead into arguments too, the use of the term "Jews" - please read it again carefully and understand what he is saying.

Now, amid all this clash of opposites, GKC proceeds to tell us what he learns from it:
I wished to be quite fair then, and I wish to be quite fair now; and I did not conclude that the attack on Christianity was all wrong. I only concluded that if Christianity was wrong, it was very wrong indeed. Such hostile horrors might be combined in one thing, but that thing must be very strange and solitary. There are men who are misers, and also spendthrifts; but they are rare. There are men sensual and also ascetic; but they are rare. But if this mass of mad contradictions really existed, quakerish and bloodthirsty, too gorgeous and too thread-bare, austere, yet pandering preposterously to the lust of the eye, the enemy of women and their foolish refuge, a solemn pessimist and a silly optimist, if this evil existed, then there was in this evil something quite supreme and unique. For I found in my rationalist teachers no explanation of such exceptional corruption. Christianity (theoretically speaking) was in their eyes only one of the ordinary myths and errors of mortals. They gave me no key to this twisted and unnatural badness. Such a paradox of evil rose to the stature of the supernatural. It was, indeed, almost as supernatural as the infallibility of the Pope. An historic institution, which never went right, is really quite as much of a miracle as an institution that cannot go wrong. The only explanation which immediately occurred to my mind was that Christianity did not come from heaven, but from hell. Really, if Jesus of Nazareth was not Christ, He must have been Antichrist.
Oh my. And I thought that mention (even a distant mention!) of topics like birth control or Malthus or Darwin or Jews was going to produce controversy - now GKC says that Christianity came from hell and Jesus was the antichrist??? What on earth can all this mean? (What a great cliff-hanger - though for my hiking analogy that is not a very comforting term, hee hee!) So let us read on.
And then in a quiet hour a strange thought struck me like a still thunderbolt. There had suddenly come into my mind another explanation. Suppose we heard an unknown man spoken of by many men. Suppose we were puzzled to hear that some men said he was too tall and some too short; some objected to his fatness, some lamented his leanness; some thought him too dark, and some too fair. One explanation (as has been already admitted) would be that he might be an odd shape. But there is another explanation. He might be the right shape. Outrageously tall men might feel him to be short. Very short men might feel him to be tall. Old bucks who are growing stout might consider him insufficiently filled out; old beaux who were growing thin might feel that he expanded beyond the narrow lines of elegance. Perhaps Swedes (who have pale hair like tow) called him a dark man, while negroes considered him distinctly blonde. Perhaps (in short) this extraordinary thing is really the ordinary thing; at least the normal thing, the centre. Perhaps, after all, it is Christianity that is sane and all its critics that are mad - in various ways. I tested this idea by asking myself whether there was about any of the accusers anything morbid that might explain the accusation. I was startled to find that this key fitted a lock. For instance, it was certainly odd that the modern world charged Christianity at once with bodily austerity and with artistic pomp. But then it was also odd, very odd, that the modern world itself combined extreme bodily luxury with an extreme absence of artistic pomp. The modern man thought Becket's robes too rich and his meals too poor. But then the modern man was really exceptional in history; no man before ever ate such elaborate dinners in such ugly clothes. The modern man found the church too simple exactly where modern life is too complex; he found the church too gorgeous exactly where modern life is too dingy. The man who disliked the plain fasts and feasts was mad on entrées. The man who disliked vestments wore a pair of preposterous trousers. And surely if there was any insanity involved in the matter at all it was in the trousers, not in the simply falling robe. If there was any insanity at all, it was in the extravagant entrées, not in the bread and wine.
Ah. Just as a musician sets up the dissonance of (say) a dominant seventh, only to resolve it in satisfaction to a glorious tonic in a concluding cadence of chords - or Aquinas heaped argument upon argument to justify something he could not possibly believe or accept - so too GKC was setting up dissonances to reveal his satisfactory resolution of the matter. It is no accident (and I am not making a Scholastic pun here) that GKC has one book called The Everlasting Man and another called The Common Man. It is also no accident that in The Phantom Tollbooth our hero Milo found that within the normal-size house where the doors read "The Giant" and "The Midget" and so forth, there lived a very ordinary-sized man! Yes. The resolution to the apparent opposites is understood by an error of viewpoint - NOT that the viewpoints had to be wrong, but that the viewer has neglected to be fair - to see from yet another angle. Again - what a plea for scientists to preserve their humility in their work! (And for the lit'ry and philosophers as well.) Yes, I note that he again mentions the key/lock analogy, which we have seen before, and will see again, here and in grander form in The Everlasting Man. I think there is something hilarious about the idea of dress - I apologise if the lit'ry reference is not to your liking, but the secret world of Harry Potter certainly is in agreement with GKC's argument about the simplicity of the robes versus the "Muggle" oddity of "trousers" and all the rest of ephemeral fashion. (Who is Becket? That's St. Thomas Becket, bishop and martyr - it was while on their way to his grave in Canterbury that Chaucer's pilgrims told their tales.) But speaking of clothes, it may be worth noting here two other comments by GKC:
A human being is not even completely human without clothes, because they have become a part of him as the symbol of purely human things; of dignity, of modesty, of self-ownership, of property, and privacy and honour. Even in the purely artistic sense humanity would never have become human without them, because the range of self-expression and symbolic decoration would have been hopelessly limited, and there would have been no outlet even for the most primary instincts about colour and form.
[ILN Jan 10 1931 CW35:450]

For instance, all we can infer from primitive legend, and all we know of barbaric life, supports a certain moral and even mystical idea of which the commonest symbol is clothes. For clothes are very literally vestments and man wears them because he is a priest. It is true that even as an animal he is here different from the animals. Nakedness is not nature to him; it is not his life but rather his death; even in the vulgar sense of his death of cold. But clothes are worn for dignity or decency or decoration where they are not in any way wanted for warmth. It would sometimes appear that they are valued for ornament before they are valued for use. It would almost always appear that they are felt to have some connection with decorum.
[The Everlasting Man CW2:184]
And this, I think, (as Aquinas might answer) settles all the argument from Darwin and Marx and Malthus and the other diabolists. Man is a priest, and clothes are his vestments. He transcends the other parts of creation, for he has an exalted duty no other creature has, and he must offer daily sacrifice on behalf of the stars and flowers and rivers and telegraph poles and bookcases. Remember? "...we should thank God for beer and Burgundy by not drinking too much of them." [CW1:268]

The issue of course then turns on what it is he is the priest of - that is, what is it he is to offer. In my own (and in GKC's) case, he gives the hint. It is the same as was once offered by that mysterious man, Melchisidek, the King of Salem... and if I (like GKC) am not offering it in the immediate sacramental sense that the ordained do, I can co-offer it... Why? Because of gratitude. No, it's not spelled out in the next paragraph, which we shall see next time - but it's everywhere throughout GKC's writing. It's the "thin thread of thanks" we must use to hold onto reality. Think of this, and offer prayers of thanks when next you put on your daily vestments...

--Dr. Thursday

P.S. Next time we shall hear a little more about Malthus, which should resolve any lingering issues you have. We'll also hear more about this strangeness of the normal (ooh another paradox!), for Christianity is not simply some sort of average. Feel free to read ahead!


  1. There is a compendium sort of thing of the Summa, I believe it is called Light of Faith and is published by Sophia Institute Press. It has all the dramatic import, but is a bit lighter. It was also written by Aquinas.

  2. OFL: Granted, but we are not concerned with that at present. The point you really need to get is the FORM (or style) of the scholastic argument used by Aquinas in the Summa - which you cannot get from the excellent work you mention.

    If you want to see what Aquinas TAUGHT, yes, his Compendium (or the edition you mention) is fine. But if you want to see the point GKC is making, you must get the Summa. I strongly urge you to see it for yourself.

    --Dr. Thursday

  3. Ah yes, the style of the argument is gone, but the compendium still has a great deal of drama. Starting with seemingly nothing but logic and the senses, Aquinas proves to us, well, almost everything (which I find to be quite dramatic). Where faith fits into the picture is somewhat unclear to me, but I know it's there somewhere.
    As a clarification on my last comment (I often write hastily and do not say everything I ought) I haven't read the entire REAL Summa, just bits and pieces, so I have a small idea of the arguing style.


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