Thursday, January 29, 2009

Look out! Eyes Wide Open and Frightfully Alive

As usual I was reading something interesting - which happened to be about one of the Popes and his work on the eye, and so I thought it would be fun to start our study today with a relevant scripture quote:
They shall take up serpents: and if they shall drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them. They shall lay their hand upon the sick: and they shall recover.
[Mark 16:18]
Now this happens to be a complex little bit of the Gospel, and I am not going to pull out the Catena Aurea to see what the Church Fathers had to say about it. I'd rather let it lead into what I have read about that Pope and the eye, and thereby take us into our excerpt from Orthodoxy.

Most of us know what it is like to have our eyes examined: not just the "refraction" to determine the kind of corrective lenses we may need, but the dilation and numbing - for the purpose of things like testing intraocular pressure, and for the examination of the retina, the "little net" of rods and cones and nerves (I defer the discussion of the extremely high tech parallel processing here) which actually catches the light, does some preliminary computation, and sends the information onward to our brain. Now the mystery of that gospel passage - of deadly things and of serpents - might be specifically aimed at the eyedrops used in these tests, for they often contain a poison called "belladonna" which dilates the pupil, and another substance which anesthetizes, which I seem to recall is chemically like something in snake venom.

Why does this connect with a Pope? Simply because of Pope John XXI (that's John the twenty-first) who lived in the 13th century. He was born Petrus Juliani, and was known as "Peter of Spain" (though he was really Portuguese); he was elected Pope on September 8, 1276 and died May 20, 1277. (That's about 3 years after Thomas Aquinas died.) He had been professor of medicine at the University of Siena, where he wrote Summulæ logicales which became the favourite textbook on logic; later he had been physician to Pope Gregory X. Please note: he had been a physician - specifically, an eye doctor! According to this report he had his own "papal lab" where he worked, but it collapsed on him, and he died shortly thereafter. (Imagine a physician Pope, and one with his own lab. Wow.)

I bring all this up because we're going to need the delicacy and wisdom of such a man today: we shall see some fairly difficult matters. Anyone who dares to bring up what is called "comparative religion" runs all kinds of risks - people think the only reason one ever mentions more than one religion at a time is to be insulting. Maybe some people do that, but Chesterton has more useful things to do. He brings up things so we can see them and think about them, and he tries to shed more light on them. He follows Aquinas and the whole Scholastic tradition in trying to find the very best in a thing, and using it to its fullest advantage, and more often than not when he points out a negative about something, he is making a far larger point than a mere disparagement. He's got bigger game in his sights.

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Chesterton, as usual, is talking about ideas and principles. We have heard him speak about people, true - just pick up Heretics for one example - but even there we see him attacking ideas, not people. Hear again his words on his friend and enemy, George Bernard Shaw:
I am not concerned with Mr. Bernard Shaw as one of the most brilliant and one of the most honest men alive; I am concerned with him as a Heretic - that is to say, a man whose philosophy is quite solid, quite coherent, and quite wrong.
[GKC Heretics CW1:46]
In our selection today, when he mentions certain religions, he is getting at certain philosophical principles, and their validity - or their error:
But I must pass on to the larger cases of this curious error; the notion that the "liberalising" of religion in some way helps the liberation of the world. The second example of it can be found in the question of pantheism - or rather of a certain modern attitude which is often called immanentism, and which often is Buddhism. But this is so much more difficult a matter that I must approach it with rather more preparation.

The things said most confidently by advanced persons to crowded audiences are generally those quite opposite to the fact; it is actually our truisms that are untrue. Here is a case. There is a phrase of facile liberality uttered again and again at ethical societies and parliaments of religion: "the religions of the earth differ in rites and forms, but they are the same in what they teach." It is false; it is the opposite of the fact. The religions of the earth do not greatly differ in rites and forms; they do greatly differ in what they teach. It is as if a man were to say, "Do not be misled by the fact that the Church Times and the Freethinker look utterly different, that one is painted on vellum and the other carved on marble, that one is triangular and the other hectagonal; read them and you will see that they say the same thing." The truth is, of course, that they are alike in everything except in the fact that they don't say the same thing. An atheist stockbroker in Surbiton looks exactly like a Swedenborgian stockbroker in Wimbledon. You may walk round and round them and subject them to the most personal and offensive study without seeing anything Swedenborgian in the hat or anything particularly godless in the umbrella. It is exactly in their souls that they are divided. So the truth is that the difficulty of all the creeds of the earth is not as alleged in this cheap maxim: that they agree in meaning, but differ in machinery. It is exactly the opposite. They agree in machinery; almost every great religion on earth works with the same external methods, with priests, scriptures, altars, sworn brotherhoods, special feasts. They agree in the mode of teaching; what they differ about is the thing to be taught. Pagan optimists and Eastern pessimists would both have temples, just as Liberals and Tories would both have newspapers. Creeds that exist to destroy each other both have scriptures, just as armies that exist to destroy each other both have guns.
Don't let the local English example distract you: Wimbleton and Surbiton are London suburbs, rather close to each other. The newspapers are those issued by the Anglicans and the Free Thinkers (which are rather a bit different from organized religion). A Swedenborgian is a member of a small nominally Christian sect - but from the context he is making no particular comment about its details, merely using it as the antithesis to the "atheist stockbroker". But please read this again. This careful study will reveal details of a complaint we still hear these days: how all religions are really the same, but simply differ in their church or the worship, etc. And once you're read it again, proceed into the next paragraph:
The great example of this alleged identity of all human religions is the alleged spiritual identity of Buddhism and Christianity. Those who adopt this theory generally avoid the ethics of most other creeds, except, indeed, Confucianism, which they like because it is not a creed. But they are cautious in their praises of Mahometanism, generally confining themselves to imposing its morality only upon the refreshment of the lower classes. They seldom suggest the Mahometan view of marriage (for which there is a great deal to be said), and towards Thugs and fetish worshippers their attitude may even be called cold. But in the case of the great religion of Gautama they feel sincerely a similarity.
Yes, Confucianism is often called a religion, but though it contains rules of life, a system of morals, it isn't about worship, or about God. He is not insulting it, but trying to point out details. Nor is he insulting Mahometanism, which we usually call "Islam", nor Buddhism. I am not going to delve into this curious point about "the Mahometan view of marriage"; I think that can safely be left for anyone seeking a research project. Thugs? Well, you might wish to look up that term for yourself; you may be enlightened even as you are horrified, but then I think September 11 speaks quite a bit louder.

But the name "Gautama" I must point out is merely the real name - Siddhartha Gautama - of the man who lived from ca. 563 B.C. to ca. 483 B.C. who is called the Buddha, "the Enlightened One". Yet another project - oh, for a grad school to help! - would be to trace GKC's comments on the topic and the person. But I shall give one succinct line, as perfectly phrased as GKC's famous words about Shaw in Heretics:
Gautama was a great and good man, who had a profound philosophy with which I, for one, profoundly disagree.
[ILN June 4, 1927 CW34:320]
One other useful reference I shall quote at length, both to help you see GKC's care even in dealing with an intellectual adversary, but also to enlighten you about this world figure:
The next great example I shall take of the princely sage is Gautama, the great Lord Buddha. I know he is not generally classed merely with the philosophers; but I am more and more convinced, from all information that reaches me, that this is the real interpretation of his immense importance. He was by far the greatest and the best of these intellectuals born in the purple. His reaction was perhaps the noblest and most sincere of all the resultant actions of that combination of thinkers and of thrones. For his reaction was renunciation. Marcus Aurelius was content to say, with a refined irony, that even in a palace life could be lived well. The fierier Egyptian king concluded that it could be lived even better after a palace revolution. But the great Gautama was the only one of them who proved he could really do without his palace. One fell back on toleration and the other on revolution. But after all there is something more absolute about abdication. Abdication is perhaps the one really absolute action of an absolute monarch. The Indian prince, reared in Oriental luxury and pomp, deliberately went out and lived the life of a beggar. That is magnificent, but it is not war; that is, it is not necessarily a Crusade in the Christian sense. It does not decide the question of whether the life of a beggar was the life of a saint or the life of a philosopher. It does not decide whether this great man is really to go into the tub of Diogenes or the cave of St. Jerome. Now those who seem to be nearest to the study of Buddha, and certainly those who write most clearly and intelligently about him, convince me for one that he was simply a philosopher who founded a successful school of philosophy, and was turned into a sort of divus or sacred being merely by the more mysterious and unscientific atmosphere of all such traditions in Asia.
[GKC The Everlasting Man CW2:262]
GKC is very Thomistic here, finding what good he can in his antagonists, and seeking learning even from those he disagrees with.

But, as we are about to see, it is not really the Buddha, or Buddhism, or any specific Buddhists - or all Buddhists - which GKC is arguing about. He is addressing those strange kind of post-Christians who seem to think they are dealing with a cafeteria, a smorgasbord, a box of chocolates: to pick and choose what they like... (Recall "heresy" comes from a Greek root meaning "choice"!) ... people like an great and worthy enemy GKC has crossed verbal swords with before: the great Robert Blatchford [see note at end] :
Students of popular science, like Mr. Blatchford, are always insisting that Christianity and Buddhism are very much alike, especially Buddhism. This is generally believed, and I believed it myself until I read a book giving the reasons for it. The reasons were of two kinds: resemblances that meant nothing because they were common to all humanity, and resemblances which were not resemblances at all. The author solemnly explained that the two creeds were alike in things in which all creeds are alike, or else he described them as alike in some point in which they are quite obviously different. Thus, as a case of the first class, he said that both Christ and Buddha were called by the divine voice coming out of the sky, as if you would expect the divine voice to come out of the coal-cellar. Or, again, it was gravely urged that these two Eastern teachers, by a singular coincidence, both had to do with the washing of feet. You might as well say that it was a remarkable coincidence that they both had feet to wash. And the other class of similarities were those which simply were not similar. Thus this reconciler of the two religions draws earnest attention to the fact that at certain religious feasts the robe of the Lama is rent in pieces out of respect, and the remnants highly valued. But this is the reverse of a resemblance, for the garments of Christ were not rent in pieces out of respect, but out of derision; and the remnants were not highly valued except for what they would fetch in the rag shops. It is rather like alluding to the obvious connection between the two ceremonies of the sword: when it taps a man's shoulder, and when it cuts off his head. It is not at all similar for the man. These scraps of puerile pedantry would indeed matter little if it were not also true that the alleged philosophical resemblances are also of these two kinds, either proving too much or not proving anything. That Buddhism approves of mercy or of self-restraint is not to say that it is specially like Christianity; it is only to say that it is not utterly unlike all human existence. Buddhists disapprove in theory of cruelty or excess because all sane human beings disapprove in theory of cruelty or excess. But to say that Buddhism and Christianity give the same philosophy of these things is simply false. All humanity does agree that we are in a net of sin. Most of humanity agrees that there is some way out. But as to what is the way out, I do not think that there are two institutions in the universe which contradict each other so flatly as Buddhism and Christianity.
Again GKC considers another series of comparisons which do not compare, and distinctions which do not distinguish. We might learn very much here, not so much about Buddhism, but about a powerful technique of argument. This might be just a Chestertonian literary form of the famous Scholastic distinguo: "I distinguish": that most important intellectual power which enables us to see two things truly. It is a grand power, far too little used in our day, and we can learn its honorable technique from GKC. He goes further into one particular issue, the one which resonates with the well-known Chestertonian "appeal to the sense of vision" - in so many things GKC will be seen as an artist, as one who relies on sight, be it physical or intellectual:
Even when I thought, with most other well-informed, though unscholarly, people, that Buddhism and Christianity were alike, there was one thing about them that always perplexed me; I mean the startling difference in their type of religious art. I do not mean in its technical style of representation, but in the things that it was manifestly meant to represent. No two ideals could be more opposite than a Christian saint in a Gothic cathedral and a Buddhist saint in a Chinese temple. The opposition exists at every point; but perhaps the shortest statement of it is that the Buddhist saint always has his eyes shut, while the Christian saint always has them very wide open. The Buddhist saint has a sleek and harmonious body, but his eyes are heavy and sealed with sleep. The mediaeval saint's body is wasted to its crazy bones, but his eyes are frightfully alive. There cannot be any real community of spirit between forces that produced symbols so different as that. Granted that both images are extravagances, are perversions of the pure creed, it must be a real divergence which could produce such opposite extravagances. The Buddhist is looking with a peculiar intentness inwards. The Christian is staring with a frantic intentness outwards. If we follow that clue steadily we shall find some interesting things.
Alas, we have to break off our selection here, but we're not quite through for the day - first we'll have a bit of fun.

Right about now, I expect someone to jump up and down, like a suit-crazed lawyer, yelling "Contradiction!" This person is one who has poked into Chesterton in a more-or-less academic manner, rather as far too many bible scholars have poked into the Bible: not to learn from it, but to find flammable grist for their whine-presses. (Yes, I know it's a mixed metaphor: very well mixed, too.) But this time it is a very meticulous whiner, who will point out that GKC has changed his perspective between his writing of Orthodoxy in 1908, and 1925, three years after his conversion to Roman Catholicism, when he wrote that "all the eyes of wonder and worship which had been turned outwards to the largest thing were now turned inward to the smallest." [GKC The Everlasting Man CW2:304] Ah, my dear sir! You need to be a bit more careful when you do that. The TEM quote refers to Christ, the Baby in the manger; today's words refer to the saint living in an age some years afterwards. But it is the whiner who has the wrong perspective.

You see, the eyes of the saint turn outward, for he is still looking "inward" to the Baby! But the saint knows, as the unfortunate whiner doesn't, that the Baby is yet to be seen, here and now - yes, the saint stares outward to see the Baby, still in the world, as was told us by the Baby Himself when He had grown up: "As long as you did it to one of these least ones, you did it to ME." [Mt 25:40] Indeed, these are words the saint expects to hear someday! No; the argument fails, for the apparent contradiction is rather an emphasis - or an exaltation. A saint stares outward - oh, yes, it's the Latin ex+specto = I look out, expect, await (see the penultimate clause of the Nicene Creed) - and ALSO "hope"... for the saint expects to see his Master again... in disguise, wrapped in other garb... We hope to learn from our mistakes: we were caught once when He hid, on the Road to Emmaus, but we won't be fooled that way any more.

Look out: you never know when you might see Him again!


Note: we've met Robert Blatchford before (CW1:233 and 322); he was the editor of the Clarion. He and GKC had a series of important articles which you can find reprinted in CW1 with Heretics and Orthodoxy - they are usually referred to as "The Blatchford Controversies" and they are a very early statement (1904) of GKC's views about religion and related matters.

1 comment:

  1. Great and thought-provoking post, Dr. T. I'd like to hear more about the "how" of Chesterton's arguments, I think I could learn a lot from that. Thanks for pointing it out about distinguishing.


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