Thursday, January 22, 2009

True Liberality, or, Going to the Seashore on Flying Dragons

Yes, this week there's more about that pesty term "liberal" again. And some other very curious things. But first, let's have a romp with a flying dragon. Hee hee. I mean my brief aside last week about Catholic colleges, and a comment posted since then.

Well, I was going to. But I decided not to, since it goes a little too far afield of our topic. So I shall settle for a much briefer romp, again rather an aside:

My purpose here is not to debate the layout of the coursework of Catholic colleges - even large Catholic universities - or even make some attempt at advising them. It was an aside, bolstered by the current discussion of last week: the whole thrust of GKC's discussion of the term "liberal" demands the inclusion of such subjects in a truly "liberal" school. A physicist at a secular school ought know enough of the history of his subject to acknowledge its Christian underpinnings, even if he is very distant from Christianity in his belief. I might as well struggle to avoid Greek or Latin terms since they arose in a pagan world - which would be quite silly, since even St. Paul quoted pagan poets in his evangelizing! (See Acts 17:28) But in the same way, a theologian at a Catholic school ought to know enough of the disciplines upon which his electric light (see John 1:4, 8:12; cf lumen de lumine in the Nicene Creed) and his e-mail (see Ps 18:5/19:4) - or even his ink and paper (see 3 John 1:13) - come from, even if he never studied the technical details of such things. It is only fair. And it also is humbling, which is a healthier thing for us:
The crux and crisis is that man found it natural to worship; even natural to worship unnatural things. The posture of the idol might be stiff and strange; but the gesture of the worshipper was generous and beautiful. He not only felt freer when he bent; he actually felt taller when he bowed. Henceforth anything that took away the gesture of worship would stunt and even maim him forever.
[GKC The Everlasting Man CW2:244]
Humility has greater freedom, as it asserts there's always more to learn. Would you want the final, the ultimate and last book to be written in your discipline, even by yourself, O Professor? I didn't think so.

You might wonder whether even this small aside is relevant. (Can any ride on a flying dragon be irrelevant? Hardly! Though it might be dangerous.) But, as you will see from today's very interesting excerpt, it is quite relevant - perhaps shockingly so. Often one will read GKC's work from 100 years ago, and sit back in amazement, thinking GKC is writing in the present day! But the errors are the same, and GKC's point in bringing up certain current stupidities, or certain wildly popular and very dangerous philosophies of his day, is simply to warn his reader of the dangers - which is why they are useful to us today. A child ought to be warned from eating something dangerous - say a toadstool. But adults (who often are very childish) usually need a little more explanation, even as they bite into the deadly mushroom...

(( click here for an explanation ))

The very next line of our text contains two phrases which for some readers will suggest "Vatican II" or related topics. But GKC is warning about something else, something very dangerous, and definitely not a "Catholic" or even a "Christian" kind of thing, even though its fruits are still deadly and active a century afterwards:
Now let us take in order the innovations that are the notes of the new theology or the modernist church. We concluded the last chapter with the discovery of one of them. The very doctrine which is called the most old-fashioned was found to be the only safeguard of the new democracies of the earth. The doctrine seemingly most unpopular was found to be the only strength of the people. In short, we found that the only logical negation of oligarchy was in the affirmation of original sin. So it is, I maintain, in all the other cases.

I take the most obvious instance first, the case of miracles. For some extraordinary reason, there is a fixed notion that it is more liberal to disbelieve in miracles than to believe in them. Why, I cannot imagine, nor can anybody tell me. For some inconceivable cause a "broad" or "liberal" clergyman always means a man who wishes at least to diminish the number of miracles; it never means a man who wishes to increase that number. It always means a man who is free to disbelieve that Christ came out of His grave; it never means a man who is free to believe that his own aunt came out of her grave. It is common to find trouble in a parish because the parish priest cannot admit that St. Peter walked on water; yet how rarely do we find trouble in a parish because the clergyman says that his father walked on the Serpentine? And this is not because (as the swift secularist debater would immediately retort) miracles cannot be believed in our experience. It is not because "miracles do not happen," as in the dogma which Matthew Arnold recited with simple faith. More supernatural things are alleged to have happened in our time than would have been possible eighty years ago. Men of science believe in such marvels much more than they did: the most perplexing, and even horrible, prodigies of mind and spirit are always being unveiled in modern psychology. Things that the old science at least would frankly have rejected as miracles are hourly being asserted by the new science. The only thing which is still old-fashioned enough to reject miracles is the New Theology. But in truth this notion that it is "free" to deny miracles has nothing to do with the evidence for or against them. It is a lifeless verbal prejudice of which the original life and beginning was not in the freedom of thought, but simply in the dogma of materialism. The man of the nineteenth century did not disbelieve in the Resurrection because his liberal Christianity allowed him to doubt it. He disbelieved in it because his very strict materialism did not allow him to believe it. Tennyson, a very typical nineteenth-century man, uttered one of the instinctive truisms of his contemporaries when he said that there was faith in their honest doubt. There was indeed. Those words have a profound and even a horrible truth. In their doubt of miracles there was a faith in a fixed and godless fate; a deep and sincere faith in the incurable routine of the cosmos. The doubts of the agnostic were only the dogmas of the monist.
Now just one or two small notes to help you see a little more.

The "Serpentine" is a lake in Hyde Park, London; one map I have shows it has only one bend, which is not very "serpentine" to me. Matthew Arnold (1822-88) was an English poet and critic. After a desultory glance at the nearly 150 references to him as reported by AMBER, I might think GKC would regard him as a "Heretic" though he is not singled out in that book, but with such a casual study it is hard to be fair - as GKC struggled to be fair - to someone like him. I would direct the interested student to the ILN essay for Jan 27, 1923, a somewhat delayed memorial for the centenary of Arnold's birth - it will assist you in grasping more of the picture about Arnold's beliefs, which were "Positivist" and "Comtean". (See my footnote at the end about "monism".) Regarding "honest doubt": a footnote from the IP edition states this: "From Tennyson's In Memoriam, poem 96":
There lives more faith in honest doubt
Believe me, than in half the creeds.
Great pun there, you notice? That line is also quoted in GKC's poem "The Road To Roundabout" [CW10:465-6] which also appears in The Flying Inn. Well worth considering... though I doubt I have time or space to discuss "doubt" just now. Hee hee.
You will note this phrase "the incurable routine of the cosmos". This is almost horrifyingly close to the very serious danger Jaki warns of in the first six chapters of Science and Creation: the old pagan idea of eternal recurrence or the "Great Year" - the concept that all events are repeats, and have ever been so, and shall always be so. It is strange to see it rearing its head in early 20th century England. But GKC is here to fight it and its sinister correlatives, and proceeds to do so:
Of the fact and evidence of the supernatural I will speak afterwards. Here we are only concerned with this clear point; that in so far as the liberal idea of freedom can be said to be on either side in the discussion about miracles, it is obviously on the side of miracles. Reform or (in the only tolerable sense) progress means simply the gradual control of matter by mind. A miracle simply means the swift control of matter by mind. If you wish to feed the people, you may think that feeding them miraculously in the wilderness is impossible - but you cannot think it illiberal. If you really want poor children to go to the seaside, you cannot think it illiberal that they should go there on flying dragons; you can only think it unlikely. A holiday, like Liberalism, only means the liberty of man. A miracle only means the liberty of God. You may conscientiously deny either of them, but you cannot call your denial a triumph of the liberal idea. The Catholic Church believed that man and God both had a sort of spiritual freedom. Calvinism took away the freedom from man, but left it to God. Scientific materialism binds the Creator Himself; it chains up God as the Apocalypse chained the devil. It leaves nothing free in the universe. And those who assist this process are called the "liberal theologians."
Wow, GKC had "liberal theologians" too? Yes; and it would be very easy to go into even more dangerous topics here, with this concept of "binding the Creator" - which is done in at least one certain well-known religion - a binding which GKC mentioned just a few pages back. Yes, as paradoxical as it sounds, by exalting God's utter freedom of will, that religion forbids God a certain liberty: "the liberty for which I chiefly care, the liberty to bind myself." [CW1:328] But again, to be fair, I cannot go further into that matter here. For now, I would simply call your attention to GKC's own answer which we have read in Chapter Four:
...perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, "Do it again" to the sun; and every evening, "Do it again" to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. ... The repetition in Nature may not be a mere recurrence; it may be a theatrical encore.
Some very great mysteries here, and worth far more time that I can spend at present. Besides, GKC has a little more to say about this matter of "miracle":
This, as I say, is the lightest and most evident case. The assumption that there is something in the doubt of miracles akin to liberality or reform is literally the opposite of the truth. If a man cannot believe in miracles there is an end of the matter; he is not particularly liberal, but he is perfectly honourable and logical, which are much better things. But if he can believe in miracles, he is certainly the more liberal for doing so; because they mean first, the freedom of the soul, and secondly, its control over the tyranny of circumstance. Sometimes this truth is ignored in a singularly naïve way, even by the ablest men. For instance, Mr. Bernard Shaw speaks with hearty old-fashioned contempt for the idea of miracles, as if they were a sort of breach of faith on the part of nature: he seems strangely unconscious that miracles are only the final flowers of his own favourite tree, the doctrine of the omnipotence of will. Just in the same way he calls the desire for immortality a paltry selfishness, forgetting that he has just called the desire for life a healthy and heroic selfishness. How can it be noble to wish to make one's life infinite and yet mean to wish to make it immortal? No, if it is desirable that man should triumph over the cruelty of nature or custom, then miracles are certainly desirable; we will discuss afterwards whether they are possible.
This topic of "miracle" is still a matter of interest and concern to us. Another interesting study might be made of GKC's comments about miracles, some of the best of which appear in his fiction: "The Trees of Pride" in CW14 uses the topic as a centerpiece. And since I have often mentioned Fr. Jaki's writing in these notes, I would suggest his booklet Miracles and Physics or his God and the Sun At Fatima, which examines the evidence and presents some very interesting speculations. But of course GKC, the wise lover of the Common Man, has given what is really the best argument, the most democratic, and the most liberal, and I shall jump ahead in our reading to give it to you. It deserves several readings to savour the logic, and to feel the true liberality, to enjoy the delightful freedom it presents:
Somehow or other an extraordinary idea has arisen that the disbelievers in miracles consider them coldly and fairly, while believers in miracles accept them only in connection with some dogma. The fact is quite the other way. The believers in miracles accept them (rightly or wrongly) because they have evidence for them. The disbelievers in miracles deny them (rightly or wrongly) because they have a doctrine against them. The open, obvious, democratic thing is to believe an old apple-woman when she bears testimony to a miracle, just as you believe an old apple-woman when she bears testimony to a murder. The plain, popular course is to trust the peasant's word about the ghost exactly as far as you trust the peasant's word about the landlord. Being a peasant he will probably have a great deal of healthy agnosticism about both. Still you could fill the British Museum with evidence uttered by the peasant, and given in favour of the ghost. If it comes to human testimony there is a choking cataract of human testimony in favour of the supernatural. If you reject it, you can only mean one of two things. You reject the peasant's story about the ghost either because the man is a peasant or because the story is a ghost story. That is, you either deny the main principle of democracy, or you affirm the main principle of materialism - the abstract impossibility of miracle.
Powerful stuff, no? But then a ride on a flying dragon is not what you expected today. (At least we are back in one piece.) Next time we shall proceed to GKC's second example of the "new theology" or the "modernist church"...

* * * * *

A footnote: I didn't quite feel I could work this into the main text, but I thought it would help a little in the allusion to the "Monist" topic. It also gives us a bit of warning about my wandering babble about Science" and related matters:
The Schoolmen may have shot too far beyond our limits in pursuing the Cherubim and Seraphim. But in asking whether a man can choose or whether a man will die, they were asking ordinary questions in natural history; like whether a cat can scratch or whether a dog can smell. Nothing calling itself a complete Science of Man can shirk them. And the great Agnostics did shirk them. They may have said they had no scientific evidence; in that case they failed to produce even a scientific hypothesis. What they generally did produce was a wildly unscientific contradiction. Most Monist moralists simply said that Man has no choice; but he must think and act heroically as if he had. Huxley made morality, and even Victorian morality, in the exact sense, supernatural. He said it had arbitrary rights above nature; a sort of theology without theism.
[GKC St. Thomas Aquinas CW2:526]
To save you time, the dictionary says that "monism" is "the doctrine that there is only one kind of substance or ultimate reality, as mind, or matter; or, the doctrine that reality is one unitary organic whole, with no independent parts." [Webster's] Extreme protagonists are Spinosa and Parmenides of Elea; Christian Science is based on a monistic theory of reality. [Dictionary of Philosophy] Obviously another interesting study for some future scholar.

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