Thursday, February 12, 2009

G. K. Chesterton: Heretic

Hello - you're new here, aren't you? Glad you've come to visit. (Amazing how quick you can hook someone with the right title, hee hee.) Yes, this is our Thursday study of Orthodoxy. (If you were looking for thermodynamics, car repair, wine-making, automata theory, or Victorian fiction, try another time. We deal with everything here. Well, actually we may get near that final topic today...) We're in the second-last chapter, "The Romance of Orthodoxy".

Hmm. But for today's excerpt, I think I will use an example....
He checked his bedside clock. It was quarter of midnight. He sighed, and shifted around in his bed under the covers, trying not to let his flashlight shine out and wake his brother. He had to keep going, it was the exciting part...

"Logic! Truth! Speculation on angels dancing!" he yelled. She stared as he tore out the last yellowed pages and scattered them around the room. "Utter useless nonsense!" Then he took a deep breath as his eyes widened. He shook his head and seemed to grow calmer, but more horrifying. "Medieval nonsense. Dreamers. Charlatans. Fanatics." Chuckling, he piled another stack of books around her, tied fast in the big chair. "You found me cold. You preferred these things to me. I think you were the cold one. Very well. Let them warm you now."

Wide-eyed, she stared as he pushed a stack of folios into the fireplace. She tried to pull herself free, but the ropes were tight. At first it seemed as if he had overwhelmed the fire with all those ancient texts, but slowly the flames were taking hold.
Terror rose up in her. "No!" she cried. "Don't leave me!"
"What do you mean - don't leave me! You can say that now?" he sneered. "Bah. I've wasted my life here. Your books and reading. There's nothing for me. Nothing."
She was weeping. "Then at least let me go. For God's sake, please! I beg you! Let me go!"
He laughed, then turned and hurried out of the room. Again she struggled at her bonds, but he knew his knots.
Her voice barely audible, she tried one last plea: "Please, darling. If not for me, for your son's sake! Let him live!"
In the hall she heard him snort. "My son?"
He heard his brother grunt in his sleep. He turned off the flashlight, but the room was silent. He turned it back on, then turned the page, his hand shaking a little with excitement.
"Yes, your son. I just found out. I bear your son. Free me, for his sake, if not for mine."
"I don't believe in that medieval rubbish, 'darling'."
"But I do. He's real. He lives. Please. I beg you."
The door slammed closed, and he laughed insanely as he hurried out of the doomed building.

The fire, so pleasant and comforting just minutes ago, now began to lick about the rare works she had worked so hard to obtain. She heard the front door slam and all was silent, except for the slowly growing sound of crackling flames...

To be continued...

He sighed as he read those words. Oh, no.

Oh, no! No! Doc! You can't stop now!

Yes, there they are - those horrifying words.

If you like books - perhaps I ought to say if you like stories, you know those words. No monster, no villain, no archenemy, whether real or imaginary, could ever produce the terror - the direct emotional blow that those three words convey.

Yes: To be continued. Aren't those the worst words which have ever appeared in print? You read them and sigh - and then you have to turn to the next chapter, or hunt up the next book - or worse, wait - who knows how long - until it is written, or it is published, or you find a copy...

And oh what dread lest it be a case like the famous unfinished tale of Dickens called The Mystery of Edwin Drood, or Stevenson's Weir of Hermiston...

How much worse it is to surmise that all the mysteries of our own life - the real story which we are living - are to remain unresolved. I have heard some odd commentary which claims that the word "mystery" in its high and churchy or theological sense, ought to be gravely distinguished from the lesser fictional sense of detection... but I think this distinction is vacuous.

All one has to examine is the famous story of the encounter of the disciples with the Risen Lord on the Road to Emmaus. The perfection of the scene: the Master (in divine disguise) giving the complete explanation to His "Watson", with a comparable manner "How slow you are to believe" - and yet the true Holmesian compassion in explaining to the slow yet dedicated witness of all the many clues... the one and the only case where the Master Detective solved His own murder! Certainly, the Mystery of Calvary is of that type, and the Resurrection is the supreme Detection of all time. (Latin: detego, detegere, detexi, detectum means to uncover. I'd say "hee hee" here, but "alleluia" is a bit more appropriate.)

Yes, even more to the point, those who try to claim that theological "mystery" is of another class from that of detection are thereby shown to have not read Chesterton. For it is of the nature of mystery of both kinds that it persists in its mysteriousness even when seen. We have heard about this some time ago:
The whole secret of mysticism is this: that man can understand everything by the help of what he does not understand. The morbid logician seeks to make everything lucid, and succeeds in making everything mysterious. The mystic allows one thing to be mysterious, and everything else becomes lucid. The determinist makes the theory of causation quite clear, and then finds that he cannot say "if you please" to the housemaid. The Christian permits free will to remain a sacred mystery; but because of this his relations with the housemaid become of a sparkling and crystal clearness. He puts the seed of dogma in a central darkness; but it branches forth in all directions with abounding natural health.
It is well worth considering this point at some length today, since today we are about to enter into the greatest, the most profound of all mysteries, and hear our Mister Chesterton commit what may be heresy... Let us, then arm ourselves with another, even more profound text, drawn from his own splendid fiction, from the great treasure of hitherto uncollected GKC we call "CW14":
High in the empty air blazed and streamed a great fire, which burnt and blinded me every time I raised my eyes to it. I have lived many years now under this meteor of a fixed Apocalypse, but I have never survived the feelings of that moment. Men eat and drink, buy and sell, marry, are given in marriage, and all the time there is something in the sky at which they cannot look. They must be very brave.
["A Crazy Tale", CW14:70]
You cannot look at the sun. But in its light we see all earthly things. The mystery of Calvary, like any Holmes or Poe or other story, might be seen - and yet still requires explanation. And that explanation might be accepted, and yet still remain mysterious: like the sun.

This may sound to you like Dr. Thursday's own feeble form of "verbal fireworks". But here, in this chapter, we shall hear the first faint rumblings of Chesterton's most mystical insight: perhaps it might be called the "Proof From Literature" which will put him in the company of Francis and Thomas, the study which we shall hear all in its detail in The Everlasting Man. But if we are to even approach it, we must enter through a dark and dangerous gate - a gate which seems to be labelled "Heresy"...

(( click here to enter ))

Yes, for in the next paragraph GKC approaches the highest mystery of Christianity, the most true, and yet the most unfathomable, of all mysteries ever written or ever encountered by humans. And we shall hear, a most crazy, a most insane, a most unbelievable application of what last week I called GKC's greatest paradox: the idea that "Love Desires Division". Yes:
If we take any other doctrine that has been called old-fashioned we shall find the case the same. It is the same, for instance, in the deep matter of the Trinity. Unitarians (a sect never to be mentioned without a special respect for their distinguished intellectual dignity and high intellectual honour) are often reformers by the accident that throws so many small sects into such an attitude. But there is nothing in the least liberal or akin to reform in the substitution of pure monotheism for the Trinity. The complex God of the Athanasian Creed may be an enigma for the intellect; but He is far less likely to gather the mystery and cruelty of a Sultan than the lonely god of Omar or Mahomet. The god who is a mere awful unity is not only a king but an Eastern king. The heart of humanity, especially of European humanity, is certainly much more satisfied by the strange hints and symbols that gather round the Trinitarian idea, the image of a council at which mercy pleads as well as justice, the conception of a sort of liberty and variety existing even in the inmost chamber of the world. For Western religion has always felt keenly the idea "it is not well for man to be alone." [Genesis 2:18] The social instinct asserted itself everywhere as when the Eastern idea of hermits was practically expelled by the Western idea of monks. So even asceticism became brotherly; and the Trappists were sociable even when they were silent. If this love of a living complexity be our test, it is certainly healthier to have the Trinitarian religion than the Unitarian. For to us Trinitarians (if I may say it with reverence) - to us God Himself is a society. It is indeed a fathomless mystery of theology, and even if I were theologian enough to deal with it directly, it would not be relevant to do so here. Suffice it to say here that this triple enigma is as comforting as wine and open as an English fireside; that this thing that bewilders the intellect utterly quiets the heart: but out of the desert, from the dry places and the dreadful suns, come the cruel children of the lonely God; the real Unitarians who with scimitar in hand have laid waste the world. For it is not well for God to be alone.
Heresy! I say it again - Heresy! But how else are we to understand - how can God be love if there is no division? And what sense can there be in that utterly mysterious junction of the singular and the plural which Jesus is recorded as having said: "...baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" [Mt 28:19] One Name, which is One Nature, yet Three Persons.... It's not a math puzzle, folks, and it's not a riddle. It's a truth - like the sun. It will hurt to stare at it, but its light reveals so much. Say it again, with reverence, and confess "God Himself is a society" - for it is not well for God to be alone.

Does this "Trinity" put an end to the Mohammedan view? Yes. [See note at end.] Does it argue against the dogmatic anti-dogmas of tradition-based Protestantism? Yes. Does it defeat the coldness and the blather of the bland, empty hyper-modern media? Yes.

Does it restore virtue, renew the basis of the family, of all human society from club and sports team to nation-state and international organization? Yes. Does it enlighten literature, give humility to science, power to engineering, wisdom to philosophy, and restore honesty to theology? Yes. Is it the foundation-stone of fiction and the rich wellspring of poetry and the ratification of all possible intellectual effort? Yes. And more besides.

So why is this so hard?

Oh. You are waiting for Mr. Holmes to come and hold up his big magnifying lens for you to examine the clues. But there is a wiser than Holmes here; one who grasped something about the nature of Story. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the writer and great subcreator who gave us Sherlock Holmes, was an eye doctor, so it might be appropriate to quote the old proverb, "Physician heal thyself." But GKC was also a writer, and he saw something the eye doctor didn't see, despite all his grand stories which GKC so admired: "I do not think that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has ever been thanked enough for them. As one of many millions, I offer my own mite of homage." [ILN Aug 19 1922 CW32:432] If you are seeking a topic for research work, I strongly encourage you to examine this matter of Story. But I must not delay us here. No, let us proceed, and you will see it for yourself:
Again, the same is true of that difficult matter of the danger of the soul, which has unsettled so many just minds. To hope for all souls is imperative; and it is quite tenable that their salvation is inevitable. It is tenable, but it is not specially favourable to activity or progress. Our fighting and creative society ought rather to insist on the danger of everybody, on the fact that every man is hanging by a thread or clinging to a precipice. To say that all will be well anyhow is a comprehensible remark: but it cannot be called the blast of a trumpet. Europe ought rather to emphasize possible perdition; and Europe always has emphasized it. Here its highest religion is at one with all its cheapest romances. To the Buddhist or the eastern fatalist existence is a science or a plan, which must end up in a certain way. But to a Christian existence is a story, which may end up in any way. In a thrilling novel (that purely Christian product) the hero is not eaten by cannibals; but it is essential to the existence of the thrill that he might be eaten by cannibals. The hero must (so to speak) be an eatable hero. So Christian morals have always said to the man, not that he would lose his soul, but that he must take care that he didn't. In Christian morals, in short, it is wicked to call a man "damned": but it is strictly religious and philosophic to call him damnable. All Christianity concentrates on the man at the cross-roads. The vast and shallow philosophies, the huge syntheses of humbug, all talk about ages and evolution and ultimate developments. The true philosophy is concerned with the instant. Will a man take this road or that? - that is the only thing to think about, if you enjoy thinking. The aeons are easy enough to think about, any one can think about them. The instant is really awful: and it is because our religion has intensely felt the instant, that it has in literature dealt much with battle and in theology dealt much with hell. It is full of danger, like a boy's book: it is at an immortal crisis. There is a great deal of real similarity between popular fiction and the religion of the western people. If you say that popular fiction is vulgar and tawdry, you only say what the dreary and well-informed say also about the images in the Catholic churches. Life (according to the faith) is very like a serial story in a magazine: life ends with the promise (or menace) "to be continued in our next." Also, with a noble vulgarity, life imitates the serial and leaves off at the exciting moment. For death is distinctly an exciting moment.
Yes. Now you understand why I began the way I did! In GKC's time, magazines often published successive chapters of mysteries, nearly always giving a most horrible cliffhanger, much as the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys stories were written, to the great annoyance of children who read them under the covers ("Just to the end of the chapter, Mom!") The magazines want you to get hooked to find out what happens, so you would keep buying them to find out. Several famous authors have done this most unconscionable (but clever) trick, most recently demonstrated by J. K. Rowling's series, which belong to the mystery category as well as any of Doyle, Tolkien, Sayers, or Chesterton. (It is too easily forgotten that Tolkien's six-book trilogy came out separately, but dragons will not force from me the secret of its horrible cliffhangers, especially those that come at the end of books four and five.)

I shall put this as an aside. Just to be complete, and in case for some reason I do not get to mention this elsewhere, I will give you a little more about the research topic of Story. You will need the very important essay called "On Fairy-stories" by J. R. R. Tolkien, reprinted in The Tolkien Reader. You will need GKC's The Everlasting Man, in particular the chapter called "The Escape from Paganism", with this singular clue:
The true story of the world must be told by somebody to somebody else. By the very nature of a story it cannot be left to occur to anybody. A story has proportions, variations, surprises, particular dispositions, which cannot be worked out by rule in the abstract, like a sum.
You will also want to find The Mind of the Maker by Dorothy Sayers. Of her GKC remarked she "is one of those who do write murder stories as if they could write something else" [ILN Aug 17 1929 CW35:149] and this book is a good example of her ability. Be forewarned: it is not so much about God's mind as the mind of one who "makes" in the ancient sense - that is, one who writes or subcreates: "The medieval word for a Poet was a Maker, which indeed is the original meaning of a Poet. It is one of the points, more numerous than some suppose, in which Greek and medieval simplicity nearly touch." [GKC Chaucer CW18:155] You will also most likely want our current text, as you can see from our current excerpt:
But the point is that a story is exciting because it has in it so strong an element of will, of what theology calls free will. You cannot finish a sum how you like. But you can finish a story how you like. When somebody discovered the Differential Calculus there was only one Differential Calculus he could discover. But when Shakespeare killed Romeo he might have married him to Juliet's old nurse if he had felt inclined. And Christendom has excelled in the narrative romance exactly because it has insisted on the theological free will. It is a large matter and too much to one side of the road to be discussed adequately here; but this is the real objection to that torrent of modern talk about treating crime as disease, about making a prison merely a hygienic environment like a hospital, of healing sin by slow scientific methods. The fallacy of the whole thing is that evil is a matter of active choice whereas disease is not. If you say that you are going to cure a profligate as you cure an asthmatic, my cheap and obvious answer is, "Produce the people who want to be asthmatics as many people want to be profligates." A man may lie still and be cured of a malady. But he must not lie still if he wants to be cured of a sin; on the contrary, he must get up and jump about violently. The whole point indeed is perfectly expressed in the very word which we use for a man in hospital; "patient" is in the passive mood; "sinner" is in the active. If a man is to be saved from influenza, he may be a patient. But if he is to be saved from forging, he must be not a patient but an impatient. He must be personally impatient with forgery. All moral reform must start in the active not the passive will.
A lovely piece of verbal fireworks. The truely repentant sinner must not come to the physician as a patient but as an "impatient"! (We might wish to recall this as Lent draws near.) Some time past we had a discussion about the nature of Differential Calculus, which we must not digress on just now: suffice it to say that there are varying ways of expressing the idea of this branch of mathematics, one of which was proposed by Leibniz and the other by Newton, and you can no doubt find others in modern textbooks - but they all communicate the same idea, which is phrased (in a famous but not Chestertonian verbal firework) as "finding the slope of a curve".
Here again we reach the same substantial conclusion. In so far as we desire the definite reconstructions and the dangerous revolutions which have distinguished European civilization, we shall not discourage the thought of possible ruin; we shall rather encourage it. If we want, like the Eastern saints, merely to contemplate how right things are, of course we shall only say that they must go right. But if we particularly want to make them go right, we must insist that they may go wrong.
Now, here GKC touches on one of reasons why I think he ought to be required reading for computer scientists. I will not bore you with the details from my own realm, but this is a bit too clever to skip over. You see, a very large amount of software in the real world - I mean what we usually call "industrial" computing, as opposed to "academic" - is given over to checking for what can go wrong. Countless checks, verifications, cross-checks, and duplications of energy are required in real programs. (I do not mean the stuff you buy in stores, of course, which are really the same old programs with a few minor changes wedged in, so as to force you to buy the new version - but without the fun of the "to be continued" sequel as GKC suggested.) When I designed my system - yes, the one that did "Subsidiarity" - I had to embed all kinds of such checks to make sure things kept working - and to alert Those Who Watched when something unexpected did occur. (If you are curious, there's plenty of detail in my novel.) It is just another form of that "eternal vigilance" we heard about last week... I tried to see as far as I could, by the cunning of my own code, and what I could not see, I gave to others who would be my own eyes... Yes, Chesterton played a major role in our systems design. But let us proceed.

Well, no. I think we'll stop for now. And so, we might well quote here today's great epigram: "to be continued". But before I finish off the posting, I think you deserve to read a little more.

"Huh? To be continued? But that's not the end," he whispered to himself. He sighed as he closed the little piece-of-a-book which his father called a "signature", and checked his watch again. It wasn't midnight yet. He reached under his bed and pulled out the very last signature his father had given him. He tucked the covers around him, and began to read...
Once again she struggled. It was futile. Her head sunk down as she prayed, fervently, not for herself, or even her unborn son, but for her poor husband.
Then she heard a strange creaking sound. It sounded as if it was coming from the chimney! She raised her head and stared at the fireplace.
Big black boots appeared, and she heard a coughing. She almost laughed - but it was not St. Nick. The flames, nearly smothered by the old folios, were kicked into life - and they spread into the room.
A talll man climbed out, coughing from the smoke, his silhouette strange against the fire. As he strode towards her, he glanced down and paused - then he grabbed one small volume. In moments his pocket knife had cut her bonds.
She rubbed her wrists, trying to breathe. "Who... who are you?" She had never seen him before, but he smiled as if they were old friends.
He coughed again. "That doesn't matter. Not now. No don't look back. Come quickly... you must live - you and your son."

They hurried out of the house.

She was sobbing - she could hardly tell her tears from the pouring rain. There, on the front path, he gave her the ancient tome. "You'll need this. It will serve, if you use it well, to set your son on the path. If your husband is to have any hope at all, it will come from your son. Fare well."
She reached out her hand to him. "Might I not know your name?"
"Not now. Someday your son will tell you." He turned and went back into the house, never looking back at her.
Smoke was already pouring from the upper windows. She clasped the volume, protecting it from the rain with her own body, and yet she smiled as she hurried away. A great future lay before her.

The boy shrugged as he turned off his flashlight and put it down on top of the last signature beside his bed. Pretty exciting stuff. Too bad about all those books. But it was the best birthday present he had ever had. Tomorrow he'd have to tell Dad he had put that "to be continued" at the wrong place. He pulled up the covers again, wondering what the book was that got rescued, and what the woman did next, and what the boy grew up to be, and what happened to her husband.... He yawned. Someday he'd find out.

But, as Bastian Balthasar Bux (the hero of The Never-Ending Story) knew: "that is another story, and will be told another time"...


A note on the Trinity with respect to Christianity vs. Mohammedanism: this is not the place to delve into this matter at any depth, as it involves a number of related and difficult issues - consider GKC's "Lepanto", Belloc's The Great Heresies and the chapter called "Delay in Detour" in Jaki's Science and Creation to start with. But on the very specific issue of the Trinity, it is worth hearing what GKC said in another context:
It is not merely true that a creed unites men. Nay, a difference of creed unites men - so long as it is a clear difference. A boundary unites. Many a magnanimous Moslem and chivalrous Crusader must have been nearer to each other, because they were both dogmatists, than any two homeless agnostics in a pew of Mr. Campbell's chapel. "I say God is One," and "I say God is One but also Three," that is the beginning of a good quarrelsome, manly friendship.
[GKC What's Wrong With the World CW4:49]


  1. +JMJ+

    So you're continuing that story about the pregnant lady, the mysterious stranger and the book that survived the flames, right?


  2. I second the motion (what happens next?).

    Wonderful meditation post again, Dr. Thursday, thank you. You bring Orthodoxy to life.

  3. Thanks for these kind words - but - er - did you think I had nothing else planned for my Saturday? But it is most flattering - like Bilbo in Rivendell, I don't often get asked for a repeat. Hee hee.

    At least I can quote our text, in some exasperation: "It was perhaps an incautious suggestion to make to a person only too ready to write books upon the feeblest provocation." [CW1:211]

    Or stories.

    But I did have other writing planned for today. so it had to wait. (Though it was a refreshing break.)

    And so, after hours of scribble, I can offer you this, which I hope will be satisfactory.

    And once you've read this, and want to read something else from the same writer, I suggest his novel, or his short stories. He is planning on writing more, and some day you (and John) may hear more about Mr. Stone. But you really ought to read Chesterton, who is a much better writer.

  4. Is there any chance that in the future the "Orthodoxy Thursdays" might be posted as a text file for people to download? I've just started, and you are almost finished.

  5. Does anyone know the name of this poem????
    What if I have eyes that do not see
    This gaily colored world of forms and show:
    What if in the dark I always go,
    My footsteps led by sounds and memory:
    What if the sunset always hides its glow,
    And morning's dawn does not unveil to me:
    My father gave me strength of soul and mind:
    My mother taught me how to laugh and pray:
    My ears and nose and fingers are designed
    To bring me knowledge, beauty, work, and play-
    I do not envy those who see the light,
    For I know my way and have no fear of night.
    Faith means believing what is incredible, or it is no virtue at all.
    Hope means hoping when things are hopeless, or it is no virtue at all.
    And charity means pardoning what is unpardonable, or it is no virtue at all.
    -G.K,Chesterton, Heretics


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