Thursday, February 19, 2009

GKC - Heretic Squared?

Today's column is a continuation of last week's - the commentary, not the sketchy fictional example. (If you want a continuation of that, it's here.) And yet today's continuation is a conclusion, since it is the last Thursday column before Lent begins next Wednesday. Moreover, it will complete our study of chapter eight, "The Romance of Orthodoxy". It must be considered logically a continuation for another reason: we shall see GKC go even further into heresy, proposing for our consideration strange words, and even stranger images - surprising, mystical images. Not goofy or pop-art, or psychedelic. Mystic. That is, images of something quite real, but images only seen by mystics.

I hope that you will understand. I have no special knowledge of the true mystics, and indeed very little awareness of their thoughts, except in a most casual sense. Yet, I feel very strongly that we are about to hear some authentic mystical insights, as GKC leaps (it appears) beyond the normal human powers of thought so he can show us his view. But please attend carefully as you read. There will come some words which sure sound heretical to an outsider - and even more to an insider. Atheists do not talk about God this way, nor do serious theists, specifically orthodox theologians. Yet, that is why I think it mystic.

I use this word "mystic" here. Just what do I mean? For the present, I mean it in GKC's own sense, with a nod towards St. Francis of Assisi, St. Teresa of Avila, and St. Therese the Little Flower, and great souls like them, who see the commonplace in a utterly new way. This idea is so important - but let us hear GKC explain:
A verbal accident has confused the mystical with the mysterious. Mysticism is generally felt vaguely to be itself vague - a thing of clouds and curtains, of darkness or concealing vapours, of bewildering conspiracies or impenetrable symbols. Some quacks have indeed dealt in such things: but no true mystic ever loved darkness rather than light. No pure mystic ever loved mere mystery. The mystic does not bring doubts or riddles: the doubts and riddles exist already. We all feel the riddle of the earth without anyone to point it out. The mystery of life is the plainest part of it. The clouds and curtains of darkness, the confounding vapours, these are the daily weather of this world. Whatever else we have grown accustomed to, we have grown accustomed to the unaccountable. Every stone or flower is a hieroglyphic of which we have lost the key; with every step of our lives we enter into the middle of some story which we are certain to misunderstand. The mystic is not the man who makes mysteries but the man who destroys them. The mystic is one who offers an explanation which may be true or false, but which is always comprehensible - by which I mean, not that it is always comprehended, but that it always can be comprehended, because there is always something to comprehend.
[GKC William Blake 131]
Too long? As usual we find the same idea in GKC's fiction, here as an epigram on the lips of Father Brown:
Real mystics don't hide mysteries, they reveal them. They set a thing up in broad daylight, and when you've seen it it's still a mystery.
[GKC "The Arrow of Heaven" in The Incredulity of Father Brown]
That is what GKC is about to do. He is about to take some very well-known verses from the Bible, and apply once again his deep - and mystical - insights. This time, the verses deal directly with Jesus and with His passion, and so are rather a good way of preparing to enter into Lent.

(( click here when you are ready to proceed ))

Why did it take GKC so long to get to Christ? (You might as well ask why do I take so long to get to GKC in these postings? Hee hee.) Well, that's an interesting issue. Mainly because there's a lot of modern garbage to be cleared away so we can begin to talk with some reasonable effect. The tool called "common sense" is not very common, but our exercises on our journey have helped to restore this power to us. Moreover, this very next paragraph will contain another startling, mind-blowing "verbal firework" which you need to be able to consider - and not just shrug off...
Lastly, this truth is yet again true in the case of the common modern attempts to diminish or to explain away the divinity of Christ. The thing may be true or not; that I shall deal with before I end. But if the divinity is true it is certainly terribly revolutionary. That a good man may have his back to the wall is no more than we knew already; but that God could have his back to the wall is a boast for all insurgents for ever. Christianity is the only religion on earth that has felt that omnipotence made God incomplete. Christianity alone has felt that God, to be wholly God, must have been a rebel as well as a king. Alone of all creeds, Christianity has added courage to the virtues of the Creator. For the only courage worth calling courage must necessarily mean that the soul passes a breaking point - and does not break. In this indeed I approach a matter more dark and awful than it is easy to discuss; and I apologise in advance if any of my phrases fall wrong or seem irreverent touching a matter which the greatest saints and thinkers have justly feared to approach. But in that terrific tale of the Passion there is a distinct emotional suggestion that the author of all things (in some unthinkable way) went not only through agony, but through doubt. It is written, "Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God." [Mt 4:7 quoting Dt. 6:16] No; but the Lord thy God may tempt Himself; and it seems as if this was what happened in Gethsemane. In a garden Satan tempted man: [Gn 3] and in a garden God tempted God. [Mt 26:36-45, Mk 14:32-42, Lk 22:39-46] He passed in some superhuman manner through our human horror of pessimism. When the world shook and the sun was wiped out of heaven, it was not at the crucifixion, but at the cry from the cross: the cry which confessed that God was forsaken of God. [Mt 27:46 quoting Ps 22:1] And now let the revolutionists choose a creed from all the creeds and a god from all the gods of the world, carefully weighing all the gods of inevitable recurrence and of unalterable power. They will not find another god who has himself been in revolt. Nay (the matter grows too difficult for human speech), but let the atheists themselves choose a god. They will find only one divinity who ever uttered their isolation; only one religion in which God seemed for an instant to be an atheist.
Isn't that just awesome? Read it again, to get the full impact: "only one religion in which God seemed for an instant to be an atheist." Wow. GKC, the heretic-squared. What does it mean? It means, as GKC said, somehow "God, to be wholly God, must have been a rebel as well as a king".


We can of course go hunting in the Catena Aurea, in which Aquinas collected all the commentaries from the Church Fathers on the gospels, and see how these verses are explained. We have no doubt heard that this was part of the "expiation", of the "atonement" and we might understand - if that word "understanding" really can be said to apply to anything at all about the Passion. (Did St. Francis understand, even with the Stigmata?) It happened, and Mary and John and Mary Magdalen and the Roman guards and whole crowds saw it "because the place where Jesus was crucified was near to Jerusalem" [see Jn 19:20] But GKC suggests there is something we need to learn, something just as important, but in some sense more directly tied to our humanity, and not to the Passion in itself. (Note: this teaching on multiple levels is one of the great Chestertonian points on the Literary Style of our Lord, and needs its own study someday. See TEM CW2:305, 332 for more.) Here, GKC suggests, we need to learn that "Christianity has added courage to the virtues of the Creator. For the only courage worth calling courage must necessarily mean that the soul passes a breaking point - and does not break."

But this is what he said back in Heretics, and we ought to have those words by heart already: "But charity means pardoning what is unpardonable, or it is no virtue at all. Hope means hoping when things are hopeless, or it is no virtue at all. And faith means believing the incredible, or it is no virtue at all." [CW1:125]

You will note how cautious GKC is here. He knows he is doing something very unusual. But perhaps he also learned courage (in its true form of Fortitude, one of the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit) once he had converted to Catholicism (in 1922) - for afterwards (1925) he wrote more on this very scene, with no apology at all:
There were solitudes beyond where none shall follow. There were secrets in the inmost and invisible part of that drama that have no symbol in speech; or in any severance of a man from men. Nor is it easy for any words less stark and single-minded than those of the naked narrative even to hint at the horror of exaltation that lifted itself above the hill. Endless expositions have not come to the end of it, or even to the beginning. And if there be any sound that can produce a silence, we may surely be silent about the end and the extremity; when a cry was driven out of that darkness in words dreadfully distinct and dreadfully unintelligible, which man shall never understand in all the eternity they have purchased for him; and for one annihilating instant an abyss that is not for our thoughts had opened even in the unity of the absolute; and God had been forsaken of God.
[GKC The Everlasting Man CW2:344]
Yes, just as TEM gives us good meditation for Christmas, it gives excellent meditation for Lent. Read the Passion as you have never read it - and weep.

(Let us pause here for a bit.)

Now, let us proceed. We are nearly finished, and so, as usual, GKC gives a little summary.
These can be called the essentials of the old orthodoxy, of which the chief merit is that it is the natural fountain of revolution and reform; and of which the chief defect is that it is obviously only an abstract assertion. Its main advantage is that it is the most adventurous and manly of all theologies. Its chief disadvantage is simply that it is a theology. It can always be urged against it that it is in its nature arbitrary and in the air. But it is not so high in the air but that great archers spend their whole lives in shooting arrows at it - yes, and their last arrows; there are men who will ruin themselves and ruin their civilization if they may ruin also this old fantastic tale. This is the last and most astounding fact about this faith; that its enemies will use any weapon against it, the swords that cut their own fingers, and the firebrands that burn their own homes. Men who begin to fight the Church for the sake of freedom and humanity end by flinging away freedom and humanity if only they may fight the Church. This is no exaggeration; I could fill a book with the instances of it. Mr. Blatchford set out, as an ordinary Bible-smasher, to prove that Adam was guiltless of sin against God; in manoeuvring so as to maintain this he admitted, as a mere side issue, that all the tyrants, from Nero to King Leopold, were guiltless of any sin against humanity. I know a man who has such a passion for proving that he will have no personal existence after death that he falls back on the position that he has no personal existence now. He invokes Buddhism and says that all souls fade into each other; in order to prove that he cannot go to heaven he proves that he cannot go to Hartlepool. I have known people who protested against religious education with arguments against any education, saying that the child's mind must grow freely or that the old must not teach the young. I have known people who showed that there could be no divine judgment by showing that there can be no human judgment, even for practical purposes. They burned their own corn to set fire to the church; they smashed their own tools to smash it; any stick was good enough to beat it with, though it were the last stick of their own dismembered furniture. We do not admire, we hardly excuse, the fanatic who wrecks this world for love of the other. But what are we to say of the fanatic who wrecks this world out of hatred of the other? He sacrifices the very existence of humanity to the non-existence of God. He offers his victims not to the altar, but merely to assert the idleness of the altar and the emptiness of the throne. He is ready to ruin even that primary ethic by which all things live, for his strange and eternal vengeance upon some one who never lived at all.
Yes: every time one takes up tools or weapons to fight Christianity, he hurts himself and wrecks his tools long before he ever begins to harm her. It's the same principle I've quoted several times before: "No sceptics work sceptically; no fatalists work fatalistically; all without exception work on the principle that it is possible to assume what it is not possible to believe. No materialist who thinks his mind was made up for him, by mud and blood and heredity, has any hesitation in making up his mind. No sceptic who believes that truth is subjective has any hesitation about treating it as objective." [GKC St. Thomas Aquinas CW2:542-3]

You may be murmuring about this... or (more likely) you have heard murmurings about this, especially if you listen to the Media, or are going (or have been) to an "Institute of Higher Learning". Ah, it's an old murmur, because as we shall see, GKC quotes it in the final chapter - the short form is "Why cannot you take the truths and leave the doctrines?" [CW1:347] But just hold on. We are coming to the conclusion of this chapter, the second-last - and thus we are already "in the cadence" of the conclusion. GKC is setting up the question (which is really just a review, as you ought to know) so as to give the conclusion with greater force. And that is what I am trying to do as well:
And yet the thing hangs in the heavens unhurt. Its opponents only succeed in destroying all that they themselves justly hold dear. They do not destroy orthodoxy; they only destroy political and common courage sense. They do not prove that Adam was not responsible to God; how could they prove it? They only prove (from their premises) that the Czar is not responsible to Russia. They do not prove that Adam should not have been punished by God; they only prove that the nearest sweater should not be punished by men. With their oriental doubts about personality they do not make certain that we shall have no personal life hereafter; they only make certain that we shall not have a very jolly or complete one here. With their paralysing hints of all conclusions coming out wrong they do not tear the book of the Recording Angel; they only make it a little harder to keep the books of Marshall & Snelgrove. Not only is the faith the mother of all worldly energies, but its foes are the fathers of all worldly confusion. The secularists have not wrecked divine things; but the secularists have wrecked secular things, if that is any comfort to them. The Titans did not scale heaven; but they laid waste the world.
Some notes. We had the term "sweater" before: it means a a person who manages or employs workers at starvation wages for long hours (as in a sweatshop). Also, Americans can read "Walmart" or "Sears" for "Marshall & Snelgrove". The "Titans" were the primeval gods in ancient Greek mythology, children of Uranus (the god of heaven) and Gaea (the goddess of earth); they warred against the gods of Olympus but were themselves destroyed.

You may note the term "the thing" in the first sentence - that may be an early premonition of his eventual book The Thing where he studies Christianity and the Church in greater detail. Which may be a good thing (no pun). I was hunting for a quote I vaguely recall which reveals a little more about how Christianity might really be considered the religion of the Story, and I found this famous whine where someone or other complained about GKC's own work: "But why does Mr. Chesterton drag in his Roman Catholicism?" (Which might be said of some lesser writers also.)

This line comes in an important essay, very relevant to our present matter, especially as I had framed it last week, in the sense of a story. It is an entire chapter, rather short, but it must also go into the collection of reference works for some future study of "Story". It is the chapter called "On the Novel With a Purpose" in GKC's The Thing, CW3:225 et seq. Since he wrote that in 1929, it is phrased with "Catholicism" and not with the mere term "Christianity" - though of course GKC was always thinking in a very Catholic sense, rather like Newman, but we have no time for that matter just now. So please understand when I give you this excerpt, and see how it gives the same large sense:
A Catholic putting Catholicism into a novel, or a song, or a sonnet, or anything else, is not being a propagandist; he is simply being a Catholic. Everybody understands this about every other enthusiasm in the world. When we say that a poet's landscape and atmosphere are full of the spirit of England, we do not mean that he is necessarily conducting an Anti-German propaganda during the Great War. We mean that if he is really an English poet, his poetry cannot be anything but English. When we say that songs are full of the spirit of the sea, we do not mean that the poet is recruiting for the Navy or even trying to collect men for the merchant service. We mean that he loves the sea; and for that reason would like other people to love it. Personally, I am all for propaganda; and a great deal of what I write is deliberately propagandist. But even when it is not in the least propagandist, it will probably be full of the implications of my own religion; because that is what is meant by having a religion.

But then we've heard it here, back in the Elfland chapter: "I had always felt life first as a story: and if there is a story there is a story-teller." [CW1:264] And here I shall myself be heretic and state, perhaps mystically, that THAT is why the Creed attests per ipsum omnia facta sunt = "Through Him all things were made". Remember that line from GKC's Chaucer about how a poet is Maker? (Greek poieo = I make) Oh yes.

And there's other points, scattered throughout GKC's writing, which is why this study of Story is a big project: "The only two things that can satisfy the soul are a person and a story; and even a story must be about a person." [GKC "The Priest Of Spring" in A Miscellany of Men] "Literature must always revolve round loyalties; for a rudimentary psychological reason, which is simply the nature of narrative. You cannot tell a without the idea of pursuing a purpose and sticking to a point. You cannot tell a story without the idea of the Quest, the idea of the Vow; even if it be only the idea of the Wager." [GKC ILN July 15 1922 CW32:410] "Shakespeare enjoyed the old stories. He enjoyed them as tales are intended to be enjoyed. He liked reading them, as a man of imagination and intelligence to-day likes reading a good adventure story, or still more a good detective story. This is the one possibility that the Shakespearean critics never seem to entertain. Probably they are not simple enough, and therefore not imaginative enough, to know what that enjoyment is. They cannot read an adventure story, or indeed any story." [GKC ILN Oct 18 1919 CW31:549-50] "Cities are (like the Universe) for good or evil a very important, and therefore a very poetic, thing. If they suffer in any respect from a literary point of view, it is from the vastness of their claims, the multiplicity of their dues. There are more stories to be told about them than would go to make a new "Arabian Nights". There are more poems involved in their chronicles than any minor poet would dare to publish in one volume."[GKC "The Poetry of Cities" in Lunacy and Letters] "There is such a thing as a human story; and there is such a thing as the divine story which is also a human story; but there is no such thing as a Hegelian story or a Monist story or a relativist story or a determinist story; for every story, yes, even a penny dreadful or a cheap novelette, has something in it that belongs to our universe and not theirs. Every short story does truly begin with creation and end with a last judgment." [GKC TEM CW2:378-9]

And, at the risk of sounding like a political commentator (!) I shall conclude by giving you a nice piece of tough "meat", which is only verbal, and is actually meant for your Ash Wednesday fare:
I am more and more convinced that what is wanted nowadays is not optimism or pessimism, but a sort of reform that might more truly be called repentance. The reform of a State ought to be a thing more like the reform of a thief, which involves the admission that he has been a thief. We ought not to be merely inventing consolations, or even merely prophesying disasters; we ought, first and foremost, to be confessing our own very bad mistakes. It is easy enough to say that the world is getting better, by some mysterious thing called progress - which seems to mean providence without purpose. But it is almost as easy to say the world is getting worse, if we assume that it is only the younger generation that has just begun to make it worse. It is easy enough to say that the country is going to the dogs, if we are careful to identify the dogs with the puppies. What we need is not the assertion that other people are going to the dogs, but the confession that we ourselves have only just come back from the swine. We also are the younger generation, in the sense of being the Prodigal Son. As somebody said, there is such a thing as the Prodigal Father.

It is amazing how hard it is to get people to begin the story at this end, which is really the right end. There would be comparatively little harm in their anticipating progress in the future, if they were not so obstinate in insisting that there has always been progress in the past. We might almost believe that they were right in their prophecy if they would only admit that they had been wrong in their practice. As a fact, they have been very wrong indeed. Man in modern times has made some very big and very bad mistakes; and, if he would only say so, they might really be set reasonably right. Such a confession would be far more practical than the cosmic generalizations that are really no more than moods. It would not be optimism, because it would begin with the admission of evil. But neither would it be pessimism, for it would go on confidently to the achievement of good. We should purchase hope at the dreadful price of humility. But all thinkers and writers, of all political parties and philosophical sects, seem to shrink from this notion of admitting they are on the wrong road and getting back on to the right one. They are always trying to pretend, by hook or crook, that they are all on the same somewhat meandering road, and that they were right in going east yesterday, though they are right in going west to-day.
[GKC ILN Jul 8 1922 CW32:403-4]
Suggestive? I should hope so. But it ought to suggest something larger than any mere comment on some politician. No, it's more like Harry Potter telling Voldemort to try for remorse - a strange story indeed, when the hero tells his foe to repent. Do you not hear John the Baptist, the voice crying out in the desert?

Next week, in Lent, we shall begin to conclude as we enter into the final chapter of Orthodoxy.

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