Thursday, March 05, 2009

Pagan Gods in Your Kitchen, and Christ's Literary Style

One of the more curious things about being a computer scientist - something that germinated for me in the dim mists of grade or high school - is a delight in language, be it human (like Latin, or Greek, or Egyptian hieroglyphics) or the powerful notation of music, or of mathematics. And every Chestertonian ought to have this delight in his backpack - when you have it you can never be bored, as any word at all will provide untold enthusiasm for you, even if you know very little of any other language:
I myself have little Latin and less Greek. But I know enough Greek to know the meaning of the second syllable of "enthusiasm," and I know it to be the key to this and every other discussion.
[GKC The Thing CW3:139]
The second syllable of enthusiasm comes from the Greek word QeoV, "Theos" which means "God".

In the delightful story called The Haunted Bookshop by Christopher Morley, you will find two mentions of GKC. One of them you will find on a card, pinned prominently by the entrance, in the list of suggestions for books to explore. You will also find this:
One who loves the English tongue can have a lot of fun with a Latin dictionary.
And you can. I have Lewis and Short for Latin, and for Greek I have Liddell and Scott. (See here for an example!) For today, I wish to mention two words, one Latin, one Egyptian, to start us on our journey.

Somewhere or other I read a book which examined the sources of various English words. One of the more curious lists was the words arising from ancient Egyptian, which is a bit surprising to think is still around. But one of the words is rather common, and its variants often come up in chemistry. And you may be a bit shocked to realize that you may have something in your kitchen named for an Egyptian god! Actually, it's very likely you also have something there which is named for a Roman goddess. Yes, even very deeply religious Christians might possess - and use - these things. It's very funny.

But you need not call in a priest to do an exorcism. These things are worn-down names, not old pagan worship items.
The name of the Egyptian god "Ammun" or "Amon" is repeated in the chemical and cleaning fluid "ammonia" (and in related words like "amino acid"). Why? Because a kind of white powdery stuff like salt was found near a temple of Ammon, so they called it "Ammun's salt", or "sal ammoniac" - which is the chemical we know as ammonium chloride, NH4Cl.

The name of the Roman fertility goddess "Ceres" appears in the breakfast food called "cereal". Why? Because she was worshipped as the goddess of grains, who fructified the wheat (the "cereal" crops).

In today's excerpt, we shall hear about another pagan topic, larger than cereal or ammonia, and quite a bit harder to discuss. GKC provides this, his third example, against the argument of the outsider against Christianity. And despite its largeness, and rather paradoxical character, we shall not stop there. We shall hear GKC's elegant summary, the form of which provides (as I mentioned previously) the great master outline of his 1925 masterwork, The Everlasting Man. But - and the pace is getting faster now - we shall hear GKC immediately propose three more challenges from his opponent! (Remember, the Scholastic method is to know your opponent's argument perfectly - and then respond.) We shall see two of them today. And in the first, you will hear some very startling insights about Jesus Christ, not found in typical bible study texts, and which are treated at greater length in The Everlasting Man... Yes, in particular you will hear GKC, a master of words, consider the literary style of the Word Made Flesh. Once before I said GKC was a heretic - between this stuff about pagans and this even more startling stuff about Christ, maybe you won't want to read any more. Then get out the ammonia and sterilize your keyboard, pour yourself a bowl of cereal and go back to sleep...

(( Otherwise, when you wish to be surprised, click here... ))

We begin with the third of GKC's instances of the outsider's complaints against Christianity, in which we shall consider one of life's chief paradoxes. (I told you before that the paradoxes are NOT made by Chesterton; he merely records them.) It is the idea of how Christianity preserves the festive, party-like fun of paganism. It is quite in keeping with Lent, which dignifies both the fast as well as the feast, by putting them together sensibly, not as the common medically sanctioned diet, or the strange hypercontrol of the typical sports regimen. GKC's short treatment gives us one of his most well-known (and hard to find) vignettes, the famous "Christianity as kids in a playground" scene:
And if we took the third chance instance, it would be the same; the view that priests darken and embitter the world. I look at the world and simply discover that they don't. Those countries in Europe which are still influenced by priests, are exactly the countries where there is still singing and dancing and coloured dresses and art in the open-air. Catholic doctrine and discipline may be walls; but they are the walls of a playground. Christianity is the only frame which has preserved the pleasure of Paganism. We might fancy some children playing on the flat grassy top of some tall island in the sea. So long as there was a wall round the cliff's edge they could fling themselves into every frantic game and make the place the noisiest of nurseries. But the walls were knocked down, leaving the naked peril of the precipice. They did not fall over; but when their friends returned to them they were all huddled in terror in the centre of the island; and their song had ceased.
It would be the work of a book to treat the deep philosophical point GKC made: the idea that Law and Rule produce freedom and liberty! (I told you GKC didn't make these paradoxes.) GKC's short story "The Yellow Bird" in The Poet and the Lunatics is an entire parable about the idea; it contains this succinct definition:
What exactly is liberty? First and foremost, surely, it is the power of a thing to be itself.
And in the one big topic which everyone seems to think is the only human activity worth pursuing (and which Dorothy Sayers makes a joke about, as if the Church condemns it alone!) - you know what I mean... I shall not use the explicit word myself, but you'll see it shortly when I quote GKC. It is a vast and very important matter, sometimes considered proper only for "mature" or "adult" audiences - and in a manner of speaking, it is something Pagan that the Church preserves.... No pagan who worshipped Ceres or the other gods and goddesses of Fertility had any doubt just what was desired... it was, after all, what God commanded in Eden: "Be fruitful and multiply." And, at the risk of touching on very well-known but sensitive and secret matters (see ILN Aug 10 1907 CW27:524), I shall quote GKC at length, for it is of grave concern to us in our day:
In one way all this ancient sin was infinitely superior, immeasurably superior, to the modern sin. All those who write of it at least agree on one fact; that it was the cult of Fruitfulness. It was unfortunately too often interwoven, very closely, with the cult of the fruitfulness of the land. It was at least on the side of Nature. It was at least on the side of Life. It has been left to the last Christians, or rather to the first Christians fully committed to blaspheming and denying Christianity, to invent a new kind of worship of Sex, which is not even a worship of Life. It has been left to the very latest Modernists to proclaim an erotic religion which at once exalts lust and forbids fertility. The new Paganism literally merits the reproach of Swinburne, when mourning for the old Paganism: "and rears not the bountiful token and spreads not the fatherly feast." The new priests abolish the fatherhood and keep the feast - to themselves. They are worse than Swinburne's Pagans. The priests of Priapus and Cotytto go into the kingdom of heaven before them.
[GKC The Well and the Shallows CW3:501-2, emphasis added; that last sentence is paraphrasing Mt 21:31]
It is strange that both celibate clergy and big Catholic families are criticized by those who have abandoned the duties of matrimony, but not its privileges. (If you want to hear more from GKC on this, see the volume I just quoted, also Eugenics and Other Evils in CW4.)

Serious stuff, yes. But remember, we were just dealing with one example - what we might call how "Christianity baptised the pagan life" and we have now finished. As usual, then, GKC reviews:
Thus these three facts of experience, such facts as go to make an agnostic, are, in this view, turned totally round. I am left saying, "Give me an explanation, first, of the towering eccentricity of man among the brutes; second, of the vast human tradition of some ancient happiness; third, of the partial perpetuation of such pagan joy in the countries of the Catholic Church." One explanation, at any rate, covers all three: the theory that twice was the natural order interrupted by some explosion or revelation such as people now call "psychic." Once Heaven came upon the earth with a power or seal called the image of God, whereby man took command of Nature; and once again (when in empire after empire men had been found wanting) Heaven came to save mankind in the awful shape of a man. This would explain why the mass of men always look backwards; and why the only corner where they in any sense look forwards is the little continent where Christ has His Church. I know it will be said that Japan has become progressive. But how can this be an answer when even in saying "Japan has become progressive," we really only mean, "Japan has become European"? But I wish here not so much to insist on my own explanation as to insist on my original remark. I agree with the ordinary unbelieving man in the street in being guided by three or four odd facts all pointing to something; only when I came to look at the facts I always found they pointed to something else.
In that paragraph, in the line beginning "twice was the natural order" we hear the master outline for The Everlasting Man, which he divides into two: "Part One, On the Creature Called Man" and "Part Two On the Man Called Christ".

(An aside, about Japan. Let no one misread this. GKC is NOT harping against Japan. I might call your attention to the topic our esteemed bloggmistress recently researched, about GKC and Gandhi. As in the case of India, GKC thinks Japan is better being Japanese, not as a mere pretence of a colony of some other country. But you can find more about all this elsewhere.)

In the last sentence, GKC applies a very important strategy of Scholastic argument, which (as we know) is merely the pursuit of truth. It doesn't quite have a name (or if it does I don't know it) but when it fails the rebuttal is Non ad rem - "Not to the thing [under discussion]". It's like that famous order from "Star Wars": "Stay on target!" Chesterton heard someone raise a complaint, so he looked into the issue, and then replied "Non ad rem". They were WAY off target. No cigar.

Now that we've seen GKC's treatment, we might expect to advance. But this is a wonderful tool, and it worked so well... but his opponents are still after him! So, he will come right back. Let's see how well we can do with three more challenges:
I have given an imaginary triad of such ordinary anti-Christian arguments; if that be too narrow a basis I will give on the spur of the moment another. These are the kind of thoughts which in combination create the impression that Christianity is something weak and diseased. First, for instance, that Jesus was a gentle creature, sheepish and unworldly, a mere ineffectual appeal to the world; second, that Christianity arose and flourished in the dark ages of ignorance, and that to these the Church would drag us back; third, that the people still strongly religious or (if you will) superstitious - such people as the Irish - are weak, unpractical, and behind the times. I only mention these ideas to affirm the same thing: that when I looked into them independently I found, not that the conclusions were unphilosophical, but simply that the facts were not facts. ...
I break the paragraph here so you can make your own attempt at answering. It might be fun for you to try... but more likely you'll prefer to see how GKC does it.

Also, I broke off so as to put the first question into its own little light, as you shall see. I leave all my footnotes in, just in case you want to check the verses he alludes to. (N.B. they are mine, not his; I hope they are accurate.) And now, got your Bible in hand? Here we go!
... Instead of looking at books and pictures about the New Testament I looked at the New Testament. There I found an account, not in the least of a person with his hair parted in the middle or his hands clasped in appeal, but of an extraordinary being with lips of thunder and acts of lurid decision, flinging down tables [Jn 2:15], casting out devils [e.g. Mk 1:25, 5:8, 9:25], passing with the wild secrecy of the wind from mountain isolation to a sort of dreadful demagogy [Lk 6:12-17]; a being who often acted like an angry god - and always like a god. Christ had even a literary style of his own, not to be found, I think, elsewhere; it consists of an almost furious use of the a fortiori. His "how much more" [e.g. Lk 12:28] is piled one upon another like castle upon castle in the clouds. The diction used about Christ has been, and perhaps wisely, sweet and submissive. But the diction used by Christ is quite curiously gigantesque; it is full of camels leaping through needles [Mt 19:24, Mk 10:25, Lk 18:25] and mountains hurled into the sea [Mt 21:21, Mk 11:23]. Morally it is equally terrific; he called himself a sword of slaughter, [Mt 10:34] and told men to buy swords if they sold their coats for them. [Lk 22:36] That he used other even wilder words on the side of non-resistance [Mt 5:39] greatly increases the mystery; but it also, if anything, rather increases the violence. We cannot even explain it by calling such a being insane; for insanity is usually along one consistent channel. The maniac is generally a monomaniac. Here we must remember the difficult definition of Christianity already given; Christianity is a superhuman paradox whereby two opposite passions may blaze beside each other. The one explanation of the Gospel language that does explain it, is that it is the survey of one who from some supernatural height beholds some more startling synthesis.
You really need to pause here, and give thanks. It is so wonderful. It's almost as if we got a chance to peek at the answers in the back of the book...

And, I expect you may want more. You can find it in The Everlasting Man, in its second part - here's just a tiny taste:
Even in the matter of mere literary style, if we suppose ourselves thus sufficiently detached to look at it in that light, there is a curious quality to which no critic seems to have done justice. It had among other things a singular air of piling tower upon tower by the use of the a fortiori; making a pagoda of degrees like the seven heavens.
[GKC The Everlasting Man CW2:332]
The Latin "a fortiori" means "with the greater force", "all the more". But that is all an aside, and an advertisement for future work. Please go back and read our excerpt again. If there was no other mention of Jesus Christ elsewhere in Orthodoxy, this one paragraph stamps it unmistakably as "Authentically Christian". Have you ever heard such daring? Have you ever speculated - as honorably, and as accurately - as this, about our Lord? And it is not simple speculation, nor simple analysis. It is very plain, as plain and as fair a series of remarks as one might make about a friend, a parent, a benefactor... or a God. Read it again, and then the next time you hear or read any part of the Gospel, recall what GKC said, and consider it in the same way. You will find Jesus comes closer to you - I mean, you will find yourself drawn closer to Jesus. This is why... but I cannot go into that today.

And that was just one little paragraph - part of a paragraph - in a trio of examples. Let us see the next, one which might get people riled. (If I didn't rile someone with pagan deities or with literary criticism of Jesus, well, maybe you're asleep.) I mean - hey - the Dark Ages, honestly! Let's go:
I take in order the next instance offered: the idea that Christianity belongs to the Dark Ages. Here I did not satisfy myself with reading modern generalisations; I read a little history. And in history I found that Christianity, so far from belonging to the Dark Ages, was the one path across the Dark Ages that was not dark. It was a shining bridge connecting two shining civilizations. If any one says that the faith arose in ignorance and savagery the answer is simple: it didn't. It arose in the Mediterranean civilization in the full summer of the Roman Empire. The world was swarming with sceptics, and pantheism was as plain as the sun, when Constantine nailed the cross to the mast. It is perfectly true that afterwards the ship sank; but it is far more extraordinary that the ship came up again: repainted and glittering, with the cross still at the top. This is the amazing thing the religion did: it turned a sunken ship into a submarine. The ark lived under the load of waters; after being buried under the debris of dynasties and clans, we arose and remembered Rome. If our faith had been a mere fad of the fading empire, fad would have followed fad in the twilight, and if the civilization ever re-emerged (and many such have never re-emerged) it would have been under some new barbaric flag. But the Christian Church was the last life of the old society and was also the first life of the new. She took the people who were forgetting how to make an arch and she taught them to invent the Gothic arch. In a word, the most absurd thing that could be said of the Church is the thing we have all heard said of it. How can we say that the Church wishes to bring us back into the Dark Ages? The Church was the only thing that ever brought us out of them.
Science. Medicine. Hospitals. Universities. Nations. All these were began or rebuilt or vastly enlarged in that era. (Far, far more on this another time and place, but start with Jaki's Science and Creation chapter 10 if you want more now.) This topic also is considered at length and with larger scope in the second part of The Everlasting Man. Consider just a sample:
I have said that Asia and the ancient world had an air of being too old to die. Christendom has had the very opposite fate. Christendom has had a series of revolutions and in each one of them Christianity has died. Christianity has died many times and risen again; for it had a god who knew the way out of the grave. But the first extraordinary fact which marks this history is this: that Europe has been turned upside down over and over again; and that at the end of each of these revolutions the same religion has again been found on top. The Faith is always converting the age, not as an old religion but as a new religion.
[GKC The Everlasting Man CW2:382]
What a great thing to put on a tombstone:

"My God knows the way out of the grave."

Oh yes. And that's what Lent and Easter is all about, Charlie Brown.

But read it for yourself. Again you will be surprised.

Next time we shall hear GKC respond to the third challenge...


  1. I am very excited (in my optimistic moments) to see what miracle Christianity works to resurrect our currently dying culture. It will naturally take a form the world has not seen.

  2. !!!!!!

    (That's an addendum to Lindisfarne's comment)

  3. "I have Lewis and Short for Latin, and for Greek I have Liddell and Scott."

    You have a Lewis & Short?!

    --Just Plain Jealous ;-)


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