Wednesday, July 21, 2010

un-Taylor-ing Chesterton

This is Christ for this age but also a Christ for all ages. Images of Jesus are historical and contextual, as are recitations of the gospel. Things are added and subtracted; there are differences in focues and emphasis. My opening quote from Chesterton is of help here. Chesterton wrote at a time when atheism was a sigificant and growing alternative to faith. The rise of scientific-rationalism, including new theories such as Darwin's evolutionary model, were undermining the already embattled Christian faith that Chesterton held. The gift Chesterton offers is the power of a new perspective. Rather than address issues of sin, salvation, and redemption, he appeals directly to the "atheistic" potential in the Jesus story, the singular moment in the Passion where a conversatio about atheism and God is a viable one. This is what I mean when I say that we must once again encode the message of Jesus.

In the present situation it seems that some are willing to change, rearrange, and rethink form, but there is little attention to changeof content in the presentation of the Christian message in teh postsecular. My sense is that it is the message, the very content, that which we present as being representative of Christian faith that is the one thing that needs to be revisited and re-encoded...But in some sense, as long as Christianity remains a vapor trail fo modern and premodern concepts about how the relation between the human and teh divine is achieved, Christian thinking will not contribute much to the matters at hand....The message needs to speak to our time, not times past. Chesterton made room for atheists at the foot of the cross, not by denying other realities of the story, but by isolating the very point of connection by which the potential for engagement might be effected.

Barry Taylor, Entertainment Theology, pp 209-210

And his quote of Chesterton's.

When the world shook and the sun was wiped out of heaven, it was not at the crucifixion, but at the very cry from the cross: the cry which confesses the God has forsaken God. And now let the revolutionists choose a creed from all the creeds and a gof from all the gods of the world...they will not find another god who has himself been in revolt...They will find...only one religion in which God seemed for an instant to be an atheist.
from Orthodoxy

As someone who has read a bit of Chesterton, and learned more than a bit from him, I rather immediately smelled (in a metaphorical sense) that something was wrong here. I recognized that quote, though it took me a bit to find in the text file of Orthodoxy that I have (courtesy of the Gutenberg Project), but I finally did. One note--since I am using a text file for the reference, I can't give you a page number, but I can say that the quote is in chapter VIII called The Romance of Orthodoxy.

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." 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: and in a garden God tempted God. 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. 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.

A couple of times in that paragraph, Chesterton admits that he is dealing with a difficult subject, and one time admits to thinking that he what he's writing may be taken wrong. I think Taylor is taking him wrong, whether by accident or not, I'll not venture to say my suspicions, except that some of his claims show a staggering ignorance of the book.

When, for example, Taylor says "Rather than address issues of sin, salvation, and redemption...", making it sound like Chesterton does no such thing, he only leads me to believe that he has never read Orthodoxy. If he had, he would likely have read things like this.

But I think this book may well start where our argument started-- in the neighbourhood of the mad-house. Modern masters of science are much impressed with the need of beginning all inquiry with a fact. The ancient masters of religion were quite equally impressed with that necessity. They began with the fact of sin--a fact as practical as potatoes. Whether or no man could be washed in miraculous waters, there was no doubt at any rate that he wanted washing. But certain religious leaders in London, not mere materialists, have begun in our day not to deny the highly disputable water, but to deny the indisputable dirt. Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved. Some followers of the Reverend R.J.Campbell, in their almost too fastidious spirituality, admit divine sinlessness, which they cannot see even in their dreams. But they essentially deny human sin, which they can see in the street. The strongest saints and the strongest sceptics alike took positive evil as the starting point of their argument. If it be true (as it certainly is) that a man can feel exquisite happiness in skinning a cat, then the religious philosopher can only draw one of two deductions. He must either deny the existence of God, as all atheists do; or he must deny the present union between God and man, as all Christians do. The new theologians seem to think it a highly rationalistic solution to deny the cat.
Chapter II

And concerning the idea that Christianity needs to keep up with the times, well, consider these.

An imbecile habit has arisen in modern controversy of saying that such and such a creed can be held in one age but cannot be held in another. Some dogma, we are told, was credible in the twelfth century, but is not credible in the twentieth. You might as well say that a certain philosophy can be believed on Mondays, but cannot be believed on Tuesdays. You might as well say of a view of the cosmos that it was suitable to half-past three, but not suitable to half-past four. What a man can believe depends upon his philosophy, not upon the clock or the century. If a man believes in unalterable natural law, he cannot believe in any miracle in any age. If a man believes in a will behind law, he can believe in any miracle in any age. Suppose, for the sake of argument, we are concerned with a case of thaumaturgic healing. A materialist of the twelfth century could not believe it any more than a materialist of the twentieth century. But a Christian Scientist of the twentieth century can believe it as much as a Christian of the twelfth century. It is simply a matter of a man's theory of things. Therefore in dealing with any historical answer, the point is not whether it was given in our time, but whether it was given in answer to our question. And the more I thought about when and how Christianity had come into the world, the more I felt that it had actually come to answer this question.
Chapter V

I have alluded to an unmeaning phrase to the effect that such and such a creed cannot be believed in our age. Of course, anything can be believed in any age. But, oddly enough, there really is a sense in which a creed, if it is believed at all, can be believed more fixedly in a complex society than in a simple one. If a man finds Christianity true in Birmingham, he has actually clearer reasons for faith than if he had found it true in Mercia. For the more complicated seems the coincidence, the less it can be a coincidence. If snowflakes fell in the shape, say, of the heart of Midlothian, it might be an accident. But if snowflakes fell in the exact shape of the maze at Hampton Court, I think one might call it a miracle. It is exactly as of such a miracle that I have since come to feel of the philosophy of Christianity. The complication of our modern world proves the truth of the creed more perfectly than any of the plain problems of the ages of faith. It was in Notting Hill and Battersea that I began to see that Christianity was true. This is why the faith has that elaboration of doctrines and details which so much distresses those who admire Christianity without believing in it.
Chapter VI

This is the thrilling romance of Orthodoxy. People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy. It was sanity: and to be sane is more dramatic than to be mad. It was the equilibrium of a man behind madly rushing horses, seeming to stoop this way and to sway that, yet in every attitude having the grace of statuary and the accuracy of arithmetic. The Church in its early days went fierce and fast with any warhorse; yet it is utterly unhistoric to say that she merely went mad along one idea, like a vulgar fanaticism. She swerved to left and right, so exactly as to avoid enormous obstacles. She left on one hand the huge bulk of Arianism, buttressed by all the worldly powers to make Christianity too worldly. The next instant she was swerving to avoid an orientalism, which would have made it too unworldly. The orthodox Church never took the tame course or accepted the conventions; the orthodox Church was never respectable. It would have been easier to have accepted the earthly power of the Arians. It would have been easy, in the Calvinistic seventeenth century, to fall into the bottomless pit of predestination. It is easy to be a madman: it is easy to be a heretic. It is always easy to let the age have its head; the difficult thing is to keep one's own. It is always easy to be a modernist; as it is easy to be a snob. To have fallen into any of those open traps of error and exaggeration which fashion after fashion and sect after sect set along the historic path of Christendom--that would indeed have been simple. It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands. To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame. But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect.
Chapter VI

I could go on; indeed, I consider much of Chesterton's writings to have in some sense refuted much of the egotistical nonsense of postmodernism long before posmodernism was born. I think I'll leave it for now, though, with this last quote.

Religious authority has often, doubtless, been oppressive or unreasonable; just as every legal system (and especially our present one) has been callous and full of a cruel apathy. It is rational to attack the police; nay, it is glorious. But the modern critics of religious authority are like men who should attack the police without ever having heard of burglars. For there is a great and possible peril to the human mind: a peril as practical as burglary. Against it religious authority was reared, rightly or wrongly, as a barrier. And against it something certainly must be reared as a barrier, if our race is to avoid ruin.

That peril is that the human intellect is free to destroy itself. Just as one generation could prevent the very existence of the next generation, by all entering a monastery or jumping into the sea, so one set of thinkers can in some degree prevent further thinking by teaching the next generation that there is no validity in any human thought. It is idle to talk always of the alternative of reason and faith. Reason is itself a matter of faith. It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all. If you are merely a sceptic, you must sooner or later ask yourself the question, "Why should ANYTHING go right; even observation and deduction? Why should not good logic be as misleading as bad logic? They are both movements in the brain of a bewildered ape?" The young sceptic says, "I have a right to think for myself." But the old sceptic, the complete sceptic, says, "I have no right to think for myself. I have no right to think at all."

There is a thought that stops thought. That is the only thought that ought to be stopped. That is the ultimate evil against which all religious authority was aimed. It only appears at the end of decadent ages like our own: and already Mr. H.G.Wells has raised its ruinous banner; he has written a delicate piece of scepticism called "Doubts of the Instrument." In this he questions the brain itself, and endeavours to remove all reality from all his own assertions, past, present, and to come. But it was against this remote ruin that all the military systems in religion were originally ranked and ruled. The creeds and the crusades, the hierarchies and the horrible persecutions were not organized, as is ignorantly said, for the suppression of reason. They were organized for the difficult defence of reason. Man, by a blind instinct, knew that if once things were wildly questioned, reason could be questioned first.
Chapter III (aptly named The Suicide of Thought)

If, as Taylor claims, Chesterton was trying to make "... room for atheists at the foot of the cross", he was not doing so in order that the atheist should remain an atheist; rather, Orthodoxy was to a large degree an account of his own move from atheism to Christianity, and he spends quite a few of his very long paragraphs showing the contradictions of the things atheists say against Christianity. He certainly wasn't interested in pretending that the atheist could remain an atheist and be a Christian, which seems to be quite the fashion today.

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