Saturday, September 25, 2010

Heresies and Humanity

Atheism is, I suppose, the supreme example of a simple faith. The man says there is no God; if he really says it in his heart, he is a certain sort of man so designated in Scripture. But, anyhow, when he has said it, he has said it; and there seems to be no more to be said. The conversation seems likely to languish. The truth is that the atmosphere of excitement, by which the atheist lived, was an atmosphere of thrilled and shuddering theism, and not of atheism at all; it was an atmosphere of defiance and not of denial. Irreverence is a very servile parasite of reverence; and has starved with its starving lord. After this first fuss about the merely atheistic effect of blasphemy, the whole thing vanishes into its own void. If there were no God, there would be no atheists.

Where all Roads Lead, 1922

Is atheism a faith? Anyone who has spent any time listening to debates on religion is probably sick of the question. Atheists and secularists react with hand-waving indignation when accused of having their own dogma. They claim that it's a cheap trick by the believer to turn the tables on them; that they also have beliefs, but beliefs based on proof and empirical verification, and which are always open to revision; and the only reason they pay so much attention to religion is because religion imposes on them and their lives.

It's a fair argument, but I don't think anybody is really convinced. That kind of sober atheism-- one which is a simple refusal to believe in divinity, and doesn't come with any other baggage-- barely seems to exist in the world. We seem to be faced with a choice between religion and anti-religion. Atheism usually comes with a whole corpus of non-scientific belief; support for human rights (whatever they are supposed to derive from), for the scientific method as a duty as much as a tool, for the transcendental importance of knowledge and discovery, for a faith in human progress. Atheism does not demand faith, to be sure. But it usually comes with it.

The funny thing is, the faith of atheists is their most endearing trait-- at least, it is to me. For them, the refracted light of the sacred shines upon science and social change. Well, at least they have retained a need for the sacred and the sublime, even if they relocate it to the Hubble telescope- what Freud would term the return of the repressed.

In the same way, communists and socialists have often been accused of a dreary materialism, an inhuman attachment to dialectic. That, of course, is poppycock. Nobody is more romantic than a Trotskyist. She might hotly deny being a romantic; but who can doubt that she is stirred by the exhilaration of revolution, of renunciation, of faith in the messianic mission of the proletariat?

I knew a communist who complained about people working on May first. I didn't have the gall to ask her if Labour Day should be kept sacred. But it seemed rather ridiculous to me that a materialist would attach such importance to ceremonial, to tradition.

Ridiculous-- but also, strangely redeeming. Real, sober socialism is a hateful thing. But the cult of socialism-- singing The Red Flag, calling each other comrade, waving hammer and sickle banners, Che Guevera t-shirts-- who can resist a certain fondness for all those trappings? As Chesterton wrote in Heretics: "I myself, to take a corpus vile, am very certain that I would not read the works of Comte through for any consideration whatever. But I can easily imagine myself with the greatest enthusiasm lighting a bonfire on Darwin Day."

Monday, September 20, 2010

Alfred and the Cakes

And the earth shook and the King stood still
Under the greenwood bough
And the smoking cake lay at his feet
And the blow was on his brow.

Then Alfred laughed out suddenly,
Like thunder in the spring,
Till shook aloud the lintel-beams,
And the squirrels stirred in dusty dreams,
And the startled birds went up in streams,
For the laughter of the King.

And the beasts of the earth and the birds looked down,
In a wild solemnity,
On a stranger sight than a sylph or elf,
On one man laughing at himself
Under the greenwood tree--

The giant laughter of Christian men
That roars through a thousand tales,
Where greed is an ape and pride is an ass,
And Jack's away with his master's lass,
And the miser is banged with all his brass,
The farmer with all his flails;

Tales that tumble and tales that trick,
Yet end not all in scorning--
Of kings and clowns in a merry plight,
And the clock gone wrong and the world gone right,
That the mummers sing upon Christmas night
And Christmas Day in the morning.

From "The Ballad of the White Horse"

Chesterton's poetry is of uneven quality (but then, couldn't you say the same about even the greatest poets, such as Tennyson and Wordsworth)? But now and again he soared, and I think the last three lines of this extract are as fine as any in the language.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Chestertonian Exercises

It is a good exercise, in empty or ugly hours of the day, to look at anything, the coal-scuttle or the book-case, and think how happy one could be to have brought it out of the sinking ship on to the solitary island. But it is a better exercise still to remember how all things have had this hair-breadth escape: everything has been saved from a wreck. (Orthodoxy)

So I do not think that it is altogether fanciful or incredible to suppose that even the floods in London may be accepted and enjoyed poetically. Nothing beyond inconvenience seems really to have been caused by them; and inconvenience, as I have said, is only one aspect, and that the most unimaginative and accidental aspect of a really romantic situation. An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered. The water that girdled the houses and shops of London must, if anything, have only increased their previous witchery and wonder. For as the Roman Catholic priest in the story said: "Wine is good with everything except water," and on a similar principle, water is good with everything except wine. (On Running After One's Hat, All Things Considered)

"They don't know they're born". What a poetic saying that is, and how much it applies to us all! One of Chesterton's most common themes-- and a central theme of Christianity, of course-- is the need for perpetual rebirth and renewal. We have to remind ourselves constantly that we are born-- we have to fan the flame of wonder and gratitude in our own souls.

Here are some of my own mental exercises in doing just that:

If you are walking down a city street, imagine how much you would like to walk down the same street a hundred or two hundred years ago, or a hundred years in the future, and pretend you are a time traveller visiting our own day. This is the temporal equivalent to being a tourist at home. Remember that every day is a unique, unrepeatable moment in time-- and what a strange idea that really is.

Imagine you have no shoes, or are in one of those dreams where you’re wearing no trousers (yes, I’ve had them), or that you’re trapped on a bitterly cold day without adequate clothing. Feel what a wonderful thing it is to be clothed and warm.

Think of the fresh air that you breathe, that surrounds you at every moment, and drink it in.

Look at the shops around you and imagine that conglomeration had advanced so far that all small businesses had been swallowed up by one or two retail giants. Imagine a whole street of Tesco. Then thank God for all the different shop signs in your field of vision.

Imagine everybody could hear everybody else’s thoughts, and enjoy the delicious cosiness of having your own mental retreat.

If you are a man, look at a passing woman and reflect how strange it is to share a world with such beings—as though unicorns and fairies were to be seen out every window. As Chesterton put it in Orthodoxy: I could never mix in the common murmur of that rising generation against monogamy, because no restriction on sex seemed so odd and unexpected as sex itself.

If you are young, or middle-aged, look at an old person and think of the world they carry around in their memories—one that is as inaccessible to us as Homer’s Greece. Honour them as “a traveller from an antique land”.

Listen to the accents being spoken around you, and reflect on the fact that every region on Earth has its own unique way of speaking. Isn’t it odd? And isn’t it amazing?

Look at the old buildings around you, and think how dramatically satisfying it is that new stories are played out on the same stage—new stories, linked to the old ones. Think how extraordinary it is that we know of the lives that have passed before our own. As G.M. Trevelyan wrote: The poetry of history lies in the quasi-miraculous fact that once, on this familiar spot of ground, walked other men and women, as actual as we are today, thinking their own thoughts, swayed by their own passion, but now all gone, one generation vanishing after another, gone as utterly as we ourselves shall shortly be gone like ghosts at cock-crow."

Listen to the chatter around you—going on everywhere, all the time, without cessation—and think how marvellous it is that there is always something happening. New things happen every day, in every office and home and alley. I can easily imagine a world where life scated along on the tram-tracks of utter monotony. Anyone who thinks this is true of this world is projecting.

And so on. And so on. And so on.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Father Trendy

The Irish bishops' pastorals, from 1978 onwards, also emphasised justice as the primary virtue, although it is most infrequently invoked in the New Testament. The TrĂ³caire agency, widely supported by the clergy and the hierarchy, was set up to aid the poor in Third World countries, displaying a distinctly Marxist flavour in its crusades. Gone was the time when "Ireland's Spiritual Empire" emphasised the saving of souls and the need to bring Christ to the pagan world...In the left-wing, politicised Irish Catholic approach of the 1980's, spirituality did not seem to come into it any more. The agenda was to oppose the "Right".

I can vividly remember the atmosphere of which Mary Kenny complains in this passage from her excellent book (which I highly recommend). Of course, recourse to the words of the New Testament or "what Jesus said" are a favourite tactic of those attacking Church teaching-- as though everybody could interpret Scripture infallibly, and as though such "common sense" exegesis hadn't already caused war after war, schism after schism. It must also be added that, by the 1980's, the Irish had less need of bringing Christ to Africa than of getting Christ from Africa-- as the presence of so many African priests in Ireland proves.

But the general point, I think is, is a fair one (and Kenny's book is fair-minded throughout). The same situation seems to obtain in America, a point that has been made by Edward Feser here.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

(Christmas) Thoughts out of Season

There is nothing really wrong with the whole modern world except that it does not fit in with Christmas. The modern world will have to fit in with Christmas or die. Those who will not rejoice in the end of the year must be condemned to lament it. We must accept the New Year as a new fact; we must be born again. No kind of culture or literary experience can save him who entirely refuses this cold bath of winter ecstasy. No poetry can be appreciated by him who cannot appreciate the mottoes in the crackers. No log-rolling can rescue him who will not roll the Yule-log. Christmas is like death and child-birth—a test of our simple virtue; and there is no other such test left in our land to-day.

"The Wrong Books at Christmas", Illustrated London News, January 9, 1909

This is one of my favourite Chesterton passages (and, as you can probably guess, that's saying a lot). I have often reflected that everything that's best about life is compressed into the festival of Christmas-- and the spirit of Christmas seems indestructible, despite all commercialization and secularization. (Speaking of the wrong books at Christmas, you can even buy an Atheist's Guide to Christmas for that special person in your life who believes that all purpose, meaning, morality and beauty are phantoms of the human brain.)

Why do people neglect (or even repudiate), for fifty weeks of the year, the very things they celebrate so eagerly in its final fortnight? When the Guardian reader hangs baubles on his Christmas tree, doesn't it occur to him that tradition, custom and ritual are joyous and life-enhancing things-- that he might be missing something in not standing to his country's national anthem, in not drinking toasts to the Queen? When the punk rock fan feels his heart glow to the strains of "Hark the Herald Angels Sing", doesn't he ever consider that all the nihilism and anger on his mp3-player are dull and superficial compared to such reverence? When the cynic finds himself anxious that his children will believe in Santa Claus, doesn't he become aware of the morbidity in his own soul? Why aren't all men traditionalists, since all men love Christmas?

Christmas is the one time of the year when we let ourselves act like children-- when we let ourselves take intense and unabashed pleasure in the simplest of things, like a string of tinsel. In a disenchanted world-- a world with apparently little concern for tradition, custom, ritual, innocence, reverence and festival-- it is the one enclave of enchantment. Or as Chesterton puts it in the same article:

But if ever a faith is firmly founded again, it will be at least interesting to notice those few things that have bridged the gulf, that stood firm when faith was lost, and were still standing when it was found again. Of these really interesting things one, in all probability, will be the English celebration of Christmas. Father Christmas was with us when the fairies departed; and please God he will still be with us when the gods return.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Beaconsfield beckons

Some very exciting news from Chesterton's home country:

A one-day conference relating to the life and writings of Gilbert Keith Chesterton will be held at the Borlase Hall of St. Teresa’s Catholic Church in Beaconsfield Sat 9th October, and will include top academics and writers who have studied him and owe a particular debt to this great man.

Particular emphasis will be given to ‘Newman and Chesterton’ in this great year of the Beatification of John Henry Newman with talks on the subject by Newman’s definitive biographer Rev. Dr. Ian Ker, and also from the Chairman of the Chesterton Society and author of the most recent Chesterton biography, Dr. William Oddie.

A further paper will cover ‘Distributism’ a much misunderstood “eccentricity” which inspired a break in thought from the manacles of capitalism and socialism by Russell Sparkes author of Prophet of Orthodoxy: The Wisdom of G.K. Chesterton.Martine Thompson, doctoral student at Heythrop, the specialist philosophy and theology college of the University of London, will present the final paper of the day on Chesterton’s view of sanctity and St. Francis.

Further information can be had from or Sounds like a treat for any Chestertonian!

(I now realise that Beaconsfield isn't in London and have changed the post title accordingly!)