Saturday, May 28, 2011

From the Resurrection of Rome

What is to be done with the dingy and inky little people who laboriously prove to us that Christianity (if they are atheists) or Catholicism (if they are Protestants) is “only” a rehash of Paganism or borrowed its ideas from the Pagans? A man standing here in Rome is reduced to silence; he can only answer that such stupidity is stupefying. It is rather as if somebody said that Science may pretend to be independent, but it has really stolen all its facts from Nature; or that Protestants professed to be Christians, and yet filched things from the sacred books of the Jews. Science boasts of being based on Nature; and Protestants, when they were Protestants, boasted of being based on the Bible. Christian Rome boasts of being based on Pagan Rome; of surmounting and transcending, but also of preserving it. From the thousand carven throats of the city, from the hollow wreathing horns of the Tritons, from the golden mouths of the trumpets, from the jaws of flamboyant lions and the lips of rhetorical attitudinising statues, from everything that can be imagined to speak or testify, there is as it were one solid silent roar of exultation and victory: “We have saved Old Rome; we have resurrected Old Rome; we have resurrected Pagan Rome;, save that it is more Roman for not being Pagan”. There is no question of hiding the connection between the two epochs; the new epoch emphasises every point at which it touches the old. Nearly every Christian Church is carefully built on the site of a Pagan temple. In one place it distinguishes a particular church by combining the name of Maria with that of Minerva. In another place it preserves the seven niches of the Pagan Planets for seven corresponding Christian Saints. Up on the rock of the Ara Coeli the little broken altar of the temple of Augustus is carefully preserved, like a relic, inside the larger Christian building; that men may remember how even a heathen looked in that place for an altar of heaven. There is no question of the Church disguising Pagan ideas as Christian ideas, for there never was any disguise about the matter.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Shavian Cream

I’m currently reading George Bernard Shaw, Chesterton’s critical study of his great friend and antagonist in debate. This is the first time I’ve read it, and I’m surprised at how good it is, given that it’s one of Chesterton’s less celebrated works.

There is one passage that I thought was especially fine, and which is a wonderful descripton of Chesterton’s own gusto for life, and hatred for decadence and cynicism:

Nothing that he [Shaw] ever wrote is so noble as his simple reference to the sturdy man who stepped up to the Keeper of the Book of Life and said, “Put down my name, Sir.” It is true that Shaw called this heroic philosophy by wrong names and buttressed it with false metaphysics; that was the weakness of the age. The temporary decline of theology had involved in the neglect of philosophy and all fine thinking; and Bernard Shaw had to find shaky justifications in Schopenhauer for the sons of God shouting for joy. He called it the Will to Live—a phrase invented by Prussian professors who would like to exist, but can’t. Afterwards he asked people to worship the Life-Force; as if one could worship a hyphen. But though he covered it with crude new names (which are now fortunately crumbling everywhere like bad mortar) he was on the side of the good old cause; the oldest and the best of all causes, the cause of creation against destruction, the cause of yes against no, the cause of the seed against the stony earth and the star against the abyss.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Two Irish Chestertonians on the Letters Page of the Irish Catholic

This week's Irish Catholic includes letters from two members of the Irish Chesterton Society, Colm Culleton and Maolsheachlann O Ceallaigh.

They're both on the same subject and appear one after the other. The subject is the sacking of Bishop William Morris in Australia, who was disciplined for his support for the ordination of women and married priests. The article which prompted the correspondence (an editorial reproduced from the National Catholic Reporter) can be found here.

The readers' letters in the Irish Catholic are not published on their website, so I've typed them out myself.

Dear Editor

Regarding the article of 1 May (re-published from the Catholic National Reporter) about the dismissal of Bishop William Morris, the article called his suggestions “structural changes” and therefore much less revolutionary than protecting paedophile priests.

On the contrary, the suggestions are far from being mere structural changes, they are fundamental ones. They undermine some of the Church’s most sacred and fundamental laws, while protecting paedophile priests is only a sin. Sins can be forgiven and their damage repaired; but the loss of essentials is fatal. The article’s argument is akin to abolishing democracy because some politicans tell lies; or abolishing banks because some bankers are corrupt; or abolishing newspapers because sometimes they get things wrong.

Ex-bishop Morris wants to throw the baby out with the bath-water, for which he was correctly corrected.

Colm Culleton
County Carlow

Dear Editor

It was depressing to read the Irish Catholic reproduce a Church-bashing editorial from the National Catholic Reporter, on the subject of Bishop William Morris's sacking.

The Catechism tells us that the faithful "have the duty of observing the constitutions and decrees conveyed by the legitimate authority of the Church. Even if they concern disciplinary matters, these determinations call for docility in charity." The article contained lines like "the trampling of human rights and professed values of decency by our Church's prelates, in this case including, sad to say, Benedict himself". Is that the tone of filial and docile questioning?

If the Catholic Church ordained married and/or women priests, the consequences seem pretty predictable. There would (perhaps) be a short-lived surge of new vocations, and maybe (though this seems less likely) a temporary growth in congregations. Liberals would write patronisingly complimentary opinion pieces, praising this as a "good start". And the real, deep-seated respect which secular and modern culture holds for the Catholic Church-- the respect that is often manifested as bitter hostility or abuse, but which in fact recognizes the Church as the one force in today's world which refuses to compromise its doctrine, or even its discipline-- would be lost. If salt loses its saltiness, wherewith will it be salted?

The advance of secularism is not a time for weakness, but for witness. Watering down the demands of the priesthood is not an answer to the vocations crisis. The Pope is quite right to protect his flock from the misperception that is, even if it involves disciplinary action towards misguided bishops and priests. We have enough Church-bashing in the secular press-- can we perhaps be given a break from in in the pages of the Irish Catholic?


Maolsheachlann O Ceallaigh

Friday, May 13, 2011

GK Chesterton Against the Machine

Inventions have destroyed invention. The big modern machines are like big guns dominating and terrorizing a whole stretch of country, within the range of which nothing can raise its head. There is far more inventiveness to the square yard of mankind than can ever appear under the monopolist terror. The minds of men are not so much alike as the motor-cars of men, or the morning papers of men, or the mechanical manufacture of the coats and hats of men. And it is doubtful whether we ever shall, until we shut off this deafening din of megaphones that drowns their voices, this deathly glare of limelight which kills the colours of their complexions, this plangent yell of platitudes which stuns and stops their minds. All this sort of thing is killing thoughts as they grow, as a great white death ray might kill plants as they grow. When, therefore, people tell me that making a great part of England rustic and self-supporting would mean making it rude and senseless, I do not agree with them...I say the towns themselves are the foes of intelligence, in these times; I say the rustics themselves would have more variety and vivacity than is really encouraged by the towns. I say it is only by shutting off this unnatural noise and light that men can begin again to move and to grow.

GK Chesterton, The Outline of Sanity

I am (to various degrees) a technophile, a technosceptik, and a technophobe; and right now the technophobe element is winning out. My attitude towards technology has varied greatly through the years—one might even say schizophrenically. I didn’t get a mobile phone until 2004 (and I was rather proud of the fact); but when I did finally give in and buy one, I became the most enthusiastic of texters, for a while. I was a latecomer to Facebook; but I’m always being struck by random thoughts and aphorisms, so until recently I was posting on Facebook several times a day. From my childhood I’ve taken a dim view of television, and yet I’ve become wildly enthusiastic about certain TV shows, such as the US version of the Office , or Star Trek: The Next Generation. I can’t even find words to express, or begin to express, my long love affair with the cinema. Recently I posted on Facebook the epigram: “You should live life to the full. It gives you a better appreciation of movies.” I wasn’t entirely joking.

And yet—I’ve always been shadowed by a deep and lingering suspicion of electronic entertainments, and of “mod cons” of every description. I remember, when I was a boy, feeling rather heartlessly cheered by news of eathquakes and hurricanes, since it proved that we had not entirely tamed nature. I knew that part of the appeal of The Lord of the Rings was that nobody watched television in Middle-Earth. Come to think of it, nobody watched television on the Starship Enterprise, either. Instead, they had amateur dramatics and musical recitals and painting classes.

I was so out of step as to be appalled when I heard that a football game, or a TV drama finale, or a televised concert reached an audience of eighty million, or whatever astronomical figure it might be. I didn’t find this inspiring; I found it horrifying. I hated think of all those people sitting in their front rooms and watching the same programme at the same time. I worried the precedent might become the norm. I thought it was a sinister trend; from the days when our grandparents (as they constantly reminded us) made their own entertainment, to the state of affairs where various cliques were entertaining various masses, to an ultimate scenario where everybody in the world was being entertained by the same handful of people.

But, you say (or maybe you don’t say, but some people say), the internet has reversed this trend. Now the millions make their own entertainment in cyberspace, and fogies like you complain about that. Now the mass audience had been fragmented into the readership of a million different blogs and websites, and you still pour forth your jeremiads. There’s no pleasing you.

I see the force of this argument. But it doesn’t dispel my techno-unease. I see no reason why one shouldn’t have reservations about different technologies on entirely different grounds. When it comes to the internet, I worry about its tendency to eliminate time and space. As CS Lewis said in Surprised by Joy:

“The truest and most horrible claim made for modern transport is that it “annihilates space”. It does. It annihilates one of the most glorious gifts we have been given. It is a vile inflation which lowers the value of distance, so that a modern boy travels a hundred miles with less sense of liberation and pilgrimage and adventure than his father got from travelling ten. Of course if a man hates space and wants it to be annihilated, that is another matter. Why not creep into his coffin at once? There is little enough space there.”

In just the same way, when we are plugged in to the internet, we are only a click away from anything we desire; a complete list of Venezualan Presidents, the e-text of Huckleberry Finn, a discussion forum on antique paperweights. We don’t have to walk to the library anymore. We don’t even have to walk to the bookshelf. Nobody has to have a pub argument about the best-selling single in chart history; someone is sure to have an i-phone, or a Blackberry. It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that nobody is ever alone anymore. Nobody has to wait anymore. Nobody has to wonder anymore, when everything you need to know is at your fingertips. I worry about this. I worry about it a lot.

Isn’t it ironic to write a blog post criticising the internet? Yes, it is. I have been wondering whether the GK Chesterton Society of Ireland should have an internet presence; whether it is, in fact, unChestertonian. But Chesterton (as the book from which my first paragraph is taken makes clear) was never opposed to technology in itself; he simply reserved the right (and society’s right) to limit its use. Also, it is true that the Holy Father himself has encouraged Catholics to make their presence felt in cyberspace. For those reasons,a nd since people have been kind enough to read and follow it, the blog will continue—for better or worse!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, GK Chesterton and the Boer War

I have been dipping into The Great Boer War by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. From what I’ve read about Conan Doyle, I know him to have been a man of principle and great integrity; but, if I didn’t already know that, I would consider this history to be the work of a lackey or a jingoist.

Particularly galling are the frequent appeals to “progressive” sentiment. Chesterton described himself as a “progressive” on many occasions; but since his lifetime, I think the word has taken on different and more sinister associations (which, I would claim, were always latent within it). And that Chesterton would have despised the contemporary understanding of progressivism is clear from his own reaction to the Boer War; he opposed it for what I might call “anti-progressive” reasons, as his Autobiography makes clear:

What I hated about it was what a good many people liked about it. It was such a very cheerful war. I hated its confidence, its congratulatory anticipations, its optimism of the Stock Exchange. I hated its vile assurance of victory. It was regarded by many as an almost automatic process like the operation of a natural law; and I have always hated that sort of heathen notion of a natural law. As the war proceeded, indeed, it began to be dimly felt that it was proceeding and not progressing. When the British had many unexpected failures and the Boers many unexpected successes, there was a change in the public temper, and less of optimism and indeed little but obstinacy. But the note struck from the first was the note of the inevitable; a thing abhorrent to Christians and lovers of liberty. The blow struck by the Boer nation at bay, the dash and dazzling evasions of De Wet, the capture of a British general at the very end of the campaign, sounded again and again the opposite note of defiance; of those who, as I wrote later in one of my first articles, “disregard the omens and disdain the stars”.

Compare Conan Doyle:

In the present crowded state of the world a policy of Thibet may be carried out in some obscure corner, but it cannot be done in a great tract of country which lies right across the main line of industrial progress. The position is too absolutely artificial. A handful of people by the right of conquest take possession of an enormous country over which they are dotted at such intervals that it is their boast that one farmhouse cannot see the smoke of another, and yet, though their numbers are so disproportionate to the area which they cover, they refuse to admit any other people upon equal terms, but claim to be a privileged class who shall dominate the newcomers completely. They are outnumbered in their own land by newcomers who are more highly-educated and progressive, and yet they hold them down in a way which exists nowhere else on earth. What is their right? The right of conquest. Then the same right may be justly invoked to reverse so intolerable a situation....

[Some pages later, after quoting a passage from a newspaper article which was critical of the Boer government’s treatment of foreign miners and developers:]

The extract reflects the tone of all of the British press with the exception of one or two papers which considered that even the persistent ill use of our people, and the fact that we were peculiarly responsible for them in this State, did not justify us in interfering in the internal affairs of the republic. It cannot be denied that the Jamestown raid and the incomplete manner in which the circumstances connected with it had been investigated had weakened the force of those who wished to interfere energetically on behalf of British subjects. There was a vague but widespread feeling that perhaps the capitalists were engineering the situation for their own ends. It is difficult to imagine how a state of unrest and insecurity, to say nothing of a state of war, can ever be to the advantage of a capital, and surely it is obvious that if some arch-schemer were using the grievances of the Uitlanders for his own ends the best way to checkmate him would be to remove those grievances. The suspicion, however, did exist among those who like to ignore the obvious and magnify the remote, and throughout the negotiations the hand of Great Britain was weakened, as her adversary had doubtless calculated that it would be, by an earnest but fussy and faddy minority. Idealism and a morbid, restless conscientiousness are two of the most dangerous evils from which a modern, progressive State had to suffer.

Who can read the last sentence without feeling, if not sickened, at least disquieted? But indeed, all appeals to modernity and progressivism must imply a rejection of idealism. The bullish materialists of today who reject religion in the name of freedom seem hardly to understand that, in the name of an ideal, they are spurning the very possibility of idealism; for how can an ideal have any existence but a nominal one in a material cosmos? In the name of freedom, they are rejecting freedom. In the name of the human spirit, they are denying the human spirit.

Just as bizarre is the “progressivist” who claims to be liberating humanity, or fighting oppression. What liberty is there in being bound to a locomotive—since the essence of progressivism is that it is progressing in one direction only? What oppression could be worse than the opression of inevitability? What is so noble about helping the clock go forward if we are forbidden to turn it back anyway?

At a previous meeting of the Irish Chesterton Society, one member pointed out that Chesterton’s attitude to the Boer War left out the indigenous population of South Africa entirely. That, of course, is a separate matter. Here, I have not been discussing the rights and wrongs of the conflict itself, merely two different attitudes to “progressivism”.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Shining and Affirmative Things

Here ye, here ye...calling all GK Chesterton Society of Ireland blog readers! We have a few things in the works and we'd love to have YOUR input.

Firstly, let us know your thoughts on the new blog layout and design. We'd love to hear from you!

Secondly, keep your eyes and ears peeled for the date, location, and time of our next meeting. It will be announced here and on our facebook page. Have ideas for our next gathering? Send us a note at irishchesterton at gmail dot com or leave a comment on this post with your suggestion or idea.

Lastly, thank you to all of our readership for keeping the discussion going; you've proven that Chesterton remains as relevant today as he was in the time in which he wrote!

More to come as we keep growing...

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Ten Followers!!

On his wonderful blog, Catholic and Enjoying It!, Mark Shea has a custom of posting about his ever-swelling mob of followers every now and again. Right now, he's up to five hundred and seventy-three.

Well, the GK Chesterton Society of Ireland blog has not attained such giddy heights, but ten feels like a landmark. I'm betting it's going to snowball from there...