YIMC Book Club, “Orthodoxy,” Chapter 8

We have just one more chapter, one more week left on GK Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, and it looks like a horse race to decide the next book. Will it be Hillaire Belloc’s The Great Heresies or CS Lewis’s Mere Christianity? Caryll Houselander’s Reed of God could still make a comeback, but Par Lagerkvist’s Barabbas has been left at the starting gate. If you haven’t voted yet, please do.

Chapter 8, “The Romance of Orthodoxy”
When I was in boarding school and college, two books defined my thinking about world religions and helped me leave orthodox Christianity in my rear-view mirror: Aldous Huxley’s The Perennial Philosophy and Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Without splitting hairs, I’ll say the two books agree. They agree that all the great religious teachings of the world—all the minor ones, as well—say the same thing, essentially. Christ or Krishna—what’s the big diff?

I am no historian of religion or philosophy, but I’ll bet that these two books, so revered by the adolescent Webster Bull and many other seekers of his generation, helped pave the way for what my Pope has decried as “a dictatorship of relevatism,” notably in his homily at the Mass for the election of the Roman Pontiff, April 18, 2005.

In this chapter, Chesterton meets this problem head-on. Because the problem had already begun to show itself in his time. “A short time ago,” he writes, “Mrs. Besant, in an interesting essay, announced that there was only one religion in the world, that all faiths were only versions or perversions of it . . . ” “Mrs. Besant” would be Annie Besant, grand old lady of the Theosophical Society and an opinion-maker of alternative religious thought at the turn of the last century. (That’s her in high-priestess get-up at left. You can read about her here.)

Chesterton insists that there is a big diff, that the difference between Christianity and Buddhism, the religion most commonly likened to Christianity, is night and day. I’ll list a few bullet points, then turn the discussion over to readers.

  • “The Buddhist saint always has his eyes shut, while the Christian saint always has them wide open. . . . The Buddhist is looking with a peculiar intentness inwards. The Christian is staring with a frantic intentness outwards.”
  • “It is the instinct of Christianity to be glad that God has broken the universe into little pieces, because they are living pieces. It is her instinct to say ‘little children love one another’ rather than to tell one large person to love himself [as Buddhism does]. This is the intellectual abyss between Buddhism and Christianity; that for the Buddhist or Theosophist personality is the fall of man, for the Christian it is the purpose of God, the whole point of his cosmic idea.”
  • “By insisting specially on the immanence of God we get introspection, self-isolation, quietism, social indifference—Tibet. By insisting specially on the transcendence of God we get wonder, curiosity, moral and political adventure, righteous indignation—Christendom. Insisting that God is inside man, man is always inside himself. By insisting that God transcends man, man has transcended himself.”
  • “The complex God of the Athanasian Creed may be an enigma for the intellect; but He is far less likely to gather the mystery and cruelty of a Sultan than the lonely god of Omar or Mahomet.”
  • “To the Buddhist or the eastern fatalist existence is a science or a plan, which must end up in a certain way. But to a Christian existence is a story, which may end up in any way. In a thrilling novel (that purely Christian product) the hero is not eaten by cannibals; but it is essential to the existence of the thrill that he might be eaten by cannibals.”

What passages struck you? Or what strikes you about these passages?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01819831282677092730 Frank

    I really enjoyed this are from early in the chapterA holiday, like Liberalism, only means the liberty of man. A miracle only means the liberty of God. You may conscientiously deny either of them, but you cannot call your denial a triumph of the liberal idea. The Catholic Church believed that man and God both had a sort of spiritual freedom. Calvinism took away the freedom from man, but left it to God. Scientific materialism binds the Creator Himself; it chains up God as the Apocalypse chained the devil. It leaves nothing free in the universe. And those who assist this process are called the “liberal theologians.”This, as I say, is the lightest and most evident case. The assumption that there is something in the doubt of miracles akin to liberality or reform is literally the opposite of the truth. If a man cannot believe in miracles there is an end of the matter; he is not particularly liberal, but he is perfectly honourable and logical, which are much better things. But if he can believe in miracles, he is certainly the more liberal for doing so; because they mean first, the freedom of the soul, and secondly, its control over the tyranny of circumstance.

  • EPG

    As always, GKC gives a lot to savor, but one of my favorite bits comes near the beginning of the chapter. Here, GKC outlines his rhetorical approach, one that serves discourse in any subject matter:“The long words are not the hard words, it is the short words that are hard. There is much more metaphysical subtlety in the word “damn” than in the word “degeneration.”The habits that GKC saw continue today. People write with long and fancy phrases to conceal meaning, and to conceal a lack of meaning. Of course, one does not need to be a Catholic, or even a Christian, to appreciate that. (Webster, I also have a much loved copy of Zinsser’s “On Writing Well.” I have found all of his books on writing extremely helpful.) I wonder if some of the popular conception that all religions are, in the end, directed to one fundamental truth arises from a lack of rhetorical clarity. Because, if one primarily thinks of a religion in terms of guiding ethical behavior, there is a lot in common among them. In fact, C.S. Lewis makes this observation, and uses it as an argument for the existence of a divine truth, for the existence of God, before he develops the argument in favor of Christianity. Lewis observes that religions bear many similarities in their ethical prescriptions, and makes the case that this near universal appreciation of certain moral precepts points to the direction of a moral guide which all can appreciate (essentially a “natural theology” argument). [He develops this at greater length in “The Abolition of Man,” another book you might find worthwhile.]If one looks at religion as primarily a guide for moral functioning, then one can argue that many (most? All?) religions point pretty much in the same direction. But, if religion describes the ultimate nature of the universe, and our relationship to it, then the position that they are all the same makes no sense, as GKC amply outlines.

  • Webster Bull

    Thanks, EPG, and well said as usual. When I read GKC on short words and long, I thought immediately of Churchill's famous speech before Commons in 1940, which ended not only with short words, but with almost nohting but Anglo-Saxon based words: "We shall not flag nor fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France and on the seas and oceans; we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air. We shall defend our island whatever the cost may be; we shall fight on beaches, landing grounds, in fields, in streets and on the hills. We shall never surrender and even if, which I do not for the moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, will carry on the struggle until in God's good time the New World with all its power and might, sets forth to the liberation and rescue of the Old." OK, that last sentence IS long, but the words? Each one like a bell.

  • Turgonian

    I used that second quote in my presentation about the concept of the "bodhisattva" in Buddhism. The bodhisattva reaches out to the other little pieces in order to bring them to liberation — but unfortunately, in the last analysis, it's all about the All liberating Itself. Or something to that effect.About long and short words — I note that Aristotle's definition of "truth", when translated into English, consists entirely of monosyllables. Refreshing. :)