Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man 4 – Ian KerMarch 1, 2013
Christianity is a revelation, “a vision received by faith; but it is a vision of reality.” That is why it is not a mythology. But nor is it a philosophy “because, being a vision, it is not a pattern but a picture.” In that sense, “it is exactly, as the phrase goes, ‘like life’.”
It does not offer, for example, ‘an abstract explanation’ of the problem of evil. It optimistically says that existence is good, but it also at the same time pessimistically says that there is something wrong with the world.
But, if Christianity is neither a mythology nor a philosophy, it is their “reconciliation because it realization both of mythology and philosophy.” It is both “a true story, a philosophy that is like life.” But above all, it is a reconciliation because it is something that can only be called the philosophy of stories. It provides a philosophical justification for the “normal narrative instinct.”
For, just as a man in an adventure story has to pass various tests to save his life, so the man in this philosophy has to pass several tests and save his soul. It is the ‘ordeal of the free man’, and “it is this deep and democratic and story-telling instinct” that “is derided and dismissed in all the other philosophies,” whether fatalistic or detached or skeptical or material mechanical or relative.
And this, Chesterton insists, is “why the myths and the philosophers were at war until Christ came.” The philosophers were the “more rational” certainly, but the priests were more popular because they” told the people stories, the philosophy of which the philosopher did not understand.” This only “came into the world with the story of Christ,” which met the mythological search for romance by “being a story and the philosophical search for truth by being a true story, in which the ideal figure became the historical figure.”
Chesterton now turns to the history of Christianity, which “has had a series of revolutions and in each of them Christianity has died.” But because Christianity has “a God who knew the way out of the grave,” it “has died many times” but “risen again.” At the end of all the European 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. It has “returned again and again in this western world of rapid change and institutions perpetually perishing.” So often “the Faith has to all appearances gone to the dogs,” but always “it was the dog that died.”
Both the Oxford Movement, for example, and the French Catholic revival in the nineteenth century were “a surprise, a puzzle.” Always there have been attempts to dilute Christian doctrine, but “again and again there has followed on that dilution, coming as out of the darkness in a crimson cataract, the strength of the red original wine.” Christianity “has not only been often killed but it has often died a natural death through old age.” Nevertheless “it has survived its own weakness and even its own surrender.”
Indeed, it seems, “the Church grows younger as the world grows old.” The Church refuses to go along with “the tide of apparent progress” because it is alive: “A dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it.” On the other hand, “there was many a demagogue or sophist whose wild gestures were in truth as lifeless as the movement of a dead dog’s limbs wavering in the eddying water; and many a philosophy uncommonly like a paper boat, of the sort that it is not difficult to knock into a cocked hat.”
In his conclusion, Chesterton makes us see Christianity afresh as though for the first time, not through making it grotesque, but through invoking the image of the popular newspaper, so despised by the intellectuals, and therefore apparently so ill-suited to his theme. The Gospel, he says, “is nothing less than the loud assertion that this mysterious maker of the world has visited his world in person.”
It was “a piece of good news; or news that seemed too good to be true: It declares that really… there did walk into the world this original invisible being; about whom the thinkers make theories and the mythologists hand down myths: the Man Who Made the World.”
Muslims were simply monotheists “with the old average assumption of men — that the invisible ruler remains invisible,” “along with the customs of a certain culture.” It is “a necessary and noble truth” but not “a new truth.” Confucians and Buddhists again are simply “pagans whose prophets have given them another and rather vaguer version of the invisible power; making it not only invisible but almost impersonal.” Their “temples and idols and priests and periodical festivals … simply mean that this sort of heathen is enough of a human being to admit the popular element of pomp and pictures and feasts and fairy-tales,” having more sense than Puritans.
But their priests have no sensational secret like what those running messengers of the Gospel had to say. “Nobody else except those messengers has any Gospel; nobody else has any good news; for the simple reason that nobody else has any news.” Ages after the first announcement of the good news, the runners are still running: “They have not lost the speed and momentum of messengers; they have hardly lost, as it were, the wild eyes of witness the last proof of the miracle is that `something so supernatural should have become so natural.” But he, Chesterton, has not “minimized the scale of the miracle, as some of our milder theologians think it wise to do.”
On the contrary, he has “deliberately dwelt on that incredible interruption, as a blow that broke the very backbone of history.” He sympathized with Jews and Muslims who considered this to blasphemy: a blasphemy that might shake the world. But it did not shake the world; it steadied the world.’
But the mystery remained: “how anything so startling should have remained defiant and dogmatic and yet become perfectly normal and natural.” What seemed at first “so outrageous” was really “so solid and sane.” If the Christian claim seemed mad, “a tall story,” still the “madhouse” of Christianity was “a home to which, age after age, men are continually coming back as to a home.” The “riddle” remained: that “anything so abrupt and abnormal should still be found a habitable and hospitable thing.”
If the whole thing was this `tall story’, then how could it `have endured for nearly two thousand years’? But it has endured, and, as a result, `the world within it has been more lucid, more level-headed, more reasonable in it, more healthy in its instincts, more humorous and cheerful in the face of fate and death, then all the world outside. For it was the Christendom that came forth from the incredible Christ; and the soul of it was common sense.’ And, as Chesterton had argued earlier in the book, “Christianity is at one with common sense; but all history shows that this common sense perishes except where Christianity is there to preserve it.”