Chesterton observes that secular humanism “is using, and using up, the truths that remain out of the old treasury of Christendom.” The deposit of moral truths set adrift by a disintegrating Christendom is thus gradually degraded, reduced to ideological half-truths and sappy clichés.
The modern world is not [wholly] evil. [Indeed], in some ways the modern world is far too good. It is full of wild and wasted virtues. When a religious scheme is shattered . . . it is not merely vices that are set loose. . . . But the virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander more wildly [than the vices], and the virtues do more terrible damage. The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone.
Consider the Christian virtue of charity, for example. Instead of the selfless seeking of another’s good, charity becomes sugary sentiment. It is invoked to deny that forgiveness entails judgment and repentance, or that sin even exists. In due course, secular humanism may rob or empty all of the virtues of their true and vital meaning.
The final outcome of such a process can be seen in what has been done to the religious notion of the dignity of human life. It has been uprooted from its biblical ground and the garden of the church. Its deep human meaning, nurtured by the Christian doctrine of the imago Dei, withers and fades from memory. A desiccated concept of human dignity is embraced instead. And ironically, or rather tragically, that concept is deployed to justify acts that contradict traditional moral teaching.
Chesterton says that the humanism of the secularist leads morality down a perilous path, a path that he tells us in Orthodoxy is paved with pragmatism and relativism. Man is told “to think what he must and never mind the Absolute.” “But precisely one of the things he must think,” adds Chesterton, “is the Absolute.” Otherwise, the whole of the rest of the world is an illusion. Both pragmatism and relativism embrace an outlook “just as inhuman as the determinism” to which they often vehemently object. “The determinist (who, to do him justice, does not pretend to be a human being) makes nonsense of the human sense of actual choice.”
But pragmatism and relativism “make nonsense of the human sense of fact.” The road they pave leads to the devil’s version of the Emerald City, where nothing is what it seems, words are no longer tools of truth but instruments of raw power, and the moral compass is abandoned because there are no true poles of good and evil or right and wrong.
This suicide of thought, as Chesterton calls it, leads inexorably toward the denial of the existence of the good — or of anything that is really and permanently human. In 1905, in a book titled Heretics, Chesterton anticipates with uncanny prescience what postmodernism at the turn of the twenty-first century boldly declares. “Modern morality,” he writes, seems only capable of making a case for itself by pointing out “the horrors that follow breaches of law.”
Premarital sex may be inadvisable because one risks pregnancy or AIDS. One probably shouldn’t lie because lying undercuts the social trust that is the precondition for getting what one really wants. All of these “prohibitions” are subject, of course, to alteration or negation if means may be found to avoid negative consequences. In other words, modern morality is consequentialist. More than that, it is morbidly consequentialist, having lost a sure vision of the goodness of goodness.
In the end, images of automobile accidents, pictures of people dying from AIDS, and photographs of aborted fetuses won’t necessarily stop people from drinking and driving, engaging in casual or “unprotected” sex, or escaping the inconvenience of having a child by having an abortion. At the Creation, God did not say: I will make the seas with clean water, not polluted water, and the land arable and not desert because it would be a disaster for the environment otherwise. He made the seas clean and the land habitable because it was good that they be so. A vision of the good has far greater power to move men and women to do the right thing than all the horrible images we may conjure up to terrify them into doing it.
In Heretics, Chesterton observes: “A young man may keep himself from vice by continually thinking of disease. He may keep himself from it also by continually thinking of the Virgin Mary. There may be question about which method is the more reasonable, or even about which is the more efficient. But surely there can be no question about which is the more wholesome.”
Modern people, he says, have grown so modest about the good that they no longer believe they can be certain of what it is. Erroneous notions of tolerance are fostered by secular humanism in its final stage as it gives itself over to nihilism. Even ordinary people voice the opinion that our principal moral obligation is not to believe too strongly in any moral conviction.
“A great silent collapse, an enormous unspoken disappointment has, in our time, fallen on our . . . civilization,” writes Chesterton. “All previous ages have sweated and been crucified in an attempt to realize what is really the good man. [Yet] a definite part of the modern world has come . . . to the conclusion that there is no answer to these questions.” Under the aegis of secular humanism, an idea which is inherently absurd gains support: that human flourishing may be achieved without defining what is human or what is good for human beings. Chesterton continues:
Every one of the popular modern phrases and ideals is a dodge in order to shirk the problem of what is good. We are fond of talking about “liberty”; that, as we talk of it, is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good. We are fond of talking about “progress”; that is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good. We are fond about talking about “education”; that is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good. The modern man says, “Let us leave all these arbitrary standards and embrace liberty.” This is, logically rendered, “Let us not decide what is good, but let it be considered good not to decide it.”
He says, “Away with your old moral formulae; I am for progress.” This, logically stated, means, “Let us not settle what is good; but let us settle whether we are getting more of it.” He says, “Neither in religion nor in morality, my friend, lie the hopes of the race, but in education.” This, clearly expressed, means, “We cannot decide what is good, but let us give it to our children.”
Many would agree that Chesterton has got hold of something disturbing about the modern temper. His diagnosis, prescient in his own time, is confirmed in ours. What drew the venom of his adversaries and continues to offend many is his prescription. Secularism needs to be replaced by faith, he says unabashedly, and relativism by firm standards of right and wrong. In the simplest terms, Chesterton proposes a return to dogma, a proposal that sounds exceedingly strange to moderns, who think that tolerance and an indiscriminant commitment to “diversity” are the highest goods of civilized life.
Joseph Wood Krutch on the modern temper I want to explore what a return to dogma means and what its importance is for Chesterton’s Christian humanism. But before doing so, it may be useful and instructive to examine in counterpoint the views of one of Chesterton’s younger contemporaries. In perhaps his best-known book, titled The Modern Temper and published in 1929, the American literary and social critic Joseph Wood Krutch ruthlessly flayed the illusions of the liberal humanism of his day, illusions to which he himself had earlier adhered.
In that book, Krutch concluded that the collapse of Western civilization is inevitable, even if the course is long and winding. Krutch’s analyses of the modern crisis shared much in common with Chesterton’s. But whereas Chesterton saw through the crisis to hope, Krutch crouched in despair.
Krutch’s despair is especially poignant because he understands its source. His liberal and secular creed does not permit belief in the truths and verities of traditional religion. Liberated reason must do without dogma. Krutch also recognizes the terrible irony in this situation. For without faith and certitude, there is no stopping the new barbarians who are knocking down the fortress walls of the civilization he loves. With melancholic honesty Krutch writes in his book’s foreword:
I have neither celebrated the good old days nor attempted to prove that mankind is about to enter a golden age. I am sure that those who hold conventional religious opinions will find my book in many ways offensive and I fancy that many who are militantly rationalistic will be disgusted by my failure to share their optimism concerning the future of a rationalistic humanity. . . .
Certainly if any modern temper like that herein described does actually exist it is very different from that scientific optimism, which, though it is being widely popularized at the present moment, really belongs to nineteenth century thought and certainly one of its most distinguished features is just its inability to achieve either religious belief on the one hand or exultant atheism on the other.
Unlike their grandfathers, those who are its victims do not and never expect to believe in God; but unlike their spiritual fathers, the philosophers and scientists of the nineteenth century, they have begun to doubt that rationality and knowledge have any promised land into which they may be led.
There is something at once noble and pathetic about this declaration. For Krutch concedes that he himself has contributed to the subversion of the foundations of liberal society. This is because he and other secular liberals are unable to believe in or to commend to others the truths and moral principles that inspire a free society and give men and women reasons to defend it. “The world may be rejuvenated in one way or another, but we will not,” Krutch confesses. “Skepticism has entered too deeply into our souls ever to be replaced by faith, and we can never forget the things which the new barbarians will never need to know.”
Scientific enlightenment, says Krutch, makes it no longer possible to hold to the classical and biblical belief that the virtues participate in a larger transcendent purpose. Human ignorance and fear imagined a meaningful universe masked in mystery and headed toward salvation; we must now conclude that the universe is impersonal and indifferent to human purpose or suffering. “It is no longer [possible] to believe or tell tales of noble men because we do not believe that noble men exist [nor the gods they would obey]. The best we can do is achieve pathos and the most that we can do is to feel sorry for ourselves. . . . [The] cosmos may be farcical or it may be pathetic but it has not [even] the dignity of tragedy.” The human cause, says Krutch, “is a lost cause . . . [as] there is no place for us in the natural universe.” But for the stoic Krutch, “we are not, for all that, sorry to be human. We should rather die as men than live as animals.”
In the final analysis, Krutch’s humanism collapses upon itself. The humanist who values human freedom so highly ironically subverts freedom’s transcendent foundations with a deadly embrace of naturalism or radical historicism. Under either, freedom is an illusion, much as God is a projection of the human mind. We are left to believe and behave as if there is more than there really is—that our humanity is special and our freedom is real—because to believe and act in any other manner would be unpleasant. “We have discovered the trick which has been played upon us,” Krutch declares, “and . . . are [at least] no longer dupes.”
A return to dogma
So far as I am aware, Chesterton did not review The Modern Temper. But let me speculate as to how he might have answered Krutch. I suspect that Chesterton would have begun by observing that Krutch rejects religious revelation and truth too hastily. Even as he claims that theism has been irreversibly demythologized, Krutch himself is caught in the myth of secularist liberalism. He is like a man blindfolded who thinks that the object of his criticism has disappeared, or like the child who thinks that he has hidden from his playmates by covering his eyes with his hands. In The Modern Temper, Krutch criticizes both Chesterton and T. S. Eliot for taking “refuge” in Roman and Anglican Catholicism, “whose dogmas, if accepted without argument, provide the basis which pure reason cannot discover.”
However, if one reads Chesterton carefully and fairly (and Eliot as well) one sees that his diagnosis of modernity is neither romantic nor reactionary. Chesterton knows that Christendom is gone and that the church no longer stands at the center of culture. Indeed, he chides those who continue to think triumphantly that England is still a Christian nation.
Nowhere does he suggest that his aim is to put the old Christendom back together again, in England or anywhere else. Krutch’s honesty and despair, in fact, support Chesterton’s contention that secular humanism at the ship’s helm has at great peril thrown overboard the spiritual ballast of civilized life and broken religion’s moral compass. As the ship rocks and tips to the deep, the humanist’s talk of there being “no precise moral ideals . . . [sounds] ludicrous.” For progress cannot be charted without sure points of reference and a compass.
I do not . . . say that the word “progress” is unmeaning; I say that it is unmeaning without the previous definition of a moral doctrine, and that it can only be applied to groups of persons who hold that doctrine in common. Progress is not an illegitimate word, but it is logically evident that it is illegitimate for us. It is a sacred word, a word that could only rightly be used by rigid believers and in the ages of faith.
Here, surely, is the nub of the matter. Chesterton’s turn to dogma is not what it sounds like to the ears of secularists, modern and postmodern. He does not say that we must believe in dogmas or else the worst. He does not force dogma down our throats. He does not offer dogma as a bulwark against regress or decline. Rather, dogma—religious truth affirmed in consensus, established in authority, and declared as norm in public debate— is bound to reemerge precisely because human beings cannot live and prosper in a world in which truth is thought not to exist. In Heretics Chesterton explains:
Man can be defined as an animal that makes dogmas. As he piles doctrine on doctrine and conclusion on conclusion in the formation of some tremendous scheme of philosophy and religion, he is, in the only legitimate sense . . . becoming more and more human. When he drops one doctrine after another in a refined skepticism, when he says that he has outgrown definitions, when he says that he disbelieves in finality, when, in his own imagination, he sits as God, holding to no form of creed and contemplating all, then he is by that very process sinking slowly backwards into the vagueness of the vagrant animals and the unconsciousness of grass. Trees have no dogmas. Turnips are singularly broad-minded.
A postmodern world requires a Christian humanism grounded in philosophical realism. Chesterton judges that people are ready for it, for a fraud has been perpetrated. The skeptics contradict themselves. They oppose dogma dogmatically and deny their own humanity in doing it. They claim to be empirical but deny the testimony of lives lived in faith. The seeds of suspicion they sow can also sprout, however, into fresh seedlings of belief.
When will we know that the rally for the really human things has begun in earnest? With the return of dogma, of course. And Chesterton is as sure of a return to dogma as he is that birds need air in which to fly and that fish need water in which to swim. At the close of Heretics, he sounds what Robert Royal has called “the battle charge for the kind of struggle” that must necessarily ensue if humanity is to avoid the abyss of postmodern nihilism and return to a God-centered vision of human nature and destiny.
This is what Chesterton says:
Truths turn into dogmas the instant that they are disputed. Thus every man who utters a doubt defines a religion. And the skepticism of our time does not really destroy the beliefs, rather it creates them; gives them limits and their plain and defiant shape. . . . We who are Christians never knew the great philosophic common sense which inheres in that mystery until the anti-Christian writers pointed it out to us.
The great march of mental destruction will go on. Everything will be denied. Everything will become a creed. It is a reasonable position to deny the stones in the street; it will be a religious dogma to assert them. It is a rational thesis that we are all in a dream; it will be a mystical sanity to say that we are all awake. Fires will be kindled to testify that two and two make four. Swords will be drawn to prove that leaves are green in summer. We will be defending not only the incredible virtues and sanities of human life, but something more incredible still, this huge impossible universe which stares us in the face. We shall fight for the visible prodigies of the invisible. We shall look on the impossible grass and the skies with a strange courage. We shall be those who have seen and yet have believed.
Chesterton challenges us with one final paradox. Without dogma, there is merely descent into chaos and nothingness. With dogma, we may become demons in bellicose combat over many truths and many gods. For in a sinful world dogma comes into combat with dogma. Nevertheless, dogma, the right dogma, may also enable us to be godlike, to recognize ourselves as creatures made in the image of the one God who must live in the unity of his truth revealed in the flesh of a man who lived twenty centuries ago.
Contrary to so much of what claims to be Christian in our culture, we are called to believe not in order to gain peace but to know the truth. Dogma is religious truth, but it hardly guarantees peace. The first and last lesson of Christian humanism is this: by our own efforts alone, we cannot sew together the cloth of peace from our sinful and tattered human nature. Real peace, like real humanity, is a transcendent gift, which we will enjoy only when we wholly accept and faithfully obey the God who has become really human.