A chapter from David Fagerberg’s “The Size of Chesterton’s Catholicism that takes up Chesterton’s defense of dogma and doctrine. Most regard obedience to Church dogma as a negative (is it because dogmatic is derived from dogma?) but Chesterton shows dogma makes us more free and is a way of thinking. Doctrines are complex.
Chesterton argues in the way a key is complex; they are vital in the sense of life-producing and life-protecting; they show a map to the mind which maintains by conviction what is otherwise maintained only by custom; and he says that doctrinal complexity, while single-minded, does not suffer the narrow-mindedness which cleaves revelation from reason and science. Fagerberg liberally uses quotes from Chesterton and brings together material from several different sources.
The images one uses to think about a thing will condition the way one thinks about that thing, because thought is facilitated by imagination. Chesterton’s mind is very imaginative, and his paradoxes enjoy upending – normal expectations, but his thoughts always express his experience. and he experiences doctrine as liberating rather than confining, vivifying instead of asphyxiating, brightening and not darkening the world.
Therefore, he goes against the grain and defends doctrine on the grounds that it makes us more free to think and act, not less. Doctrine is a way of thinking, and for Chesterton thought is a way of accomplishing something. “When things will not work, you must have the thinker, the man who has some doctrine about why they work at all. It is wrong to fiddle while Rome is burning; but it is quite right to study the theory of hydraulics while Rome is burning.”
Chesterton is first in line to volunteer to consider the very practical, useful, functional discipline of theorizing. “I perceive that it is far more practical to begin at the beginning and discuss theories…I for one have come to believe in going back to fundamentals.” He claims to revert to the doctrinal methods of the thirteenth century, inspired by “the general hope of getting something done” and provides a parable to defend his choice.
Suppose a great a commotion arises in the street about something, let us say a lamp post, which many influential persons desire to pull down. A greyclad monk, who is the spirit of the Middle Ages, is approached upon the matter, and begins to say, in the arid manner of the Schoolmen, “Let us first of all consider, my brethren, the value of Light. If Light be in itself good …”
At this point he is somewhat excusably knocked down. All the people make a rush for the lamp post, the lamp post is down in ten minutes, and they go about congratulating each other on their unmedieval practicality. But as things go on they do not work out so easily.
Some people have pulled the lamp-post down because they wanted the electric light; some because they wanted old iron; some because they wanted darkness, because their deeds were evil. Some thought it not enough of a lamp post, some too much; some acted because they wanted to smash municipal machinery; some because they wanted to smash something. And there is war in the night, no man knowing whom he strikes.
So, gradually and inevitably, today, tomorrow, or the next day, there comes back the conviction that the monk was right after all, and that all depends on what is the philosophy of Light. Only what we might have discussed under the gas lamp, we now must discuss in the dark.
The size of the faith which Chesterton is circumscribing is sufficient to accommodate both practical religion, whose primary mode is not analysis, and doctrinal complexity, whose primary mode is. Though the sausage seller may practice the creed simply, the creed which he practices is not simple; it is a complex thing, composed of many parts, and to grasp it in its fullness has required a considerable amount of intellectual effort over a considerable number of centuries.
Thus the history of doctrine. Not everyone must perform this task (one of the advantages of belonging to a cooperative like the Church), but someone must perform this task, because “common things are never commonplace. And in the last analysis most common things will be found to be highly complicated.”
Chesterton ridicules the stratagem of reduction as a means of avoiding complicated analysis. “Some men of science do indeed get over the difficulty by dealing only with the easy part of it: thus, they will call first love the instinct of sex, and the awe of death the instinct of self preservation. But this is only getting over the difficulty of describing peacock green by calling it blue. There is blue in it.” The reductionist strategy of naming only one component of the complex is but a variant of the heretical procedure of doing injustice by decrementalism. Chesterton would have us widen our vision.
A thing can be said to be communal not only by virtue of being shared, but also by virtue of possessing multiple facets: like white light is a communion of colors. Although naming a rainbow “blue” is not false, because there is blue in it, this does not yet name the whole composite.
Catholicism is a community of beliefs, simple in the sense that it is accessible to the average person, but complex in the sense that it is not monochromatic. Therefore, Chesterton takes the charge that Catholicism is complex as a compliment. Against the feeling in his day that the heartfelt and intuitive religion of the Galilean is superior to complicated Roman creeds, Chesterton crows: “When once one believes in a creed, one is proud of its complexity, as scientists are proud of the complexity of science. It shows how rich it is in discoveries. If it is right at all, it is a compliment to say that it’s elaborately right.
Four images will be noted by which Chesterton argues against doctrinal pointillism in favor of Catholic complexity: a key, vitality, a map, and single-mindedness. In other words, he says that doctrines are complex in the way a key is complex; that they are vital in the sense of life-producing and life-protecting; that they show a map to the mind which maintains by conviction what is otherwise maintained only by custom; and he says that doctrinal complexity, while single-minded, does not suffer the narrow-mindedness which cleaves revelation from reason and science.
First, we have already seen that Chesterton described his journey to orthodoxy as a sailor whose attempted excursion to an uncharted island ultimately landed him upon a completely mapped shore. His point of embarkation was not a church catechism but a Dionysian love of the world which nonetheless felt a pang of despair. He describes the final moment of anchorage thus:
And then followed an experience impossible to describe. It was as if I had been blundering about since my birth with two huge and unmanageable machines, of different shapes and without apparent connection — the world and the Christian tradition.
I had found this hole in the world: the fact that one must somehow find a way of loving the world without trusting it; somehow one must love the world without being worldly. I found this projecting feature of Christian theology, like a sort of hard spike, the dogmatic insistence that God was personal, and had made a world separate from Himself .
The spike of dogma fitted exactly into the hole in the world — it had evidently been meant to go there — and then the strange things began to happen. When once these two parts of the two machines had come together, one after another, all the other parts fitted and fell in with an eerie exactitude. I could hear bolt after bolt over all the machinery falling into its place with a kind of click of relief . . . Instinct after instinct was answered by doctrine after doctrine.
Chesterton returns often to the image of the dogmatic key fitting exactly into the world’s cavity, not only to affirm that Church doctrines fit the circumstances encountered in life, but also to suggest that only a complex key could fit a circumstance as complex as existence. “A stick might fit a hole or a stone or a hollow by accident. But a key and a lock are both complex. And if a key fits a lock, you know it is the right key.”
Of course, Catholics do not “worship a key”; the key’s value is in unlocking a door. And the early Christian “was very precisely a person carrying about a key, or what he said was a key. The whole Christian movement consisted in claiming to possess that key.” Chesterton explicitly enumerates the three characteristics possessed by a key which drew him to image a creed in this way. First, “a key is above all things a thing with a shape,” and its value to us, as well as its own integrity, “depends entirely upon keeping its shape.” Second, “the shape of a key is in itself a rather fantastic shape.”
A savage who did not know it was a key would have the greatest difficulty in guessing what it could possibly be. And it is fantastic because it is in a sense arbitrary. A key is not a matter of abstractions; in that sense a key is not a matter of argument. It either fits the lock or it does not.
It is useless for men to stand disputing over it, considered by itself; or reconstructing it on pure principles of geometry or decorative art. It is senseless for a man to say he would like a simpler key; it would be far more sensible to do his best with a crowbar. And thirdly, as the key is necessarily a thing with a pattern, so this was one having in some ways a rather elaborate pattern.
When people complain of the religion being so early complicated with theology and things of the kind, they forget that the world had not only got into a hole, but had got into a whole maze of holes and corners…
If the faith had faced the world only with the platitudes and peace and simplicity some moralists would confine it to, it would not have had the faintest effect on that luxurious and labyrinthine lunatic asylum. . . . There was undoubtedly much about the key that seemed complex; indeed there was only one thing about it that was simple. It opened the door.
from The Everlasting Man
The image influences how one thinks about a thing, and Chesterton thinks of Christianity as something which came at the ancient world (or ours, too) not with the deconstructive force of a battering ram, but with the effectiveness of a key. The tool for opening the door is small, smaller than a crowbar, but it is sufficient because the shape of the key was made by the locksmith who fashioned the lock. We may open the world — if we have the key. Christianity is not, then, locked in an eternal, antagonistic struggle with the world. Christianity is the one thing which will permit the wonders of the world to open to us if only we would be directed to where the struggle really belongs, namely, the heart. The pagan has the right instinct in being drawn to the world, which is why the pagan could find the incarnate Christ; but when the pagan set out to enjoy himself, he soon found he could enjoy nothing else. The key to enjoying the world was lacking.
The complexity of the key permits Chesterton to accent the givenness of the creed, affirming that it is God’s revelation and not our construction, and at the same time permits him to account for the complexity of doctrine, which does bear the mark of the human mind.
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 of which the expression is capable, becoming more and more human. When he drops one doctrine after another in a refined skepticism, when he declines to tie himself to a system, 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 no form of creed by contemplating all, then he is by that very process sinking slowly backwards into the vagueness of the vagrant animals and the unconscious of the grass. Trees have no dogmas. Turnips are singularly broad-minded.
from The Everlasting Man
Doctrines are not puzzles we must figure out before God will let us occupy heaven. They’re the product of a mind gifted by grace and commanded to figure out how on earth to be happy. Both faith and morality require thoughtfulness, a simplistic creed is inapt for nature faith .
“To say with the optimists that God is good, and therefore everything is good; or with the universalists that God is Love, and therefore everything is love; or with the Christian Scientists that God is Spirit, and therefore everything is spirit; or, for that matter, with the pessimists that God is cruel, and therefore every’ thing is a beastly shame; to say any of these things is to make a remark to which it is difficult to make any reply, except ‘Oh’; or possibly, in a rather feeble fashion, ‘Well, well.’
The statement is certainly, in one sense, very complete; possibly a little too complete; and we find ourselves wishing it were a little more complex.” Catholic complexity attempts to hold “the complete philosophy which keeps a man sane; and not some single fragment of it…Those who tried to make the Faith more simple invariably made it less sane.”
In the past century we have had our share of simple religions, Chesterton contends, each trying “to be more simple than the last. And the manifest mark of all these simplifications was, not only that they were finally sterile, but that they were very rapidly stale. A man had said the last word about them when he had said the first.”
Chesterton points out the inconsistency of desiring to keep the divine science in a retarded state even though we acknowledge the advantage of being deliberative in other departments of life. There appeared in the news’ papers of his day a cry for religion to be simplified, discarding both ritual and theology in favor of simple morality, in order to propound only loving one another, and the golden rule, and so forth, “as if the moral problem of man were perfectly simple” and one could address that problem without “long technical words, and talking about senseless ceremonies.” Chesterton counters:
It is exactly as if somebody were to say about the science of medicine: “All I ask is Health; what could be simpler than the beautiful gift of Health? Why not be content to enjoy for ever the glow of youth and the fresh enjoyment of being fit? Why study dry and dismal sciences of anatomy and physiology; why inquire about the whereabouts of obscure organs in the human body? Why pedantically distinguish between what is labelled a poison and what is labelled an antidote, when it is so simple to enjoy Health.
Why worry with a minute exactitude about the number of drops of laudanum or the strength of a dose of chloral (vocab: a sedative) , when it is so nice to be healthy? Away with your priestly apparatus of stethoscopes and clinical thermometers; with your ritualistic mummery of feeling pulses, putting out tongues, examining teeth, and the rest!
The god Aesculapius came on earth solely to inform us that Life is on the whole preferable to Death; and this thought will console many dying persons unattended by doctors.” The elementary love of the fishermen who left their beats to follow their Lord round the shores of Galilee was adequate to found the divine society, I but would rudimentary doctrine and discipline be adequate for a Church rigged to sail to every corner of the world with the key to transfigure every philosophy and every civilization?
“Quite apart from the theory of a Church, if Christ had remained on earth for an indefinite time, trying to induce men to love one another, He would have found it necessary to have some tests, some methods, some way of dividing true love from false love, some way of distinguishing between tendencies that would ruin love and tendencies that would restore it. You cannot make a success of anything, even loving, entirely without thinking.”
from The Thing: Why I am a Catholic
A second image Chesterton uses to think about doctrine is vitality, meant both in the sense that doctrines are vitally important and in the sense that doctrines are animated, living, vital things themselves. We earlier saw Chesterton’s opinion that one cannot make a success of asceticism with’ out the controlling pressure of a creed because it is dogma that keeps asceticism from vilifying the body when it vivifies the spirit. It is no less true that a success cannot be made of mysticism without ecclesiastical and theological pressure.
“Nothing on earth needs to be organized so much as Mysticism. You say that man tends naturally to religion; he does indeed; often in the form of human sacrifice of the temples of Sodom. Almost all extreme evil of that kind is mystical. The only way of keeping it healthy is to have some rules, some responsibilities, some definitions of dogma and moral function.”Neither can one make a success of human culture without debating the boundary lines. Creeds and doctrines identify the pressure points on the fault line, and though the points are minor, intellectual shifts can be seismic.
It is exactly this which explains the monstrous wars about small points of theology, the earthquakes of emotion about a gesture or a word. It is only a matter of an inch; but an inch is everything when you are balancing. The Church could not afford to swerve a hair’s breadth on some things if she was to continue her great and daring experiment of the irregular equilibrium.
Once let one idea become less powerful and some other idea would become too powerful. It was no flock of sheep the Christian shepherd was leading, but a herd of bulls and tigers, of terrible ideals and devouring doctrines, each one of them strong enough to turn to a false religion and lay waste the world.
Remember that the Church went in specifically for dangerous ideas; she was a lion tamer. The idea of birth through a Holy Spirit, of the death of a divine being, of the forgiveness of sins, or the fulfillment of prophecies, are ideas which, any one can see, need but a touch to turn them into something blasphemous or ferocious. . . . If some small mistake were made in doctrine, huge blunders might be made in human happiness. A sentence phrased wrong about the nature of symbolism would have broken all the best statues in Europe. A slip in the definitions might stop all the dances; might wither all the Christmas trees or break all the Easter eggs?
If doctrines consisted of nothing more vital than the esoteric prattle between opinionated pundits we would not be so concerned, but because doctrines will affect Christmas trees and holiday dances, statues and sacraments, Easter eggs and Easter hope, correctly formulating them is vitally important business. They concern the things that keep us alive, and the things that threaten to kill us. The Church has rarely had the luxury of deliberating in fields of serene quietude; the decibel level is usually quite high inside the world of conflicting ideals wherein the Church is called to keep its concentration on the run.
Nothing is so simple as dying; it is staying alive and staying human that is complex. That’s why the Church is in possession of many ideas. “To us, Christian Scientists are simply people with one idea, which they have never learnt to balance and combine with all the other ideas. That is why the wealthy business man so often becomes a Christian Scientist. He is not used to ideas and one idea goes to his head, like one glass of wine to a starving man.
But the Catholic Church is used to living with ideas and walks among all those very dangerous wild beasts with the poise and the lifted head of a lion-tamer.” Besides having the head for it, and keeping one’s feet on the ground when considering such heady matters, we must be able to evaluate ideas that come into our heads. As we have already established, ideas are dangerous, “but the man to whom they are least dangerous is the man of ideas. He is acquainted with ideas, and moves among them like a lion-tamer…The man of no ideas will find the first idea fly to his head like wine to the head of a teetotaler…
Many, for example, avowedly followed Cecil Rhodes because he had a vision. They might as well have followed him because he had a nose; a man without some kind of dream of perfection is quite as much of a monstrosity as a noseless man. People say of such a figure, in almost feverish whispers, ‘He knows his own mind, which is exactly like saying in equally feverish whispers, ‘He blows his own nose.
It is evident from these images why Chesterton does not think dogmas are dull: the matter out of which faith is formed is too rambunctious to ever be called drear, and the stakes are too high for the work to ever be called tedious. It would be surprising, indeed, to hear described as dull or trifling the struggle against forces which impede life, even if they are noetic forces; or, if Chesterton is right about the seismic consequences of ideas, precisely because they are noetic (vocab: of, relating to, or based on the intellect) .
“Dogmas are not dull. Even what are called the fine doctrinal distinctions are not dull. They are like the finest operations of surgery; separating nerve from nerve, but giving life. It is easy enough to flatten out everything for miles round with dynamite, if our only objective is to give death. But just as the physiologist is dealing with living tissues, so the theologian is dealing with living ideas; and if he draws a line between them it is naturally a very fine line.”
Not shying away from the implications of his vivacious metaphor, Chesterton goes so far as to say, several times, that doctrines are analogous to sex: they breed. (And in both cases things seem to fare better with an dcment of monogamy.) As human procreation cannot come from a single individual, neither can a single and individual thought sire doctrine.
Trinitarian monotheism seems to Chesterton more fertile than Unitarian monotheism. “The Moslem had one thought, and that a most vital one; the greatness of God which levels all men. But the Moslem had not one thought to rub against another, because he really had not another. It is the friction of two spiritual things, of tradition and invention, or of substance and symbol, from which the mind takes fire. The Creeds condemned as complex have something like the secret of sex; they can breed thoughts.” There are thoughts, Chesterton says, which feel too complete, and which therefore leave us with nothing to say in return. That is the problem with a simple thought, a complete thought.
We find ourselves wishing it were a little more complex. That is exactly the point. It is not complex enough to be a living organism. It has no vitality because it has no variety of function…And, meanwhile, any one Catholic peasant, while holding one small bead of the rosary in his fingers, can be conscious, not of one eternity, but of a complex and almost a conflict of eternities; as, for example, in the relations of Our Lord and Our Lady, of the fatherhood and the childhood of God, of the motherhood and childhood of Mary. Thoughts of that kind have, in a supernatural sense, something analogous to sex; they breed. They are fruitful and multiply; and there is no end to them.
from Where All Roads Lead
The person is wrong, therefore, who complains for the thousandth time that a living religion does not need dull and dusty dogmas. “We must stop him with a sort of shout and say, ‘There — you go wrong at the very start. If he would condescend to ask what the dogmas are, he would find out that it is precisely the dogmas that are living, that are inspiring, that are intellectually interesting. Zeal and charity and unction are admirable as flowers and fruit; but if you are really interested in the living principle you must be interested in the root or the seed.”
Living ideas share another characteristic with living things: they develop. Not only do doctrines increase in the sense of multiplying in number, but a doctrine itself can be said to increase, in the sense of developing. Of course, Chesterton does not mean develop in the sense of change, in the sense of going out of date, as if doctrine thought true by our ancestors can no longer possibly be thought so by us. Doctrinal development does not equal doctrinal dilution. However, he does definitely mean that it is not unnatural for doctrines to develop, if we understand the natural meaning of the word “development.”
There seems to be a queer ignorance, not only about the technical, but the natural meaning of the word Development. The critics of Catholic theology seem to suppose that it is not so much an evolution as an evasion; that it is at best an adaptation. They fancy that its very success is the success of surrender. But that is not the natural meaning of the word Development.
When we talk of a child being well-developed, we mean that he has grown bigger and stronger with his own strength; not that he is padded with borrowed pillows or walks on stilts to make him look taller. When we say that a puppy develops into a dog, we do not mean that his growth is a gradual compromise with a cat; we mean that he becomes more doggy and not Less. Development is the expansion of all the possibilities and implications of a doctrine, as there is time to distinguish them and draw them out.
from St. Thomas Aquinas
And neither does the Church compromise its identity when it welcomes an occasional dragon to dinner or a penitent griffin to sleep in the spare bed. In fact, the way in which the faith becomes catholic is for St. Francis to invite Pan to Peter’s liturgy, and St. Thomas to invite Aristotle to submit categories to describe the indescribable repast.
These two saintly persons are a moment of what Chesterton would call development in doctrine. “St. Thomas, every bit as much as St. Francis, felt subconsciously that the hold of his people was slipping on the solid Catholic doctrine and discipline, worn smooth by more than a thousand years of routine; and that the Faith needed to be shown under a new light and dealt with from another angle…It needed something like the shrewd and homely touch of Aristotle to turn it again into a religion of common sense.” God works on both sides of the Church-world equation. Baptizing into service of the Kingdom of God whatever truths of nature have been uncovered is a perfectly natural course of development for a Church entrusted with the key to transfiguring the world.
Chesterton’s third image of doctrine is that of a map through the world imagined as a walled maze. However, this map is not an escape map.
Nine out of ten of what we call new ideas are simply old mistakes. The Catholic Church has for one of her chief duties that of preventing people from making those old mistakes; from making them over and over again forever, as people always do if they are left to themselves. The truth about the Catholic attitude towards heresy, or as some would say, towards liberty, can best be expressed perhaps by the metaphor of a map. The Catholic Church carries a sort of map of the mind which looks like a map of a maze, but which is in fact a guide to the maze. It has been compiled from knowledge which, even considered as human knowledge, is quite without any human parallel. There is no other case of one continuous intelligent institution that has been thinking about thinking for two thousand years. Its experience naturally covers nearly all experiences; and especially neatly all errors. The result is a map in which all the blind alleys and bad roads are clearly marked, all the ways that have been shown to be worthless by the best of all evidence: the evidence of those who have gone down them.
On this map of the mind the errors are marked as exceptions. The greater part of it consists of playgrounds and happy hunting-fields, where the mind may have as much liberty as it likes; not to mention any number of intellectual battlefields in which the battle is indefinitely open and undecided.
But it does definitely take the responsibility of marking certain roads as leading nowhere or leading to destruction, to a blank wall, or a sheet precipice. By this means, it does prevent men from wasting their time or losing their lives upon paths that have been found futile or disastrous again and again in the past. . . . She does dogmatically defend humanity from its worst foes, those hoary and horrible and devouring monsters of the, old mistakes.
from The Thing: Why I am a Catholic
This map shows the way through the maze; it shows where the fences should be put up for the protection of human life; it leads to artesian springs and away from infectious swamps; it distinguishes grass from poison, showing us meadows capable of supporting life; but it does not, as an insular and sectarian piety would have it, show us an escape tunnel leading out of this public and pagan polis. Doctrines are not for walling out the world, but for safeguarding our paradisiacal playing field.
“Catholic doctrine and discipline may be walls; but they are the walls of a playground. Christianity is the only frame which has preserved the pleasure of Paganism. We might fancy some children playing on the flat grassy top of some tall island in the sea. So long as there was a wall round the cliff’s edge they could fling themselves into every frantic game and make the place the noisiest of nurseries. But the walls were knocked down, leaving the naked peril of the precipice. They did not fall over; but when their friends returned to them they were all huddled in terror in the centre of the island; and their song had ceased.”
Human beings, being “doctrinal animals,” search for truth; and under the assumption that reality is complex, truthful expressions about reality will be complex. “I began to examine more exactly the general Christian theology which many execrated and few examined. I soon found that it did in fact correspond to many of these experiences of life; that even its paradoxes corresponded to the paradoxes of life.”
The elaborateness of a doctrine signifies that the whole truth is being seen and not just that part of it visible to a very local vision. By reductionism, one philosopher can see one truth, like one person can see one color in the peacock tail, but to speak the real color or the real truth requires more than one word, maybe more than one speaker. Catholic theology is a two thousand-year-old mind which has kept intact its memory of what other speakers have said.
It is the only theology that has not only thought, but thought of everything. That almost any other theology or philosophy contains a truth, I do not at all deny; on the contrary, that is what I assert; and that is what I complain of. Of all the other systems or sects I know, every single one is content to follow a truth, theological or theosophical or ethical or metaphysical; and the more they claim to be universal, the more it means that they merely take something and apply it to everything. . . . I have only found one creed that could not be satisfied with a truth, but only with the Truth, which is made of a million such truths and yet is one. . . . Flowers grow best in a garden, and even grow biggest in a garden…
from the Autobiography of G. K. Chesterton
The kind of truth with which Chesterton is concerned — the kind opposed to heresy, I maintain — is not only the truth of verity but the truth of the garden. Heresy is not false because it has never thought a truth; heresy is diminutive because outside the Catholic garden it cannot grow big. A Catholic’s sense of being free derives from possessing “the range of two thousand years full of twelve hundred thousand controversies, thrashed out by thinker against thinker, school against school, guild against guild, nation against nation, with no limit except the fundamental logical fact that the things were worth arguing, because they could be ultimately solved and settled.”
In our modern wilderness we have withered worse than paganism, for at least in their wilderness they struggled to grow truth, believing that the questions were worth arguing. “All previous ages have sweated and been crucified in an attempt to realize what is really the right life, what was really the good man. A definite part of the modern world has come beyond question to the conclusion that there is no answer to these questions, that the most we can do is to set up a few notice boards at places of obvious danger.”
Catholic doctrine is more ambitious than setting up signs warning of thin ice or absolving itself of liability with warning labels on packages. It has the ambitious plan to build a firm foundation for living. The Church wills not only to preserve past truth by protecting it within the gardener’s wall, it wills also to persevere in its search for further truth. If an age no longer believes that truth can be found, then it will have lost its resoluteness and will no mote inaugurate a quest for truth than embark on a search for unicorns.
The argument in ages past between the heretic and the orthodox was about who was which. “In former days the heretic was proud of not being a heretic. . . . But a few modern phrases have made him boast of it.” What this means is that people have lost concern for whether they are philosophically right, and at that point one can hardly get a good discussion off the ground, much less a productive argument.
Before Chesterton can arrive at the point of disagreement with heretics, these flighty minds would have to be able to arrive at a point of commitment themselves. One can’t argue about what is true when the heretic is more interested in being interesting than in being correct. That is the difficulty which Chesterton had felt with such people. “The truth of the matter is, I imagine, that these particular people never did believe or disbelieve in anything. They liked to go and hear stimulating lecturers; and they had a vague preference, almost impossible to reduce to any definable thesis, for those lecturers who were supposed to be in some way heterodox and unconventional. . . .I
had begun to discover that, in all that welter of inconsistent and incompatible heresies, the one and only real unpardonable heresy was orthodoxy.” Perhaps this also accounts for the change in attitude toward creed. Perhaps doctrinal creeds looked less restrictive to a medieval person who wanted to reason things out than to a modern person who does not want to be held by the oppressive constraints of reasonability. To someone who doesn’t believe truth can be stated, the person who believes a stated truth looks gullible. “Creed and credence and credulity are words of the same origin and can be juggled backwards and forwards to any extent. But when a man assumes the absurdity of anything that anybody else believes, we wish first to know what he believes; on what principle he believes; and, above all, upon what principle he disbelieves.”
Christian doctrine looks adamantine not because our age suffers want of freedom, but because it suffers want of reason. In an earlier world, one which “was too stolid, Christianity returned in the form of a vagabond [i.e., Francis]; in a world that has grown a great deal too wild, Christianity has returned in the form of a teacher of logic [i.e., Thomas]. In the world of Herbert Spencer men wanted a cure for indigestion; in the world of Einstein they want a cure for vertigo.”
Just as the complexity of a key is a sign that it was made to fit a lock, so the labyrinthian quality of the map is a sign that it is a blueprint. The map might seem a canard if we never get anywhere by following it, but when we discover that this particular path does lead to happiness and that this particular wall does protect us from danger, just as the map predicts, then we determine that the maker of the map was also the maker of our minds and of our world. Chesterton’s argument for revelation is not in the least an argument against reason, and in this he follows St. Thomas. Every turn revealed by the map is a reasonable turn; each truth to which it leads, a reasonable truth.
St. Thomas is inclined to admit “that truth could be reached by a rational process, if only it were rational enough; and also long enough. . . That is, he does emphatically believe that men can be convinced by argument; when they reach the end of the argument. Only his common sense also told him that the argument never ends…Therefore men must receive the highest moral truths in a miraculous manner; or most men would not receive them at all.”
Revelation does not short-circuit human rationality by disclosing things reason could never believe. Revelation is a source of truths which not every person has the luxury of time to arrive at by reasonable argument. Revelation delivers us from having to discover the dead ends by personal harm and detriment, but even the pagan, without benefit of revelation, would agree which ends are fatal for human beings. Revelation does not reveal anything contrary to reason.
Chesterton illustrates this understanding of natural law and revelation through the subject of human dignity and equality. Some say that belief “in the brotherhood of men was only founded on certain texts in the Bible, about all men being the children of Adam and Eve.” If this is true, if doctrine is grounded solely on revealed text without any ground of reason, then those who don’t believe those texts don’t have to believe the teaching.
But Chesterton thinks the texts aren’t required to make us start believing the teaching; in fact, the texts are most required when we stop believing the teaching. Millions of plain people all over the world have assumed obligations toward their neighbor without ever having clapped eyes on any sacred text, so it is not true that without revelation the belief would be unreasonable.
What is true is this: that if the nonsense of Nietzsche or some such sophist submerged current culture, so that it was the fashion to deny the duties of fraternity; then indeed it might be found that the group which still affirmed fraternity was the original group in whose sacred books was the text about Adam and Eve.
Suppose some Prussian professor has opportunely discovered that Germans and lesser men are respectively descended from two such very different monkeys that they are in no sense brothers, but barely cousins (German) any number of times removed. And suppose he proceeds to remove them even further with a hatchet; suppose he bases on this a repetition of the conduct of Cain, saying not so much “Am I my brother’s keeper?” as “Is he really my brother?”
And suppose this higher philosophy of the hatchet becomes prevalent in colleges and cultivated circles, as even more foolish philosophies have done. Then I agree it probably will be the Christian, the man who preserves the text about Cain, who will continue to assert that he is still the professor’s brother; that he is still the professor’s keeper. He may possibly add that, in his opinion, the professor seems to require a keeper. . .
It is the Christian church which continues to hold strongly, when the world for some reason has weakened on it, what many others hold at other times…But anybody who holds it at all will hold it as a philosophy, not hung on one text but on a hundred truths.
from What’s Wrong With The World
The doctrinal map is not nearly so private as the heretic would have us believe. The ancient Greeks called a private person an “idiotes,” meaning “not public” — self-contained in one’s own world. The Catholic believes the Bible is true because what it contains is public and can be recognized by reason; but the heretic, wishing to demonstrate revelation’s truth on the grounds that it is too unique for reason to recognize, would have us believe the Bible is true because it is idiotic.
If this disjunction between revelation and reason comes about, then there is nothing to talk about, since dialogue requires that we have both a reason to talk and reason to talk with. Then civilized dialogue breaks off and civilization’s acerbic tongue makes its appearance. As a matter of fact, it is generally the man who is not ready to argue, who is ready to sneer. That is why, in recent literature, there has been so little argument and so much sneering.”
It was not in St. Thomas’s character to sneer. “There is not a single occasion on which he indulged in a sneer. His curiously simple character, his lucid but laborious intellect, could not be better summed up than by saying that he did not know how to sneer.” And this remained true although he thought combatively, apologetically, and indulged in arguments of inordinate length. A sneer was not only not in his character, it was not in his theology. Therefore the engagement between revelation and reason enlarged both the faith and the mind. In his Catholic theology, revelation did not end an argument, it began it, made sense of it, and revealed its end. St. Thomas thought one must understand the opponent’s position better than the opponent understood it himself
It is no good to tell an atheist that he is an atheist; or to charge a denier of immortality with the infamy of denying it; or to imagine that one can force an opponent to admit he is wrong, by proving he is wrong on somebody else’s principles, but not on his own. After the great example of St. Thomas, the principle stands, or ought always to have stood as established; that we must cither not argue with a man at all, or we must argue on his grounds and not ours. We may do other things instead of arguing, according to our views of what actions are morally permissible; but if we argue we must argue [as Thomas put it] “on the reasons and statements of the philosophers themselves.”
from St. Thomas Aquinas
In a related way, one must understand the principle behind a practice better than the person who holds the position without reason It is not enough to be right only by prejudice, even if it is a valid prejudice, because with, out a principle the prejudice can’t be corrected when it starts to go awry. In evidence, Chesterton submits that although “most of our friends and acquaintances continue to entertain a healthy prejudice against cannibalism,” there are nevertheless attitudes appearing today toward the human body (our corporal mode of being human), which do not think the bodies of humans very much different from the bodies of animals.
Among people who have reached this position, the reason for disapproving of cannibalism has already become very vague. It remains as a tradition and an instinct. Fortunately, thank God, though it is now very vague, it is still very strong.” But social sanities which we take for granted shan’t remain strong without a theological creed for a grounding principle. “All such social sanities are now the traditions of old Catholic dogmas. Like many other Catholic dogmas, they are felt in some vague way even by heathens, so long as they are healthy heathens. . . . They have the prejudice; and long may they retain it! We have the principle, and they are welcome to it when they want it.” If the heretic finds revelation unreasonable, it is because he has surrendered his principle of reason; at least the healthy heathen is in the position of being able to ascertain in revelation what he has reasonably expected.
“Some people do not like the word ‘dogma. Fortunately they are free, and there is an alternative for them. There are two things, and two things only, for the human mind, a dogma and a prejudice. The Middle Ages were a rational epoch, an age of doctrine. Our age is, at its best, a poetical epoch, an age of prejudice. A doctrine is a definite point; a prejudice is a direction. That an ox may be eaten, while a man should not be eaten, is a doctrine.”
This brings us to Chesterton’s fourth image. It is true that Catholic doctrine is rather single-minded: it persistently harps about love of God and justice on earth, eternal happiness and how one becomes capacitated for it, beatitude and other such topics which do tend to grab the mind’s attention. But single-mindedness should not be mistaken for narrow-mindedness. While it is true that Catholic doctrine has a quality which may be called undeviating, assiduous, and constant (so constant that those who were already too tired to hear it the first time will find it monotonously tiring the millionth time they hear it), it is not true that Catholic doctrine may be called narrow in ambition or modest in scope.
This theology really does want to reconcile such diverse things as angels and octopuses, heaven and earth, revelation and reason, faith and science, Church and world, and all this because it believes grace perfects nature. Failure to perceive this is the cause of the puritan’s agoraphobia as New Rome invited Old Rome to help decorate St. Peter’s Basilica.
St. Thomas must make corrections to Aristotle where this philosopher has not accounted for a fact of revelation to come after him, but all that this wise pagan had right, Thomas keeps. Of whatever other faults scholasticism may be culpable, it cannot be charged with narrow-mindedness when it tries to accommodate, simultaneously, all the reality which heaven reveals and reason discovers. In its broad mindedness, scholasticism is unwilling to live in twin worlds, which is at the root of Thomas’s objection to his schizophrenic opponent, Siger of Brabant.
Siger of Brabant said this: the church must be right theologically, but she can be wrong scientifically. There are two truths; the truth of the supernatural world, and the truth of the natural world, which contradicts the supernatural world. While we are being naturalists, we can suppose that Christianity is all nonsense; but then, when we remember that we are Christians, we must admit that Christianity is true even if it is nonsense. In other words, Siger of Brabant split the human head in two, like the blow in an old legend of battle; and he declared that a man has two minds, with one of which he must entirely believe and with the other may utterly disbelieve. To many this would at least seem like a parody of Thomism. As a fact, it was the assassination of Thomism. It was not two ways of finding the same truth; it was an untruthful way of pretending that there are two truths. And it is extraordinarily interesting to note that this is the one occas~on when the Dumb Ox really came out like a wild bull. .
Those who complain that theologians draw fine distinctions could hardly find a better example of their own folly. In fact, a fine distinction can be a flat contradiction. It was notably so in this case. St. Thomas was willing to allow the one truth to be approached by two paths, precisely because he was sure there was only one truth. Because the Faith was the one truth, nothing discovered in nature could ultimately contradict the Faith. Because the Faith was the one truth, nothing really deduced from the Faith could ultimately contradict the facts. It was in truth a curiously daring confidence in the reality of his religion; and though some may linger to dispute it, it has been justified.
“A man is not really convinced of a philosophic theory when he finds that something proves it. He is only really convinced when he finds that everything proves it.” That is why it was necessary for Chesterton, and for St. Thomas, that the Catholic faith be stretched large enough to cover everything. In the scholastic’s case, it resulted in “books enough to sink a ship or stock a library”; a review of Chesterton’s own bookshelves, and the range of interests they reveal, proves that it is not much different for him.
If he had only needed a single truth, he could have been satisfied with any philosophy, because every half-truth contains some truth; but to be really convinced that Catholicism had the one whole truth, he tilted with a range of heresies. “Now anybody driven to the defense of what he does really mean must cover all the strategic field of the fight, and must fight at many points which he would not have chosen in fancy, but only in relation to fact. He cannot hope to deal only with heresies that amuse him; he must, in common fairness, deal seriously with heresies that bore him.”
from St. Thomas Aquinas
Catholic doctrine is still being stretched; the flowers in the garden are still growing. The matter which doctrine uses to develop, like the food which a child uses to grow, increases as actual, novel, historical events come to pass and the sum total of facts to chew on increases. As the world increases for us, doctrine will be animated, and thoughts will breed. So unless Siger of Brabant is right, and surely he isn’t, Catholicism does not have a conflicted mind about scriptural truth and scientific truth.
In the matter of the inspiration of Scripture, [Thomas] fixed first on the obvious fact. . . that the meaning of Scripture is very far from self-evident; and that we must often interpret it in the light of other truths. If a literal interpretation is really and flatly contradicted by an obvious fact, why then we can only say that the literal interpretation must be a false interpretation. But the fact must really be an obvious fact. And unfortunately, nineteenth century scientists were just as ready to jump to the conclusion that any guess about nature was an obvious fact, as were seventeenth century sectarians to jump to the conclusion that any guess about Scripture was the obvious explanation.
Thus, private theories about what the Bible ought to mean, and premature theories about what the world ought to mean, have met in loud and widely advertised controversy…and this clumsy collision of two very impatient forms of ignorance was known as the quarrel of Science and Religion…If the matter had been left to [Thomas]. and men like him, there never would have been any quarrel between Science and Religion.
from St. Thomas Aquinas
Interpreting the meaning of Scripture in the light of other truths is an ongoing proposition, not a fundamentalist proposition which pulls the shade on the world’s bright lights: Plato, Aristotle, Copernicus, Newton, and so forth. In fact, a new pile of empirical fact was dumped in the university square at Paris for St. Thomas’s consideration by a new attitude toward empiricism cultivated by his teacher, Albert the Great.
It is not really so much a question of access to the facts, as of attitude to the facts. Most of the Schoolmen, if informed by the only informants they had that a unicorn has one horn or a salamander lives in the fire, still used it more as an illustration of logic than an incident of life. What they really said was, “If a unicorn has one horn, two unicorns have as many horns as one cow.” And that is not one inch the less a fact because the unicorn is a fable. But with Albertus in medieval times, as with Aristotle in ancient times, there did begin something like the idea of emphasizing the question: “But does the unicorn only have one horn or the salamander a fire instead of a fireside” Doubtless when the social and geographical limits of medieval life began to allow them to search the fire for salamanders or the desert for unicorns, they had to modify many of their scientific ideas. A fact which will expose them to the very proper scorn of a generation of scientists which has just discovered that Newton is nonsense, that space is limited, and that there is no such thing as an atom.
from St. Thomas Aquinas
From this world of facts sprang cosmological arguments as the natural world became grist for the reasoning of faith. It does seem to be agreed upon that the unruly child, Science, is really Christianity’s child. The willingness to poke Mother Nature with empirical syringes could not have come out of a pagan worldview which treated nature as quasi-divine. It required a worldview in which Nature is not our mother, but our sister. “We can be proud of her beauty, since we have the same father; but she has no authority over us.” “Are you surprised that the same civilization which believed in the Trinity discovered steam?”
With the discovery also comes obligations. As Chesterton has repeatedly told us, what’s wrong with the world is that we act without knowing to what end we are obliged. Our sister, Nature, is not mute about this knowledge, so St. Thomas listens to her, making him Huxley’s ideal agnostic: one cornmitted to the method of following reason as far as it will go.
Now the modern Anthropologists, who called themselves Agnostics, completely failed to be Anthropologists at all. Under their limitations, they could not get a complete theory of Man, let alone a complete theory of nature. They began by ruling out something which they called the Unknowable. . .
But it rapidly became apparent that all sorts of things were unknowable, which were exactly the things that a man has got to know. It is necessary to know whether he is responsible or irresponsible, perfect or imperfect, perfectible or unperfectible, mortal or immortal, doomed or free, not in order to understand God, but in order to understand Man….
Has a man free will; or is his sense of choice an illusion? Has he a conscience, or has his conscience any authority; or is it only the prejudice of the tribal past? Is there any real hope of settling these things by human reason; and has that any authority? Is he to regard death as final; and is he to regard miraculous help as possible?
from St. Thomas Aquinas
Where St. Thomas and the agnostic part company is not in their answer — Thomas is supremely confident that God lies at the end of reason — but in the fact that only St. Thomas, and not the agnostic, really asks “Where does it go?” Because theology is not disjunctive to reason or empiricism, investigations of nature will contribute to the discussion about the end and essence of human beings, but only if that is being discussed. Unfortunately, the investigation will not treat what it declares at the outset as unknowable.
Thus it happens, says Chesterton, that the Catholic tradition can affirm both mystical knowledge and intellectual knowledge, for the very simple reason that they are both right. Again, the heretic’s ungainly position is to stand on a single footing, waving his arms frantically in apprehension of falling to either one side or the other—reason or mysticism. The Catholic stands upon both feet, on a base broad enough to house both Franciscans and Dominicans.
The Franciscan [Bonaventure] may be represented as the Father of all the Mystics; and the Mystics can be represented as men who maintain that the final fruition or joy of the soul is rather a sensation than a thought. The motto of the Mystics has always been, “Taste and see.”
Now St. Thomas also began by saying, “Taste and see”; but he said it of the first rudimentary impressions of the human animal. It might well be maintained that the Franciscan puts Taste last and the Dominican puts it first. It might be said that the Thomist begins with something solid like the taste of an apple, and afterwards deduces a divine life for the intellect; while the Mystic exhausts the intellect first, and says finally that the sense of God is something like the taste of an apple…
They are both right; if I may say so, it is a privilege of people who contradict each other in their cosmos to be both right. The Mystic is right in saying that the relation of God and Man is essentially a love-story; the pattern and type of all love-stories. The Dominican rationalist is equally right in saying that the intellect is at home in the topmost heavens; and that the appetite for truth may outlast and even devour all the duller appetites of man.
from St. Thomas Aquinas
Our hankering for love stories reminds us that we were made for love, and our craving for understanding reminds us that we were made for intellectual fulfillment. “Whether the supreme ecstasy is more affectional than intellectual is no very deadly matter of quarrel among men who believe it is both, but do not profess even to imagine the actual experience of either.”