Posts Tagged ‘reading the Gospels’


Chesterton‘s The Everlasting Man 3 – Ian Ker

February 28, 2013
Chesterton and wife Frances in 1922

Chesterton and wife Frances in 1922

Instead of the platitudes one associates with moralists, a person reading the Gospels for the first time “would find a number of strange claims…a number of very startling pieces of advice; a number of stunning rebukes; a number of strangely beautiful stories.” Instead of platitudes, for instance, about peace, such a reader would find several ideals of non-resistance, which taken as they stand would be rather too pacific for any pacifist.

But, on the other hand, our reader would not find a word of all that obvious rhetoric against war which has filled countless books. There is nothing that throws any particular light on Christ’s attitude towards organized warfare, except that he seems to have been rather fond of Roman soldiers.

Indeed it is another perplexity… that he seems to have got on much better with Romans than he did with Jew: truth is, Chesterton concludes, the Jesus of popular conception is ‘‘a made-up figure, a piece of artificial selection, like the merely evolutionary man’‘and impossible to reconcile with the real Jesus of the Gospels, ‘‘ a strolling carpenter’s apprentice’‘who ‘‘ said calmly and almost carelessly, like one looking over his shoulder: “Before Abraham was, I am.”

Chesterton gives examples of how it is the Church that explains the riddles of the Gospel. The assertion, for instance, that the meek inherit the earth was not at all “a meek statement’‘, but rather ‘‘a very violent statement; in the sense of doing violence to reason and probability.” But as a prophecy it would one day be fulfilled in monasticism: ‘‘The monasteries were the most practical and prosperous estates and experiments in reconstruction after the barbaric deluge; the meek did really inherit the earth.”

Again, the story of Martha and Mary found its fulfillment in ‘‘the mystics of the Christian contemplative life.” If the Gospels could be read as though they were ‘‘ as new as newspaper reports, they would puzzle and perhaps terrify us as much more than the same things as developed by historical Christianity:  “For instance, Christ after a clear allusion to the eunuchs of the eastern courts, said there would be eunuchs of the kingdom of heaven. If this does not mean the voluntary enthusiasm of virginity, it could only be made to mean something much more unnatural or uncouth.”

As an example of  “the originality of the Gospel.” Chesterton takes the “exaltation of childhood”, as strong and as startling as any. But the literary style itself of Jesus was also highly original: “It had among other things a singular air of piling tower upon tower by the use of the a, fortiori …”.  And above all, his speaking as though he were divine was absolutely unique: ‘‘ of no other prophet or philosopher of the same intellectual order, would it be even possible to pretend that he had made such a claim.

The case of Jesus Christ was unique: only a “monomaniac” could make such a claim, but no one thought that ‘‘ the preacher of the Sermon on the Mount was a horrible half-witted imbecile’‘. However, in spite of the Sermon on the Mount, there was a “quality running through all his teachings” that seemed to Chesterton  “to be neglected in most modern talk about them as teachings; and that is the persistent suggestion that he has not really to come to teach’‘– but rather “to die”.

And, when the moment came for him to die, it was “the supremely supernatural act, of all his miraculous life, that he did not vanish,” that he did not miraculously disappear. On that Good Friday, Chesterton notes that it is ‘‘the best things in the world that are at their worst, the priests of a true monotheism and the soldiers of an international civilization.”

Although ‘‘ Rome was almost another name for responsibility’‘, the Roman governor Pontius Pilate “stands for ever as a sort of rocking statue of the irresponsible:  “He who is enthroned to say what is justice can only ask, “What is truth?”

And the Jewish priests who were “proud that they alone could look upon the blinding sun of a single deity… did not know that they themselves had gone blind.” Of the crucifixion itself Chesterton refuses to speak — for

if there be any sound that can produce a silence, we may surely be silent about the end and the extremity; when a cry was driven out of that darkness in words dreadfully distinct and dreadfully unintelligible, which man shall never undertand in all the eternity they have purchased for him; and for one annihilating instant an abyss that is not for our thoughts had opened even in the unity of the absolute; and God had been forsaken of God.

Chesterton had in fact dared to speak of this terrible paradox in Orthodoxy.

When giving Peter authority over his Church, Christ used the two symbols of rock and keys. What he meant by saying that on the Peter he would build his Church was another example of something that  could only fully expand and explain itself afterwards, and even long afterwards.”. But the other image of the keys, Chesterton suggests, “has an exactitude that has hardly been exactly noticed.”

Its “peculiar aptness” lay in the fact that the early “Christian movement” claimed to possess that a key that could unlock the prison of the whole world; and let in the white daylight of liberty.” The Christian creed was like a key in three ways: a key is above all things a thing with a shape. It is a thing that depends entirely upon keeping its shape. The Christian creed is above all things the philosophy of shapes and the enemy of shapelessness.”

Chesterton presses home the analogy:  “A man told that his solitary latchkey had been melted down with a million others into a Buddhist unity would be annoyed. But a man told that his key was gradually growing and sprouting in his pocket and branching into new wards or complications, would not be more gratified.”

Secondly, the point about a key is that it either fits or does fit the lock. If it fits the lock, then it is pointless to ask for ‘‘ a simpler key that has a less ‘‘ fantastic shape’‘. And, thirdly, to complain about the key having the ‘‘elaborate pattern” that is necessary to open the lock is like complaining about Christianity ‘‘being so early complicated with theology’‘.

If Christianity had “faced the world only with the platitudes about peace and simplicity some moralists would confine it to, it would not have had the faintest effect on that luxurious and labyrinthine lunatic asylum’‘.  The creed was complicated, because the problem with the world was “a complicated problem.”

Although it did seem ‘‘ complex” like the key, there was ‘‘ one thing about it that was simple. It opened the door. “The truth was that the “purity” of the creed was “preserved by dogmatic definitions and exclusions.” “It could not possibly have been preserved by anything else.”

The enlightened modern liberals who deride the Athanasian dogma of Co-Eternity of the Divine Son’‘as “a dreadful example of barren dogma” are the same people who like to ‘‘ offer us as a piece of pure and simple Christianity, untroubled by doctrinal disputes … the single sentence, “God is Love”. “But the dogma is there to protect that very sentence.” The barren dogma is only the logical way of stating the beautiful sentiment. Never has the vital importance of defined doctrine been more compellingly expressed:

For if there be a being without beginning, existing before all things, was He loving when there was nothing to be loved? If through that unthinkable eternity He is lonely, what is the meaning of saying He is love? The only justification of such a mystery is the mystical conception that in His own nature there was something analogous to self-expression; something of what begets and beholds what it has begotten. Without some such idea, it is really illogical to complicate the ultimate essence of deity with an idea like love.

It was “the defiance of Athanasius to the cold compromise of the Arians that was the trumpet of true Christianity.”

It was emphatically he who really was fighting for a God of Love against a God of colorless and remote cosmic control; the God of the stoics and the agnostics…. He was fighting for that very balance of beautiful interdependence and intimacy, in the very Trinity of the Divine Nature, that draws our hearts to the Trinity of the Holy Family. His dogma, if the phrase be not misunderstood, turns even God into a Holy Family.

Islam, on the other hand, was ‘‘ a barbaric reaction against that very humane complexity… that idea of balance in the deity, as of balance in the family, that makes that creed a sort of sanity, and that sanity the soul of civilization.” For Islam was “a product of Christianity; even if it was a byproduct; even if it was a bad product.”

There was one thing that pagan mythology and philosophy had in common: “both were really sad. “Christianity brought hope into the world. And it was a dogmatic Christianity that did this because of its very liberality. Modem theological liberals cannot understand that “the only liberal part of their theology is really the dogmatic part.”

If dogma is incredible, it is because it is incredibly liberal. If it is irrational, it can only be in giving us more assurance of freedom than is justified by reason. “The doctrine of free will may seem irrational, but it is hardly liberality to deny personal freedom. Without the dogmas of dogmatic Christianity, monotheism turns into monism and consequently into despotism:

It is precisely the unknown God of the scientist, with his impenetrable purpose and his inevitable and unalterable law that reminds us of a Prussian autocrat making rigid plans in a remote tent and moving mankind like machinery. It is precisely the God of miracles and of answered prayers who reminds us of a liberal and popular prince, receiving petitions …

It is the Catholic, who has the feeling that his prayers do make a difference, when offered for the living and the dead, who also has the feeling of living like a free citizen in something almost like a constitutional commonwealth. It is the monist who lives under a single iron law who must have the feeling of living like a slave under a sultan.

Indeed I believe that the original use of the word suffragium, which we now use in politics for a vote was that employed in theology about a prayer. The dead in Purgatory were said to have the suffrages of the living. And in this sense, of a sort of right of petition to the supreme ruler, we may truly say that the whole of the Communion of Saints as well as the whole of the Church Militant, is founded on universal suffrage.

What theological liberals really mean is that “dogma is too good to be true ‘‘too liberal to be likely.”


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