Posts Tagged ‘seeing Christianity afresh’

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Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man 2 – Ian Ker

February 27, 2013
Chesterton explained that pagan mythology was “a search” that combined “a recurrent desire with a recurrent doubt”. And yet there remained “an indestructible instinct, in the poet as represented by the pagan, that he is not entirely wrong in localizing his god”. It was all right to call these pagan myths “foreshadowings” so long as one remembered that “foreshadowings are shadows”: “And the metaphor of a shadow happens to hit very exactly the truth that is very vital here. For a shadow is a shape; a thing which reproduces shape but not texture. These things were something like the real thing; and to say that they were like is to say that they were different.”

Chesterton explained that pagan mythology was “a search” that combined “a recurrent desire with a recurrent doubt”. And yet there remained “an indestructible instinct, in the poet as represented by the pagan, that he is not entirely wrong in localizing his god”. It was all right to call these pagan myths “foreshadowings” so long as one remembered that “foreshadowings are shadows”: “And the metaphor of a shadow happens to hit very exactly the truth that is very vital here. For a shadow is a shape; a thing which reproduces shape but not texture. These things were something like the real thing; and to say that they were like is to say that they were different.”

The pagan was not an unbeliever like an atheist, but neither was he a believer like a Christian. He felt “the presence of powers” about which he could only guess. His myths were never “a religion, in the sense that Christianity or even Islam is a religion”. Certainly, they satisfied “some of the needs satisfied by a religion; and notably the need for doing certain things at certain dates; the need of the twin ideas of festivity and formality”. But, although myths provided the pagan with “a calendar”, they did not “provide him with a creed”.

When St Paul was in Athens, he discovered that the Greeks had “one altar to an unknown godBut in truth all their gods were unknown gods.” It was only when St Paul told them who it was “they had ignorantly worshipped” that “the real break in history” came. Paganism, then, was “an attempt to reach the divine reality through the imagination alone” and without the restraints of reason. For reason was “something separate from religion, even in the most rational of these civilizations”. Mythology and philosophy ran “parallel” and did not “mingle till they met in the sea of Christendom”.

But nevertheless the pagan “found it natural to worship; even natural to worship unnatural things”. The pagan knew that when he worshipped he was “doing a worthy and virile thing”: he was “doing one of the things for which a man was made”. But the fact remained that it was an “imaginative experiment” that “began with imagination”, and therefore there was “something of mockery in it, and especially in the object of it”. This mockery became “the almost intolerable irony of Greek tragedy”.

It was not surprising that one “feels throughout the whole of paganism a curious double feeling of trust and distrust.” For pagan mythology was “a search” that combined “a recurrent desire with a recurrent doubt.” And yet there remained “an indestructible instinct, in the poet as represented by the pagan, that he is not entirely wrong in localizing his god.”

It was all right to call these pagan myths “foreshadowings” so long as one remembered that “foreshadowings are shadows”: “And the metaphor of a shadow happens to hit very exactly the truth that is very vital here. For a shadow is a shape; a thing which reproduces shape but not texture. These things were something like the real thing; and to say that they were like is to say that they were different.”

For polytheism was “never a view of the universe satisfying all sides of life; a complete and complex truth with something to say about everything. It was only a satisfaction of one side of the soul of man, even if we call it the religious side; and I think it is truer to call it the imaginative side.” Precisely, then, because “mythology only satisfied one mood”, the pagan “turned in other moods to something totally different”.

But the mythology and the philosophy never collided and “really destroyed the other”, nor was there ever “any combination in which one was really reconciled with the other. They certainly did not work together; if anything the philosopher was a rival of the priest.”

Chesterton now begins his task of trying to make us see Christianity afresh as though for the first time, however grotesquely he has to depict it. And first of all he points out that the whole of Christianity rests on this “single paradox” — “that the hands that had made the sun and stars were too small to reach the huge heads of the cattle.” Every Christmas proclaims an “association … between two ideas that most of mankind must regard as remote from each other; the idea of a baby and the idea of unknown strength that sustains the stars”.

And “this combination of ideas has emphatically… altered human nature.” “It would, be vain to attempt to say anything adequate, or anything new, about the change which this conception of a deity born like an outcast or even an outlaw had upon the whole conception of law and its duties to the poor and outcast.”

Again, Christmas, that feast so important to Chesterton, “is in one sense simple thing”, but, like all the truths of Christianity, “it is in another sense a very complex thing. Its unique note is the simultaneous striking of notes; of humility, of gaiety, of gratitude, of mystical fear, but also of vigilance and drama.”

Christmas celebrates “the exultant explosion of that one hour in the Judean hills”, when “the rejoicings in the cavern were rejoicing in a fortress or an outlaw”s den; properly understood it is not unduly flippant to say they were rejoicings in a dug-out”. The “subterranean chamber” where Jesus was born was literally “a hiding-place from enemies”, enemies who “were already scouring the stony plain that lay above it like a sky”:

It is not only that the very horse-hoofs of Herod might in that sense have passed like thunder over the sunken head of Christ. It is also that there is in that image a true idea of an outpost, of a piercing through the rock and an entrance in enemy territory. There is in this buried divinity an idea of undermining the world, of  shaking the towers and palaces from below…

Jesus’ followers, too, were paradoxically both “despised and … feared”:

Those who charged the Christians with burning down Rome with firebrand slanderers; but they were at least far nearer to the nature of Christianity those among the moderns who tell us that the Christians were a sort of ethical  society, being martyred in a languid fashion for telling men they had a duty to their neighbors, and only mildly disliked because they were meek and mild.

What Chesterton calls “the combination of ideas that make up the Christian and Catholic idea” was “already crystallized in the first Christmas story”. The “three distinct and commonly contrasted things.. . are nevertheless one thing; but this is the only thing which can make them one.”

The first is the human instinct for a heaven that shall be as literal and almost as local as a home. It is the idea pursued by all poets and pagans making myths; that a particular place must be the shrine of the god or the abode of the blest… The second element is a philosophy larger than that of Lucretius and infinitely larger than that of Herbert Spencer. It looks at the world through a hundred windows where the ancient stoic or the modern agnostic only looks through one.. And the third point is this; that while it is local enough for poetry and larger than any other philosophy, it is also a challenge and a fight. While it is deliberately broadened to embrace every aspect of truth, it is still stiffly embattled against every mode of error.

This trinity of truths” was symbolized … by the three types in the old Christmas story; the shepherds and the kings and that other king who warred upon the children”.

Chesterton now turns to the figure of Christ himself. And he begins by pointing out that there is the obvious difficulty that the New Testament is no longer the New Testament: It is not at all easy to realize the good news as new.” Challenging the usual stereotypes, Chesterton insists on us looking at the actual person we read about in the Gospels:

We have all heard people say a hundred times over, for they seem never to tire of saying it, that the Jesus of the New Testament is indeed a most merciful and humane lover of humanity, but that the Church has hidden this human character in repellent dogmas and stiffened it with ecclesiastical terrors till it has taken on an inhuman character.

This, Chesterton insists, is … very nearly the reverse of the truth”.

The truth is that it is the image of Christ in the churches that is almost entirely mild and merciful. It is the image of Christ in the Gospels that is a good many other things as well. The figure in the Gospels does indeed utter in words of almost heart-breaking beauty his pity for our broken hearts.

But they are very far from being the only sort of words that he utters. Nevertheless they are almost the only kind of words that the Church in its popular imagery ever represents him as uttering. The popular imagery is inspired by a perfectly sound popular instinct. The mass of the poor are broken, and the mass of the people are poor, and for the mass of mankind the main thing is to carry the conviction of the incredible compassion of God…. In any case there is something appalling, something that makes the blood run cold, in the idea of having a statue of Christ in wrath.

But if we turn to the Gospels themselves, what do we find? Somebody reading them for the first time, suggests Chesterton, would find that “part of the interest” of the story would consist in its leaving a good deal to be guessed at or explained”: “It is full of sudden gestures evidently significant except that we hardly know what they signify; of enigmatic silences; of ironical replies. The outbreaks of wrath, like storms above our atmosphere, do not seem to break out exactly where we should expect them, but to follow some higher weather-chart of their own.”

Nor is there anything “meek and mild” about Jesus the exorcist: “It is much more like the tone of a very business-like lion-tamer or a strong-minded doctor dealing with a homicidal maniac.” Indeed, the real Christ of the Gospels is “actually more strange and terrible than the Christ of the Church”. Then there are the “puzzles” in “a very strange story”, like “that long stretch of silent life of Christ up to the age of thirty. It is of all silences the most immense and imaginatively impressive”.

How is it that “he who of all humanity needed least preparation seems to have had most”? The truth is that the Gospel story is not “easy to get to the bottom of”. It is anything but the “simple Gospel” that people like to contrast with the Church: “Relatively speaking, it is the Gospel that has the mysticism and the Church that has the rationalism. As I should put it, of course, it is the Gospel that is the riddle and the Church that is the answer. But whatever be the answer, the Gospel as it stands is almost a book of riddles.”

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