Posts Tagged ‘the idea of God’


Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man 1 – Ian Ker

February 26, 2013
Chesterton begins The Everlasting Man, one of the two or three greatest of his half-dozen or so major works, by pointing out that in a post-Christian age it is very difficult to see Christianity for what it is: post-Christians `still live in the shadow of the faith and have lost the light of the faith.

Chesterton begins The Everlasting Man, one of the two or three greatest of his half-dozen or so major works, by pointing out that in a post-Christian age it is very difficult to see Christianity for what it is: post-Christians `still live in the shadow of the faith and have lost the light of the faith.

H. G. Wells’s best-selling The Outline of History had been published in serial paperback form in 1919 and then as a hardback in 1920. Wells’s `outline’ was quite simple: through the centuries man had evolved from a primitive animal form to the civilized man of the twentieth century who would finally establish world peace and prosperity. The book was a best-seller — although its view of history was certainly rather remarkable, given its publication only one year after the end of the horrors of the First World War and ten years before the Great Depression began with the Wall Street crash of 1929, only to be followed ten years later by the Second World War. Wells had naturally been dismissive of Christianity, attacking the Roman Catholic Church in particular. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man, published in September 1925, was at least in part a response to Wells.

Chesterton begins The Everlasting Man, one of the two or three greatest of his half-dozen or so major works, by pointing out that in a post-Christian age it is very difficult to see Christianity for what it is: post-Christians still live in the shadow of the faith and have lost the light of the faith. They are in a state of `reaction’: ‘They cannot be Christians and they cannot leave off being Anti-Christians. They are not `far enough away not to hate ‘Christianity, nor are they ‘near enough to love it’. And so, `while the best judge of Christianity is a Christian, the next best judge would be something more like a Confucian’.

But the `worst judge of all is the man now most ready with his judgments; the ill-educated Christian turning gradually into the ill-tempered agnostic … ‘. The `anti-clericalism’ of post-Christians `has become an atmosphere, an atmosphere of negation and hostility from which they cannot escape. Compared with that, it would be better to see the whole thing as something belonging to another continent, or to another planet.’ It is only when one is `impartial’ that one can `know why people are partial to it’. And Chesterton `seriously’ recommends `those in whom a mere reaction has thus become an obsession’ to imagine the Apostles as if they were pagans, `to try to do as much justice to Christian saints as if they were Pagan sages’.

Living in a country full of churches, post-Christians need `to walk past a church as if it were a pagoda’ rather than `to stand permanently in the porch, impotent either to go inside … or to go outside and forget’. Chesterton is quite candid about his apologetic method: to `invoke … the imagination that can see what is there’. For Christianity makes very serious claims that it would be absurd to dismiss with contempt. Consequently, `when its fundamentals are doubted, as at present, we must try to recover the candor and wonder of the child; the unspoilt realism and objectivity of innocence’.

If that is not possible, then `we must try at least to shake off the cloud of mere custom and see the thing as new, if only by seeing it as unnatural. Things that may well be familiar so long as familiarity breeds affection had much better become unfamiliar when familiarity breeds contempt.’ The `heavy bias of fatigue’ made it `almost impossible to make the facts vivid, because the facts are familiar’.

If, for example, one has lost `the sane vision’ of who man is, then one `can only get it back by something very like a mad vision; that is, by seeing man as a strange animal and realizing how strange an animal he is’. In short, `it is exactly when we do regard man as an animal that we know he is not an animal’. Only then can we recover our sense of `wonder’ at the nature of man. And so, Chesterton’s avowed purpose is `to strike wherever possible this note of what is new and strange, and for that reason the style even on so serious a subject may sometimes be deliberately grotesque and fanciful’.

For his aim is `to help the reader to see Christendom from the outside in the sense of seeing it as a whole, against the background of other historic things; just as I desire him to see humanity as a whole against the background of natural things’. When both Christianity and humanity are `seen thus, they stand out from their background like supernatural things’.

After this introduction, Chesterton does indeed begin with man himself, about whom the `simplest truth. is that he is a very strange being; almost thing grows from a seed, or something smaller than itself. They seem to forget that every seed comes from a tree, or from something larger than itself.’ In the case of religion, it was much more likely that monotheism preceded polytheism, that `religion did not originally come from some detail that was forgotten, because it was too small to be traced': `Much more probably it was an idea that was abandoned because it was too large to be managed.

There is very good reason to suppose many people did begin with the simple but overwhelming idea of one God who governs all; and fell away into such things as demon-worship almost as a secret dissipation.’ In paganism God `is something assumed and forgotten and remembered by accident’. He is `the higher deity’ who `is remembered in the higher moral grades and is a sort of mystery’.

What seemed clear to Chesterton was that `there was never any such thing as the Evolution of the Idea of God. The idea was concealed, was avoided, was almost forgotten, was even explained away; but it was never evolved.’ Polytheism itself seems often to have consisted of `the combination of several monotheisms’, while Confucianism seems to be `a rather vague theism’ in which `a simple truth’ seems to have `receded, until it was remote without ceasing to be true’.

The fact that there was `a strange silence’ about God certainly suggested `the absence of God’ — but not necessarily the `non-existence’ of God: there was `a void’ but not `a negation’. There was `an empty chair’ or rather `an empty throne’. And Chesterton invokes his favorite image of the back: `it was as if some immeasurable presence had turned its back on the world.’ There was `in a very real sense the presence of the absence of God’, which one could feel, for example, `in the unfathomable sadness of pagan poetry’.

There was the implication that the gods of the pagans were `ultimately related to something else, even when that Unknown God has faded into a Fate’. For `what was truly divine’ seemed `very distant, so distant that they dismissed it more and more from their minds’. But what was quite clear was that they knew there was something wrong with the world: `These men were conscious of the Fall, if they were conscious of nothing else…’. Still, God `really’ had been `sacrificed to the Gods; in a very literal sense of the flippant phrase, they have been too many for him’.

Chesterton rejects any glib notion of religious pluralism: `We are accustomed to see a table or catalogue of the world’s great religions in parallel columns, until we fancy they are really parallel.’ But these so-called religions — which `we choose to lump together’ — `do not really show any common character’. True, Islam followed Christianity and `was largely an imitation of Christianity.

But the other eastern religions; or what we call religions, not only do not resemble the Church but do not resemble each other.’ Indeed, Confucianism was not even a religion, and could no more be compared with Christianity than `a theist with an English squire’. Christianity was bound up with the idea of a Church, while Confucianism and Buddhism were `great things’ but could not be called ‘Churches’ – any more than the English and French peoples could be called `nomads’ although they were `great peoples’.

The truth was that, `humanly speaking’, `the world owes God to the Jews’. And the world also owed it to the Jews that they refused `to follow the enlightened course of Syncretism and the pooling of all the pagan traditions': `It is obvious indeed that his [God's] followers were always sliding down this easy slope; and it required the almost demoniac energy of certain inspired demagogues, who testified to the divine unity in words that are still like winds of inspiration and ruin.’

While the rest of the world `melted’ into a `mass of confused mythology,’ this God of the Jews, `who is called tribal and narrow, precisely because he was what is called tribal and narrow, preserved the primary religion of all mankind’. It was the Jews who had enabled the world, which `would have been lost’ otherwise, `to return to that great original simplicity of a single  authority in all things’.

It was to this `secretive and restless nomadic people’ that the world owed `the supreme and serene blessing of a jealous God’. An example of the secretiveness of the Jews, who `stood apart and kept their tradition unshaken and unshared’, was the way they had `kept a thing like the Book ofJob out of the whole intellectual world of antiquity. It is as if the Egyptians had modestly concealed the Great Pyramid.’ And Chesterton cannot resist the ultimate paradox: `He [the God of the Jews] was tribal enough to be universal. He was as narrow as the universe.’


The God Who Hides Himself II – Msgr. Ronald Knox

March 29, 2012

Crucified Christ. "Rouault was intimate with the writers who formed the nucleus of the Catholic revival, that remarkable literary, intellectual, and -- to a lesser degree -- artistic renewal among France’s lay intelligentsia in the early 20th century. He counted as friends Léon Bloy, J.K. Huysmans and Jacques and Raissa Maritain, both also passionate supporters of his work. He was close to Georges Desvallires, co-founder with Maurice Denis of the Atelier de la Art Sacre.
The Atelier was precursor to the Sacred Art Movement, a brief effort to reanimate sacred art which French Catholic intellectuals agreed was in a dismal state. Huysmans wrote brilliantly on the hemorrhage of bad taste at Lourdes. Maritain similarly rejected conventional religious art as devilish ugliness. Rouault shared their disdain, fearful of admitting sullen convention into his work.Rouault’s penitential vision and epic sweep suited the temper of the years immediately after World War II. MoMA gave him a retrospective in 1945 and the Tate did the same the following year, pairing him with Braque. He exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 1948 and enjoyed a flood of exhibitions in the 1950s. France inducted him into the Legion of Honor and, in 1958, gave him a state funeral.
Today, his work is rarely seen. Yet there is every reason to keep his accomplishment alive. Rouault was a graphically gifted, fastidious craftsman sympathetic to a world in travail. His subjects were few: clowns, prostitutes, judges, self-satisfied pillars of society, the down-hearted, and the Passion of Christ. Setting aside religious dimensions, his cast is similar to that of Lautrec, the youthful Picasso, and Daumier.
A Passiontide sensibility infuses his oeuvre with a distinctive solemnity. Isaiah’s man of sorrows, the crucified Christ, serves as an archetype of the human condition. However devout Rouault’s Catholicism, it is a mistake to pigeon-hole him as a devotional painter. He used Biblical iconography -- as did Max Beckmann and other German Expressionists -- as a source of recognizable metaphors. Every generation faces its Calvary and crucifixions accompany history. The lamentations of Jeremiah still resonate."
Maureen Mullarkey

It is possible to give some account of how the idea of God comes into men’s minds. Or again, if each human being independently discovered the idea of God for himself, we might hesitate to ascribe the phenomenon to mere coincidence. But the doctrine of God’s existence is one that is taught to childhood, one that is often bound up, superstitiously, with national hopes, with social ordinances. Even if there were no God, it is probable enough that many people would believe in his existence; it would not be more surprising than the belief in luck, for example, or the belief in omens.

No, the true lesson of this widespread and obstinate Theism among our fellow-men is a slightly different one. The fact that so many men believe in a God ought to set us wondering whether there are not, perhaps, reasons for such a belief, to which we have not hitherto devoted sufficient attention; or perhaps reasons which we scorned to look into, because we had vaguely been given to understand that they were out of date and unfashionable. Mankind’s belief in God is a rebuke to, and a condemnation of, the careless atheist. For it is the height of rashness or of pride to assume without investigation that so large a part of the race is giving credit to an illusion, for the existence of which no rational grounds cm be assigned.

In a word, the existence of religion is a challenge to us to consider eagerly whether there are not grounds for believing in God’s existence, philosophical grounds which will be as cogent for us as they have been for others. When I say “philosophical”, I do not mean that it is the duty of the bushman or of the charcoal-burner to go through a series of carefully arranged scholastic syllogisms. I mean that there exists among mankind a sort of rough, common-sense metaphysic which demands as its first postulate the existence of a divine principle in things. It can be refined, it can be reduced to terms, by the nice ratiocinations of the philosopher; it is equally valid (we hold) whether as it presents itself to the charcoal-burner or as it presents itself to the sage.

The schoolmen, whose method has left its stamp upon all subsequent Catholic apologetics, distinguished five avenues of approach by which we infer, from the conditions of our outward experience, the existence of a God.

  1. In all motion, or rather, as we should say, in all change, you can separate two elements, active and passive, that which is changed and that which changes it. But, in our experience, the agent in such change is not self-determined, but determined in its turn by some higher agent. Can this process go on ad infinitum? No, for an infinite series of agents, none of them self-determined, would not give us the finality which thought demands; there must be, at the beginning of the series, however long, an Agent who is self-determined, who is the ultimate Agent in the whole cycle of changes that proceeds from him.
  2. Similarly, in our experience every event is determined by a cause. But that cause in its turn is itself an event determined by a cause. An infinite series of causes would give no explanation of how the causation ever began. There must therefore be an uncaused Cause, which is the ultimate Cause of the whole nexus of events which proceeds from it.
  3. In our experience, we find nothing which exists in its own right; everything depends for its existence on something else. This is plain in the case of the organized individual; for plants, animals, etc., are born, live, and die; that is to say, their existence is only contingent, not necessary — it depends on conditions outside itself. Now, although the whole sum of matter does not, in our experience, increase or diminish, we cannot think of it as existing necessarily — it is just there. Its existence, then, must depend on something outside itself — something which exists necessarily, of its own right. That Something we call God.
  4. In our experience, there are various degrees of natural perfection. But the existence of the good and the better implies the existence of a Best; for (according to Plato’s sys tern of thought) this Best is itself the cause and the explanation of all good. But this Best is not found in our earthly  experience, therefore it must lie beyond our earthly experience; and it is this Best which we call God.
  5. Everywhere in Nature we observe the effects of order and system. If blind chance ruled everything, this prevalence of order would be inexplicable; it would be a stupendous coincidence. Order can only be conceived as the expression of a Mind; and, though our mind appreciates the existence of order in the world, it is not our mind which has introduced it there. There must therefore exist outside our experience, a Mind of which this order is the expression; and that Mind we call God.

It is often objected that this analysis of the facts is unnecessarily itemized; it repeats the same argument under different forms. For the purposes of the plain man, it may perhaps be admitted that the first three of these arguments are not readily distinguishable. He apprehends God in his Creation, first as all-powerful and the source of all power (1, 2, and 3); then is all-good and the source of all goodness (4); then as all-wise and the source of all wisdom (5). For all the changes that have swept over Europe since the twelfth century, he has not been bullied out of his conviction.

It is true, the little books of popular science which he reads in his corner of the railway train, talk as if all this process of thought were antiquated; as if something had happened in the meantime which made Creation self-explanatory without the postulate of a Creator. Their cocksure implications affect him like briers that flick a man across the face without turning him aside from his direction. They tell him that matter is indestructible, not elucidating their meaning, which is that Man is incapable of destroying it; but even so he will not believe that matter has existed, for no particular reason, from all eternity; in that, stranger still, it brought itself into existence.

They write of Force with a capital F, or Energy with a capital E, as if we had somehow managed to deify those conceptions. But he knows that whereas motion is a fact that can be observed, force is a concept with which he is only acquainted through his experience as a living creature; it is a function of life, and the forces of Nature (as they are called), over which neither man nor beast exercises any control, must be functions of a Life which is outside experience itself.

They write as if Science had made the problem of existence simpler by explaining the causes of things hitherto unexplained — by showing us that disease is due to the action of microbes, or that lightning comes from the electricity in the atmosphere. But he knows that all this only puts the question a stage further back; that he is still at liberty to ask what caused the microbes, what caused the electricity. The thought of an infinite series, whether of causes or of agents, is no more attractive to him than to St. Thomas.

Of course, it is possible to avoid all these speculations with a bovine murmur of “I don’t know nothing about that.” But this is to give up the riddle, and to give it up, not because you cannot find the answer, but because you have found the answer, and have found it to be unpalatable. The lines of our experience, even in the natural world outside us, converge towards one point, presuppose a Creator who has necessary existence, a Prime Mover, a First Cause. But the created universe points to the existence not merely of an uncreated Power, but of an uncreated Mind.

This argument from the order and systems to be found in Creation is not synonymous with the argument from design; the argument from design, in the narrow sense, is a department or application of the main thesis. Design implies the adaptation of means to ends; and it used to be confidently urged that there was one end which the Creator clearly had in view, the preservation of species, and one plain proof of his purposive working, namely, the nice proportion between the instincts or endowments of the various animal species and the environment in which they had to live. The warm coats of the Arctic animals, the differences of strength, speed, and cunning which enable the hunter and the hunted to live together without the extermination of either — these would he instances in point; modern research has given us still more salient instances of the same principle, such as the protective mimicry which renders a butterfly or a nest of eggs indistinguishable from its surroundings. Was it not a Mind which had so proportioned means to ends?

The argument was a dangerous one, so stated. It took no account of the animal species which have in fact become extinct; it presupposed, also, the fixity of animal types. God’s mercy, doubtless, is over all his works, but we are in no position to apply teleological criticism to its exercise and to decide on what principle the wart-hog has survived while the dodo has become extinct. In this precise form, then, the argument from order has suffered badly.

But the argument from order, as the schoolmen conceived it, was and is a much wider and less questionable consideration. It is not merely in the adaptation of means to ends, but in the reign of law throughout the whole field of Nature, that we find evidence of a creative Intelligence. By a curious trick of human vanity, we describe a newly-discovered principle in Nature as So-and-so’s Law, Boyle’s, or Newton’s, or Tyndall’s, as if the discoverer were himself the legislator.

I am not grudging honor to the pioneers of research; I am only commenting on an oddity of phrase. Surely, when a thing is unexpectedly found, we congratulate the person who has found it, but our next question is inevitably, “Who put it there?” And, if there are laws in Nature to be discovered, it is but natural to ask the same question, “Who put them there?” If it needs a mind to discover them, did it not need a Mind to devise them? If the whole of our experience is not a phantasmagoria of unrelated facts, if water does not flow uphill, and gases do not double in volume when the pressure on them is doubled, who was it willed that the thing should be so? Not we assuredly; not Boyle, not Newton. Not blind Chance, for there is a limit to coincidence. Not “Nature”, for there is no such person; she is only an abstraction. What hypothesis is left to us except that of an ordering Mind? Instinctively we speak of a law when we find a natural principle; and have we no right to argue from a law to a Legislator?

I know that to superior persons all this will sound very naive. But it is easy to suspect simplicity in your opponent’s mind, when the simplicity really lies in the facts. There are thoughts so obvious that we are apt not to reflect upon them, so familiar that we are in danger of forgetting them.

So far we have been dealing with the evidences for God’s existence which are concerned with outward nature, not with the inner life of man. The argument from perfection adduced by the schoolmen is not the modern argument from moral perfection. The plain man would probably conceive the relations between God and man in the moral sphere with more of directness, more of concreteness. He would tell us that the voice of conscience was a voice not his own; whose then can it be, if it be not Divine?

Or he would tell us, in Kant’s vein, that the sense of moral duty is the sense of an obligation imposed upon us by a sovereignty outside ourselves — whose sovereignty, if not God’s? Or he would tell us that the sense of compunction which he feels when he has done wrong is not to be explained away as mere disappointment with himself; it carries with it the sense that he has defied a power above himself — whose power, if it be not God’s?

To each his own appeal; there is little need to dwell on this side of the argument; for probably everyone who has the least hankerings after Theism feels the force of it in one form or another. Otherwise I would ask space to argue that the scholastic form of it has a special value, as the truest both to the philosophic and to the devotional instinct.

I have made no attempt in this chapter to deal with the objections which will present themselves to minds influenced by the more intimate doubts of Idealism. I have been forced to assume, what the schoolmen assumed, and most ordinary people assume, that our thought is an instrument adequate to the cognition of objective reality.

Still less have I attempted to ,anticipate the rejoinders of the Pragmatist — who, it seems to me, above all men should wish to be a Catholic, and above all men will find it difficult to become one. I have merely indicated the course which Catholic apologetic takes in this fundamental matter, trusting that the inquirer, if his doubts begin so early in the process, will find access to more lucid and more copious expositions than mine.


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