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Sunday
Mar022014

Christianity and Rationalism

More than a few modern minds have come to the conclusion that belief – and belief's ideal manifestation, faith – could not really be anything more than a neurological delusion of the weak. You will hear these people (they are sometimes loud, especially when confederates lurk nearby) mocking temples and places of worship as dens of ignorance and fear. Those who believe are foolish, backward, and scared of modern science – as if one could really be scared of a movement that spends its time annihilating itself; those who do not believe are brave, intelligent, and progressive. Why do we worship the Cross? Because we are subliminally re-enacting some pagan ritual of the Winter Solstice. Why do we wish to protect the poor, the sick, and the downtrodden? Because such was the hopeful superstition of primitive tribes who did not understand that our world was one of strife and oneupmanship, and we were all fashioned to outdo one another, one long chain of death in which the last to perish will be the most perfect being the world will ever see. Readers of these pages know how I feel about such garrulous twaddle, as morally disgusting as it is uninformed. And readers also know that there has probably been no mind as sprightly or brilliant in the refutation of such nonsense as this author, which brings us to one of his most magnificent short works

One consistent myth about Christianity is the notion that Christians are not allowed to enjoy life to its hilt. Christ, we are told, never laughed; the Devil, on the other hand, is often portrayed as cackling in some dark corner or fornicating in ecstasy with as many partners as can be squeezed into one mind's panorama. Laughter and enjoyment, carnal or otherwise, are the marks unique to the Evil One, which anyone of even middling intelligence will tell you simply cannot be. The conclusion? Both Christ and Devil are figments of a primitive imagination shackled to black-and-white opposites and allegorical truths. To control society's natural whims to make merry and engage in salacious activity, Christians have erected their temples to solemn abstinence and asked the same of all their priests. Worship or be damned; fear of fun; laughter is the keepsake of the flagitious – many a motto could be generated along these lines. Yet according to Chesterton, such an understanding stands Christian truth on its happy head:

The Secularist says that Christianity has been a gloomy and ascetic thing, and points to the procession of austere or ferocious saints who have given up home and happiness and macerated health and sex. But it never seems to occur to him that the very oddity and completeness of the men's surrender make it look very much as if there were really something actual and solid in the thing for which they sold themselves. They gave up all human experiences for the sake of one superhuman experience. They may have been wicked, but it looks as if there were such an experience. It is perfectly tenable that this experience is as dangerous and selfish a thing as drink. A man who goes ragged and homeless in order to see visions may be as repellent and immoral as a man who goes ragged and homeless in order to drink brandy. That is a quite reasonable position. But what is manifestly not a reasonable position what would be, in fact not far from being an insane position, would be to say that the raggedness of the man, and the homelessness of the man, and the stupefied degradation of the man proved that there was no such thing as brandy.

We are reminded here of Chesterton's definition of marriage – which involves forsaking all the women of the world for one woman, and, of course, considering yourself the victor – but something else is worth mentioning. The arrogance of the modern mind steeped in its fossils and galaxies is the claim that our forefathers were bound together in falsehoods. True, Chesterton quips, we may now possess such vital knowledge as "the four-hundredth accurate origin of protoplasm," but such information does not really mean much to anyone except the protoplasm and its conqueror. That so many people believed in something they could not see or touch, that had no mathematical formula or shape, that provided us with everything in the way of hope but left us with nothing in the way of proof – all this is used by Christianity's enemies to denounce it as a fraud. And it can be used without changing a syllable by Christians who proclaim it to be our Salvation.

One by one, the most common complaints are summoned. Christianity has led to endless 'wars and persecution,' but no mention is made of how much war and persecution has been undertaken solely for the wealth and power of a greedy monarch or a wicked prince. Nowadays, we do not have really have many kings in gene and lineage; their fiefs have been usurped by the economic elite whose lavish and unrepentant greed is so eerily reminiscent of the decadence of pre-Revolutionary France that one wonders why we do not simply commit them all to a bloody end. Since the European-based wars of the twentieth century demonstrated how atheism and political doctrine, when misapplied, can be just as wicked as any religious fervor, modern minds have relinquished this territory of debate. Instead, they have marched on to the theory that because Judaism and then Christianity (and, as it were, Islam) were local phenomena, they must have simply been expansions of pagan expression. Nothing, we are told, could be further from the truth:

For if there really are some other and higher beings than ourselves, and if they in some strange ways, at some emotional crisis, really revealed themselves to rude poets or dreamers in very simple times, that the rude people should regard the revelation as local, and connect it with the particular hill or river where it happened, seems to me exactly what any reasonable human being would expect. It has a far more credible look than if they had talked cosmic philosophy from the beginning. If they had, I should have suspected "priestcraft" and forgeries and third-century Gnosticism. If there be such a being as God, and He can speak to a child, and if God spoke to a child in the garden the child would, of course, say that God lived in the garden. I should not think it any less likely to be true for that. If the child said: "God is everywhere: an impalpable essence pervading and supporting all constituents of the Cosmos alike" if, I say, the infant addressed me in the above terms, I should think he was much more likely to have been with the governess than with God.

We still adhere to such a paradigm when we examine an allegedly haunted house or sacred site (the fact that many of these latter-day spooks turn out to be hoaxes lies more with the investigators than the investigated), but this is yet another example of modernity's insufferable egocentrism. How could God, should He at all exist, appear to some simple shepherd and not to the head of a philosophy department, someone, in other words, who would know what to do with Him? Perhaps because although philosophy departments may know how to do certain things, confronting things that they cannot explain through their philosophies has never been one of them. Belief starts in the mind of a single person, who finds it rather amazing that someone else who has had a very different life believes in precisely the same thing – but I think here we are getting far too ecumenical for modern tastes.     

Bookworms often daydream as to which author they would select if stranded on a desert island (never mind that desert islands do not tend to promote literary pursuits), and I wonder whether I wouldn't choose Chesterton. In the history of English literature, which should without fear of perjury be considered mankind's most glorious tradition after this one, there may be no one as talented or consistently accurate. His accomplishments are even more impressive in view of his prodigious output, and perhaps the one book that does not enthrall the reader is the one book that needn't have been written, since a writer's true autobiography is necessarily the sum of his works. Chesterton, like all great geniuses, is at his best when he can refract his wisdom through something other than himself – be that subject a fictional plot, a political debate, a book review, or an essay on why he believes that we are immortal. And if eternal life remains our most irrational thought, a rationalist would then conclude that we are all merely at various stages of pre-death. And if that doesn't make sense to you, then Christianity's nonsense has never seemed more sensible.   

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