Sunday 4 January 2015

G. K. Chesterton & the Square Circle

 For John the Baptist came neither eating food nor drinking wine, and you said, ‘He is possessed by a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking and you said, ‘Look, he is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is vindicated by all her children.”
Luke 7:33-35

Not only (as I understood) had Christianity the most flaming vices, but it had apparently a mystical talent for combining vices which seemed inconsistent with each other. It was attacked on all sides and for all contradictory reasons. No sooner had one rationalist demonstrated that it was too far to the east than another demonstrated with equal clearness that it was much too far to the west. No sooner had my indignation died down at its angular and aggressive squareness than I was called up again to notice and condemn its enervating and sensual roundness.
Orthodoxy Chapter VI by G. K. Chesterton

Writing about Chesterton is quite a tricky business. For most of the world's population if they have heard of him at all it is only as the author of the Father Brown detective stories. However for many Catholics, especially in the English speaking world, he is a towering figure, a great writer, controversialist and apologist. If I were to write uncritically about him many of the readers of this blog would think 'what's Catholic Scot on about?' If critically many devoted Catholics would think 'burn the witch.' So I am going, paradoxically, to do both although you will have to stick with me to the end to see how I do it.

Paradox is a big thing with GK, it is his favourite literally device. He routinely confounds expectations by taking an idea in directions you do not expect it to go. Although once you become familiar with his style your expectations change so the effect of the paradox loses some of its power to surprise. Indeed so relentless is his use of the device that you begin to long for him to do something else just for the sake of variety. I find the thing so wearing that I think I can honestly say that I have only thoroughly enjoyed two of his books The Innocence of Father Brown and Orthodoxy. There is arguably a third The Paradoxes of Mr Pond that I started to enjoy once I realised that intentionally or otherwise GK was parodying himself. All his other books contain lots of good stuff but are so continuously paradoxical that it tires me out to read them. It would be unfair to say that Chesterton was a one trick pony but if he had in actual fact been a pony there is no doubt that he would only have had one trick.

Orthodoxy is a defence of the Christian faith and the Christian Church, although many of its references are dated most of its underlying arguments are robust and still have a contemporary feel to them. From the first time that I read it Chapter VI most impressed itself upon me and stuck in my memory. You will scarcely be surprised to learn that it is called The Paradoxes of Christianity. The strength of the chapter lies in two things, it exposes the inconsistency of the critics and it shows the consistency of the Church. As far as criticism goes Chesterton draws our attention to something which we might lose sight of in the heat of day to day controversy, namely that the Church can never reform itself in such a way as to satisfy those who attack it. This is not least because those attacking it do so from all angles at once so if it trims her sails to the North then it will be accused of bias against the South and vice versa.

To take a couple of examples. The refrain that the Church should not meddle in politics is constantly heard. Especially the Church should never use it position to influence politicians or public servants. Many of those left-wing and liberal figures who are most vociferous on this point also furiously condemned the Church at the time of the US led invasion of Iraq for not excommunicating politicians and military personnel involved in the operation. That is, the Church both uses her power too much and not enough. Similarly liberal critics assert that the Church is too cosy with the powerful elites and always takes sides against the poor and dispossessed, even the outspokenness of an Oscar Romero or a Pope Francis does not still the criticism since their lone voices are set against an institutional bias in favour of the bourgeoisie. Those same critics also often go on to assert that atheists are smarter, better educated and more successful than believers. Which is to say that the critics form part of the elite which they affect to despise and the bulk of the Catholic faithful form part of the wretched of the earth whom they affect to care about.

                              St Francis strips himself of all his fathers wealth- Benozzo Gozzoli

The second part of the chapter goes on to the more complex business of explaining why the rationalists, or secularists as we might call them nowadays, although comprehensively wrong do have a glimmering of an insight. That is to say that the Church does hold flagrantly contradictory things in a creative tension. G.K. explains himself in this typically Chestertonian passage-
It is constantly assured, especially in our Tolstoyan tendencies, that when the lion lies down with the lamb the lion becomes lamb-like. But that is brutal annexation and imperialism on the part of the lamb. That is simply the lamb absorbing the lion instead of the lion eating the lamb. The real problem is—Can the lion lie down with the lamb and still retain his royal ferocity? That is the problem the Church attempted; that is the miracle she achieved.
In a sense the Catholic Church is a continuation of Jesus Christ by other means. As our Lord was both fully human and fully Divine at the same time without intermingling or confusion so the Church at all times seeks to keep in balance the fullness of human nature physical as well as spiritual, militant as well as meek, extroverted and introverted at the same time. The balance is not achieved by blending two things to make them one non-thing but by allowing each of them full expression  under the banner of Christ. The expression of St Augustine love and do what you will is a true summary of the Catholic creed. Governed by love you can will to be a hermit or run a railway station either will can be, if properly used, a full living out of the Christian faith.

The tendency of mediocrity, or common sense if you prefer, is either to seek a compromise by eliminating the extravagances of a St Francis or a St Joan or to effect the total victory of one tendency, humility say or pride, over another. Catholicism in finding room for both extremes and for moderation is a flagrant violator of common sense. You might think it something of a miracle if such an institution as the Church were to survive for as many as two centuries let alone two millennia carrying as it does such a weight of contradictions. And of course it is a miracle properly speaking. But because mediocrity has this almost innate tendency of thought and feeling and because, lets face it, almost all of us are mediocre then however much we may notionally accept the perspective of the Church we invariably fall into the complacent trap of not reflecting upon it and tut-tutting at the extravagances of some of our co-religionists.

And it is in this that Chesterton comes into his own. By his incessant use of paradox he continually unbalances us. Since it is only when we are off balance that we realise the importance of remaining upright G.K. serves to remind us that Christian balance, a holding of opposites in tension, is a thing to be striven for as a living reality within our own lives not a dead object to be admired at from a distance. Chesterton's continuous use of a single literary device irritates because it is meant to irritate, to make us wake up, to think a little, to react. By unbalancing his work, making it seem one trick only, he creates balance in his readers and thus G. K. Chesterton squares the circle.

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1 comment:

  1. Indeed. And thank you for the reminder to pick up Chesterton - again. :)