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It Is Well For Us to Be Here

March 16, 2010

I am not, by the standards of a Mark Shea or Dale Ahlquist, a true Chestertonian. I do not think that Chesterton was always — or even most of the time — right. I am not uncomfortable with modernity or wistful for the Catholic Middle Ages. I support public education and universal health care.

Chesterton is nevertheless, for me, inescapable. There he was when, as an adolescent, I quit attending Evangelical and nondenomination churches that preached sola scriptura, ignorant of Christianity’s rich cultural and intellectual heritage. There he was when, as a young convert, I attended Catholic conferences and meetings, imbibing the zeal and (often smug) orthodoxy around me. For a few years during graduate school, I thought I’d gotten rid of him — only to realize that GKC was, in his own way, a postmodernist.

Of Chesterton’s postmodernism, John Medaille writes:

In Orthodoxy, [Chesterton] examines the faith not as a series of propositions to be proved or disproved, but to be examined through his personal experience, through his own history. It is a history that begins with a rejection of all that Christians hold to be true and an acceptance of all that the moderns want. But he discovers, on this journey, that the only way to get the liberty that the moderns want is to accept what the Christians hold as true. That is to say, in order to be fully modern he must be fully Christian. This is not the explication of a rationalistic proposition, but the discovery of a real and personal relationship with the truth. It is through his own narrative that G. K. discovers the narrative beyond his own. Therefore, he may be the first and truest of the postmoderns.

As my former English professors would undoubtedly agree, truth is discovered in and through history, and is, in that sense, a cultural construct. At the same time, Catholicism deftly avoids the postmodernist pitfall of nihilism. As Medaille explains:

For the postmodernist, the narrative is primary, the story of our relationship to the world and the truth. However, postmodernism tends to end up in nihilism. Why? Because they secretly accept back that which they reject; they critique the modernist notion of truth, but then they regard this as the only possible definition of truth, and hence have nowhere to go but to the void.

Medaille’s realization would, in the hands of a “true” Chestertonian, be an occasion for triumphalism. “See! The truths of Foucault or Lyotard have always been known by the Church, only without lapsing into nihilism — just as the Church rightly emphasizes human reason without lapsing into rationalism.” There can be no denying the GKC himself bought into the notion that all roads lead to Rome — as anyone who has read The Well and the Shallows or The Catholic Church and Conversion (my least favorite of his works) is well aware.

Bear in mind, however, that if Catholicism is true, it is not true merely as an intellectual proposition (the rationalist error), but as a faith discovered in and through history. Orthodoxy is, to reiterate, not so much a work of apologetics, as an account of one believer’s direct experience. By contrast, triumphalism (of which Chesterton was at times guilty) depends on mistaking one’s own experience for a proposition encompassing everyone’s experience. No Catholic — whether GKC or Dale Ahlquist or Innocent Smith — can affirm or deny that a road he has not traveled leads to Rome. The only way to know whether or not all roads lead to Rome is to travel all roads (which none of us has done), or to heed the reports of others. I strongly suspect that the roads taken by a Christopher Hitchens or Glenn Beck do not lead to Rome (as both of those lunatics would undoubtedly report). Nor, if I meet the Buddha on the road and kill him, am I necessarily on my way to Rome.

Divergence of belief may be, in part, due to intellectual error on the part of some. But it is also due to history itself — to the multiplicity of stories in the world. The ancients, with their myriad gods and goddesses, seem to have almost instinctively understood this. We moderns do not.

There is, it must be admitted, a side of GKC that gravitated toward Catholic certitude and superiority. Yet, in his better moments, Chesterton had a profound sense of the numinous, not just in religion, but everywhere. Indeed, his remarks on art and imagination (lifted from a recent American Chesterton Society post) capture what seems to me the essence of religious experience:

I do not think there is even [a] slight crack of falsity in the crystal clearness and directness of the child’s vision of a fairy-palace – or a fairy-policeman. In one sense the child believes much less, and in another much more than that. I do not think the child is deceived; or that he attempts for a moment to deceive himself. I think he instantly asserts his direct and divine right to enjoy beauty; that he steps straight into his own lawful kingdom of imagination, without any quibbles or questions such as arise afterwards out of false moralities and philosophies, touching the nature of falsehood and truth. In other words, I believe that the child has inside his head a pretty correct and complete definition of the whole nature and function of art; with the one addition that he is quite incapable of saying, even to himself, a single word on the subject. Would that many other professors of aesthetics were under a similar limitation. Anyhow, he does not say to himself, “This is a real street, in which mother could go shopping.” He does not say to himself, “This is an exact realistic copy of a real street, to be admired for its technical correctness.” Neither does he say, “This is an unreal street, and I am drugging and deceiving my powerful mind with something that is a mere illusion.” Neither does he say, “This is only a story, and nurse says it is very naughty to tell stories.” If he says anything, he only says what was said by those men who saw the white blaze of the Transfiguration, “It is well for us to be here.”

[GKC The Common Man 56-7 quoting Mt 17:4]

It is well indeed. And that is all that matters.

Postscript: I do not, incidentally, mean to equate art and religion, which quite obviously differ in important respects. Rather, I think what Chesterton highlights here is the proper attitude toward each: the attitude of a child. “Assuredly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will by no means enter it” (Mark 10:15).

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