When Heresy Becomes Orthodoxy
“[T]he nature of a great amount of religious and conservative thought and propaganda, especially within fundamentalist circles” is to “establish a straw man out of the enemy so repulsive that the willing audience will on its own reject everything about the enemy, finding themselves then willing to accept anything that is said in counterpoint afterward.”
He is responding to some posturing done by acolytes of G.K. Chesterton, author most famously known for the Father Brown detective series. Dorothy Sayers—author of her own dick, Lord Peter Whimsey, and also a respected Dante scholar and translator—wrote of him: “To the young people of my generation, G.K.C. was a kind of Christian liberator. Like a beneficent bomb, he blew out of the Church a quantity of stained glass of a very poor period, and let in gusts of fresh air in which the dead leaves of doctrine danced with all the energy and indecorum of Our Lady’s Tumbler.”
Perhaps the book she was thinking of was Orthodoxy, a fanciful reinterpretation of Christian doctrine which has found many adherents. To wit: “Orthodoxy is a stunningly brilliant book written by one of the literary giants of the early twentieth century,” writes Lyle Dorsett, editor of G.K’s Weekly: A Sampler in a blurb quoted on the back cover. In the foreword to the 1994 Harold Shaw Publishers edition, Philip Yancy writes, “Chesterton readily admitted that the Church had badly failed the Gospel. In fact, he said, there is only one unanswerable argument against Christianity: Christians.”
These words only seem too applicable to the mouthpiece that is Chesterton. Scanning his book—but not attempting to read it—I find the author comes off as a sometimes charming (but often not) windbag. “I add one purely pedantic note which comes, as a note naturally should, at the beginning of the book,” he writes, in the last paragraph of Chapter One: it is the kind of indulgence that does not wear well with time. Indeed, much of the first chapter reads as though one were overhearing someone intoxicated with the sound of his own voice. Chapter Two begins with a “straw man” argument about some insignificant mortal who has made a foolish statement about self-confidence, and the easy refutation of it. Only in the second paragraph does Chesterton appear to begin to get down to business: “[T]his book may well start where our argument started—in the neighborhood of the mad-house.”
For me, it is too much to wade through a chapter plus one paragraph to get to the beginning; ergo I skim. (Let me not detain myself to examine the subsequent incorrect presumptions regarding sanity and madness, as they are not germane to my theme.)
Skimming ahead to Chapter Five, “The Flag of the World,” I find Marcus Aurelius—whom I have lately been reading—stunningly misrepresented to the point where he is unrecognizable. A bit of a lead in (pardon the flaccidity of the text: it is unavoidable with Chesterton):
Only the other day I saw in an excellent weekly paper of Puritan tone this remark, that Christianity when stripped of its armour of dogma (as who should speak of a man stripped of his armour of bones), turned out to be nothing but the Quaker doctrine of Inner Light. Now, if I were to say that Christianity came into the world specially to destroy the doctrine of Inner Light, that would be an exaggeration. But it would be very much nearer to the truth. The last Stoics, like Marcus Aurelius, were exactly the people who did believe in the Inner Light. Their dignity, their weariness, their sad external care for others, their incurable internal care for themselves, were all due to the Inner Light, and existed only by that dismal illumination. Notice that Marcus Aurelius insists, as such introspective moralists always do, upon small things done or undone; it is because he has not hate or love enough to make a moral revolution. He gets up early in the morning, just as our own aristocrats living the Simple Life get up early in the morning; because such altruism is much easier than stopping the games of the amphitheatre or giving the English people back their land. Marcus Aurelius is the most intolerable of human types. He is an unselfish egoist. An unselfish egoist is a man who has pride without the excuse of passion. Of all conceivable forms of enlightenment the worst is what these people call the Inner Light. Of all horrible religions the most horrible is the worship of the god within.
Marcus Aurelius and his friends [sic] had really given up the idea of any god in the universe and looked only to the god within. They had no hope of any virtue in nature, and hardly any hope of any virtue in society. They had not enough interest in the outer world really to wreck or revolutionize it. They did not love the city enough to set fire to it.
“Code words” are sometimes employed by sects as a kind of shibboleth, to set themselves apart from the common run by employing language in other than the natural fashion. Something of that appears to be operational in Chesterton when he describes “nature worship”. It is hard to know what this phrase conjures up in his mind—or how that pertains to Aurelius—but in between the two extracts I have quoted comes another passage which I record merely as a note to myself, so I may think on it after Orthodoxy goes back to the library:
Nature worship is natural enough while the society is young, or, in other words, Pantheism is all right as long as it is the worship of Pan. But Nature has another side which experience and sin are not slow in finding out, and it is no flippancy to say of the god Pan that he soon showed the cloven hoof. The only objection to Natural Religion is that somehow it always becomes unnatural. A man loves Nature in the morning for her innocence and amiability, and at nightfall, if he is loving her still, it is for her darkness and her cruelty. He washes at dawn in clear water as did the Wise Man of the Stoics, yet, somehow at the dark end of the day, he is bathing in hot bull’s blood, as did Julian the Apostate. The mere pursuit of health always leads to something unhealthy. Physical nature must not be made the direct object of obedience; it must be enjoyed, not worshipped. Stars and mountains are not to be taken seriously. If they are, we end where the pagan nature worship ended. Because earth is kind, we can imitate all her cruelties. Because sexuality is sane, we can all go mad about sexuality.