January 27, 2011

Chesterton on Dogma

A collection of forty-nine essays which first appeared in June of 1910, G.K. Chesterton’s What’s Wrong With The World is still a fresh and fascinating book, whose message is as applicable in today’s world as, if not more than, when it was first published, as if Chesterton had foreseen some of the issues that arose later in our history.

In this book, as in many other of his writings, with his often paradoxical prose he forces the reader to consider problems from an entirely different perspective. Take the following excerpt, for example, in which he reverses the concept of “dogma” as it is thought of in our modern time of scientific enlightenment. In Western culture dogma is a dirty word, and to call a person dogmatic means, to say the least, he has a narrow, closed mind. To the point that even among us believers there is often a certain reluctance to use that term to describe our beliefs about God, faith and religion.

“Some people,” he wrote, “do not like the word ‘dogma.’ Fortunately they are free, and there is an alternative for them. There are two things, and two things only, for the human mind, a dogma and a prejudice.” By the way, Martin Heidegger couldn’t have said it better himself… But let’s continue with the excerpt from the book:

The Middle Ages were a rational epoch, an age of doctrine. Our age is, at its best, a poetical epoch, an age of prejudice. A doctrine is a definite point; a prejudice is a direction. That an ox may be eaten, while a man should not be eaten, is a doctrine.
That as little as possible of anything should be eaten is a prejudice; which is also sometimes called an ideal.

Now a direction is always far more fantastic than a plan. I would rather have the most archaic map of the road to Brighton than a general recommendation to turn to the left. Straight lines that are not parallel must meet at last; but curves may recoil forever. A pair of lovers might walk along the frontier of France and Germany, one on the one side and one on the other, so long as they were not vaguely told to keep away from each other. And this is a strictly true parable of the effect of our modern vagueness in losing and separating men as in a mist.

It is not merely true that a creed unites men. Nay, a difference of creed unites men—so long as it is a clear difference. A boundary unites. Many a magnanimous Moslem and chivalrous Crusader must have been nearer to each other, because they were both dogmatists, than any two homeless agnostics in a pew of Mr. Campbell's chapel. "I say God is One," and "I say God is One but also Three," that is the beginning of a good quarrelsome, manly friendship. But our age would turn these creeds into tendencies.

It would tell the Trinitarian to follow multiplicity as such (because it was his "temperament"), and he would turn up later with three hundred and thirty-three persons in the Trinity.

Meanwhile, it would turn the Moslem into a Monist: a frightful intellectual fall. It would force that previously healthy person not only to admit that there was one God, but to admit that there was nobody else. When each had, for a long enough period, followed the gleam of his own nose (like the Dong) they would appear again; the Christian a Polytheist, and the Moslem a Panegoist, both quite mad, and far more unfit to understand each other than before.

It is exactly the same with politics. Our political vagueness divides men, it does not fuse them. Men will walk along the edge of a chasm in clear weather, but they will edge miles away from it in a fog. So a Tory can walk up to the very edge of Socialism, if he knows what is Socialism. But if he is told that Socialism is a spirit, a sublime atmosphere, a noble, indefinable tendency, why, then he keeps out of its way; and quite right too. One can meet an assertion with argument; but healthy bigotry is the only way in which one can meet a tendency. I am told that the Japanese method of wrestling consists not of suddenly pressing, but of suddenly giving way. This is one of my many reasons for disliking the Japanese civilization. To use surrender as a weapon is the very worst spirit of the East. But certainly there is no force so hard to fight as the force which it is easy to conquer; the force that always yields and then returns. Such is the force of a great impersonal prejudice, such as possesses the modern world on so many points. Against this there is no weapon at all except a rigid and steely sanity, a resolution not to listen to fads, and not to be infected by diseases.

A boundary unites. A thoughtful and thought provoking passage. This theological hand-holding with Islam might seem surprising, considering how wonderfully Chesterton explained the abyssal difference between Islam and Christendom, between “the great creed born in the desert” and a religion whose believers have been nurtured by Greek rationality—this difference, according to Chesterton, is also why, compared with Christendom, the world of Islam had become poor, weak, and ignorant. Yet, notwithstanding the differences between the two, what unites them is greater than what divides them. That’s why it’s so true that “Many a magnanimous Moslem and chivalrous Crusader must have been nearer to each other, because they were both dogmatists, than any two homeless agnostics in a pew of Mr. Campbell’s chapel.” That’s what I call freedom of thought, that is to say freedom from prejudice.

What’s Wrong With The World has been recently translated into Italian and published (e-book edition) by the small press publisher Rubbettino. The above excerpt was printed some days ago in the Italian Catholic newspaper Avvenire, and that’s how I learned about it. Thanks: Il Blog dell'uomo Vivo.