Chesterton, God, and Comparative Religion

Polytheism

Chesterton smashed through common misconceptions regarding biological and social evolution with wit and common sense. Now he seeks to outline the history of religion. He begins by pointing out that the most common kind of religion we tend to see in our modern societies is the worship of self, or the worship of humanity as a whole.

“In the days of my youth the Religion of Humanity was a term commonly applied to Comtism, the theory of certain rationalists who worshipped corporate mankind as a Supreme Being. Even in the days of my youth, I remarked that there was something slightly odd about despising and dismissing the doctrine of the Trinity as a mystical and even maniacal contradiction; and then asking us to adore a deity who is a hundred million persons in one God, neither confounding the persons nor dividing the substance.” (76-77)

But even prior to this Religion of Humanity there existed and continues to exist an almost universal Paganism arising out of what appears to be a universal religious sense inherent to humanity. And “When I am speaking of this thing, therefore, I am speaking of something that doubtless includes very wide differences; nevertheless I will here maintain that it is one thing.” (78). “This thing is Paganism; and I propose to show in these pages that it is the one real rival to the Church of Christ.” (78).

Chesterton goes on to say something about how to classify these religious points of view. The regular way of doing it is to compare them in terms of their holy books, or founder, or moral code. This is the kind of thing we see so ubiquitously in our current school system. Religions are compared under the assumption that they are all variations of the same thing. Stereophonics sang,

“You can find yourself a God
Believe in which one you want
Cause they love you all the same
They just go by different names”

But Chesterton, I think, quite rightly protests, “When we come to look at it closely we find it comparing things that are really quite incomparable.” (78) “We are accustomed to see the names of the great religious founders all in a row: Christ; Mahomet; Buddha; Confucius. But in truth this is only a trick; another of these optical illusions by which any objects may be put into a particular relation by shifting to a particular point of sight.” (78-79). Comparing worldviews is much more complex than is often realized, and to treat them all on the same plane tends to flatten them out beyond all recognition. Perhaps it is this attitude that underpins that false assumption that many have about Christianity, namely, the myth that you get to heaven on the basis of the good works you’ve done. Perhaps this is true of other religions, or at least those that posit heaven, but the Christian concept of grace renders this comparative interpretation of Christianity totally false.

This regular way of comparing religions, then, isn’t entirely adequate. In its place Chesterton proposes to compare religions, or at least, draw out their differences by using a different system of classification. “I shall here submit an alternative classification of religion or religions, which I believe would be found to cover all the facts and, what is quite important here, all the fancies.” (81). He treats religions under a number of different headings or themes; ‘God’, ‘the gods’, ‘the Demons’, and ‘the philosophers’ and begins with the first.

Belief in God, or monotheism, ‘the most simple and sublime’ of all the above, is primordial. A monotheistic God is entirely different from the created world and often underpins the polytheism of most pagan cultures. “There is a striking example in a tale taken down word for word from a Red Indian in California, which starts out with hearty legendary and literary relish: ‘The sun is the father and ruler of the heavens. He is the big chief. The moon is his wife and the stars are their children’; and so on through a most ingenious and complicated story, in the middle of which is a sudden parenthesis saying that the sun and moon have to do something because ‘It is ordered that way by the Great Spirit Who lives above the place of all.’ That is exactly the attitude of most paganism towards God. He is something assumed and forgotten and remembered by accident; a habit possibly not peculiar to pagans.” (82-83).

Belief in ‘the’ God, belief in the source of all things, so totally other that he created the world and is unbound by time and space is not an idea that gradually develops. It is a belief that is often assumed, and belief in a Being so discontinuous with the created order that it doesn’t so much evolve as it was always tacitly known. This one simple idea didn’t evolve, “The idea was concealed, was avoided, was almost forgotten, was even explained away; but it was never evolved.” (84). If anything polytheism is a development of this one simple idea. It is a kind of syncretism of a number of different monotheisms meeting with each other. “Gods and demigods and heroes breed like herrings before our very eyes, and suggest of themselves that the family may have had one founder; mythology grows more and more complicated, and the very complication suggests that at the beginning it was more simple.” (86). All of these pagan mythologies are attempts at reaching out to this initial simple idea. They sense that there is a religious reality that underpins all things, and this is perhaps motivated less by the presence of God and more by his absence. Something is missing.

This observation very much reminded me of that famous quote from the British columnist Bernard Levin,

“Countries like ours are full of people who have all the material comforts they desire, together with such non-material blessings as a happy family, and yet lead lives of quiet, and at times noisy, desperation, understanding nothing but the fact that there is a hole inside them and that however much food and drink they pour into it, however many motor cars and television sets they stuff it with, however many well balanced children and loyal friends they parade around the edges of it…it aches.”

Why have people forgotten this one God, this simple and yet utterly beautiful idea? Chesterton again points us to polytheism. In meeting with other cultures and continents people amalgamated their God with the gods of others. “They admitted them to equal thrones with their own; sometimes they identified them with their own.” (88).

“And this point is very important in many controversies ancient and modern. It is regarded as a liberal and enlightened thing to say that the god of the stranger may be as good as our own; and doubtless the pagans thought themselves very liberal and enlightened when they agreed to add to the gods of the city or the hearth some wild and fantastic Dionysus coming down from the mountains or some shaggy and rustic Pan creeping out of the woods. But exactly what it lost by these larger ideas is the largest idea of all.” (89)

Very often the beautiful and the simple is associated with a bygone era and the new and novel associated with liberality and enlightenment. Those who cling stubbornly to the old religion are considered ‘superstitious’ or ‘savage’. And as Chesterton rightly points out, this has been the case with that people who have clung to this simple idea so obstinately, the Jews. “It is true in this sense, humanly speaking, that the world owes God to the Jews.” (89). They were totally against syncretism of every kind and as such preserved this simple idea.

As if responding to Dawkins almost a hundred years before the God Delusion Chesterton writes, “It is often said with a sneer that the God of Israel was only a God of Battles, ‘a mere barbaric Lord of Hosts’ pitted in rivalry against other gods only as their envious foe. Well it is for the world that he was a God of Battles. Well it is for us that he was to all the rest only a rival and a foe. In the ordinary way, it would have been only too easy for them to have achieved the desolate disaster of conceiving him as a friend. It would have been only too easy for them to have seen him stretching out his hands in love and reconciliation, embracing Baal and kissing the painted face of Astarte, feasting in fellowship with the gods; the last god to sell his crown of stars for the Soma of the Indian pantheon or the nectar of Olympus or the mead of Valhalla.” (90).

“As it was, while the whole world melted into this mass of confused mythology, this Deity who is called tribal and narrow, precisely because he was what is called tribal and narrow, preserved the primary religion of all mankind. He was tribal enough to be universal. He was as narrow as the universe.” (91).

 

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Chesterton and the Antiquity of Civilization

Ancient Egypt

Having begun with his reflections on caricatures of prehistoric man and biological evolution, Chesterton turns his attention to the development of civilization. Here again he takes our common understanding of civilization to task. Humanity isn’t quite what we expect it to be. Against a theory of gradual socio-political progress from barbarism to civilization Chesterton writes that “The dawn of history reveals a humanity already civilized.” (50). In other words, the first civilizations that we know of precede records of themselves. Ancient civilizations existed long before they began to record their own history.

This idea of change from the barbaric to the civilized is what Chesterton is seeking to challenge. The early civilizations of the earth are often characterized as barbaric dictatorships run by heartless despots. But given that our early records of these civilizations only give us a tiny glimpse of early history such pictures of early man are highly speculative. Given that such early history is so speculative, and given that early records arise out of civilized societies, we do well to understand such societies more cautiously in light of the history of politics and societies that we really do know of.  Instead, “If there is one fact we really can prove, from the history that we really do know, it is that despotism can be a development, often a late development and very often indeed the end of societies that have been highly democratic.” (53). And again, “According to the real records available, barbarism and civilization were not successive stages in the progress of the world. They were conditions that existed side by side, as they still exist side by side.” (56).

That early history is open to such speculative theorizing also opens up the possibility of another danger. The danger I am referring to is ‘projection’. What is projection? Projection takes place when we ‘project’ our ideas onto things. A very current example would be the debate over Brexit. Brexit is a particularly vague term that generally refers to the UK’s leaving of the European Union. But precisely what that looks like isn’t laid out by the term Brexit itself and so many people read into the word what they’d like it to be.

With regard to the history of early civilization Chesterton writes, “…it may be noted that as soon as feminism became a fashionable cry, it was insisted that human civilization in its first stage had been a matriarchy. Apparently it was the cave-woman who carried the club. Anyhow all these ideas are little better than guesses; and they have a curious way of following the fortune of modern theories and fads.” (57).

Again, human beings are unique. We find them already civilized when we read the earliest records. We find that barbarism and civilization are not successive stages in a world history of gradual process but that they often coexist, and one leads to the other in all manner of orders. Chesterton finishes by drawing our attention to the Iliad. It is perhaps one of the oldest poems we know of but it is also one of the best. It is a poem likely to outlive all other poems, and yet it came from one of the earth’s early societies. Human beings were unique from their beginning.

 

A Wander Through History with Chesterton

ChestertonG. K. Chesterton has often been hailed the ‘apostle of common sense’. He has the uncanny ability to draw out the wonderful from the mundane and the religiously significant from that which hides in plain sight. It’s no different with The Everlasting Man, Chesterton’s history of the world with an emphasis on answering the age old question: “What makes human beings uniquely human.”

Chesterton offers such rich and rewarding insights that I’m going to sum up each chapter of the book in the hope that I might be able to distill his thinking in a way which makes them more accessible to those who have never thought about the question, or those who might want to know a bit more about Chesterton.

The Everlasting Man begins with a rather excellent chapter on prehistoric man. Here Chesterton begins his history and immediately engages the social Darwinist movement so popular at the beginning of the twentieth century. He notes that when we think of ‘the cave man’ we often imagine a rather ugly figure, perhaps named Og, who goes around beating people with a club and wondering why square wheels don’t work. But Chesterton makes the striking observation that this kind of caricature of stone age humanity finds itself ruined by one of the only enduring contributions of stone age human beings themselves, namely, cave paintings.

“When novelists and educationists and psychologists of all sorts talk about the cave-man, they never conceive him in connection with anything that is really in the cave. When the realist of the sex novel writes, ‘Red sparks danced in Dagmar Doubledick’s brain; he felt the spirit of the cave-man rising within him,’ the novelist’s readers would be very much disappointed if Dagmar only went off and drew large pictures of cows on the drawing-room wall.” (25)

“Yet we do know for a fact that the cave-man did these mild and innocent things; and we do not have the most minute speck of evidence that he did any of the violent and ferocious things.” (25)

What such paintings indicate about human beings, is that for all their commonality with the animal kingdom there is something strikingly different about them. So striking that it produces art, reflection, and self-conscious appreciation for the natural world. The kind of characteristics that are found nowhere else in the animal world.

Such a striking, yet often overlooked observation has a direct impact on the way we view evolution in relation to the human being. There is something miraculous and unnatural about human beings. The time it takes for such unnatural and startling abilities to occur does nothing to take away their total discontinuity with what came before.

“There may be a broken trail of stone and bone faintly suggesting the development of the human body. There is nothing even faintly suggesting such a development of this human mind. It was not and it was; we know not in what instant or in what infinity of years.” (32-33).

For example, when Jesus turned water into wine in Galilee in John 2:1-11, it would have remained utterly miraculous even if it had been transformed drip by drip and not jar by jar. The time it takes for a miracle to happen has no impact on its being miraculous. “But this notion of something smooth and slow, like the ascent of a slope, is a great part of the illusion. It is an illogicality as well as an illusion; for slowness has really nothing to do with the question. An event is not any more intrinsically intelligible or unintelligible because of the pace at which it moves. For a man who does not believe in a miracle, a slow miracle would be just as incredible as a swift one.” (19).

Chesterton also asks us to consider evolution itself. If evolution be considered as that biological theory that seeks to explain the natural diversity we see in living organisms, whether by adaption or mutation, it does nothing to explain the origin of that life in the first place, or even the origin of the conditions in which such life might arise. The conclusion of the first chapter, then, is that there is something totally unique about human beings that sets them apart from everything else and evolution acts more as a foil, instead of an explanation, as to why human beings are so distinct. Human beings remain remarkable whether evolution takes place or not.

A Tolkien Map of the Holy Land

Recently I’ve continued to work on a number of maps inspired by the artwork of Christopher Tolkien’s maps of Middle Earth. I’ve completed a map of the Lake District and recently finished a map of the Holy Land.

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20180701_132510As part of that I bought a book called The Art of Lord of the Rings for visual reference. The book is a compendium of the various different art works, maps and calligraphy that Tolkien developed in the writing of his books. It’s a fantastic book, and is full of excellent pictures. I particularly like Christopher Tolkien’s map of the Shire. Taking my cue from Tolkien I’m considering drawing maps of the local area in Tolkien’s style and trying to sell them in local shops. It’s been therapeutic just sitting in front of the telly or listening to music and spending an hour or so drawing mountains.

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