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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