Lecture given to the Atheist Society, 11 April 2017, by Robert Bender.
Chesterton (1874-1936) grew up in a middle-class family, and became deeply interested in religion from an early age. After a false start at art school he began a career as a journalist, writing book reviews, and eventually moved on to write critical biographies on Browning, Dickens, Bernard Shaw and artist George F. Watts, then a series of religious leaders, Aquinas and Francis of Assisi.
He married at 26, when his income from journalism finally made that possible. His wife Frances Blogg, was an Anglo-Catholic, deeply involved in her Catholic community as well as in the literary circles in which Gilbert eventually became very prominent, writing book reviews, poetry, literary essays, novels, mixing with all the other famous writers of his time – Shaw, Wells, Huxley and many Socialists like the Webbs.
In 1903, at age 28, Chesterton became engaged in a long-running public debate with Robert Blatchford, editor and publisher of The Clarion newspaper, started when Blatchford was 40 in 1891. Blatchford was a long-time trade union organizer, and socialist. His book on socialism, Merrie England, (still available in archived form online) sold two million copies, and was treasured by Chesterton, who in his 20s was an anti-modern Guild Socialist, idealizing the guilds of the Middle Ages.
Blatchford organized cycling groups to ride out to villages and distribute
socialist pamphlets, and give speeches to public assemblies. One such is
described in ch. 43 of Robert Tressell’s Ragged-trousered Philanthropists,
the cyclists being met by an angry stone-throwing mob who shouted them
down and chased them out of town – Tressell’s book is deeply pessimistic
about the English working classes. Selling socialism was not easy to the
very conservative small-town labourers. Blatchford was jingoistically pro-England
during the Boer War, with Çhesterton pro-Boer and anti-Imperialist.
Blatchford’s stance lost him many Clarion readers.
In 1903 Blatchford moved into an attack on Christianity, on the very simple ground that it is not true. Chesterton welcomed with much enthusiasm Blatchford’s courage in raising the issue of religious belief in a public journal. In one of his essays in Heretics, on The Mildness of the Yellow Press, he demolishes the tabloids of the time for their undeserved reputation for sensationalism, arguing very cogently that they were really very tame and dared not really offend anybody or expose any real failing of the upper classes or the government, and never created a debate on anything important. Blatchford was an honourable exception to this blandness of popular journalism.
"The whole modern world is pining for a genuinely sensational journalism. This has been discovered by that very able and honest journalist, Mr. Blatchford, who started his campaign against Christianity, warned on all sides, I believe, that it would ruin his paper, but who continued from an honourable sense of intellectual responsibility. He discovered, however, that while he had undoubtedly shocked his readers, he had also greatly advanced his newspaper. It was bought – first, by all the people who agreed with him and wanted to read it; and secondly, by all the people who disagreed with him, and wanted to write him letters. Those letters were voluminous (I helped, I am glad to say, to swell their volume), and they were generally inserted with generous fullness. Thus was accidentally discovered (like the steam-engine) the great journalistic maxim – that if an editor can only make people angry enough, they will write half his newspaper for him for nothing."
One of Blatchford’s arguments was about the idea of the nature of the universe that might be communicated to humans by an entity that was really a god and therefore really knew the truth about the universe in which we live. He could not believe in a revealed religion that was full of primitive nonsense and suggested that if a god revealed it all, it would tell the truth about the size of the universe, its age, the situation of living organisms on our little planet, and provide perhaps a good morality on how to live in human communities. It should be "perfect" from the first moment of revelation, and not need to evolve slowly as barbarian humans increased their understanding and shed erroneous ideas.
Chesterton scorned Blatchford’s concept of the "perfect" revealed religion. He wrote: "The Secularist constantly points out that the Hebrew and Christian religions began as local things; that their god was a tribal god; that they gave him material form, and attached him to particular places.
This is an excellent example of one of the things that if I were conducting a detailed campaign I should use as an argument for the validity of Biblical experience. For if there really are some other and higher beings than ourselves, and if they in some strange way, at some emotional crisis, really revealed themselves to rude poets or dreamers in very simple times, that these rude people should regard the revelation as local, and connect it with the particular hill or river where it happened, seems to me exactly what any reasonable human being would expect. It has a far more credible look than if they had talked cosmic philosophy from the beginning. If they had, I should have suspected "priest-craft" and forgeries and third-century gnosticism.
If there be such a being as God, and He can speak to a child, and if God spoke to a child in the garden, the child would, of course, say that God lived in the garden. I should not think it any less likely to be true for that. If the child said: "God is everywhere; an impalpable essence pervading and supporting all constituents of the Cosmos alike"– if, I say, the infant addressed me in the above terms, I should think he was much more likely to have been with the governess than with God.
So if Moses had said God was an Infinite Energy, I should be certain he had seen nothing extraordinary. As he said He was a Burning Bush, I think it very likely that he did see something extraordinary. For whatever be the Divine Secret, and whether or no it has (as all people have believed) sometimes broken bounds and surged into our world, at least it lies on the side furthest away from pedants and their definitions, and nearest to the silver souls of quiet people, to the beauty of bushes, and the love of one’s native place.
Thus, then, in our last instance (out of hundreds that might be taken), we conclude in the same way. When the learned sceptic says: "The visions of the Old Testament were local, and rustic, and grotesque," we shall answer: "Of course. They were genuine."
So, of course, in Chesterton’s view, all "revelations" must be local, rustic and grotesque, and not tell us the truth about the real universe. His dismissiveness about "cosmic philosophy" is knocking down a straw man and refusing to face up to whether the revelations have proven to be reliable guides to how the universe actually works, or good guides to human behaviour. And he offers not the slightest clue as to how he thinks a "genuine" revelation might be distinguished from a bogus one.
Blatchford’s weekly newspaper articles in the Clarion were eventually assembled into a book, God and My Neighbour (1903). He very bravely invited all and sundry to respond to his views, and offered to publish them, uncensored, in his newspaper. He handed over editorship to George Haw, a Christian. Haw organized for a large number of apologists to defend Christianity against Blatchford’s attacks. The many responses in defence of Christianity were assembled into a book, The Religious Doubts of Democracy, to which Chesterton contributed 3 short essays. It is still available online. Chesterton’s three essays have been extracted from the long forgotten book by his first biographer, Maisie Ward, and are available online as The Blatchford Controversies.
In a piece in The Daily News of 1903, he wrote: "You cannot evade the issue of God, whether you talk about pigs or the binomial theory, you are still talking about Him… Things can be irrelevant to the proposition that Christianity is false, but nothing can be irrelevant to the proposition that Christianity is true. Zulus, gardening, butcher shops, lunatic asylums, housemaids and the French Revolution – all these things not only may have something to do with the Christian God, but must have something to do with Him if He really lives and reigns." With which I cannot but agree – all aspects of life, death, the universe and everything are relevant to one’s conclusions about the nature of existence and the meaning or meaninglessness of it all, and whether or not there is such a thing as a god.
In the last of his three essays Chesterton wrote: "What matters about a religion is not whether it can work marvels like any ragged Indian conjurer, but whether it has a true philosophy of the Universe. The Romans were quite willing to admit that Christ was a god. What they denied was that he was the God – the highest truth of the cosmos. And this is the only point worth discussing about Christianity." With which I must agree. He was very sure that his god was the highest truth of the cosmos by that stage of his life – he was then 30. And I am just as sure that his god doesn’t exist and is a fantasy, expressing no truth whatever. Blatchford was sure of that, too, though for slightly different reasons. Blatchford claimed he was an agnostic, along the lines set out in T. H. Huxley’s 1889 essay on the subject.
Chesterton’s response to Blatchford’s agnostic position was: Complete Agnosticism is the obvious attitude for man. We are all Agnostics until we discover that Agnosticism will not work. Then we adopt some philosophy, Mr. Blatchford’s or mine or some others, for of course Mr. Blatchford is no more an Agnostic than I am. The Agnostic would say that he did not know whether man was responsible for his sins. Mr. Blatchford says that he knows that man is not.
The exchanges continued for almost two years, arguing back and forth, and show that, by then, Chesterton was fully committed to accepting Catholic dogma as the only way to make sense of life. A great deal of the argument circled around the big issue of the day, on Determinism vs. Free Will, Blatchford being a commit-ted Determinist, and Chesterton defending Free Will as the basis for human responsibility for actions, one central application being to the theory of punishment and how to deal with criminal behaviour.
One delightful reader of the Daily News, to which Chesterton contributed frequently, complained in verse in 1904 of Gilbert’s preoccupation:
What ails our wondrous "G.K.C."
Who late, on youth’s glad wings,
Flew fairylike, and gossip’d free
Of translunary things.
That thus, in dull didactic mood,
He quits the realm of dream,
And like some pulpit-preacher rude,
Drones on one dreary theme?
Stern Blatchford, thou hast dashed the glee
Of our Omniscient Babe;
Thy name alone now murmurs he,
Or that of dark McCabe.
All vain his cloudy fancies swell,
His paradox all vain,
Obsessed by that malignant spell
Of Blatchford on the brain.
"Dark McCabe" refers to Joseph McCabe (1867–1955), an ex-Franciscan monk who became a leading intellect-ual in the turn-of-the-century free-thought movement and the Rationalist Association and wrote about 250 books over a long life, most of them about matters of religious belief. Chesterton included an essay in response to him in his 1905 book Heretics.
In God and my Neighbour (1903), Blatchford dismissed Christianity as, among other things, immoral as it was based on an immoral Bible, which urged the Hebrews to commit genocide against their neighbours, leaving nothing alive – man, woman, child, or beast, setting up a belief in a vicious and nasty god which approved of sex-slavery, mutilation of defeated enemies, lying, polygamy, and making heroes of villains like Abraham, Jacob, Joseph and Moses. He also claimed there was nothing new in Jesus’ ideas, all of them found in the much earlier Talmud, edicts of the Indian king Asoka, or even Proverbs. And that the churches have vigorously opposed all the reforms we now take for granted as having led to a more humane civilization.
In his Clarion attack on Christianity he showed he had read widely among popular writers of apologetics and popular science and studied many other religions, especially Buddhism, and much on the anthropology of religion. He lists many books his readers should consult to gather the facts and views that convinced him that Christianity is false.
The theme of Determinism vs Free Will runs right through Chesterton’s essays, and prefigures his much longer treatment of the same theme in Orthodoxy. What had Blatchford written that so incensed Chesterton?
Blatchford’s book comprises 28 chapters, each dealing with an argument against Christianity being true or having dogma or a god we can approve of. Chesterton responds to only a few of them, including Blatchford’s longest chapter on Determinism.
In it, Blatchford makes two main statements. Man cannot sin against God, because God made man and is entirely responsible for Man’s behaviour, like a machinist is for the functioning of a machine he makes. And blaming and punishing the offender is not a good move. Trying to eradicate the offensive behavior is what is needed, because all offenders are driven by heredity and environment to do the bad things they do. So the offenders, criminals, etc., are either mad, or in urgent need of education to fit them for functioning in civilized society. "The philosophic Determinist would denounce the offender’s conduct, but would not denounce the offender. We Determinists do not denounce men, we denounce acts. We do not blame men; we try to teach them. If they are not teachable, we restrain them. The Christian condemns the man – who is a victim of evil social conditions. The Determinist condemns the evil conditions. So long as the universal verdict condemns the victim of a bad system, and helps to keep the bad system in full working order, so long will evil flourish and victims suffer. Whereas the Christian theory of free will and personal responsibility results in established ignorance and injustice, with no visible remedies beyond personal denunciation, the prison, and a few coals and blankets, the Determinist method would result in the abolition of lords and burglars, of slums and palaces, of caste and snobbery. There would be no ignorance and no poverty left in the world…. The Determinist looks for the cause of wrong-doing in the environment of the wrong-doer. While the Christian puts all the wrongs which society perpetrates against the individual, and all the wrongs, which the individual perpetrates against his fellows down to an imaginary ‘free will’…. Some Free-Willers are fond of crying out: ‘Once admit that men are not to be blamed for their actions, and all morality and all improvement will cease.’ But that is a mistake. As I have indicated above, a good many evils now rife would cease, because then we should attack the evils, and not the victim of the evils…. You have the power to choose, then, but you can only choose as your heredity and environment compel you to choose. And you do not choose your heredity nor your own environment…. I believe that nearly all crimes, vices, cruelties, and other evil acts are due to ignorance or to mental disease."
Blatchford, and many others of his time, almost banished the idea of making real choices from life, removing all acts of Will, seeing only causes that produced effects with rigid certainty. Though what he was really saying is that the ideology of free choice to commit bad actions is a nonsense, in that the personality and behavioural patterns of people are determined by forces external to them which will still persist after the offender is punished, so the bad behavior will continue. His solution was to change society, to enable it to produce healthier, more civilized citizens.
Chesterton misrepresents this as Blatchford refusing to accept that any behavior is truly wrong: "Here we have the seed of the whole huge tree of dogma. Why does Mr. Blatchford go beyond Agnosticism and assert that there is certainly no free will? Because he cannot run his scheme of morals without asserting that there is no free will. He wishes no man to be blamed for sin. Therefore he has to make his disciples quite certain that God did not make them free and therefore blamable. No wild Christian doubt must flit through the mind of the Determinist. No demon must whisper to him in some hour of anger that perhaps the company promoter was responsible for swindling him into the workhouse. No sudden scepticism must suggest to him that perhaps the schoolmaster was blamable for flogging a little boy to death. The Determinist faith must be held firmly, or else certainly the weakness of human nature will lead men to be angered when they are slandered and kick back when they are kicked. In short, free will seems at first sight to belong to the Unknowable. Yet Mr. Blatchford cannot preach what seems to him common charity without asserting one dogma about it. And I cannot preach what seems to me common honesty without asserting another." Chesterton’s view was that if no behaviour is wrong and nobody can be blamed, then bad people can continue to do bad things, sin against their god, know there is no punishment to follow and even feel good about their future prospects of heaven.
So here we have the two usual opposites, Blatchford saying all is determined by heredity and environment, Chesterton retorting that this is all nonsense, people make free choices to do or not do bad actions and must be held responsible for their decisions. Chesterton’s response to Blatchford’s view of sin and mental disease was this:
"This is the real objection to that torrent of modern talk about treating crime as disease, about making a prison merely a hygienic environment like a hospital, of healing sin by slow scientific methods. The fallacy of the whole thing is that evil is a matter of active choice, whereas disease is not… A man may lie still and be cured of a malady. But he must not lie still if he wants to be cured of a sin; on the contrary, he must get up and jump about violently. The whole point indeed is perfectly expressed in the very word which we use for a man in hospital; ‘patient’ is in the passive mood; ‘sinner’ is in the active, If a man is to be saved from influenza, he may be a patient. But if he is to be saved from forging, he must not be a patient, but an impatient. He must be personally impatient with forgery. All moral reform must start in the active and not the passive will.
Which is an interesting point of view, as our current wisdom is that many of the modern life-style diseases require a very active determination to change one’s lifestyle to effect a cure – obesity and other eating disorders for example, chemical imbalances in one’s body from poor diet, such as cholesterol problems or liver damage from excess alcohol, requiring active and difficult change of diet, and the vigorous physiotherapy to recover from damage to limbs. Being passive doesn’t help at all.
The opposition of Blatchford and Chesterton is very much one of absolutes. Either a man is totally responsible for his actions, which are all about making choices, or he is totally determined by heredity and environment and makes no choices at all. There seems to be no middle ground. So Chesterton is rigidly hostile to the approach of education and modifying environment, while Blatchford is hostile to punishing the willful individual.
The essay by Rev. F. R. Tennant of Caius College, Cambridge on Determinism in Religious Doubts picks some very capable holes in Blatchford’s flawed reasoning, and it also has this proposition: "Do we consider a father responsible for his wayward son’s follies because he ‘made’ him, or was the means of bringing him into existence?" In 2017, that’s in some ways just what we do. Young males who are violent towards women almost all have a long history of family violence, passed down from father to son, so women’s refuges will not accept boys over 12 into their midst, as they are so damaging in a society of traumatised women. Young men brought up to solve all problems with violence often come from homes where that is standard behavior. Young men who indulge in dishonest business practices often come from homes where that is the norm. People who are cruel to animals almost all have a long history of family cruelty and violence. Not always, so it is not neat and simple, but often enough for the generalization to have much validity.
Current views on the reform of criminals, for example men who have abused their wives, or drug addicts who commit armed robberies, involves some mixture of modifying environments and offering community support, and demanding that the offender make a commitment to a therapeutic program that involves active participation – much like Alcoholics Anonymous or Drug Addict rehabilitation programs or the de-programming of ex-cult members. Our modern treatment even of serious commercial offences by senior executives of large corporations includes demanding they attend basic courses in business ethics, to make inroads into the ignorance seen as underlying their unethical behavior.
It is interesting to see what our society has done to deal with these two opposed views of responsibility and punishment. Just recently, partly in response to the wild outbreak of violence in our youth prisons, and much public discussion about the very inadequate provision for dealing with mental illness in our community, figures were published to the effect that around 70% of the people in our prisons suffer some form of mental illness. For some crimes, the offenders plead not guilty on the ground of insanity and instead of being sent to prison, are sent to secure mental hospitals. In our prisons, it is accepted that most prisoners are mentally unsound. But our commitment to this view is not matched by provision of adequate resources to deal with it effectively. Our prisons do not have access to anywhere near adequate personnel or facilities to deal with their mental disorders, due to voters’ stinginess. So we have chosen the Blatchford attitude but have not chosen to fund the program properly.
The vast majority of people in our prisons are of very limited literacy and have no trade skills. All our prisons have schools and trade shops in an endeavor to over-come educational deprivation (very difficult for those on short sentences) or lack of employable skills. But they are severely hampered by a need to avoid competing with commercial businesses outside the prison system, which limits what skills can be taught and the range of saleable products that can be made. So we have the vehicle number plate factory, and local volunteer fire brigades. Again we are committed to education as a solution to criminal behaviour, but other considerations place severe limits on how effectively our commitment operates.
We have largely adopted the Blatchford approach to dealing with offenders – shut them away from society as they are dangerous, and meanwhile try to deal with their mental disease or their lack of education. We do not "punish" using the methods traditional in Christian society – flogging, mutilation, branding, deprivation of food, treadmills, picking oakum - very much on the grounds that these would merely further brutalise people who will eventually be released back into free society worse than when they were put into prison. We have, perhaps, applied a dictum Blatchford found in the Talmud: "It is not the wicked we should hate, but wickedness." All the harm-minimisation projects related to prostitution, attempted suicide, therapeutic sessions for people involved in drug addiction and abuse, reprogramming courses for men addicted to wife-bashing, are applications of the Blatchford attitude to wickedness and wicked people. Chesterton, too, really subscribed to the same view in some ways, when he wrote about the Christian virtue of charity: "It divided the crime from the criminal. The criminal we must forgive unto seventy times seven. The crime we must not forgive at all… We must be much more angry with theft than before, and yet much kinder to thieves than before." Underneath all the inflamed rhetoric about the sinner and responsibility for sin, Chesterton shared something with Blatchford in the practical program to which he would subscribe.
Science vs Magic
Chesterton’s problem with the Determinist view of the world influenced
profoundly his attitude to science, about which he has much to offer in
First, he rather cutely says he prefers fairy tales to science books as the more reliable sources of valuable information about how the world works:
"Here is the peculiar perfection of tone and truth in the nursery tales. The man of science says, ‘Cut the stalk, and the apple will fall’; but he says it calmly, as if the one idea really led up to the other. The witch in the fairy tale says, ‘Blow the horn, and the ogre’s castle will fall’ [except that he obviously got that one from Joshua at Jericho]; but she does not say it as if it were something in which the effect obviously arose out of the cause. Doubtless she has given the advice to many champions, and has seen many castles fall, but she does not lose either her wonder or her reason. She does not muddle her head until it imagines a necessary mental connection between a horn and a falling tower. But the scientific men do muddle their heads, until they imagine a necessary mental connection between an apple leaving the tree and an apple reaching the ground. They do really talk as if they had found not only a set of marvelous facts, but a truth connecting those facts. They do talk as if the connection of two strange things physically, connected them philosophically. They feel that because one incomprehensible thing constantly follows another incomprehensible thing the two together make up a comprehensible thing. Two black riddles make a white answer.
In fairyland we avoid the word ‘law’, but in the land of science they are singularly fond of it. Thus they will call some interesting conjecture about how forgotten folks pronounced the alphabet, Grimm’s Law. But Grimm’s Law is far less intellectual than Grimm’s Fairy Tales. The tales are, at any rate, certainly tales; while the law is not a law. A law implies that we know the nature of the generalization and enactment; not merely that we have noticed some of the effects. If there is a law that pickpockets shall go to prison, it implies that there is an imaginable mental connection between the idea of prison and the idea of picking pockets. And we know what the idea is. We can say why we take liberty from a man who takes liberties. But we cannot say why an egg can turn into a chicken any more than we can say why a bear could turn into a fairy prince. As ideas, the egg and the chicken are further off each other than the bear and the prince; for no egg in itself suggests a chicken, whereas some princes do suggest bears. Granted then, that certain transformations do happen, it is essential that we should regard them in the philosophic manner of fairy tales, not in the unphilosophic manner of science and the ‘Laws of nature’. When we are asked why eggs turn into birds or fruits fall in autumn we must answer exactly as the fairy godmother would answer if Cinderella asked her why mice turned to horses or her clothes fell from her at twelve o’clock. We must answer that it is magic. It is not a ‘law’, for we do not understand its general formula. It is not a necessity, for though we can count on it happening practically, we have no right to say that it must always happen. It is no argument for unalterable law (as Huxley fancied) that we count on the ordinary course of things. We do not count on it; we bet on it. We risk the remote possibility of a miracle as we do that of a poisoned pancake or a world-destroying comet. We leave it out of account, not because it is a miracle and therefore an impossibility, but because it is a miracle, and therefore an exception."
This is really amazing stuff – Newton’s discovery of the law of gravitation, the inverse square law, was a non-sense, because there are really no meaningful regularities in anything that happens in our lives, nothing we can rely on to always display those regularities. So there is no connection between the behavior of the apple falling to the ground and the moon "falling" towards the Earth in its ongoing orbit, instead of flying off into far space. There is only magic.
"All the terms used in the science books, ‘law,’ ‘necessity’, ‘order,’ ‘tendency,’ and so on, are really unintellectual, because they assume an inner synthesis which we do not possess. The only words that ever satisfied me as describing Nature are the terms used in the fairy books, ‘charm’, ‘spell’, ‘enchantment’. They express the arbitrariness of the fact and its mystery. A tree grows fruit because it is a magic tree. Water runs downhill because it is bewitched. The sun shines because it is bewitched. I deny altogether that this is fantastic or even mystical. We may have some mystic-ism later on; but this fairy-tale language about things is simply rational and agnostic. It is the only way I can express in words my clear and definite perception that one thing is quite distinct from another; that there is no logical connection between flying and laying eggs. It is the man who talks about a ‘law’ that he has never seen who is the mystic. Nay, the ordinary scientific man is strictly a sentimentalist. He is a sentimentalist in this essential sense, that he is soaked and swept away by mere associations. He has so often seen birds fly and lay eggs that he feels as if there must be some dreamy, tender connection between the two ideas, whereas there is none. A forlorn lover might be unable to dissociate the moon from lost love; so the materialist is unable to dissociate the moon from the tide. In both cases there is no connection, except that one has seen them together."
In 1695 Edmond Halley published a paper on the application of Newton’s gravitation laws to the tides in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, and it has become the basis for all our educational material in science classes about them, and for the ubiquitous tide tables published for fishermen and coastal traders. If Chesterton was right, then the very precise tide tables published for every port and fishing area in the world would not be possible. As it happens they do get produced and are very reliable.
So Chesterton’s position is that all the apparent regularities of our experience are mere delusion, deceiving us to believing there is some underlying natural law that explains the connections between phenomena. In Chesterton’s view this is all hogwash and there is only magic, with no necessary connections between any phenomena. This is not a universe in which there are any natural laws showing how things work. Newton and all the others were totally mistaken in their belief that they had come to understand some-thing about how the universe works.
A few pages later there is more.
"All the towering materialism which dominates the modern mind rests ultimately upon one assumption; a false assumption. It is supposed that if a thing goes on repeating itself it is probably dead; a piece of clock-work. People feel that if the universe was personal it would vary; if the sun were alive it would dance. This is a fallacy even in relation to known fact… Now, to put the matter in a popular phrase, it might be true that the sun rises regularly because he never gets tired of rising. His routine might be due, not to a lifelessness, but to a rush of life. The thing I mean can be seen, for instance, in children, when they find some game or joke that they specially enjoy. A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, ‘Do it again’; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony It is possible that God says every morning ‘Do it again’ to the sun; and every evening, ‘Do it again’ to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them… The repetition in Nature may not be a mere recurrence; it may be a theatrical encore. Heaven may encore the bird who laid an egg… Repetition may go on for millions of years, by mere choice, and at any instant it may stop."
All this suggests a very deep contempt for a scientific understanding of the universe, for physics, chemistry, geology, biology. None of the widespread and subtle regularities are based on any underlying structure, nothing happens as a self-regulated phenomenon or process. It is all, every second, the action of his god, who keeps every tiny phenomenon running. And Chesterton would not accept any connection between egg-laying by reptiles, dinosaurs, birds and echidnas, showing an evolutionary sequence under way – there was, in his view, only magic. He was also in denial about a fundamental of evolution, which is that all daisies are not alike. Variation is an essential part of reality.
The concept of a god telling the sun to ‘do it again’ each morning evokes an image of a flat immobile earth with a sun that moves literally across our field of vision, and at sunset its task of lighting our day is over and it can rest for the night. It is an earth-centred vision, pre-Copernicus, harking back to the Babylonian vision of the cosmos. It denies the idea that the sun is virtually immobile at the centre of elliptical planetary orbits, that our Earth is an oblate spheroid and it is sunrise continuously as one follows the time zones westward around it, that the sun’s apparent motion is actually the earth rotating on its axis. It looks as though Chesterton wanted to live in a concept world derived from the Babylonian view underlying Genesis, of a flat Earth, the stars all the same distance of a few kilometres above the Earth, with Hades or Hinom a bottomless pit of blackness deep under Earth’s surface.
He also falls into the error common to so many creationists, made possible by the dual meaning of our word ‘law’, which means one thing in a legislature and some-thing quite different in the compound phrase ‘law of nature’. "In fairyland there had been a real law; a law that could be broken, for the definition of a law is some-thing that can be broken." Thus he glosses over the different uses of the word by jurists and by natural scientists, something he has in common with the creationists. "The idea of the mystical condition quite disappeared; one can neither have the firmness of keeping laws nor the fun of breaking them." Natural law is not about the commands of a universe-designer, but about description of the way phenomena behave. Boyle’s law about the behavior of a gas under pressure was not about an unchangeable decree from a creator, but about human efforts to understand physical phenomena. Chesterton’s flippant comment about breaking laws being fun calls up the question of which of the ten commandments, for example, it might be fun to "break", or whether he thought his god thought it fun to break the law of conservation of momentum in making the sun stand still for Joshua, which of course would have involved the Earth suddenly ceasing its rotation on its axis, then starting up again instantly at the usual speed, all of which would cause the Earth to disintegrate from the rotational forces unleashed.
But there is more, connecting all this to Chesterton’s need to defend a belief in miracles:
"I had always vaguely felt facts to be miracles in the sense that they are wonderful; now I began to think them miracles in the stricter sense that they were willful. I mean that they were, or might be, repeated exercises of some will. In short, I had always believed that the world involved magic: now I thought that perhaps it involved a magician. And this pointed a profound emotion always present and sub-conscious; that this world of ours has some purpose; and if there is a purpose, there is a person. I had always felt life first as a story; and if there is a story there is a story-teller."
And of course the story-teller is not Jupiter or Zeus, Popocatepetl or Baal or Vishnu, but the Catholic god derived from the Hebrew Old Testament. So Chesterton posits his god as constantly active in keeping every tiny sub-atomic particle spinning around its nucleus (they had just been discovered by J. J. Thomson and Ernest Rutherford before Chesterton wrote his book), every bird-egg growing an embryo inside, every fungus sending up its fruiting bodies, every planet continuing around its predictable orbit and every star in its place – the concept of a universe of billions of galaxies came long after Chesterton’s book, just before he died, in the 1930s. And of course he has nothing to say about what the "purpose" of the universe might be. All the religious opinions about its purpose I have seen are trivial and absurd. Chesterton refrained from indulging his wit in thinking up a purpose, which was prudent but dishonest. To propose that the universe has a purpose without even a hint of what it might be is not honest.
So his response to the Determinists is to abolish effect being determined by any cause except one – Aquinas’ First Cause is not a First Cause but an ongoing cause deeply involved in everything that happens. The problem of determinism and free will he solved by making absolutely everything an act of will, so nothing at all is determined and everything is a miracle. This is the opposite of the god of the deists, which created the universe long ago and left it to run of itself, without further intervention. It is more like the Qur’an, in which Mohammed posited that nothing happens unless Allah wills it, a position very similar to Chesterton’s.
Fall or Rise
Blatchford had much to say about the Christian doctrine of the Fall of Man:
"First, as to Adam and the Fall and inherited sin. Evolution, historical research, and scientific criticism have disposed of Adam. Adam was a myth. Hardly any educated Christians now regard him as an historic person. But – no Adam, no Fall; no Fall, no Atonement; no Atonement, no Saviour. Accepting Evolution, how can we believe in a Fall? When did Man fall? Was it before he ceased to be a monkey, or after? Was it when he was a tree man, or later? Was it in the Stone Age, or the Bronze Age, or in the Age of Iron? There never was any ‘ Fall’. Evolution proves a long slow rise… Evolution shows Man to be, even now, an imperfect creature, an unfinished work, a building still under-going alterations, an animal still evolving. Whereas the doctrines of ‘the Fall’ and the Atonement assume that he was from the first a finished creature, and responsible to God for his actions."
Chesterton’s response is that "there is a word to be said about the Fall [Original Sin]. It can only be a word, and it is this. Without the doctrine of the Fall all idea of progress is unmeaning. Mr. Blatchford says that there was not a Fall but a gradual rise. But the very word "rise" implies that you know toward what you are rising. Unless there is a standard you cannot tell whether you are rising or falling. But the main point is that the Fall, like every other large path of Christianity is embodied in the common language talked on the top of an omnibus. Anybody might say, "Very few men are really Manly." Nobody would say, "Very few whales are really whaley."
If you wanted to dissuade a man from drinking his tenth whisky you would slap him on the back and say, "Be a man." No one who wished to dissuade a crocodile from eating his tenth explorer would slap it on the back and say, "Be a crocodile." For we have no notion of a perfect crocodile; no allegory of a whale expelled from his whaley Eden. If a whale came up to us and said: "I am a new kind of whale; I have abandoned whale-bone," we should not trouble. But if a man came up to us (as many will soon come up to us) to say, "I am a new kind of man. I am the super-man. I have abandon-ed mercy and justice"; we should answer, "Doubtless you are new, but you are not nearer to the perfect man, for he has been already in the mind of God. We have fallen with Adam and we shall rise with Christ; but we would rather fall with Satan than rise with you."
Chesterton enjoyed his analogies and paradoxes, loved attacking the ideas of Nietzsche, and sometimes they were very witty, but this one is silly, as so many of Chesterton’s witty remarks were. To claim that you have no idea whether you are rising or falling unless you know what is the goal, is just silly. To say that there is some concept of a "perfect" man in the mind of a god, and that it is essential to know that concept to decide whether a particular man is rising from barbarism or descending into a degraded state, just shows Chesterton’s preference for the 13th century concepts of Aquinas. To say that because we have abolished capital punishment in this country, whereas mere decades ago we hanged the last criminals until they were dead, yet we cannot claim this as an improvement without being able to name an ultimate goal, is absurd. To claim that although we have abolished slavery and serfdom in our society, if we cannot describe some ultimate goal of which this is some contributing action, we cannot claim to have "risen" from a more degraded practice, is absurd. We have no idea what practices will be banned as inhumane 200 years from now, but we do know that abolishing bear-baiting, flogging on naval ships and the burning of heretics were improvements and our species has risen to a better condition of civilisation as a result.
Chesterton’s quip about "very few men are really Manly" implies that his concept of manliness is the only one and that we still have the same ideal a century later, but I am sure we do not. Our concept of manliness involves radically changed views from Chesterton’s time about men’s behaviour towards women, children, other races, defeated enemies, domesticated animals. And even his claim that we make no such statements about other species, so humans are special is no longer true. One of the more startling discoveries by Jane Goodall in her decades of observations of chimpanzees at Gombe was the mentally disturbed female chimpanzee Passion, who committed multiple infanticides, and cannibalised the infants of other females, so was "not really chimpy", in that she did not behave in a way that was good for chimpanzee society. Mental disease is not confined to humans, but Passion was not a sinner.
Chesterton also had something to say about the Stone Age: "Science knows nothing whatever about pre-historic man; for the excellent reason that he is pre-historic." And all his "evidence" for this is from ancient sagas and legends, products of the revolution of writing and civilised settlements. He dismissed archaeology as not producing any valid evidence about the lives of primitive humans.
Chesterton made another statement about the issue of setting a standard, so you know whether something is an improvement, in Orthodoxy,
He attacks the abolition of absolutes, which he calls "a false theory of progress, which means that we alter the test instead of trying to pass the test. We often hear it said, for instance, ‘What is right in one age is wrong in another.’ This is quite reasonable, if it means there is a fixed aim, and that certain methods attain at certain times and not at other times." "If the standard changes, how can there be improvement, which implies a standard?"
It’s the same issue about whether man is rising or falling and whether we know the ultimate goal,, applied to a different problem. What Chesterton confuses here is the idea that the standard itself can be improved. Thus, the idea that slavery, or beheading heretics, was acceptable satisfied people until only a few hundred years ago (and in some parts of the world, this is still their standard), and is accepted in the Bible stories, which include stories about people selling themselves into slavery for debt, or taking women of defeated enemies as sex slaves, and seems to approve the practice. It is one our current society rejects.
The idea that the male head of a family had literal power of life and death over his wife and children and servants was also once regarded as a valid norm, but for most of us now it is not, and we see our own standard of equality between the sexes and rights for children as an improvement.
The idea that tribal purity was a valid ideal pervades the Old Testament, and genocidal extermination wars against neighbouring tribes were approved by their god. These were then accepted without question whereas our multi-cultural society now rejects this value judgment.
The idea that certain offences against society merited the death penalty was seen as right and normal for millennia and we now see our hostility to it as an improvement. All of these involved changing the standard, not just the behaviour, because the old standard was found to be unsatisfactory.
Chesterton was blind to such change. "The main point here… is that this idea of a fundamental alteration in the standard is one of the things that make thought about the past or future simply impossible." So, is it a real problem? Can it be a valid statement that some-thing is wrong at one point in history, but right at another? Are all values relative or was something that we now reject always wrong, rather than having been at one time "right"? Was mutilation of certain criminals by cutting off hands, or putting out their eyes or cutting out their tongues always wrong, or was it at one time right? Was genital mutilation of women at one time right, though we now see it as wrong?
Was it once right that women in childbirth should be denied anaesthetics because an ancient scripture declared they must suffer pain in childbirth? Or was it just the frothing of misogynist males with sadistic joy in the pain of women?
Was it once right that heretics should be burned alive but now it is wrong? Was hanging, drawing and quartering (or even stoning) once right? Making historical judgments of that sort is always problematic, but it is not, as Chesterton believed, absurd, and destructive of all thought.
Chesterton was in two minds about whether evolution was a valid theory of the origin of species. In terms of the slow transformation of a species into a somewhat different species, he has no quarrel with it:
"If evolution destroys anything, it does not destroy religion but rationalism. If evolution simply means that a positive thing called an ape turned very slowly into a positive thing called a man, then it is stingless for the most orthodox; for a personal God might just as well do things slowly as quickly, especially if, like the Christian God, he were outside time. But if it means anything more, it means that there is no such thing as an ape to change, and no such thing as a man for him to change into. It means that there is no such thing as a thing. At best, there is only one thing, and that is a flux of every-thing and anything. This is an attack not upon the faith, but upon the mind; you cannot think if there are no things to think about." He wrote something similar in the novel he worked on that derived from his debate with Blatchford, The Ball and the Cross: "It is the whole idea of evolution that identities melt into each other as they do in a nightmare."
I don’t believe Chesterton had any idea what he was talking about in claiming that his god was "outside time", but somehow organized for very slow developments, "inside" time.
He seems to be attacking an idea possibly current around 1900 about everything being in flux, which is opposed to anything being a definite object as every-thing shades into everything else, with no boundaries. The issue is: the ape changes into a human, millennium after millennium and there are no boundary lines, so a human is just an ape that looks a little different and an ape is just a human that looks a little different. That goes for us and molluscs and reptiles and mosquitoes, so there is really only one species. A mosquito is a tiger and a snake is a jellyfish and is also a pine tree, so it is impossible to discuss the differences between any two things as there are no real boundaries. They all shade into one another.
That is just silly. Chesterton sets up and knocks down straw men quite often in this book. But there is a real issue: if some proto-ape evolved over several millions of years into humans, there are no obvious boundary lines, with ape on one side and human on the other. There was no time at which an ape gave birth to a human. So, perhaps there is really just a continuum, and "species" is a convenient concept with no reality under-lying it. If we had the full sequence of descent, there would be no boundaries. However, part of the definition of species is about ability or inability to interbreed, and once the inability to interbreed is established, there is a very definite boundary line. All this was settled about Chesterton’s time. There is a solution to the real problem he raised, but his own over-dramatic certainty is no longer plausible.
To some extent Chesterton’s misconception about evolution is linked to his misconception about determinism and inevitability.
"All descriptions of the creating or sustaining principle in things must be metaphorical, because they must be verbal. Thus the pantheist is forced to speak of God in all things as if he were in a box. Thus the evolutionist has, in his very name, the idea of being unrolled like a carpet."
The Latin root of evolve is volvere, which is about unrolling. Except that is not the idea of evolution, for unrolling a carpet that has already been made reveals only that its design is already complete, and there are no surprises awaiting in the future. Whereas the concept of evolution is about an unfinished carpet, with nobody now having any real idea of what the finished carpet will be, as the unfinished part is not predictable from what has already been woven. Something that unrolls is not being created as it unrolls, its form is already fixed. This is a flawed concept of evolution, which is not an unrolling but a continuous experiment with complex ecosystems with millions of species competing, co-operating, preying, being preyed on, reproducing, growing, killing and being killed, with selective pressure on current species to adapt to stresses by favouring some varieties over others. Chesterton rejected evolution as a failed idea as he did not understand it. He seems to have been stuck in the Genesis concept that all creation happened and was over within six days and everything has been quite static ever since.
As an example, the multiple mass-extinctions removed many of the species competing for space in the various habitats on Earth and enabled evolution to proceed in unpredictable directions. Disappearance of the last Trilobites in the Triassic enabled the shallow seas to be populated by things not compatible with Trilobites. The meeting of what are now South and North America some 4 million years ago with the formation of the Panama isthmus enabled a mixing of their flora and fauna, with new predator-prey interactions and variations and extinctions in ways not predictable when they were thousands of kilometres apart. It also separated the Atlantic from the Pacific oceans and isolated their flora and fauna from each other, opening and closing opportunities for evolution to proceed in certain ways. This is not an unrolling of a finished carpet.
One of Chesterton’s problems with evolution, which is a genuine issue, is the common description at the time of the "ladder of creation", distinguishing the lower from the higher animals, and other such value-loaded categories implying that there is some principle of progress built into the evolutionary process, the under-lying principle being that we are the ultimate goal, the pinnacle of creation. And here he is quite correct – the late Victorian fascination with seeing progress in history was a product of the times, and even many scientists then did not see the essence of Darwin’s insight into evolution, which is that there is no direction whatever, that evolution does not lead inevitably to wonderful us, and we are just one species among millions that has adapted well enough to survive for the moment, as Stephen Jay Gould’s so cogently argued in Ever Since Darwin on the metaphor of the bush instead of the ladder.
But Chesterton’s objection to the existence of progress is quite eccentric, along with the rest of his argument:
"If we suppose improvement to be natural, it must be fairly simple. The world might conceivably be working towards one consummation, but hardly towards any particular arrangement of many qualities."
Which leads Chesterton into the idea that the Christian ideal is not one-dimensional, but complex, like a work of art (implying of course an artist). His understanding of evolution, in which millions of species are evolving, to some extent in response to other species in predator-prey relationships, or in parasite-victim relationships, or to changing landscapes as volcanism and earthquakes move plates about (an idea not current in his time), is about zero. He cannot let go of the idea that there is some ultimate goal to evolution, and accept that it is an ongoing creative and destructive process with no defined outcome.
Built into his rejection of progress-in-evolution is a rejection of progress-in-history.
"We constantly hear a particularly cosmic creed from the modern humanitarians. I use the word humanitarian in the ordinary sense, as meaning one who upholds the claims of all creatures against those of humanity. They suggest that through the ages we have been growing more and more humane, that is to say, that one after another, groups or sections of beings, slaves, children, women, cows, or what not, have been gradually admitted to mercy or to justice."
Which is indeed a claim of our times, that our moral standards are superior to those of the slave-owning patriarchal state that condoned extreme cruelty to animals as they had no souls, and gave patriarchs power of life and death over servants, wives and children (as in the story of Abraham and Hagar, and Abraham and the altar-sacrifice of Isaac). "I am here only following the outlines of their argument, which consists in maintaining that man has been progressively more lenient, first to citizens, then to slaves, then to animals, and then (presumably) to plants." He likes to pursue a reductio ad absurdum, and this prediction that we will one day feel a need to be kind to plants, is one such, and he clearly thought the prospect absurd.
But it is a characteristic of our times that the idea of an ethical element in our behavior towards plants has moved into the mainstream of our values, led by the vanguard of the ecologists who want to eradicate threats to endangered plant species as well as to endangered animals, a value unknown in Chesterton’s time. The whole organization of the IUCN, deeply concerned with the conservation status of the millions of species of organisms on planet Earth, and the development of ecological ethics, is ludicrous to Chesterton, for whom only humans were of any concern.
Another of his views is related to this absence of progress in history: "An imbecile habit has arisen in modern controversy of saying that such and such a creed can be held in one age but cannot be held in another. Some dogma, we are told, was credible in the twelfth century, but is not credible in the twentieth. You might as well say that a certain philosophy can be believed on Mondays but cannot be believed on Tuesdays. You might as well say of a view of the cosmos that it was suitable to half-past three, but not suitable to half-past four. What a man can believe depends upon his philosophy, not upon the clock or the century."
Except of course that time’s arrow is not reversible whereas Monday follows Tuesday as well as precedes it.
Chesterton’s argument was to reinstate Absolutes into his morality, and absolutes must be absolute always, whether in the 12th or 20th centuries. He could not accept that, for example, a belief in Jesus descending to the realm of the dead could be believed when there was almost no understanding of the shape, structure and physical make-up of the Earth in the 12th century, in which a place of the dead deep in the Earth did not seem absurd, but is not believable once one has a 20th century understanding of the composition of planet Earth, with a molten iron core and slowly swirling molten magma deep inside rather than a river Styx and a place where the dead are gathered for some sort of ghostly afterlife.
To some extent, of course, he was quite right, in that in our 21st
century we still have many people living, in their fantasies, by creeds
that belong to long-past centuries, and wanting earnestly to remake our
political life to resemble that of the Bronze Age or the theocratic structures
of 3rd millennium BCE cities in the Fertile Crescent. But some
beliefs fit well with the general culture of their age, and others are
clearly anachronistic. A belief in virgin births, and in gods that assume
human shape and die and are reborn fitted fairly well with the 12th
century magical world view but is very anachronistic in our time, when
we understand a great deal more about sexual reproduction and DNA and about
the anthropology of religion. Chesterton was contemptuous of the anthropology
of religion, as he explained in his Heretics essay, Science
and the Savages.
The size and age of the universe
One common secularist attack on religious belief is related to the recent enormous expansion of our idea of the size of the universe, from the tiny concept of the Babylonians reproduced in Genesis 1. Blatchford devotes a brief chapter to what was understood in his time as the vast distances between the planets and even vaster ones between the stars. One minor entertainment in his book is that he measures the time it might take to reach the moon or a star in terms of the speed of an express train, the fastest machine he knew of. He published in 1903, the year the Wright brothers flew their biplane at Kittyhawk, and in a few decades measuring cosmic distances in terms of the speed of express trains would seem very quaint. The greatest distance to which he refers is to the Great Nebula in Orion, then believed to be 1,000 light years from Earth (now estimated at 1,344 light years, so even then the scientists were close).
Since his time the known universe has been extended from something like 100,000 light years diameter to well over 90 billion light years, with our galaxy of 100 billion stars just one among billions of galaxies. Chesterton dismisses all this as irrelevant. He devotes a few paragraphs to the common statement diminishing the significance of us humans on the grounds that the universe is so huge. He sees its hugeness as irrelevant, as it is the possibility of interpersonal emotional responses that interests him rather than size or regularities. "The size of this scientific universe gave one no novelty, no relief. The cosmos went on for ever, but not in its wildest constellations could there be any-thing really interesting; anything for instance, such as forgiveness or free will." "These expanders of the universe had nothing to show us except more and more infinite corridors of space lit by ghastly suns and empty of all that is divine." So suns are not divine, even though Genesis 1 claims our sun (and the stars) were made by a god, and the god is said to have decided it was all very good. The wonderful world opened up by the huge telescopes about to be set up soon after Chesterton’s book would not have interested him, as he was preoccupied with the emotions of interpersonal relationships.
So, is the size and age of the universe something that has relevance to the significance of us humans and the likelihood that we are the almost sole focus of a creator-god? The world-view in Genesis was of a flat Earth, with a solid sky dome and little pin-pricks of stars that were just fireflies in the sky, with two major lights, sun and moon, no mention of other planets or their moons, no concept that the universe had a structure other than an Earth with some cute little lights in the sky and a sun to keep it warm. It was believed to have been created just five days before humans were placed on it, so was all very new. Its writers seem to have believed that the sun, moon and stars were quite close, only a few kilometres above the Earth’s surface. In such a world, it was not totally nonsensical to claim that humans were very important, and perhaps the whole thing was made for them to enjoy.
Since the big telescopes and spectrometric analysis of starlight, the discovery of other galaxies and the age of our universe, we now know with very great certainty that it is at least 90 thousand million light years across, with billions of galaxies each with billions of stars in them, some already burned out, some old, some just emerging and some like our sun near halfway through their process of exhausting their internal energy sources, some having already become exhausted and exploded in supernovas, scattering debris of which our complex carbon and other atoms are remnants. We also know the universe is 13.7 billion years old, our solar system only a third as old, at 4.6 billion years, and that we modern humans, Homo sapiens, appeared on Earth about 200,000 years ago, so the planet and the other parts of our solar system existed for 99.996% of its history up to now without any humans, and the universe for 99.9985% of its history. The urbanized settlements that have produced our current complex cultures first emerged a mere 15,000 years ago in the Middle East, Pakistan and China, so modern humans with urban cultures were absent for 99.9999% of the universe’s history. The average lifespan of a species is said to be about 10 million years, so most of the future of our planet until the sun goes into a Red Giant phase and absorbs it in another 50 billion years, will be one with no humans on it, as we are just a passing phenomenon, like all other species.
Claiming that it was all made for us now looks totally absurd, like saying the entire solar system and Earth and its long history was created for the sole purpose of a flea that appeared yesterday and is dead today. Chesterton was not open to such an argument, and would have scorned it. As a minor issue, it also shows that the Genesis 1 sequence in which the sun and moon are created along with the other stars is incorrect, they did not originate all on the same day, and the scenario that the sun and moon are vital, with the rest of the stars a mere afterthought is very far from the truth.
One last point I would like to deal with is that of Chesterton’s way of defending the concept of Original Sin, which he claimed is "the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved." He wanted to start off with a fact. "The ancient masters of religion were …impressed with that necessity. They began with the fact of sin – a fact as practical as potatoes." And he rails against reformist movements within Christianity that tended to deny the reality of sin. He offers no definition of sin, which is not just about humans having urges to do bad things, but is about offences against a god. The concepts of bad actions, criminal behavior and sin are not the same. But Chesterton wants to present the view that if one does not accept the concept of sin, which is about offences against a god, there is no other way of legitimately viewing bad behaviour, so one has abolished the whole business of making judgments about behaviour being good or bad. This he rightly dismisses as stupid and wrong.
I do not accept the concept of sin, as I am an atheist, claim there is no such a thing as a god, so it makes no sense to think in terms of sin as an offence against a god, if there are no gods. But I have a strong moral view about certain behaviours being good or bad, accept that these are human concepts, and different people and civilisations will have different (largely over-lapping) views on what is right and wrong. My view of what is good and bad is quite different from the Christian view. For example, I don’t see attempted suicide as a sin meriting punishment, but as a sign of depression calling for urgent therapy. By contrast, Chesterton stated that: "in all this I found myself utterly hostile to many who called themselves liberal and humane. Not only is suicide a sin, it is the sin. It is the ultimate and absolute evil, the refusal to take an interest in existence; the refusal to take the oath of loyalty to life. The man who kills a man, kills a man. The man who kills himself, kills all men; as far as he is concerned he wipes out the world. His act is worse (symbolically considered) than any rape or dynamite outrage… He defiles every flower by refusing to live for its sake." This was a very widespread view in Chesterton’s time, though the shift to seeing suicidal depression as a mental illness instead of seeing it as a sin was well under way by then.
I almost agree with Blatchford on this issue, that blaming and punishing the offender is not helpful, but treating mental illness and educating the ignorant to help them become literate and skilled enough to hold a job on release is far better. Brutalising the already brutalized is a counter-productive way of dealing with a serious problem. It is definitely not true that all humans are "naturally" good, but also not true that all humans are "naturally" bad. Much depends on heredity and environment, as Blatchford proposed, though I would not go anywhere near as far as he did in stating that causes rigidly determine effects – it allows nothing for the randomness of experience and for complex and chaotic phenomena. Heredity is no longer seen as a single gene rigidly determining some characteristic of appearance or behaviour, but as complex interactions of multiple genes setting some sort of boundary to behaviour or appearance, within which a fair amount of variation can be observed. So the XYY chromosome, for example, is linked with violent behaviour, but it is not true that all people with this aberrant chromosome are equally violent all their lives. We live in a world of probabilities, not of certainties. And so it is with our childhood environment. Blatchford correctly said the slums of his time were responsible for much of the crime. Abolish the slums and there will be a very large reduction in criminal behavior. Chesterton correctly and very angrily responded to this by saying the slums are the homes of heroic individuals, rather than of an entirely degenerate class of proto-criminals, but all he was demonstrating again is that probabilities are at work, not the absolute certainties in which Blatchford had so much misplaced faith.
Early in his book, Chesterton states that for him Christianity means the Apostles’ Creed. His book only refers to a small fraction of the many statements that make up the creed. The virgin birth and resurrection can be classified as miracles. On all the other items in the creed Chesterton remained silent. So nearly the whole book involves detours into other matters, and he does not explain what he means about believing that his own body may be resurrected long after he has turned to dust, or what is meant by Jesus having "descended to the dead" or "ascended into heaven" or sitting "at the right hand of the Father" and why Christians think the right hand is so much to be preferred to the sinister side, or what is meant by judging the dead, or the holy spirit, or what he thought he might do to occupy the time if he died and went on to a "life everlasting", etc. Most of the book is a very absorbing read, but it is not a defence of the Apostles’ Creed. William Oddie in his book Chesterton and the Romance of Orthodoxy, agrees with me on this: "This leads the reader to suppose that the articles of the creed will at some point be asserted or at least defended. But no such process of assertion or defence ever materializes: this is not a systematic defence of Christian doctrine, though certain key doctrines inevitably feature as being at the heart of Chesterton’s evolving personal beliefs. The Apostles’ Creed is flourished here as a kind of banner, one which is flown through the ages over an historical community of faith, a community with which Chesterton here aligns himself."
In conclusion, I have a very poor opinion of Chesterton’s theology and his way of defending it. Some of it was a response to defective theories of his own time, and some of it is just misguided. It makes very entertaining reading – he has long been one of my favourite authors for his brilliant wit, despite the fact that he and I share nothing in the way of theology. One of his oddities is the fuss he makes, along with many Catholics, about symbolism, especially about the shape of the cross as the distinguishing symbol of Christianity But the cross was a late arrival on the scene, as many car stickers with fish images now recognize. A recent BBC Digging up Britain program featured a brief visit to the tiny hamlet of Binchester in Durham, site of a 4th century Roman camp. There a signet ring was found, dated to just after Constantine made Christianity an official empire religion. It features two fish and an anchor, some 400 years after Jesus. The cross, with its grisly imagery of Roman execution of dissidents and criminals, arrived quite a long time after that.
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