Tuesday, June 05, 2012

The Optic Reed has a Haste Harm

On reflection my last post is unsatisfactory as a work of troll history, since it relies almost entirely on dubious chains of 'what-might-have-beens', rather than on looking at what actually happened with a different eye. It does not seriously attempt to explore all the plausible counter-factuals, so neither I nor you can take it very seriously. For example, without the stimulus of the American Revolution it is probable that all the dark monstrosities embryo in the writings of Rousseau and Voltaire might just have gestated longer, erupting a generation or two later and plunging Europe into an even uglier paroxysm. Perhaps this would have been the utopian revolution that set the Americas aflame, with even worse consequences for freedom and prosperity there; perhaps a greater Napoleon would have arisen, one who had more success in conquering Europe; perhaps he would have established an Empire as iconoclastic, inhuman, and enduring as the Soviet Empire; and the last round of the 'Napoleonic Wars' might have been fought with the weapons of the 20th century.

This post might possibly be considered another bite at the cherry of troll history. But it is a thesis that I take a great deal more seriously and have thought about much longer. I have mentioned it before a couple of times in throwaway lines. It is probably of less interest to the two of you who remain my gentle readers: but it is the post that kept me awake composing itself in my head all night, so here it is.

I've read three books of relatively late Chesterton essays (from the 20s and 30s) in the past two days, and taking them in such a concentrated dose I can sympathise with Orwell's celebrated 'Great is Diana of the Ephesians' observation. I fear Chesterton became far too Bellocised at the end. His recurrent theme is 'All roads lead to Rome' and he constantly hammers Belloc's theme of 'The Faith is Europe, and Europe is the Faith'.

Chesterton (and Belloc) point to the Catholic Church as this thing that is attacked now from one side, now from another, remaining the same and defending the same sane centre from attack by different sorts of heretics who spin off and blaze furiously for a few generations before fading away to nothing. It is the rock that stands firm, the foundation of Christendom, and without it we lose the good of the intellect and drift off into moods and fads that drag us ineluctably towards the pit. See, for instance, this quote here about the various avenues of Protestant attack on the Catholic Church over the past few hundred years:

What was the meaning of the feud, so constant and so inconsistent? That question took a long time to answer and would now take much too long a time to record. But it led me at last to the only logical answer, which every fact of life now confirms; that the thing is hated, as nothing else is hated, simply because it is, in the exact sense of the popular phrase, like nothing on earth.

Now, when I was in Devil Bunny City, still trying to be a Catholic, I attended an event held by one of the Catholic student societies at Devil Bunny City University that was a sort of meet-and-greet/question-and-answer with the Coptic student society. The Copts are Monophysites. That means they are of the minority party in a theological dispute of the 5th century. They haven't had anything to do with Rome for over 1500 years. They believe in the Sacraments, the Mass, Apostolic Succession, the veneration of Saints, prayers for the dead, are devoted to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and maintain a dead language for liturgical purposes. The Coptic students would no more have dreamed of kicking out their Pope Shenouda III and relying on private interpretation of the Bible to guide their way than we would have dreamed of kicking out Pope John Paul II. They had no interest in ordaining female or homosexual priests. They were much more like us than any sort of Protestant.

What these very articulate and polite Coptic students asked probing and well-informed questions about at this meeting were the novel doctrines introduced in the Catholic Church in recent centuries. Papal Infallibility bugged them. The Immaculate Conception bugged them. From their point of view, we were the radical wing of Christianity: we were the ones spinning out crazy new ideas and adding them to the ancient truths of Christianity, from the filioque clause through the imposition of the discipline of clerical celibacy, the dogmatic definition of the Immaculate Conception, the megalomania of Pastor Aeturnus, to the acceptance of periodic abstinence in Humanae Vitae.

And the Copts are not the only ones. From the East, that is what the Catholic Church looks like. The Churches of the East are the conservative wing of Christianity. Whether they are Serbian Orthodox or Syriac Orthodox, they are with the Copts on all these things. Their liturgies and practices are instantly recognisable to Catholics as 'Catholic'; they do the things Catholics used to do. It was only my Serbian Orthodox colleague who gave up meat for Lent. It was only my Syriac Orthodox colleague who went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. And these Churches are united, no matter how long they have been separated politically from Rome or from each other, in rejecting the innovations that had come from Rome and sticking with the faith they had been left by the Apostles. These small autocephalous Churches, without claiming universal jurisdiction, have been more like rocks than the Roman Catholic Church of Western Christendom. Clearly, whatever it is that God wants to see preserved through the vicissitudes of history has been equally well-preserved. if not better preserved, in the East. Not all roads lead to Rome: there is obviously a road to Cairo, a road to Belgrade, a road to Antioch, etc...

Chesterton and Belloc are like hypothetical young Labor Party organisers who have spent their entire career in Marrickville, having to campaign against a motley collection of incoherent Trotskyite moonbats, sugar pixies, and hippy-dippy freakazoids. They are the Conservative party in their patch of space and time, and you can imagine them (with enough mental agility) not even realising that elsewhere, their party is the Radical one. Compared to the whole expanse of Christianity in space and time, Western Europe in the early 20th century looms about as large as Marrickville does in New South Wales. Chesterton and Belloc were the Conservative party in their patch of space and time: but they are part of the Radical wing of Christianity, not the Conservative one.

My take home message from this was that political unity is not important to God. He doesn't want us all in one Church with one leader.

Another dispiriting feature of the Chesterton's Bellocisation is the anti-semitism that creeps into a lot of his later essays. I feel very strongly that if you are going to cleave to Christendom, if you are going to extoll Christendom and work for the triumph of Christendom, you have a special responsibility to be on guard against and excoriate in yourself the particular sins and failings that Christendom is susceptible to: and the greatest of these is Jew-hatred. It seems to me that the exact same quote of Chesterton's could be applied to with equal justice to that other religious group, which has been persecuted for some hundreds of years longer than Christianity has existed, and has somehow stayed firm like a rock through all the vicissitudes of history - without ever having the support of powerful states; without ever claiming universal jurisdiction; without promising the Golden Carrots of the Hesperides or wielding the stick of Eternal Damnation:

What was the meaning of the feud, so constant and so inconsistent? That question took a long time to answer and would now take much too long a time to record. But it led me at last to the only logical answer, which every fact of life now confirms; that the thing is hated, as nothing else is hated, simply because it is, in the exact sense of the popular phrase, like nothing on earth.

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