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In 1927, Chesterton's book The Catholic Church and Conversion was published. Belloc did the "Foreword" and Chesterton himself wrote his own "Introduction," which he called, not without some amusement, "A New Religion." Both short essays remain of considerable and refreshing interest. Belloc was the "born-Catholic" of the two, so, as he remarks, "it is with diffidence that anyone born into the Faith can approach the tremendous subject of Conversion." The convert always has the aura of choice; the born-Catholic of tradition, of not having had to change anything, only fulfill the promise already his.
As I was born the year following the publication of this book, also a "born-Catholic," I find both of these essays, that of the born-Catholic and that of the convert, to be of considerable interest. I have always considered Belloc's remark in The Path to Rome, I think, that "it is a good thing never to have lost the Faith," to be a comforting one. Both to have the faith and not to have lost it, to be sure, are graces. We should not be so foolish as to attribute too much to our own powers. And yet, there can be no doubt that being born into the faith enables us to live in a much more ordered and, yes, delightful universe than we might otherwise have known. Born-Catholics, to be sure, often do not show that angst or earnestness about what they hold to be true as do converts. But this calmness is only because born-Catholics are more aware of and comfortable with the fact that things really do fit together, that ultimate quests are not merely prodding our souls but that these very quests are not in vain. There is an end to the journey that can be reached.
Belloc did, to be sure, speculate on an experience that was no doubt his, about how "born-Catholics" frequently do go through an analogous conversion experience. We are all aware, of course, that a gift given must sooner or later be a gift consciously accepted or else it is not a gift. And in the matter of faith, this acceptance will relate to the depths at which we choose to allow the faith, in its intelligibility, to speak to us.
Those born into the Faith often, I say, go through an experience of skepticism as the years proceed, and it is still a common phenomenon ... for men of the Catholic culture, acquainted with the Church from childhood, to leave it in early manhood and never to return. But it is nowadays a still more frequent phenomenon-and it is to this that I allude-for those to whom scepticism so strongly appealed in youth to discover, by an experience of men and of reality in all its various forms, that the transcendental truths they had been taught in childhood have the highest claims upon their matured reason.
The second "conversion" in Belloc's sense, thus, had to do with the sudden realization that the skeptical alternatives did not in fact make as much sense as what had been taught in youth, had we but been willing to learn and live it.
Belloc's approach was to remark on the many different sorts of men and women who came into the Church as converts from all sorts of backgrounds. We find the cynic and the sentimentalist, the fool and the wise man, the doubter and the man who does not doubt enough. Moreover, we find people entering the Church from all sorts of experiences and nationalities. "You come across an entry into the Catholic Church undoubtedly due to the spectacle, admiration and imitation of some great character observed. Next day you come across an entry into the Catholic Church out of complete loneliness, and you are astonished to find the convert still ignorant of the great mass of the Catholic effect on character."
Belloc remarked that "the Church is the natural home of the Human Spirit." This is a striking phrase, for the Church is not supposed to be the "natural" home of anything, unless, of course, our spirit is made for something that is not merely nature. Belloc found that these myriads of reasons for entering the Church converged because the reality to which they pointed was one. "It is in this convergence of witnesses that we have one of the innumerable proofs upon which the rational basis of our religion rests." The supernatural religion rests on a solid rational basis.
Chesterton, for his part, the convert, the man not born Catholic, found a paradox, that this ancient religion was really quite new. This amused him. "It would be very undesirable that modern men should accept Catholicism merely as a novelty; but it is a novelty." Today, in a way, the public world has so deviated from Catholicism that Catholicism is a "revolt," something quite different from anything about us, something quite novel, quite new, quite unfamiliar. Chesterton, as I said, called his essay "A New Religion." Needless to say, when Chesterton calls something as old as Catholicism "new," he is probably saying something quite unexpectedly true. "There is something almost legendary about the religion that is two thousand years old now appearing as a rival of the new religions."
During the last decade or so, under John Paul II, the Catholic Church has in many ways recovered itself. It has reformed or better, re-presented its canon law, both Western and Eastern, its social teachings, its moral philosophy and theology. The new General Catechism is no doubt the most complete, systematic, and coherent presentation of the whole faith ever composed. Where does this old institution get the vitality to be the newest religion on the block? Indeed, most Catholics do not even know this newness themselves. Most are in great need of a Belloc-type conversion. "The mark of the faith," Chesterton said, "is not tradition (however good that is) but conversion." The Spirit breathes where it wills, but the Church is not an abstraction. It is here to challenge souls, either to accept or to reject. The Church as "the natural home of the Human Spirit" is also witness to the sign of contradiction.
What both Chesterton and Belloc were sure of, however, was that the Church was the home of reason. The modern world will never be humble enough to admit its own skepticism. But Chesterton had it right early in the twentieth century, I think. He already saw in the first quarter of this century most of the dire things that would occur at its ending.
[The Church] is already beginning to appear as the only champion of reason in the twentieth century, as it was the only champion of tradition in the nineteenth. We know that the higher mathematics is trying to deny that two and two make four and the higher mysticism to imagine something that is beyond good and evil. Amid all these anti-rational philosophies, ours will remain the only rational philosophy.
At the end of the twentieth century, at the beginning of the third millennium, a convert, I suspect, could with cold intelligence still make the same claim. Veritatis Splendor, John Paul II's great study of truth, is written directly against that now more developed "higher mysticism" that imagines that something can be "beyond good and evil," a phrase Chesterton recalled from Nietzsche, who died, ironically, precisely in 1900. In this light, it should come as no great surprise that Nietzsche and Heidegger are the popular philosophers at the end of the twentieth century. Nor should it be any surprise that it was the pope-philosopher who wrote Fides et Ratio near the century's conclusion.
What needs to be put together, I think, from these two insightful essays on conversion by Belloc and Chesterton is the relationship between "the only rational philosophy" and "the natural home of the Human Spirit." Modernity and post-modernity have been built on the premise that these two things cannot belong together in the same community, that faith and reason are completely alien to each other. What Chesterton called "a new religion," however, turned out to be the very old faith no longer recognized or intellectually confronted. "Amid all these anti-rational philosophies" it remains "the only rational philosophy." What Belloc called the transcendent truths of our childhood ironically do have "the highest claims on our matured reason." The Human Spirit precisely does have a "home" because all things converge as "innumerable proofs upon which the rational basis of our religion reposes."
On the Nature of "Yes" in the State of Maine
Chesterton is often called amusing, mostly because he is. In a column on March 21, 1914, he mentioned that he was also called an "Apostle of Unreason." Needless to say, Chesterton never thought of himself as merely a humorist, a sort of Art Buchwald of his times. But he did enjoy a good laugh even when occasioned by a philosopher. Yet he was astonished to find himself called an Apostle of Unreason. Chesterton chronicled practically the whole of modernity from Bergson to James and Nietzsche. Every one of these philosophers advocated one or another form of unreason. Since Chesterton adamantly opposed them, how could anyone reasonably associate him with unreason?
Was it his religion? he wondered. "We may really say that nearly all the people who consider themselves specially progressive, advanced, up-to-date, modernist, or futurist, are avowedly Apostles of Unreason. Practically, it comes to this, that the people who are now opposed to reason are practically all the people who are also opposed to religion." This conclusion touched upon a disturbing theme that Chesterton was later to work out in his books on St. Francis and St. Thomas, namely, that when man sets out to be merely reasonable, he ends up in unreason; somehow it requires the openness of faith to keep our reason.
Chesterton even noted that Pius X's encyclical Pascendi Dominci Gregis, at that time recently published (September 8, 1907), was itself a list of these same apostles of unreason. "Nearly all the Modernists who were condemned in the Pope's Encyclical were condemned for being Pragmatists and Apostles of Unreason. Anyone who will read the Encyclical will see that I state the essential fact." In these days when a spaceship can pass Jupiter and Neptune, we find Chesterton noticing that George Brandes had "set the fashion of being the Apostle of Unreason" by asking, "Who knows that two and two do not make five in the planet Jupiter?" To this question, Chesterton simply but firmly in the name of common humanity responded, "I do." It is not enough to say that the spacecraft that flew by Jupiter depended upon Chesterton's affirmation, depended on the addition of two and two. What is important is that Chesterton saw that it was the function of the ordinary man to say that he did know certain things.
Chesterton went on-how could he resist?-"The question seems to me quite as senseless as saying, 'Who knows that "yes" is not the same as "no" in the State of Maine?'" Chesterton affirmed that "thank God" he had "never even been to the State of Maine," but "I know that 'yes' is not the same as 'no' anywhere." Again, who knows this? Chesterton's answer still rings in the name of common humanity-"I do."
The gentleman who had charged Chesterton with being an apostle of unreason, Mr. William Archer, had apparently based his position on an incident at Cambridge. Chesterton was both amused and a little put out at this accusation: "Well, I pass over what I cannot help calling the rather cheap part of the argument, which seems to consist in chaffing me with the little-known and carefully concealed fact that I cannot work miracles. Nevertheless, as Mr. Archer gloomily notes, I said at Cambridge that I thought it probable that some other people could." Evidently, this latter remark was the origin of Chesterton's being called an "Apostle of Unreason."
With amusing reference to his own considerable girth, Chesterton admitted that he himself could not "work miracles." "I cannot move the Albert Hall from London to Paris; and levitation in my own case would probably be as difficult as in the case of the parallel structure of the Albert Hall." And with this sally, Chesterton concluded the philosophic point, that the fact that one or another person could not work miracles did not mean that no one could. And even Christ, who could, refused to do so on the Cross when called to perform one.
If Archer was a monist in philosophical theory, Chesterton suggested, then no miracle was possible. But if he was a realist, which he wasn't, then he might consult the evidence to see if miracles ever happened. "A miracle is, by definition, a marvel. That is to say, it is a very rare and very unexpected thing. If it could be done by anybody at any minute, it is surely as plain as a pikestaff that it could not fulfill the function, true or false, which its supporters suppose it to fulfill." And characteristically Chesterton concluded this reflection with a reference to, of all things, witchcraft in his defense of miracles.
Chesterton thus wanted to know if the vast history of witchcraft had no theoretic basis. His conclusion again reveals the depths of his reason, because he could see what was really at stake in the question of miracles:
Nobody can begin to understand the theoretic defense of the miraculous who does not understand the idea of a positive fight against positive evil. We should be right in thinking it silly for the good angels to interfere if none of us believed in bad angels. A miracle, if you like, proclaims martial law in the universe. But it is not unreasonable; for it may be the only way of reconciling reason with liberty.
Again in this brief snippet, we realize Chesterton's capacity to proclaim that "yes" is "yes" even in the State of Maine and that miracles might just be tinged with intelligence and freedom.
The Philosopher with Two Thoughts Several years ago, a friend of mine who was living in England at the time found an 1888 edition of Thomas Babbington (Lord) Macaulay's Essays, a volume reprinted from The Edinburgh Review. This was a handsome old tome, published by Longmans, and printed by Spottiswoode on New-Street Square in London. This book is a kind of gift that can just sit there on your shelves for no reason except that it is a nice book. You do not have to read it right away, but every once in a while you will pick it up. I have, because of my friend's interest, read with particular attention the wonderful essay on Fanny Burney ("Madame D'Arblay"), especially because of her relation to Samuel Johnson. Recently, I happened to pick up Chesterton's Victorian Age in English Literature. On some earlier reading, I had underlined Chesterton's remark on Newman about dogma-"For dogma means the serious satisfaction of the mind. Dogma does not mean the absence of thought, but the end of thought." I liked that, "the serious satisfaction of the mind," precisely what a relativist age and metaphysic does not know about its own mind. I began to read backwards in the book. I noticed that before Newman, Chesterton treated Mill; and before Mill, he discussed Macaulay.
So I took another look at Macaulay's book. The Preface began modestly: "The author of these essays is so sensible of their defects that he has repeatedly refused to let them appear in a form which might seem to indicate that he thought them worthy of a permanent place in English literature." It seems that he decided to publish these essays in England only because the American edition was at the time being imported into England. Hence he thought it was unfair to his English publisher not to be able to compete with the American edition. Macaulay allowed that he permitted in the English edition only those corrections that had to do with dates or places. He wanted the essays to appear substantially, with all their faults, as they had stood in the Review. Thus, he did not perhaps think them "worthy of a permanent place in English literature," but he did not want the Americans to be reaping profits when they could just as well go to the English.
Excerpted from Schall on Chesterton by James V. Schall Copyright © 2000 by The Catholic University of America Press. Excerpted by permission.
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