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The Christian Humanism Of G. K. Chesterton: Truth and the Paradoxical Imagination

Vigen Guroian

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The Wilberforce Forum

In recent decades conservative Christians have decried what they call "secular humanism," a creed that undermines the religious and moral foundations of this culture. As a result many are persuaded that humanism and Christianity are incompatible, that a person could not possibly be both a Christian and a humanist. This is a terrible mistake. The roots of Christian humanism go deep. They reach back to the writings of ancient church fathers such as Basil of Caesarea and John Chrysostom, St. Augustine, and Pope Gregory the Great. In the late medieval period and the Renaissance a new wave of Christian humanism spread in the writings of such important figures as Dante, Erasmus, and Thomas More. In recent memory, G. K. Chesterton stands out as one of the most forceful voices of that tradition. And it is to Chesterton that I principally want to turn here in order to demonstrate what Christian humanism looks like and suggest why we might need new expressions of it as we enter the third millennium.

Recently, Mr. Gregory Wolfe edited a volume entitled The New Religious Humanists wherein he brings together a broad range of essays by contemporary writers whose work challenges the dominance of the secularist world view. Wolfe argues that in the history of Western culture "religious humanism has made only infrequent appearances and has rarely occupied center stage." He explains that it "is a mode of thought that tends to arise when cultural cohesion is threatened by large social and intellectual upheavals." He regards the time in which we live as such a moment.

Chesterton responded with Christian humanism to what he judged to be a serious breakdown of the fundamental moral suppositions deposited by biblical faith and the classical tradition. He believed that this declension was due to the loss of conviction in the culture about the reality of the Incarnation, that is of God truly having become a human being in Jesus Christ with all the import that that has for human existence. For Chesterton, the doctrine of the Incarnation is the hinge that holds together what is, for the Christian, a vision of the world that is essentially paradoxical. And he is astonishingly adept at employing this vision in his cultural criticism and Christian apologetics. The Incarnation sheds light where sin deceives and despair darkens the human horizon. Sin causes us to experience spirit in opposition to matter, faith in conflict with reason, life defeated by death. But the Incarnation reveals these apparent contradictions as paradoxes. Contradiction may signal futility, but paradox is pregnant with the possibility of resolution and harmony.

Paradox, says Chesterton, is the ally of Truth. The good news of the Christian Gospel is that God who is Spirit became flesh, infinite being became finite existence, the immortal One became mortal man in order that death might be undone and humanity might be drawn up into spiritual life. God in his being and act unties the deadly Gordian knot of sin. The errors of pagan religion and the falsehoods of secularism are exposed by the Incarnation and replaced by its truth in paradox. This divine and human truth opens a way to salvation for man other than an escape of the soul from matter and time or the desperate embrace of mere flesh and finitude in a courtship with personal extinction.

True humanism, argued Chesterton, is theocentric and not anthropocentric. Most important, Christian humanism honors the fact that, though created from the dust, the human being is the sole creature that God has made in his very own image and likeness. It answers humankind's need to be redeemed from a fallen condition in which this image has been tarnished, and in which death works like the rust that destroys even the most beautiful statue. God is at the center of everything, and God in Jesus Christ draws the human race back to that center. That is how human beings become fully human and inherit eternal life.

God in Christ affirms our enfleshed and historical existence and gives meaning to it in spite of death. Within human culture and through the elements of this material world, bread and wine, oil and water, flesh and blood, the incarnate Son, the Only-Begotten of the Father, saves us body and soul from sin and death. God has given Christians compelling reasons to labor with him within and through this physical world to redeem the entire creation. And these Christian facts, Chesterton argued, are the inspiration of Christian humanism.

Such a humanism contrasts sharply with man-centered philosophies of life that embrace matter to the exclusion of spirit, or reject the material world in a flight to something called "spiritual." Secularist humanism is not necessarily atheistic, but it is--in whatever form it takes, whether militant or mild--a symptom of the breakdown of the Christian paradoxical imagination.

Chesterton believed that the collapse of this wonderful paradoxical vision of man in his relation to both heaven and earth lay at the source of the modern crisis of meaning. Indeed, what makes Chesterton still instructive for us today is that he lived at a moment in history that marked the end of modernity and was on the cusp of post-modernity. Modernity was the result of a five hundred year process in which the dual Christian truth about the degradation and dignity of human existence, illuminated by the Incarnation, held together by the paradoxical imagination, was split apart. Secularist humanism emerged from this fractured truth and has not known how to put it back together, even when there is the desire to do so. It seems doomed, rather, to fly from one pole of that truth to the other. On the one hand, it seeks to affirm, through some form of idealism or other, the "divinity" of human life--but abandons the doctrine of the Incarnation. On the other hand, it is drawn toward the opposite pole of naturalism and relativism and forgets the crucial differences between finitude and sin, and distinctions between error and contravention of higher law.

Chesterton's life straddled the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This gave him the vantage to see the line that was being crossed in his day. The old idealistic liberal humanism born of the Renaissance and Enlightenment was giving way to a militant, anti-theistic secularism whose logical outcome is nihilism. The secularist variety of humanism is especially subversive and damaging to Christian faith because it is parasitic. It exploits and expends the moral capital of Christianity and is incapable of replenishing that capital. In Orthodoxy, his great classic work of Christian apologetics, Chesterton observes that secularist humanism "is using, and using up, the truths that remain out of the old treasury of Christendom; including, of course, many truths known to pagan antiquity but crystallized in Christendom." The deposit of moral truths set adrift by a disintegrating Christendom is thus gradually degraded--reduced to ideological half-truths and sappy clichés.

Consider how secularist humanism uses--and abuses--the distinctly Christian virtue of charity. Instead of the selfless seeking of another's good, charity becomes sugary sentiment. It is invoked to deny that forgiveness entails judgment and repentance, or that sin even exists. In due course, secularist humanism may rob or empty all of the virtues of their true and vital meaning. Eventually, even ordinary religious folk will "catch on" and give up believing in perennial norms of human conduct communicated by Scripture and the Church.

The final outcome of this kind of process may be seen in what has been done to the religious notion of the dignity of human life. Uprooted from its biblical ground and the garden of the Church, its deep human meaning preserved in the Christian doctrine of the imago Dei is forgotten. Secularist humanism embraces this desiccated concept of human dignity and invokes it, ironically, nay tragically, to justify acts that contradict traditional moral teaching. What can the dignity of human life mean when the existence of God is denied in the most practical ways at every level and in every sphere of society? Thus, today, abortion and physician assisted suicide are justified by growing numbers of people as the appropriate means to honor and secure the dignity of persons.

Chesterton says that the humanism of the secularist leads morality down a perilous road, a road he tells us in Orthodoxy that is paved with pragmatism and relativism. Man is told "to think what he must and never mind the Absolute." "But precisely one of the things he must think," adds Chesterton, "is the Absolute"--otherwise the whole of the rest of his world is an illusion. Both pragmatism and relativism make "nonsense of the human sense of fact." The road they pave leads to the devil's version of the Emerald City where nothing is what it seems, words are no longer tools of truth but instruments of raw power, and the moral compass is given up because there are no true poles of good and evil or right and wrong.

This "suicide of thought," as Chesterton calls it, leads inexorably toward the denial of the existence of the good or anything that is really permanently human. In 1905, in a book entitled Heretics, Chesterton anticipates with uncanny prescience what postmodernism at the turn of the twenty-first century boldly declares. "Modern morality," he writes, seems only capable of making a case for itself by pointing out "the horrors that follow breaches of law." Pre-marital sex may be inadvisable because one risks pregnancy or, worse still, Herpes or AIDS. One probably shouldn't lie because lying undercuts the social trust that is the precondition necessary for getting what one really wants. All of these "prohibitions" are subject, of course, to alteration or negation if means may be found to avoid the bad consequences. In other words, modern morality is consequentialist. More than that it is morbidly consequentialist, having lost a sure vision of the goodness of goodness.

Images of car wrecks, pictures of people dying from AIDS, and photographs of aborted fetuses won't necessarily stop people from drinking and driving, engaging in casual or "unprotected" sex, or escaping the inconvenience of having a child by having an abortion. At the Creation, God did not say: "I will make the seas with clean water not polluted water and the land arable and not desert because it would be a disaster for the environment otherwise." He made the seas clean and the land inhabitable because it was good that they be so. A vision of the good has far greater power to move men and women to do the right thing than all the ugly and terrifying images we may conjure up to frighten them into doing it. There "is this great gap in modern ethics," Chesterton concludes, which is "the absence of vivid pictures of purity and spiritual triumph." He continues in Heretics:

A young man may keep himself from vice by continually thinking of disease. He may keep himself from it also by continually thinking of the Virgin Mary. There may be question about which method is the more reasonable, or even about which is the more efficient. But surely there can be no question about which is the more wholesome.

In response to these trends and wrong turns, Chesterton draws up a defense of our humanity with both feet firmly planted on the unmovable ground of the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation. In other words, he expounds a Christian humanism. The task of this Christian humanism is to defend our humanum against a philosophy that would persuade us that human nature is without form or essence and that our doings have no more significance than the mold that grows in the shower stall. Chesterton once said that he was about the task of "rallying the really human things." Doing this he thought depends upon the recovery of dogma against an anti-dogmatic secularism. In Heretics Chesterton explains:

Man can be defined as an animal that makes dogmas. As he piles doctrine on doctrine and conclusion on conclusion in the formation of some tremendous scheme of philosophy and religion, he is, in the only legitimate sense . . . becoming more and more human. When he drops one doctrine after another in a refined scepticism, when he says that he has outgrown definitions, when he says that he disbelieves in finality, when, in his own imagination, he sits as God, holding to no form of creed and contemplating all, then he is by that very process sinking slowly backwards into the vagueness of the vagrant animals and the unconsciousness of grass. Trees have no dogmas. Turnips are singularly broad-minded.

The secularists contradict themselves. They oppose dogma dogmatically and deny their own humanity in doing it. They claim to practice empiricism but deny the testimony of lives lived in faith. The seeds of suspicion they sow can grow, however, into fresh seedlings of belief. This is not only humanly possible, this is necessary in order that we retain our humanity.

Truths turn into dogmas the instant that they are disputed. Thus every man who utters a doubt defines a religion. And the scepticism of our time does not really destroy the beliefs, rather it creates them; gives them limits and their plain and defiant shape. . . . We who are Christians never knew the great philosophic common sense which inheres in that mystery until the anti-Christian writers pointed it out to us. The great march of mental destruction will go on. Everything will be denied. Everything will become a creed. It is a reasonable position to deny the stones in the street; it will be a religious dogma to assert them. It is a rational thesis that we are all in a dream; it will be a mystical sanity to say that we are all awake. Fires will be kindled to testify that two and two make four. Swords will be drawn to prove that leaves are green in summer. We will be defending not only the incredible virtues and sanities of human life, but something more incredible still, this huge impossible universe which stares us in the face. We shall fight for the visible prodigies of the invisible. We shall look on the impossible grass and the skies with a strange courage. We shall be those who have seen and yet have believed.

Chesterton's turn to dogma is not what it sounds like to the ears of secularists, modern and post-modernist. He is not saying we must believe in dogmas or else. He is not forcing dogma down our throats. Nor is dogma an irrational bulwark against progress. Rather, dogma ultimately emerges and prevails precisely because human beings cannot live, prosper, and progress in a world in which there are no truths. This is the last paradox to which Chesterton draws our attention. Dogma comes with risks.

Dogma can lead to bellicose combat over many truths and many gods. For in a sinful world dogma combats dogma and Truth is the elusive prize. Nevertheless, dogma, the right dogma, can elevate us to god-likeness, in the image of the one triune God, in the unity of his Truth, revealed in the flesh of one man who lived two thousand years ago. Contrary to so much of what claims to be Christian in our culture, we are called to believe not in order to gain peace but to know and live the Truth. Dogma is on the way to Truth; but it is hardly the stuff of peace. The first and last lesson of Christian humanism is this:

We, by our own efforts alone, cannot sew together the cloth of peace from our sinful and tattered human nature. Real peace, like real humanity, is a gift and a transcendent thing that we will enjoy only when we wholly accept and do faithfully obey the God who has become human.

Reprinted with permission of Prison Fellowship, P.O. Box 1550, Merrifield, VA 22116. www.breakpoint.org.

The article is found on the Breakpoint/Prison Fellowship website.



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Copyright © 2001-2014 OrthodoxyToday.org. All rights reserved. Any reproduction of this article is subject to the policy of the individual copyright holder. See OrthodoxyToday.org for details.


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