Wednesday, 4 March 2009

The headless monster (or our primary loyalty)

As you could tell from previous posts, I've been enjoying G.K.Chesterton's Orthodoxy. Yet as I've progressed through it, and especially in the chapter, "The Flag of the World," it has struck me increasingly as horribly man-centred. He writes with such power and wit that it's hard not to be carried along by it - but he seems to have Man as supreme. He speaks of how we must have a "primary loyalty to life" (or to 'the universe') - to love it enough to feel its strangeness and yet set about changing it. He speaks of suicides as insulting the creation by 'refusing to live for its sake.' This is true, but not ultimate: we insult God by refusing to live for Him!

But that is idolatry and adultery. We are first to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and then men as we love ourselves: but this feels like we are forgetting the Creator and loving His creation primarily, instead.

So much of what Chesterton says is true, but it falls short. He speaks of the accomplishments of the Church, as if of Christ - but without reference to Him. Now we would say, rightly, that one cannot speak of the Bride of Christ without implicating Him - but what a monstrous thing to speak of a body without its head, a bride always without her bridegroom. "Can the lion lie down with the lamb and still retain his royal ferocity? That is the problem the Church attempted; that is the miracle she achieved." How dare one speak of this as a work of the Church, rather than a glory of God in Christ?

GKC speaks strikingly of the eternal nature of truth, and the importance of doctrinal correctness: helpful in an age which prefers fashion in doctrine, and would rather fluffy feeling than theological precision. But the goal he places before us is human happiness: "...if some small mistake were made in doctrine, huge blunders might be made in human happiness." This is true, but it falls short: our ultimate goal in doctrine is not as a means to the end of human happiness, but faithfulness to the glory of the one true God, who has revealed Himself to us in the one who is Truth, Christ!

Chesterton lambastes selfish egoism, but he doesn't go far enough. He speaks of Christianity, but not of Christ. When he is at his most sparkling, there is a dullness brought by this, that he speaks of Christianity over Christ, Church over Christ, and Man's happiness over God's glory.
Of all horrible religions, the most horrible is the worship of the god within. ... Christianity came into the world firstly in order to assert with violence that a man had not only to look inwards, but to look outwards - to behold with astonishment and enthusiasm a divine company and a divine captain.
So true, yet not consistent with the rest, where he merely turns our attention from 'the light within' to Man as a whole, rather than to God. It is not then surprising that earlier in the work he explains how he came up with his own, natural, theology, and then found that it "had been discovered before, by Christianity." But true Christianity is no man-made philosophy - such a thing does tend to have Man as its goal, with God in service. Christ came to reveal God - quite another dynamic.

Perhaps in the final few chapters (for I have committed the cardinal error of critiquing a book before I've finished reading it) he will correct this blasphemous tendency. But for now, let me leave you with Calvin's main contention with Cardinal Sadolet, who was trying to persuade Genevans back into the fold of Rome:
It is not very sound theology to confine a man's thoughts so much to himself, and not to set before him, as the prime motive of his existence, zeal to illustrate the glory of God. For we are born first of all for God, and not for ourselves. As all things flowed from him, and subsist in him, so, says Paul, (Romans 11:36,) they ought to be referred to him. I acknowledge, indeed, that the Lord, the better to recommend the glory of his name to men, has tempered zeal for the promotion and extension of it, by uniting it indissolubly with our salvation. But since he has taught that this zeal ought to exceed all thought and care for our own good and advantage, and since natural equity also teaches that God does not receive what is his own, unless he is preferred to all things, it certainly is the part of a Christian man to ascend higher than merely to seek and secure the salvation of his own soul.

I am persuaded, therefore, that there is no man imbued with true piety, who will not consider as insipid that [Sadolet's] long and labored exhortation to zeal for heavenly life, a zeal which keeps a man entirely devoted to himself, and does not, even by one expression, arouse him to sanctify the name of God. But I readily agree with you that, after this sanctification, we ought not to propose to ourselves any other object in life than to hasten towards that high calling; for God has set it before us as the constant aim of all our thoughts, and words, and actions. And, indeed, there is nothing in which man excels the lower animals, unless it be his spiritual communion with God in the hope of a blessed eternity.
(Jean Chauvin,
Response to Sadolet, 1539.)

1 comment:

Chris said...

ouch. a healthy reaction from a beautiful gospel instinct! That's gonna make me rethink next time I read him! Thanks.

Probably an overstatement to say "He speaks of Christianity, but not of Christ". My favourite Chesterton is The Everlasting Man, whose 1st half is on "the creature called man", and whose 2nd half is on "the man called christ".

And we shouldn't be too hasty to condemn natural goods or a reverence for Man - could we even say one of the reasons God created was in order that the Son should become human?

Nonetheless, I reckon what you're picking up on is probably to do with (not sure if it's why or because)
(a) his conversion coming out of strong political concerns and
(b) his being converted into Anglo/Roman Catholicism, with a high view of the Vicarious Church.