Monday, 29 December 2014

Nineteenth Century Polemics

A Proposition Which Kills Itself in Three Sentences

G. K. Chesterton once engaged in a series of written debates with Mr Blatchford, a committed rationalist.  The exchange was irenic, but pointed.  Blatchford had written a book, entitled God and My Neighbour in which he argued that Christianity was guilty of terrible crimes of violence and oppression and bloodshed. 

Chesterton's response was to acknowledge that indeed some Christians had indeed done evil things.  He wrote:
It is not enough to say "Christians persecuted; down with Christianity," any more that it is enough to say, "A Confucian stole my hair-brush; down with Confucianism."  We want to know whether the reason for which the Confucian stole the hair-brush was a reason peculiar to the Confucians, or a reason common to many other men.  [G. K. Chesterton, "The Eternal Heroism of the Slums,"  Collected Works, Volume I (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), p. 390.]

He goes on to deny that such evil is uniquely or intrinsically Christian in any sense:

It is obvious that the Christian's reason for torturing was a reason common to hosts of other men; it was simply the fact that he held his views strongly and tried unscrupulously to make them prevail.  Any other man might hold any other views strongly and try unscrupulously to make them prevail.  And when we look at the facts we find, as I say, that millions of other men do, and have done so from the beginning of the world. [Ibid.]
He goes on, however, to Blatchford's bigger error.  Blatchford was a believer in the omnicompetence of the State.  He was a socialist.
But if Mr Blatchford really things that the glory past of an institution damns it, and if he really wants an institution to damn, an institution which is much older, and much larger, and much gorier than Christianity, I can easily oblige him.

The institution called Government or the State, has a past more shameful than a pirate ship.  Every legal code on earth has been full of ferocity and heartrending error.  The rack and the stake were not invented by  Christians; Christians only picked up the horrible cast toys of Paganism.  The rack and the stake were invented by a bitter Rationalism older than all religions.  The rack and stake were invented by the State, by Society, by the Social Ideal--or, to put it shortly, by Socialism.  And this State or Government, the mother of all whips and thumbscrews, this is, if you please, the very thing which Mr Blatchford and his socialistic following would make stronger than it has ever been under the sun.    Strange and admirable delicacy.  Delicacy which can have no further dealings with Christianity, because of the Massacre of Saint Bartholomew, but must rather invoke to purify the world a thing which has shown its soul in torturing of Roman slaves for evidence, and in the artistic punishments of China.  [Ibid., p. 391.]
He charges Blatchford with inconsistency and contradiction.  Chesterton says that for his own part he does not believe that the goriness of a thing's past  necessarily disqualifies it from saving mankind.  But Blatchford does--which is why Blatchford offers up Christian violence and oppression as a reason to reject Christianity and Jesus Christ.   But then he turns around and takes hold of the State as Saviour.  "He positively appeals to the greater sinner to save him from the lesser," says Chesterton.

But it is the root of violence, the cause of violence which is the real issue.  And it is here that Christianity "rights the ship" as it were.
Christianity begins with the wickedness of the Inquisition.  Only it adds the wickedness of English Liberals, Tories, Socialists, and county magistrates.  It begins with a strange thing running across human history.  This it calls Sin, or the Fall of Man. [Ibid.]
 The Christian grasps the nettle of Christian sinfulness--but only as part of the universal depravity of the entire human race.  Mr Blatchford, however, being a materialist, has no basis or framework to call anyone or anything evil (or good, for that matter) in the first place.  We have all inherited such behaviour from our environment, including our genetic inheritance.  Good and bad are constructs which lack any meaning.  "The proposition has killed itself in three sentences," said Chesterton.  [Ibid., p. 393.]

No comments: