Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Hitchens, Chesterton, and “The Fall into Mysticism”

By Robert Royal
The Catholic Thing
February 20, 2012

Czeslaw Milosz, the Nobel-prize-winning Polish poet, once remarked that in his country (before he finally moved to America) people would say of some thinker that he had “fallen into mysticism,” meaning he had become religious and, therefore, was no longer interesting.

Milsoz himself was a Catholic, though one unsettled by modern challenges to belief. But it’s clear what he meant. Evangelicals have long lamented the “closing of the evangelical mind.” Most Catholics don’t pay attention to Catholic thought, and don’t know that the Church embraces both faith and reason.

Young people (and many not so young) who might otherwise be intrigued by religious philosophy, theology, literature, and – yes – even the elaborate mystical tradition are often instead confronted with Christians who cite Bible verses, before hearers have been convinced of the Bible’s importance. Or they meet Catholics who cannot give the barest account of what the Church believes and does.

Christianity, of course, is a faith that goes beyond the rationally demonstrable. But so is science’s belief that things in the world are really there and can be understood. Both theology and science seek rational accounts of givens, i.e., things they could not have developed solely out of rational reflection.

Which is why great Christian thinkers like Augustine, Aquinas, and Newman are just as necessary to faith as a Galileo, Einstein, and Hawkings are to science.

One major difference between these forms of thought, of course, is that faith is not only philosophy or theology. It also has to be capable of being understood and practiced – albeit imperfectly – by everyone, since God addresses himself to everyone he’s created.

So the great Christian apologists – the voices that can speak to the people – are very important. And no Catholic voice has been more effectively raised in centuries than that of G.K. Chesterton.

If you doubt this, consider: Christopher Hitchens, a bright journalist excessively praised as he was dying from esophageal cancer last year, chose to spend his dying breath, so to speak, in attacking Chesterton in an article, his last, that just came out in The Atlantic.

I knew Hitchens only slightly. He was a charming rogue, especially to the ladies, from a certain British epoch – the passing of the great English dominance. That, plus his obvious brilliance earned him a prominent place in Washington journalism.

Like many well educated Brits of his generation, he had a particular loathing of Christianity, which he loved to outrage – going so far as to trash Mother Theresa in a book entitled The Missionary Position. Since so far as I know, he never picked up a single beggar from the gutter in Calcutta, I never took seriously Hitchens’ claims that Mother Theresa could simply be dismissed as a pious tyrant.

His attack on GKC is another matter. In this final swipe, Hitchens intended to take on a man – C.S. Lewis is a close second – who still has enough persuasive popular power to make a difference. Otherwise, why spend your last days on him?

Unusually for Hitchens, he isn’t fair about why his target is worthy of attention in the first place. Early on, he quotes T.S. Eliot’s praise for Chesterton’s “first-rate journalistic balladry,” and comments himself on the poetry and “his magic faculty of being unforgettable.” Later, he reports that Kingsley Amis, no mean critic, told him that he re-read The Man Who Was Thursday every year.

But besides these concessions, only one of which is Hitchens’ own, you’d never know that Chesterton wrote The Everlasting Man (his finest work), “The Ballad of the White Horse,” brilliant studies of Dickens, Chaucer, and the Victorians, Francis of Assisi and Aquinas, and two early, seminal volumes: Heretics and Orthodoxy. For anyone who values Chesterton, these are the main event, but for Hitchens, apparently they’re a sideshow.

The reductio ad hitlerum is by now such a stale journalistic device that only a hack – which Hitchens was not – resorts to it. But he spends a lot of time in this final essay on some of GKC’s obiter dicta about Jewish financial interests and adds a vaguely sinister reference to the 1933 “Hitler-Vatican Concordat,” as if the Holy See had treaties with individuals, not nations.

The charge has to be kept vague because close attention to the concordat – concordats are arrangements protecting the legal status of the Church, which the Vatican has had with many nations – would explode in the face of whoever tries to use it as implying support for the regime in question. And the vague association of the allegedly reactionary Chesterton with Nazism is absurdity, absurdity on stilts, given his utter disgust with all such modern tyrannies.

Chesterton and his co-belligerent Hilaire Belloc are guilty of multiple historical simplifications and gaffes. And the kind of agrarian Distributism they opposed to the threats of both communism and capitalism has great weaknesses alongside its strengths. But – Hitchens notwithstanding – they understood how tyranny in politics often derives from getting things wrong in religion.

By contrast, Hitchens seems to believe that having a steady – as well as tolerant – religious perspective only makes things worse:

Chesterton became part of a forgettable rear-guard operation against the age of uncertainty, which has now definitively become our age. It seems there are no rules, golden or otherwise, even natural or otherwise, by which we can define our place in the universe or cosmos. Those who claim to know the most are convicted of claiming to know the unknowable. There is a paradox, if you like.

This is, of course, eloquent hogwash. Religion is not disappearing, except in decrepit quarters. Nor is the search for meaning and order. And Chesterton, as Hitchens conceded, had the “magic faculty of being unforgettable,” as Hitchens did not – precisely because he attached himself to no lasting truth.

Chesterton’s books are still in print and are will remain so. His voice, despite all attacks, will never fade away because it is the perennial voice of human sanity.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.

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