In actual modern Europe a freethinker does not mean a man who thinks for himself. It means a man who, having thought for himself, has come to one particular class of conclusions, the material origin of phenomena, the impossibility of miracles, the improbability of personal immortality and so on. And none of these ideas are particularly liberal. Nay, indeed almost all these ideas are definitely illiberal, as it is the purpose of this chapter to show.
Chesterton proposes that on every matter insisted upon by the modern (for his time, and more so in our time) liberals, these will result in the illiberalizing of social practice. Keeping in mind that this book was written in 1908, when Europe was at its peak in terms of realizing classical liberal ideas, Chesterton presciently saw where this road would lead. This is noted in Jacques Barzun’s work, From Dawn to Decadence:
Two writers, Chesterton and Belloc, did express alarm at the coming of The Servile State, but they were not heeded in the tumult of violent ideas and events.
Regarding Chesterton, the evidence is to be found in many chapters of this current book – including the one I am covering in this post. Regarding Belloc, The Servile State is a book authored by Belloc in 1912, in which he repudiates the convergence of big business with the state. We see, all too obviously and a century too late, where this road has led.
Chesterton offers that every contemporary proposal to bring freedom to the church is simply a proposal to bring tyranny to the world. The only solution to this problem is what Chesterton calls orthodoxy.
I may, it is true, twist orthodoxy so as partly to justify a tyrant. But I can easily make up a German philosophy to justify him entirely.
Chesterton refers back to the previous chapter, where he demonstrated that the only logical negation of oligarchy was the idea of original sin, as all men are backsliders – an idea which has been negated by those who consider themselves to be liberal. In this chapter he will address a few more similar ideas.
Miracles: it is believed more liberal to disbelieve in miracles than to believe in them. But how limiting has this become. Our disbelief in miracles has reduced our belief to the materialism that has proven that free will is an illusion.
In their doubt of miracles there was a faith in a fixed and godless fate; a deep and sincere faith in the incurable routine of the cosmos.
The liberal idea of freedom can only be realized by holding onto the idea of miracles. If reform or progress means the gradual control of matter by mind, a miracle is simply the swift control of matter by mind.
The similarity of all religions: we are taught that the main world religions are similar in what they teach, differing only in their rites and forms. Chesterton offers that the opposite is true. All main religions have similar rites and forms: priests and temples, scriptures and alters, sworn brotherhoods and special feasts. They differ in what is to be taught. He draws this out especially in the comparison of Christianity and Buddhism.
Chesterton separates the arguments for this belief in the similarity of the teachings of the two in two kinds: first, some resemblances are common to all humanity, so there is no reason to claim this as something special between Christianity and Buddhism; second, some resemblances are not resemblances at all.
To the first: both Christ and Buddha were called by a divine voice from the sky – as if the divine voice might otherwise come from a coal-cellar; both had something to do with the washing of feet – as if having feet was such a differentiating feature among men; both approve of mercy and self-restraint – yet these are common features of all major religions.
To the second type, he points to the renting of the robe – to be found in both cases. Yet the renting of the robe of the Lama is done out of respect; for Christ, it was exactly the opposite. Both offer a way out of sin, but the way out is quite different in each.
Chesterton draws this out by looking at the difference in art:
No two ideals could be more opposite than a Christian saint in a Gothic cathedral and a Buddhist saint in a Chinese temple. The opposition exists at every point; but perhaps the shortest statement of it is that the Buddhist saint always has his eyes shut, while the Christian saint always has them very wide open.
The Buddhist looks inward; the Christian is looking outward. For Buddhism, personality is the fall of man; for Christianity, it is the purpose of God – it is the entire point. It is in Christianity that one finds humanity, liberty, and love – because these can only be found in a world broken into division.
No other philosophy makes God actually rejoice in the separation of the universe into living souls. But according to orthodox Christianity this separation between God and man is sacred, because this is eternal. That a man may love God it is necessary that there should be not only a God to be loved, but a man to love him.
The Christian saint is astonished at the world because he has been cut off from it; the Buddhist saint cannot be so astonished, because there is only one thing – and that thing, being one thing, cannot be astonished at itself.
If we value the self-renewing energy of the west, this division must be recognized. The Buddhist only sees one aspect: Immanence; the Christian sees this, but also sees transcendence:
By insisting specially on the immanence of God we get introspection, self-isolation, quietism, social indifference—Tibet. By insisting specially on the transcendence of God we get wonder, curiosity, moral and political adventure, righteous indignation—Christendom.
To the Buddhist, the fatalist, the materialist, existence must end up in a certain way; to the Christian, life is a story, one which may end up in any way:
In a thrilling novel (that purely Christian product) the hero is not eaten by cannibals; but it is essential to the existence of the thrill that he MIGHT be eaten by cannibals. The hero must (so to speak) be an eatable hero.
The story is exciting because it incorporates free-will, and with free-will comes an unknowable ending. A mathematical sum can only be finished one way; a story can be finished in many ways.
Finally, Christianity alone adds courage to the virtues of the Creator. The only courage worth calling courage is when the soul has crossed a breaking point, yet does not break. In describing what he means, Chesterton first apologizes if his words aren’t perfect theology:
But in that terrific tale of the Passion there is a distinct emotional suggestion that the author of all things (in some unthinkable way) went not only through agony, but through doubt. It is written, “Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.” No; but the Lord thy God may tempt Himself; and it seems as if this was what happened in Gethsemane.
He then references the cry from the cross – where God is asked why He has forsaken God. There is no other god who has been in revolt against himself:
They will find only one divinity who ever uttered their isolation; only one religion in which God seemed for an instant to be an atheist.
This is the last and most astounding fact about this faith; that its enemies will use any weapon against it, the swords that cut their own fingers, and the firebrands that burn their own homes. Men who begin to fight the Church for the sake of freedom and humanity end by flinging away freedom and humanity if only they may fight the Church.
In our day, we have the new-atheists, communists, most university programs, etc., that play this role. It is pathetic to watch these as they come to the only logical conclusion of their faith – that freedom is an illusion, we have an illusion of free-will, so we should just enjoy this illusion and quit worrying about it.
It isn’t Christian orthodoxy that they destroy; they destroy humanity, courage, and common sense:
…they do not tear the book of the Recording Angel; they only make it a little harder to keep the books of Marshall & Snelgrove.
Yes, even math is now a social construct, a tool of oppression by the white patriarchy.
The Titans did not scale heaven; but they laid waste the world.
The Great War began within the decade after Chesterton wrote these words. Barzun describes this was as the suicide of the West – the world was laid waste.
Reprinted with permission from Bionic Mosquito.