The marriage of Joseph and Mary

Super Flumina

under the patronage of St Joseph and St Dominic

By the rivers of Babylon there we sat and wept, remembering Zion;
on the poplars that grew there we hung up our harps. . . Ps 136

St Dominic


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11th September 2001


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“Life is not an illogicality; yet it is a trap for logicians.  It looks just a little more mathematical and regular than it is; its exactitude is obvious, but its inexactitude is hidden; its wildness lies in wait.  I give one coarse instance of what I mean.  Suppose some mathematical creature from the moon were to reckon up the human body; he would at once see that the essential thing about it was that it was duplicate.  A man is two men, he on the right exactly resembling him on the left.  Having noted that there was an arm on the right and one on the left, a leg on the right and one on the left, he might go further and still find on each side the same number of fingers, the same number of toes, twin eyes, twin ears, twin nostrils, and even twin lobes of the brain.  At last he would take is as a law; and then, where he found a heart on one side, would deduce that there was another heart on the other.  And just then, when he most felt he was right, he would be wrong.

“It is this silent swerving from accuracy by an inch that is the uncanny element in everything.  It seems a sort of secret treason in the universe… Everywhere in things there is this element of the quiet and incalculable.  It escapes the rationalists, but it never escapes till the last moment…

“Now actual insight or inspiration is best tested by whether it guesses these hidden malformations or surprises.  If our mathematician from the moon saw the two arms and the two ears, he might deduce the two shoulder-blades and the two halves of the brain.  But if he guessed that the man’s heart was in the right place, then I should call him something more than a mathematician.  Now, this is exactly the claim which I have since come to propound for Christianity.  Not merely that it deduces logical truths, but that when it suddenly becomes illogical, it has found, so to speak, an illogical truth.  It not only goes right about things, but it goes wrong (if one may say so) exactly where the things go wrong… It is my purpose in this chapter to point this out; to show that whenever we feel there is something odd in Christian theology, we shall generally find that there is something odd in the truth.

“I have alluded to an unmeaning phrase to the effect that such and such a creed cannot be believed in our age.  Of course, anything can be believed in any age.  But, oddly enough, there really is a sense in which a creed, if it is believed at all, can be believed more fixedly in a complex society than in a simple one.  If a man finds Christianity true in Birmingham, he has actually clearer reasons for faith than if he had found it true in Mercia.  For the more complicated seems the coincidence, the less it can be a coincidence.  If snowflakes fell in the shape, say, of the heart of Midlothian, it might be an accident.  But if snowflakes fell in the exact shape of the maze at Hampton Court, I think one might call it a miracle.  It is exactly as of such a miracle that I have since come to feel of the philosophy of Christianity.  The complications of our modern world proves the truth of the creed more perfectly than any of the plain problems of the ages of faith.  It was in Notting Hill and Battersea that I began to see that Christianity was true.  This is why the faith has that elaboration of doctrines and details which so much distresses those who admire Christianity without believing in it.  When once one believes in a creed, one is proud of its complexity, as scientists are proud of the complexity of science.  It shows how rich it is in discoveries.  If it is right at all, it is a compliment to say that it’s elaborately right.  A stick might fit a hole or a stone a hollow by accident.  But a key and a lock are both complex.  And if a key fits a lock, you know it is the right key.

“But this involved accuracy of the thing makes it very difficult to do what I now have to do, to describe this accumulation of truth.  It is very hard for a man to defend anything of which he is entirely convinced.  It is comparatively easy when he is only partially convinced.  He is partially convinced because he has found this or that proof of the thing, and he can expound it.  But a man is not really convinced of a philosophic theory when he finds that something proves it.  He is only really convinced when he finds that everything proves it.  And the more converging reasons he finds pointing to this conviction the more bewildered he is if asked suddenly to sum them up.  Thus, if one asked an ordinary intelligent man, on the spur of the moment, ‘Why do you prefer civilisation to savagery?’ he would look wildly round at object after object, and would only be able to answer vaguely, ‘Why, there is that bookcase . . . and the coals in the coal-scuttle . . . and pianos . . . and policemen.’  The whole case for civilisation is that the case for it is complex.  It has done so many things.  But that very multiplicity of proof which ought to make reply overwhelming makes reply impossible.

”There is, therefore, about all complete conviction a kind of huge helplessness.  The belief is so big that it takes a long time to get it into action.  And this hesitation chiefly arises, oddly enough, from an indifference about where one should begin.  All roads lead to Rome; which is one reason why many people never get there.  In the case of this defence of the Christian conviction I confess that I would as soon begin the argument with one thing as another; I would begin it with a turnip or a taximeter cab.  But if I am to be at all careful about making my meaning clear, it will, I think, be wiser to continue the current arguments of the last chapter, which was concerned to urge the first of these mystical coincidences, or rather, ratifications.  All I had hitherto heard of Christian theology had alienated me from it.  I was a pagan at the age of twelve, and a complete agnostic by the age of sixteen; and I cannot understand anyone passing the age of seventeen without having asked himself so simple a question.  I did, indeed, retain a cloudy reverence for a cosmic deity and a great historical interest in the Founder of Christianity.  But I certainly regarded Him as a man; though perhaps I thought that, even in that point, He had an advantage over some of His modern critics.  I read the scientific and sceptical literature of my time—all of it, at least, that I could find written in English and lying about; and I read nothing else; I mean I read nothing else on any other note of philosophy.  The penny dreadfuls which I also read were indeed in a healthy and heroic tradition of Christianity; but I did not know this at the time.  I never read a line of Christian apologetics.  I read as little as I can of them now.  It was Huxley[2] and Herbert Spencer[3] and Bradlaugh[4] who brought me back to orthodox theology.  They sowed in my mind my first wild doubts of doubt… The rationalist made me question whether reason was of any use whatever; and when I had finished Herbert Spencer I had got as far as doubting (for the first time) whether evolution had occurred at all.  As I laid down the last of Colonel Ingersoll’s atheistic lectures[5] the dreadful thought broke across my mind, ‘Almost though persuadest me to be a Christian.’  I was in a dreadful way.”

“This odd effect of the great agnostics in arousing doubts deeper than their own might be illustrated in many ways.  I take only one.  As I read and re-read all the non-Christian or anti-Christian accounts of the faith, from Huxley to Bradlaugh, a slow and awful impression grew gradually but graphically upon my mind—the impression that Christianity must be a most extraordinary thing.  For not only (as I understood) had Christianity the most flaming vices, but it had apparently a mystical talent for combining vices which seemed inconsistent with each other.  It was attacked on all sides and for all contradictory reasons.  No sooner had one rationalist demonstrated that it was too far to the east than another demonstrated with equal clearness that it was much too far to the west.  No sooner had my indignation died down at its angular and aggressive squareness than I was called up again to notice and condemn its enervating and sensual roundness.  In case any reader has not come across the thing I mean, I will give such instances as I remember at random of this self-contradiction…

“…I was much moved by the eloquent attack on Christianity as a thing of inhuman gloom; for I thought (and still think) sincere pessimism the unpardonable sin… But if Christianity was, as these people said, a thing purely pessimistic and opposed to life, then I was quite prepared to blow up St Paul’s Cathedral.  But the extraordinary thing is this.  They did prove to me in Chapter I (to my complete satisfaction) that Christianity was too pessimistic; and then, in Chapter II, they began to prove to me that it was a great deal too optimistic.  One accusation against Christianity was that it prevented men, by morbid tears and terrors, from seeking joy and liberty in the bosom of Nature.  But another accusation was that it comforted men with a fictitious providence, and put them in a pink-and-white nursery.  One great agnostic asked why Nature was not beautiful enough, and why it was hard to be free.  Another great agnostic objected that Christian optimism, ‘the garment of make-believe woven by pious hands’, hid from us the fact that Nature was ugly, and that it was impossible to be free.  One rationalist had hardly done calling Christianity a nightmare before another began to call it a fool’s paradise.  This puzzled me; the charges seemed inconsistent.  Christianity could not at once be the black mask on a white world, and also the white mask on a black world.  The state of the Christian could not be at once so comfortable that he was a coward to cling to it, and so uncomfortable that he was a fool to stand it.  If it falsified human vision it must falsify it one way or another; it could not wear both green and rose-coloured spectacles.  I rolled on my tongue with a terrible joy, as did all young men of that time, the taunts which Swinburne hurled at the dreariness of the creed—
‘Thou has conquered, O pale Galilean, the world has grown gray with Thy breath.’
But when I read the same poet’s accounts of paganism (as in ‘Atlanta’), I gathered that the world was, if possible, more gray before the Galilean breathed on it than afterwards.  The poet maintained, indeed, in the abstract, that life was pitch dark.  And yet, somehow, Christianity had darkened it.  The very man who denounced Christianity for pessimism was himself a pessimist.  And it did for one wild moment cross my mind that, perhaps, those might not be the very best judges of the relation of religion to happiness who, by their own account, had neither one nor the other.

“It must be understood that I did not conclude hastily that the accusations were false or the accusers fools.  I simply deduced that Christianity must be something even weirder and wickeder than they made out.  A thing might have these two opposite vices; but it must be rather a queer thing if it did.  A man might be too fat in one place and too thin in another; but he would be an odd shape.  At this point my thoughts were only of the odd shape of the Christian religion; I did not allege any odd shape in the rationalistic mind.

“Here is another case of the same kind.  I felt that a strong case against Christianity lay in the charge that there is something timid, monkish, and unmanly about all that is called ‘Christian’, especially in its attitude towards resistance and fighting.  The great sceptics of the nineteenth century were largely virile.  Bradlaugh in an expansive way, Huxley in a reticent way, were decidedly men.  In comparison, it did seem tenable that there was something weak and over patient about Christian counsels.  The Gospel paradox about the other cheek, the fact that priests never fought, a hundred things made plausible the accusation that Christianity was an attempt to make a man too like a sheep.  I read it and believed it, and if I had read nothing different, I should have gone on believing it.  But I read something very different.  I turned the next page in my agnostic manual, and my brain turned up-side-down.  Now I found that I was to hate Christianity not for fighting too little, but for fighting too much.  Christianity, it seemed, was the mother of wars.  Christianity had deluged the world with blood.  I had got thoroughly angry with the Christian, because he never was angry.  And now I was told to be angry with him because his anger had been the most huge and horrible thing in human history; because his anger had soaked the earth and smoked the sun.  The very people who reproached Christianity with the meekness and non-resistance of the monasteries were the very people who reproached it also with the violence and valour of the Crusades.  It was the fault of Christianity (somehow or other) both that Edward the Confessor did not fight and that Richard Coeur de Lion did… What could be the nature of the thing which one could abuse first because it would not fight, and second because it was always fighting?  In what world of riddles was born this monstrous murder and this monstrous meekness?  The shape of Christianity grew a queerer shape every instant.

“I take a third case… The one real objection to the Christian religion is simply that it is one religion… Christianity (it may reasonably be said) is one thing confined to one kind of people… I was much drawn towards the doctrine often preached in Ethical Societies—I mean the doctrine that there is one great unconscious church of all humanity founded on the omnipresence of the human conscience.  Creeds, it was said, divided men; but at least morals united them.  The soul might seek the strangest and most remote lands and ages and still find essential ethical common sense… I believed this doctrine of the brotherhood of all men in the possession of a moral sense, and I believe it still—with other things.  And I was thoroughly annoyed with Christianity for suggesting (as I supposed) that whole ages and empires of men had utterly escaped this light of justice and reason.  But then I found an astonishing thing.  I found that the very people who said that mankind was one church from Plato to Emerson were the very people who said that morality had changed altogether, and that what was right in one age was wrong in another.  If I asked, say, for an altar, I was told that we needed none, for men our brothers gave us clear oracles and one creed in their universal customs and ideals.  But if I mildly pointed out that one of men’s universal customs was to have an altar, then my agnostic teachers turned clean around and told me that men had always been in darkness and the superstitions of savages.  I found that it was their daily taunt against Christianity that it was the light of one people and had left all others to die in the dark.  But I also found that it was their special boast for themselves that science and progress were the discovery of one people, and that all other peoples had died in the dark.  Their chief insult to Christianity was actually their chief compliment to themselves, and there seemed to be a strange unfairness about all their relative insistence on the two things.  When considering some pagan or agnostic, we were to remember that all men had one religion; when considering some mystic or spiritualist, we were only to consider what absurd religions some men had.  We could trust the ethics of Epictetus, because ethics had never changed.  We must not trust the ethics of Bossuet, because ethics had changed.  They changed in two hundred years, but not in two thousand.

“This began to be alarming.  It looked not so much as if Christianity was bad enough to include any vices, but rather as if any stick was good enough to beat Christianity with.  What again could this astonishing be like which people were so anxious to contradict, that in doing so they did not mind contradicting themselves? …[L]est anyone supposes that I have unfairly selected three accidental cases I will run briefly through a few others.  Thus certain sceptics wrote that the great crime of Christianity had been its attack on the family; it had dragged women to the loneliness of the cloister, away from their homes and their children.  But, then, other sceptics (slightly more advanced) said that the great crime of Christianity was forcing the family and marriage upon us; that it doomed women to the drudgery of their homes and children, and forbade them loneliness and contemplation.  The charge was actually reversed.  Or, again, certain phrases in the Epistles or the Marriage Service, were said by the anti-Christians to show contempt for woman’s intellect.  But I found that the anti-Christians themselves had a contempt for woman’s intellect; for it was their great sneer at the Church on the Continent that ‘only women’ went to it.  Or again, Christianity was reproached with its naked and hungry habits; with its sackcloth and dried peas.  But the next minute Christianity was being reproached with its pomp and its ritualism; its shrines of porphyry and its robes of gold.  It was abused for being too plain and for being too coloured.  Again Christianity had always been accused of restraining sexuality too much, when Bradlaugh the Malthusian discovered that it restrained it too little.  It has often been accused in the same breath of prim respectability and of religious extravagance.  Between the covers of the same atheistic pamphlet I have found the faith rebuked for its disunion.  ‘One thinks one thing, and one another,’ and rebuked also for its union, ‘It is difference of opinion that prevents the world from going to the dogs.’  In the same conversation a free-thinker, a friend of mine, blamed Christianity for despising Jews, and then despised it himself for being Jewish.

“I wished to be quite fair then, and I wish to be quite fair now; and I did not conclude that the attack on Christianity was all wrong.  I only concluded that if Christianity was wrong, it was very wrong indeed.  Such hostile horrors might be combined in one thing, but that thing must be very strange and solitary… Such a paradox of evil rose to the stature of the supernatural.  It was, indeed, almost as supernatural as the infallibility of the Pope.  An historic institution, which never went right, is really quite as much of a miracle as an institution that cannot go wrong.  The only explanation which immediately occurred to my mind was that Christianity did not come from heaven, but from hell.  Really, if Jesus of Nazareth was not Christ, He must have been Anti-Christ.

“And then in a quiet hour a strange thought struck me like a still thunderbolt.  There had suddenly come into my mind another explanation.  Suppose we heard an unknown man spoken of by many men.  Suppose we were puzzled to hear that some men said he was too tall and some too short; some objected to his fatness, some lamented his leanness; some thought him too dark, and some too fair.  One explanation (as has been already admitted) would be that he might be an odd shape.  But there is another explanation.  He might be the right shape.  Outrageously tall men might feel him to be short.  Very short men might feel him to be tall.  Old bucks who are growing stout might consider him insufficiently filled out; old beaux who were growing thin might feel that he expanded beyond the narrow lines of elegance.  Perhaps Swedes (who have pale hair like tow) called him a dark man, while negroes considered him distinctly blonde.  Perhaps (in short) this extraordinary thing is really the ordinary thing; at least the normal thing, the centre.  Perhaps, after all, it is Christianity that is sane and all its critics that are mad—in various ways.  I tested this idea by asking myself whether there was about any of the accusers anything morbid that might explain the accusation.  I was startled to find that this key fitted a lock.  For instance, it was certainly odd that the modern world charged Christianity at once with bodily austerity and with artistic pomp.  But then it was also odd, very odd, that the modern world itself combined extreme bodily luxury with an extreme absence of artistic pomp.  The modern man thought Becket’s robes too rich and his meals too poor.  But then the modern man was really exceptional in history; no man before ever ate such elaborate dinners in such ugly clothes.  The modern man found the Church too simple exactly where modern life is too complex; he found the Church too gorgeous exactly where modern life is too dingy…

“I went over all the cases, and I found the key fitted so far.  The fact that Swinburne was irritated at the unhappiness of Christians and yet more irritated at their happiness was easily explained.  It was no longer a complication of diseases in Christianity, but a complication of diseases in Swinburne.  The restraints of Christians saddened him simply because he was more hedonist than a healthy man should be.  The faith of Christians angered him because he was more pessimist than a healthy man should be.  In the same way the Malthusians by instinct attacked Christianity… because there is something a little anti-human about Malthusianism.

“Nevertheless, it could not, I felt, be quite true that Christianity was merely sensible and stood in the middle.  There was really an element in it of emphasis and even frenzy which had justified the secularists in their superficial criticism.  It might be wise, I began more and more to think that it was wise, but it was not merely worldly wise; it was not merely temperate and respectable.  Its fierce crusaders and meek saints might balance each other; still, the crusaders were very fierce and the saints were very meek, meek beyond all decency.  Now, it was just at this point of the speculation that I remembered my thoughts about the martyr and the suicide.  In that matter there had been this combination between two almost insane positions which yet somehow amounted to sanity.  This was just such another contradiction; and this I had already found to be true.  This was exactly one of the paradoxes in which sceptics found the creed wrong; and in this I had found it right.  Madly as Christians might love the martyr or hate the suicide, they never felt these passions more madly than I had felt them long before I dreamed of Christianity.  Then… I began to trace this idea darkly through all the enormous thoughts of our theology.  The idea was that which I had outlined touching the optimist and the pessimist; that we want not an amalgam or compromise, but both things at the top of their energy; love and wrath both burning… I need not remind the reader that the idea of this combination is indeed central in orthodox theology.  For orthodox theology has specially insisted that Christ was not a being apart from God and man, like an elf, nor yet a being half human and half not, like a centaur, but both things at one and both things thoroughly, very man and very God…

“All sane men can see that sanity is some kind of equilibrium; that one may be mad and eat too much, or mad and eat too little.  Some moderns have indeed appeared with vague versions of progress and evolution which seeks to destroy the … balance of Aristotle…

“Paganism declared that virtue was in a balance; Christianity declared it was in a conflict: the collision of two passions apparently opposite.  Of course they were not really inconsistent; but they were such that it was hard to hold simultaneously.  Let us follow for the moment the clue of the martyr and the suicide; and take the case of courage.  No quality has ever so much addled the brains and tangled the definitions of merely rational sages.  Courage is almost a contradiction in terms.  It means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die.  ‘He that will lose his life, the same shall save it’, is not a piece of mysticism for saints and heroes.  It is a piece of everyday advice for sailors or mountaineers.  It might be printed in an Alpine guide or a drill book.  This paradox is the whole principle of courage; even of quite earthly or quite brutal courage.  A man cut off by the sea may save his life if he will risk it on the precipice.  He can only get away from death by continually stepping within an inch of it.  A soldier surrounded by enemies, if he is to cut his way out, needs to combine a strong desire for living with a strange carelessness about dying.  He must not merely cling to life, for then he will be a coward, and will not escape.  He must not merely wait for death, for then he will be a suicide, and will not escape.  He must seek his life in a spirit of furious indifference to it; he must desire life like water, and yet drink death like wine.  No philosopher, I fancy, has ever expressed this romantic riddle with adequate lucidity, and I certainly have not done so.  But Christianity has done more; it has marked the limits of it in the awful graves of the suicide and the hero, showing the distance between him who dies for the sake of living and him who dies for the sake of dying…

“And now I began to find that this duplex passion was the Christian key to ethics everywhere.  Everywhere the creed made a moderation out of the still crash of two impetuous emotions.  Take, for instance, the matter of [self] modesty, of the balance between mere pride and mere prostration.  The average pagan, like the average agnostic, would merely say that he was content with himself, but not insolently self-satisfied, that there were many better and many worse, that his deserts were limited, but he would see that he got them.  In short, he would walk with his head in the air; but not necessarily with his nose in the air.  This is a manly and rational position, but it is open to the objection we noted against the compromise between optimism and pessimism—the ‘resignation’ of Matthew Arnold.  Being a mixture of two things, it is a dilution of two things; neither is present in its full strength or contributes its full colour… Thus it loses both the poetry of being proud and poetry of being humble.  Christianity sought by this same strange expedient to save both of them.

“It separated the two ideas and then exaggerated them both.  In one way Man was to be haughtier than he had ever been before; in another way he was to be humbler than he had ever been before.  In so far as I am Man I am the chief of creatures.  In so far as I am a man I am the chief of sinners… Man was a statue of God walking about the garden.  Man had pre-eminence over all the brutes; man was only sad because he was not a beast, but a broken god.  The Greek had spoken of man creeping on the earth, as if clinging to it.  Now Man was to tread on the earth, as if to subdue it.  Christianity thus held a thought of the dignity of man that could only be expressed in crowns rayed like the sun and fans of peacock plumage.  Yet at the same time it could hold a thought about the abject smallness of man that could only be expressed in fasting and fantastic submission, in the grey ashes of St Dominic and the white snows of St Bernard… There was an open playground for the happy pessimist.  Let him say anything against himself short of blaspheming the original aim of his being; let him call himself a fool and even a damned fool (though that is Calvinistic); but he must not say that fools are not worth saving.  He must not say that a man, qua man, can be valueless.  Here again, in short, Christianity got over the difficulty of combining furious opposites, by keeping them both, and keeping them both furious.  The Church was positive on both points.  One can hardly think too little of one’s self.  One can hardly think too much of one’s soul.

“Take another case, the complicated question of charity… A sensible pagan would say that there were some people one could forgive, and some one couldn’t: a slave who stole wine could be laughed at; a slave who betrayed his benefactor could be killed, and cursed even after he was killed.  In so far as the act was pardonable, the man was pardonable… Christianity came in… startlingly with a sword, and clove one thing from another.  It divided the crime from the criminal.  The criminal we must forgive unto seventy times seven.  The crime we must not forgive at all.  It was not enough that slaves who stole wine inspired partly anger and partly kindness.  We must be much more angry with theft than before, and yet much kinder to thieves than before.  There was room for wrath and love to run wild.  And the more I considered Christianity, the more I found that while it had established a rule and order, the chief aim of that order was to give room for good things to run wild.

“St Francis, in praising all good, could be a more shouting optimist than Walt Whitman.  St Jerome, in denouncing all evil, could paint the world blacker than Schopenhauer.  Both passions were free because both were kept in their place.  The optimist could pour out all the praise he liked on the gay music of the march, the golden trumpets, and the purple banners going into battle.  But he must not call the fight needless.  The pessimist might draw as darkly as he chose the sickening marches or the sanguine wounds.  But he must not call the fight hopeless… By defining its main doctrine, the Church not only kept seemingly inconsistent things side by side, but, what was more, allowed them to break out in a sort of artistic violence otherwise possible only to anarchists.  Meekness grew more dramatic than madness…

“Thus, the double charges of the secularists, though throwing nothing but darkness and confusion on themselves, throw a real light on the faith.  It is true that the historic Church has at once emphasized celibacy and emphasized the family; has at once (if one may put it so) been fiercely for having children and fiercely for not having children.  It has kept them side by side like two strong colours, red and white, like the red and white on the shield of St George.  It has always had a healthy hatred of pink.  It hates the combination of two colours which is the feeble expedient of the philosophers…

“So it is also, of course, with the contradictory charges of the anti-christians about submission and slaughter.  It is true that the Church told some men to fight and others not to fight; and it is true that those who fought were like thunderbolts and those who did not fight were like statues… There must be some good in the life of battle, for so many good men have enjoyed being soldiers.  There must be some good in the idea of non-resistance, for so many good men seem to enjoy being Quakers.  All that the Church did (so far as that goes) was to prevent either of these good things from ousting the other… And sometimes this pure gentleness and this pure fierceness met and justified their juncture; the paradox of all the prophets was fulfilled, and, in the soul of St Louis, the lion lay down with the lamb.  But remember that this text is too lightly interpreted.  It is constantly assured, especially in our Tolstoyan tendencies, that when the lion lies down with the lamb the lion becomes lamb-like.  But that is brutal annexation and imperialism on the part of the lamb.  That is simply the lamb absorbing the lion instead of the lion eating the lamb.  The real problem is—Can the lion lie down with the lamb and still retain its royal ferocity?  That is the problem the Church attempted; that is the miracle she achieved.

“This was the big fact about Christian ethics; the discovery of the new balance.  Paganism had been like a pillar of marble, upright because proportioned with symmetry.  Christianity was like a huge and ragged and romantic rock, which, thought it sways on its pedestal at a touch, yet, because its exaggerated excrescences exactly balance each other, is enthroned there for a thousand years… Becket wore a hair shirt under his gold and crimson, and there is much to be said for the combination; for Becket got the benefit of the hair shirt while the people in the street got the benefit of the crimson and gold.  It is at least better than the manner of the modern millionaire, who has the black and the drab outwardly for others, and the gold next his heart.  But the balance was not always in one man’s body as in Becket’s; the balance was often distributed over the whole body of Christendom.  Because a man prayed and fasted on the Northern snows, flowers could be hung at his festival in the Southern cities… This is what makes Christendom at once so much more perplexing and so much more interesting than the Pagan empire; just as Amiens Cathedral is not better but more interesting than the Parthenon.  If anyone wants a modern proof of all this, let him consider the curious fact that, under Christianity, Europe (while remaining a unity) has broken up into individual nations.  Patriotism is a perfect example of this deliberate balancing of one emphasis against another emphasis.  The instinct of the Pagan empire would have said: ‘You shall all be Roman citizens, and grow alike; let the German grow less slow and reverent; the Frenchman less experimental and swift.’  But the instinct of Christian Europe says, ‘Let the German remain slow and reverent, that the Frenchman may the more safely be swift and experimental.  We will make an equipoise out of these excesses.  The absurdity called Germany shall correct the insanity called France.’

“Last and most important, it is exactly this which explains what is so inexplicable to all the modern critics of the history of Christianity.  I mean the monstrous wars about small points of theology, the earthquakes of emotion about a gesture or a word.  It was only a matter of an inch; but an inch is everything which you are balancing.  The Church could not afford to swerve a hair’s breadth on some things if she was to continue her great and daring experiment of the irregular equilibrium.  Once let one idea become less powerful and some other idea would become too powerful.  It was no flock of sheep the Christian shepherd was leading, but a herd of bulls and tigers, of terrible ideals and devouring doctrines, each one of them strong enough to turn to a false religion and lay waste the world.  Remember that the Church went in specifically for dangerous ideas; she was a lion tamer.  The idea of birth through a Holy Spirit, of the death of a divine Being, of the forgiveness of sins, or the fulfilment of prophecies, are ideas which, anyone can see, need but a touch to turn them into something blasphemous or ferocious… Doctrines had to be defined within strict limits, even in order that man might enjoy general human liberties.  The Church had to be careful, if only that the world might be careless.

“This is the thrilling romance of Orthodoxy.  People have fallen into the foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe.  There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy.  It was sanity: and to be sane is more dramatic than to be mad.  It was the equilibrium of a man behind madly rushing horses, seeming to stoop this way and to sway that, yet in every attitude having the grace of statuary and the accuracy of arithmetic.  The Church in its early days went fierce and fast with any warhorse; yet it is utterly unhistoric to say that she merely went mad along one idea, like a vulgar fanaticism.  She swerved to left and right, so as exactly to avoid enormous obstacles.  She left on one hand the huge bulk of Arianism, buttressed by all the worldly powers to make Christianity too worldly.  The next instant she was swerving to avoid an orientalism, which would have made it too unworldly.  The orthodox Church never took the tame course or accepted the conventions; the orthodox Church was never respectable.  It would have been easy to have accepted the earthly power of the Arians.  It would have been easy, in the Calvinist seventeenth century, to fall into the bottomless pit of predestination.  It is easy to be a madman: it is easy to be a heretic.  It is always easy to let the age have its head; the difficult thing is to keep one’s own.  It is always easy to be a modernist; as it is easy to be a snob.  To have fallen into any of those open traps or error and exaggeration which fashion after fashion and sect after sect set along the historic path of Christendom—that would indeed have been simple.  It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands.  To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame.  But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect.”


[1]   This is an extract from a chapter bearing this title in G K Chesterton’s Orthodoxy.  The book was published in 1907 but it has much to say to us 100 years on.

[2]   Thomas Huxley (1825-1895), English biologist and supporter of Charles Darwin.

[3]   Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), English philosopher and sociological theorist who founded his explanation of the world in an all embracing concept of evolution, thereby repeating the errors of the Greek, Heraclitus (c.535-475 BC)

[4]   Charles Bradlaugh (1833-1891), English atheist and political activist.

[5]   Robert Ingersoll (1833-1899), American political leader, orator, and agnostic.