Sunday, April 11, 2010

What would Chesterton say now? A passage from Orthodoxy

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 any one 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 and Herbert Spencer and Bradlaugh who brought me
back to orthodox theology. They sowed in my mind my first wild
doubts of doubt. Our grandmothers were quite right when they said
that Tom Paine and the free-thinkers unsettled the mind. They do.
They unsettled mine horribly. 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 the dreadful thought broke
across my mind, "Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian." I was
in a desperate way.
 
What would Chesterton say now?
 
It was P. Z Myers and Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris who brought me
back to orthodox theology. They sowed in my mind my first wild
doubts of doubt. Our grandmothers were quite right when they said
that Richard Carrier and the free-thinkers unsettled the mind. They do.
They unsettled mine horribly. The rationalist made me question
whether reason was of any use whatever; and when I had finished
Richard Dawkins I had got as far as doubting (for the first time)
whether evolution had occurred at all. As I laid down the last of
John W. Loftus' atheistic lectures the dreadful thought broke
across my mind, "Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian." I was
in a desperate way.

6 comments:

Joshua Blanchard said...

It is encouraging to know that Chesterton apparently found typical Christian apologetics distasteful. Perhaps this partially accounts for the lack of triteness and superficiality in his own work.

Doctor Logic said...

What does being unsettled have to do with truth?

Sounds like wishful thinking: if you don't wish it, it isn't true.

Alphonsus said...

Doctor Logic, my guess would be that Chesterton meant that reading critics of religion got him thinking seriously about religious matters and, due to the weakness of said critics' arguments, led him to seriously consider Christianity. It would be similar to, say, a creationist thinking more positively about evolution because he is surprised by the weaknesses of creationist literature. I think Chesterton is making a psychological/ autobiographical observation rather than some kind of formal argument.

Edward T. Babinski said...

Ingersoll was not raised to be an agnostic, but taught Christianity in his youth.

As an adult Ingersoll said that in order to become an "infidel" all one had to do was read, study and question the Bible as one would any other book.

I'm pretty sure Ingersoll was the first to make such a witty reversal statement (concerning "becoming an infidel via reading the Bible") before Chesterton plaigarized the idea and switched it round.

_________________________


Chesterton is a delight to read, but his analogies, hyperbole and paradoxes prove nothing but his delight in fantastical literature. He also had a much better sense of humor than any other Christian apologist I know, save perhaps Robert Farrar Capon. Chesterton also had infidel friends, close ones who loaned him money and helped his career along. He even said nice things about them, including Blatchford and the atheist H.G. Wells who despised Catholicism. In fact Chesterton wrote Wells a personal letter suggesting that Wells would be going to heaven after he died.

Here are two quotations from Chestertons that are not often cited:

"Christianity has committed crimes so monstrous that the sun might sicken at them in heaven."

--G. K. Chesterton in the Daily News, as quoted by Robert Blatchford, God and My Neighbor http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/6172

"There were any number of real Catholic doctrines I should then have thought disgraceful to the Church. There are any number which I can still easily imagine being made to look disgraceful to the Church."

--G.K. Chesterton, The Catholic Church and Conversion, Chapter II: The Obvious Blunders, 1926 by MacMillan Company

Edward T. Babinski said...

Oh, and here are some C. S. Lewis quotations too, since he is well known for copying the "reversal" statement from Chesterton and carrying on about how "atheists can't be too careful" when it comes to the "books they read."

But read these statements from Lewis himself . . .

"Even more disturbing as you say, is the ghastly record of Christian persecution. It had begun in Our Lord's time--'Ye know not what spirit ye are of' (John of all people!). I think we must fully face the fact that when Christianity does not make a man very much better, it makes him very much worse... Conversion may make of one who was, if no better, no worse than an animal, something like a devil."

--C. S. Lewis in a letter to Bede Griffiths, dated Dec. 20, 1961, not long before Lewis' death, The Letters of C. S. Lewis, ed., W. H. Lewis, (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1966), p. 301.

"I envy you not having to think any more about Christian apologetics. My correspondents force the subject on me again and again. It is very wearing, and not v. good for one's own faith. A Christian doctrine never seems less real to me than when I have just (even if successfully) been defending it. It is particularly tormenting when those who were converted by my books begin to relapse and raise new difficulties."

--C. S. Lewis to Mary Van Deusen, June 18, 1956 [1]

"One of the things Christians are disagreed about is the importance of their disagreements. When two Christians of different denominations start arguing, it is usually not long before one asks whether such-and-such a point 'really matters' and the other replies: 'Matter? Why, it's absolutely essential.'"

--C. S. Lewis, Preface to Mere Christianity

Victor Reppert said...

One of Lewis's most compelling traits was his intellectual honesty in facing difficult issues for Christianity.

I often notice the contrast between someone like Lewis, who wrote a few works of Christian apologetics upon request, and was the President of the Oxford Socratic Club because he thought it good to encourage open dialogue on these issues pertaining to the credibility of Christianity, and a professional apologist like Bill Craig. Lewis was a Medieval and Renaissance Literature scholar who had done a lot of philosophical thinking on his way to becoming a Christian, although that thinking was conditioned by the philosophical scene in Oxford in the early part of the century. His philosophical journey led him to Christianity, and he thought he should explain why he was a Christian.

Sometimes Lewis's writing resounds with a lot of intellectual confidence, and if you quote those passages alone (and more recent apologists love to quote them) you might be left with the idea that Lewis thinks the task of apologetics is a slam dunk you can pull off on your lunch hour. But at other times he comes across as someone who knows how to pose very tough questions to his own beliefs.

I talked about this some in the second chapter of CSLDI, in which I maintained that a fully developed perspective on Lewis's apologetics has to include both the Confident Apologist and the Christian Agnostic. Nobody seems to have picked up on that part of my discussion, something I find somewhat disappointing.

On a completely different matter, when you combine Lewis's exposition of the problems with Welfarism in "Is Progress Possible: Willing Slaves of the Welfare State" with his eventual acceptance of the single-payer British National Health Service, it makes his overall position stronger, not weaker. It is the same with Christianity. Lewis can see the apologetical difficulties he faces, he is honest about them, but he allows you to see how his faith and intellectual honesty can be combined. That makes his apologetics more compelling to me than the kind of apologetics that attempts to relentlessly smash doubt at every turn, even when those apologetics are done by professional philosophers, and contain more a more polished response to philosophical issues of the day than we find in Lewis. I can always polish Lewis's philosophy.