Thursday, November 26, 2009

YIM Catholic Book Club, “Orthodoxy,” Chapter 2

We got a start on G. K. Chesterton’s “Orthodoxy” last week, looking at the first chapter, “In Defense of Everything Else.” If you’re just coming in, you might want to check out the discussion and comments here. In the second chapter, “The Maniac,” Chesterton begins setting up his argument for Christianity by taking on two common forms of secular thinking in his time and ours: materialism and its opposite, what he calls “panegoism,” or the belief that only the self is real.

Chesterton summarizes the core belief of materialism, “All things, even the souls of men, are leaves inevitably unfolding in an utterly unconscious tree,” adding that “if the cosmos of the materialist is the real cosmos, it is not much of a cosmos.” If the universe is just a blind engine pushing matter around, free will is a fiction and man is a puppet. “It is the charge against the main deductions of the materialist that, right or wrong, they gradually destroy his humanity. I do not mean only kindness, I mean hope, courage, poetry, initiative, all that is human.”

At the other extreme is the panegoist, the man who “believes in himself”:

There is a sceptic far more terrible than he who believes that everything began in matter. It is possible to meet the sceptic who believes that everything began in himself. He doubts not the existence of angels or devils [as the materialist does], but the existence of men and cows. For him his own friends are a mythology made up by himself. He created his own father and his own mother. This horrible fancy has in it something decidedly attractive to the somewhat mystical egoism of our day.

I would add that New Age “religion” is a contemporary form of the “mystical egoism” of Chesterton’s age and therefore not so new, after all, as I argued earlier this week both here and here. In the 1970s, Werner Erhard, founder of est, taught that before we are born, we choose our parents, which is as good as “creating” them, I suppose.

These two extremes, materialism and egoism, exhibit the same paradox, according to the author; they are “complete in theory, crippling in practice.” Each is like a circle closed in upon itself: perfect in its simplicity, but also limited. Chesterton’s final thrust in the direction of Christianity contrasts the circular symbol he describes as a snake eating its own tail (the yin-yang in another form), with the cross, which unites contradictions, as healthy people always do.

* * *

Healthy people. Healthy ordinary people. This is the notion that interests me in this chapter, which otherwise I find pretty dense. (Chesterton does love to pile up analogies, and alliteration.) Chesterton doesn’t accuse materialism or egoism of being illogical. He accuses them of being unhealthy. They limit man, preventing him from being and experiencing all that he can. The materialist and egoist both end in the lunatic asylum. What keeps men sane?

Mysticism keeps men sane. As long as you have mystery you have health; when you destroy mystery you create morbidity. The ordinary man has always been sane because the ordinary man has always been a mystic. He has permitted the twilight. He has always had one foot in earth and the other in fairyland.

What I like about this is what I like about Catholicism. First, it places Mystery at the center of our religious life: the Incarnation, the Eucharist, the Holy Trinity. There are libraries full of commentary on these mysteries, but ultimately they remain mysteries.

Second, Catholicism places the ordinary man and woman in front of the Mystery. When I was moving away from Christianity into spiritual practices that weren't called New Age in the 1960s or 1970s and weren't new then, the appeal of these practices was the promise that I might become extraordinary, that I might rise above the common man. These practices were fundamentally gnostic. They seduced one with the belief that there is an esoteric knowledge that only the true initiate can access. The ordinary man or woman need not apply.

I love the ordinariness of Catholicism, which is another way of saying the universality of Catholicism. Everyone may apply, and be saved. Maybe I am diverging from Chesterton’s main points here, but I encourage readers to use comments to bring the discussion back to Chesterton. What did you find meaningful? Meanwhile, I will stand, or kneel, with my ordinary Catholic friends before the Mystery of the Eucharist—and feel pretty healthy in the bargain.