Friday, December 18, 2009

Thanks to Chesterton, Who Showed That You Can Combine Knight and Day

Posted by Webster 
Recently, this blog spurred a genteel debate on the Church’s “just war” doctrine vs. the pacifism of arch-Catholic Dorothy Day (pictured here). Leave it to G. K. Chesterton to bridge the gap between these positions in chapter 6 of Orthodoxy—all in one paragraph. There are times I want to accuse GKC of being a smarty-pants.

But then if you were a card-carrying member of the YIM Catholic Book Club (details below), you would be up to speed on all this. The paragraph comes in the chapter titled “The Paradoxes of Christianity,” which club members are reading this week.

Having spent one-third of this short book dismantling many modern isms, Chesterton spends the rest outlining the religious and philosophical positions that stand the test of scrutiny—only to find that these positions add up to one thing and one thing only: Christianity. In chapter 6, he makes the startling point that throughout history, Christianity has been a target for just about everyone on every possible count.

Christians, it was said, were too pessimistic about man’s nature, but too optimistic about his destiny. They were too stuck on chastity, yet too married to the family. (Still are, maybe?) And on the count of war and peace? Same story: Pacifists have attacked Christians for their religious wars, most notably the Crusades; meanwhile, patriots have attacked those like Dorothy Day who were not warlike enough, most notably during World War II. How could both positions be “Christian”?

Here Chesterton strikes gold:

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. All this simply means that the Church preferred to use its Supermen and to use its Tolstoyans. 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. They existed side by side. The Tolstoyans, having all the scruples of monks, simply became monks. The Quakers became a club instead of becoming a sect. Monks said all that Tolstoy says; they poured out lucid lamentations about the cruelty of battles and the vanity of revenge. 

But the Tolstoyans were not quite right enough to run the whole world; and in the ages of faith they were not allowed to run it. The world did not lose the last charge of Sir James Douglas or the banner of Joan the Maid [pictured here]. 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 his royal ferocity? That is the problem the Church attempted; that is the miracle she achieved.

I love the buts in that passage. Each bridges a contradiction, the way the Church has bridged contradictions throughout its history.

Now, if you really want to delve into this question of Christianity and contradiction, read chapter 6 of Orthodoxy by Christmas Eve (sorry, we don’t take vacations in the YIMC Book Club) and check in with this blog about the time Santa is checking in with you. You might want to bone up on the first five weeks along the way too, by reading these posts and the comments that follow:

Chapter 1 “Introduction: In Defense of Everything Else”
Chapter 2 “The Maniac”
Chapter 3 “The Suicide of Thought”
Chapter 4 “The Ethics of Elfland”
Chapter 5 “The Flag of the World”