Chapter 8, “The Romance of Orthodoxy”
When I was in boarding school and college, two books defined my thinking about world religions and helped me leave orthodox Christianity in my rear-view mirror: Aldous Huxley’s The Perennial Philosophy and Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Without splitting hairs, I’ll say the two books agree. They agree that all the great religious teachings of the world—all the minor ones, as well—say the same thing, essentially. Christ or Krishna—what’s the big diff?
I am no historian of religion or philosophy, but I’ll bet that these two books, so revered by the adolescent Webster Bull and many other seekers of his generation, helped pave the way for what my Pope has decried as “a dictatorship of relevatism,” notably in his homily at the Mass for the election of the Roman Pontiff, April 18, 2005.
In this chapter, Chesterton meets this problem head-on. Because the problem had already begun to show itself in his time. “A short time ago,” he writes, “Mrs. Besant, in an interesting essay, announced that there was only one religion in the world, that all faiths were only versions or perversions of it . . . ” “Mrs. Besant” would be Annie Besant, grand old lady of the Theosophical Society and an opinion-maker of alternative religious thought at the turn of the last century. (That’s her in high-priestess get-up at left. You can read about her here.)
Chesterton insists that there is a big diff, that the difference between Christianity and Buddhism, the religion most commonly likened to Christianity, is night and day. I’ll list a few bullet points, then turn the discussion over to readers.
- “The Buddhist saint always has his eyes shut, while the Christian saint always has them wide open. . . . The Buddhist is looking with a peculiar intentness inwards. The Christian is staring with a frantic intentness outwards.”
- “It is the instinct of Christianity to be glad that God has broken the universe into little pieces, because they are living pieces. It is her instinct to say ‘little children love one another’ rather than to tell one large person to love himself [as Buddhism does]. This is the intellectual abyss between Buddhism and Christianity; that for the Buddhist or Theosophist personality is the fall of man, for the Christian it is the purpose of God, the whole point of his cosmic idea.”
- “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. Insisting that God is inside man, man is always inside himself. By insisting that God transcends man, man has transcended himself.”
- “The complex God of the Athanasian Creed may be an enigma for the intellect; but He is far less likely to gather the mystery and cruelty of a Sultan than the lonely god of Omar or Mahomet.”
- “To the Buddhist or the eastern fatalist existence is a science or a plan, which must end up in a certain way. But to a Christian existence is a story, 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.”