Thursday, April 22, 2010

Chesterton on Thriving Religion

One of my favorite pastimes is reading at random through Chesterton's old Illustrated London News columns, which have been collected by Ignatius Press. They are always worth reading for the style, and every so often you come across a gem... like his column for January 11, 1908, "The Survival of Christmas."

Just like today, the skeptics back in 1908 were predicting the imminent demise of Christianity, including the celebration of Christmas.

I have been reminded of all this by the inevitable discussions in the current papers about whether the keeping of Christmas is destined to die out, whether Christmas itself will disappear.

GKC immediately answers with one of his trademark paradoxes:

Of course, Christmas will not disappear. Christmas is one of those very strong things that can afford to boast of its own approaching disappearance.

Chesterton never writes like this merely to be clever. He uses the startling paradox as a way to shake the reader out of his common (and probably modernist) preconceptions, and open him to a deeper point. The point in this column is, I think, the supernatural life that animates the Christian religion.

How is this supernatural life made manifest? One way might be the way of direct supernatural glory, as in the voice of God emanating from a burning bush or the Lord transfigured in a supernatural light. But there is another way, a via negativa, that reveals supernatural life paradoxically in that which should die, but doesn't. The supreme example is, of course, Christ, who should be dead and buried forever in His tomb, but nonetheless appears alive in the Resurrection. Christ sets the pattern for everything Christian. The Christian can boast of the impending demise of Christmas because, by all natural reason, it should disappear, as all natural traditions inevitably disappear; yet the Christian knows through faith that Christmas will never disappear because its life is not really that of a natural tradition, despite appearances. In general, Chesterton tells us in a wonderful turn of phrase, Christianity "could thrive as a continual failure." (Chesterton speaks here in terms of Christianity rather than the Catholic Church because this was written prior to his conversion.) It is this thriving in failure that paradoxically reveals the hidden supernatural life in the Church.

What is the consequence of this supernatural life? The philosopher seeks happiness, but Christianity, Chesterton says, asks a man not if he is happy, but if he is alive.

Philosophers are happy; saints have a jolly time. The important thing in life is not to keep a steady system of pleasure and composure (which can be done quite well by hardening one's heart or thickening one's head), but to keep alive in oneself the immortal power of astonishment and laughter, and a kind of young reverence. This is why religion always insists on special days like Christmas, while philosophy always tends to despise them. Religion is interested not in whether a man is happy, but whether he is still alive, whether he can still react in a normal way to new things, whether he blinks in a blinding light or laughs when he is tickled. That is the best of Christmas, that it is a startling and disturbing happiness; it is an uncomfortable comfort. The Christian customs destroy the human habits. And while customs are generally unselfish, habits are nearly always selfish. The object of the religious festival is, as I have said, to find out if a happy man is still alive. A man can smile when he is dead.

That last image of the smiling dead man is one of the elements that makes Chesterton so worth reading. Chesterton is sometimes accused of being glib or superficially clever, or dismissed for not brooding on the darker side of life as is the modern fashion. But the image of the smiling dead man is as horrifying as anything in M.R. James, and all the more effective for coming on the reader all of a sudden; at least in James, we expect and are indeed hoping for the disturbing specter. This dark undercurrent is a subtle but pervasive presence in GKC's writing, and is worth more than thousands of pages of existential angst from someone like Sartre.

No comments: