Saturday, July 9, 2011

GKC, Christian Paradoxes, and the the Secular Right

In his chapter "The Paradoxes of Christianity" in Orthodoxy, Chesterton discusses the contradictory charges that are often leveled against Christianity:

As I read and re-read all the non-Christian or anti-Christian accounts of the faith, from Huxley to Bradlaugh, a slow and awful impression grew gradually but graphically upon my mind - the impression that Christianity must be a most extraordinary thing. For not only (as I understood) had Christianity the most flaming vices, but it had apparently a mystical talent for combining vices which seemed inconsistent with each other. It was attacked on all sides and for all contradictory reasons.  No sooner had one rationalist demonstrated that it was too far to the east than nother demonstrated with equal clearness that it was much too far to the west. No sooner had my indignation died down at its angular and aggressive squareness than I was called up again to notice and condemn its enervating and sensual roundness. 

Chesterton goes on to give several examples. The Secular Right provides another one in this post and this post. In the first, Heather MacDonald explains that her main problem with religion is that it falsely offers a "special friend" who will protect you from suffering:

That, to me, is the essence of religion: I have a special friend who will keep me safe from the usual disasters that rain down on my fellow human beings (see killer earthquakes and tsunamis, town-destroying tornadoes, fatal car crashes, children born with half a brain, and other Acts of God).

This understandable desire for a few strings to pull in the great random play of fate, for a special someone to get you out of tight fixes and to mop up messes, is an even more fundamental impetus behind religious faith than the hope for an exemption from death, in my observation.  The desire for a personalized leg-up lies behind the constant propitiation of the gods in the Aeneid and continues unbroken into the Christian cultivation of saints and the nonstop din of petitionary prayer...

In the second, Andrew Stuttaford explains that the problem with religion is that it teaches people that suffering is a blessing. He quotes a grieving father to that effect:

One of the most despicable religious fallacies is that suffering is ennobling—that it is a step on the path to some kind of enlightenment or salvation. Isabel’s suffering and death did nothing for her, or us, or the world.

With Chesterton, we might ask how Christianity can both sell people on the idea that God will protect them from suffering, and also sell them on the idea that suffering is a blessing and should be embraced. Chesterton did not immediately conclude that the attacks were baseless; but he did draw the deduction that if they were true, Christianity must be an extraordinary thing:

I wished to be quite fair then, and I wish to be quite fair now; and I did not conclude that the attack on Christianity was all wrong. I only concluded that if Christianity was wrong, it was very wrong indeed. Such hostile horrors might be combined in one thing, but that thing must be very strange and solitary. There are men who are misers, and also spendthrifts; but they are rare. There are men sensual and also ascetic; but they are rare. But if this mass of mad contradictions really existed, quakerish and bloodthirsty, too gorgeous and too thread-bare, austere, yet pandering preposterously to the lust the eye, the enemy of women and their foolish refuge, a solemn pessimist and a silly optimist, [masochistic yet hiding from suffering behind a divine skirt- DMT], if this evil existed, then there was in this evil something quite supreme and unique. 

Chesterton eventually had the inspiration that the problem may not be with Christianity but its critics:

And then in a quiet hour a strange thought struck me like a still thunderbolt. There had suddenly come into my mind another explanation. Suppose we heard an unknown man spoken of by many men. Suppose we were puzzled to hear that some men said he was too tall and some too short; some objected to his fatness, some lamented his leanness; some thought him too dark, and some too fair. One explanation (as has been already admitted) would be that he might be an odd shape. But there is another explanation. He might be the right shape. Outrageously tall men might feel him to be short. Very short men might feel him to be tall. Old bucks who are growing stout might consider him insufficiently filled out; old beaux who were growing thin might feel that he expanded beyond the narrow lines of elegance. Perhaps Swedes (who have pale hair like tow) called him a dark man, while Negroes considered him distinctly blonde. Perhaps (in short) this extraordinary thing is really the ordinary thing; at least the normal thing, the center. Perhaps, after all, it is Christianity that is sane all its critics that are mad - in various ways.

And with respect to suffering, it may be that Christianity is the sane center. There seem to be two truths with respect to suffering: The first is that we would like to avoid it; the second is that no matter how much we try, some suffering in this life is unavoidable. A philosophy that answers suffering must speak to our desire to avoid it, but also provide meaning to the suffering that will inevitably come our way. Christianity speaks to our desire to avoid suffering by affirming it. It was not always thus; man was originally created in a world without suffering, but since has come to suffer as a result of his sin. Our repulsion from suffering is not merely an animal reaction against pain. It reflects a knowledge, deep in our being, that things are not supposed to be this way; our outrage at suffering is a dim memory of Eden. (Pascal: we are fallen Kings.)

But despite the legitimacy of our outrage at suffering, suffer we will in this life, one way or the other. The Christian answer to this is Hope. Even a small amount of suffering absent hope rapidly becomes unbearable; this is one reason our hopeless culture is a slave to convenience. Suffering becomes more bearable the more one possesses hope. This is one of the truths that is meant when Christians sometimes speak of the "blessings" of suffering. It is not that suffering in itself is ennobling; but in our distress we may turn to the source of Hope, and in that hope discover a power to persevere through suffering that we imagined would destroy us. Yes, Christians pray that God relieve us of suffering; that is part of hope. But they also understand that following Christ must involve suffering. The Christian's attitude to suffering is summed up in Christ's prayer at Gethsemane:

Father, if you are willing, remove this chalice from me; nevertheless not my will but yours, be done. (Luke 22:42)


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