Friday, November 21, 2008

G. K. Chesterton on comparative religion

As any who have read his Father Brown stories know, Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936) was a man of uncommon good sense. His book Orthodoxy is much read, and deservedly so. This quotation concerning the idea that 'all religions are really the same in essence' is a gem, and so I make no apologies for bringing it before the world:

"The things said most confidently by advanced persons to crowded audiences are generally those quite opposite to the fact; it is actually our truisms that are untrue. Here is a case. There is a phrase of facile liberality uttered again and again at ethical societies and parliaments of religion: "the religions of the earth differ in rites and forms, but they are the same in what they teach." It is false; it is the opposite of the fact. The religions of the earth do not greatly differ in rites and forms; they do greatly differ in what they teach. It is as if a man were to say, "Do not be misled by the fact that the Church Times and the Freethinker look utterly different, that one is painted on vellum and the other carved on marble, that one is triangular and the other hectagonal; read them and you will see that they say the same thing." The truth is, of course, that they are alike in everything except in the fact that they don't say the same thing. An atheist stockbroker in Surbiton looks exactly like a Swedenborgian stockbroker in Wimbledon. You may walk round and round them and subject them to the most personal and offensive study without seeing anything Swedenborgian in the hat or anything particularly godless in the umbrella. It is exactly in their souls that they are divided. So the truth is that the difficulty of all the creeds of the earth is not as alleged in this cheap maxim: that they agree in meaning, but differ in machinery. It is exactly the opposite. They agree in machinery; almost every great religion on earth works with the same external methods, with priests, scriptures, altars, sworn brotherhoods, special feasts. They agree in the mode of teaching; what they differ about is the thing to be taught. Pagan optimists and Eastern pessimists would both have temples, just as Liberals and Tories would both have newspapers. Creeds that exist to destroy each other both have scriptures, just as armies that exist to destroy each other both have guns." G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, Pp. 333-4 of The Collected Works of G. K. Chesterton, Vol. 1 (Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1986)

The Church Times is an Anglican paper, and the Freethinker a sceptical journal. Surbiton and Wimbledon are London suburbs where one might reasonably be expected to find a stockbroker, at least in 1908 when Chesterton was writing.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The use and Abuse of History

Phyllis Tickle, an Emergent author, has declared that the Emergent Church is 'the Great Emergence', part of a pattern of great events in the Church every 500 years (source, source).

The problem with this is that it is not an interpretation of the evidence, it is a cherry-picking of the evidence to fit a pre-conceived pattern, so as to 'conveniently' wind up with the Emergent Church as being the latest great work of God. But this is not how you do history! What about the Great Awakening of the eighteenth century? It doesn't fit into the 'pattern' at all, yet it produced the modern missionary movement, the Methodist Churches, the New Connexion of General Baptists, and so on. The revival of 1859, which also had worldwide effects, doesn't fit in to the 'pattern' either. Of course they don't, because the 'pattern' doesn't exist, it is, if I may be allowed to borrow a 'postmodern' term, a powerplay, manipulating the evidence to back up one's position. Thus it answers objections by saying: "But this is the Great Emergence. If you don't support us, then you're opposing God's next Great Work!" This is history as propaganda, as a wax nose that can be manipulated into any shape the manipulator desires.

I am an amateur historian (in the sense I don't get paid for it), and the son of a professional historian (in the sense that he does get paid for it), and this sort of pretended historical study irritates me. It has as much to do with real history as the Landmark Baptists' 'trail of blood', and as the Roman Catholic doctrine of Apostolic Succession (in fact those two are the same thing, but we'll let that pass for now). This is simply the manipulation of historical evidence on behalf of a party. It is, in the worst sense of the term, sectarian history.

So then, the reader may ask, what is the proper use of history? First of all, history must be honest. We accept our forefathers 'warts and all'. Christians are sinners saved by grace, not perfect people, and the same goes for those in the past. But then again, we cannot be like the artist who would paint a picture of the wart and entitle it 'Cromwell'. That too is wrong.

History is to the Church what memory is to individuals, it is the life-story of the Church. We read history to inspire and to teach, and we do it to learn, not to buttress our preconceived notions. Unless we read history responsibly and sensibly, we shall find that we have forgotten it.