The Everlasting Man – Part 1, Chapter 4: God and Comparative Religion

Everlasting ManHistory is fascinating, but it is much more than just names and dates.  In fact the basis for history is religion.  Why would people write things down, create masterpieces, become people of honor if there was no reason to do so in the first place.  There has to be wonder for there to be records which are really the chronicles of the wondering.

Overview of Chapter:

In chapter 4 Chesterton links the chronological history talked about in the precious chapter and transitions into a more concrete history – the history of belief.  In contrast to belief humanism is the belief in non-belief – and is a modern invention.  Man did not create God, but Man did create the lie that he could create himself.  The more we separate ourselves from God the more less human we become.

Outline of Chapter:

Rome is an example, they started with mysticism and nature worship but then took on the Greek (Hellenistic) religion.  When they incorporated the polytheistic perspective they moved from having a mystery to not even paying true service (only duty service) to the state religion.  This devolved into God worship of the Caesars.  The degradation went from Mystery, to duty, then to humanity.  However all religions have a basis in the mystery.

“I will advance the thesis that before all talk about comparative religion and the separate religious founders of the world, the first essential is to recognize this thing as a whole, as a thing almost native and normal to the great fellowship that we call mankind. This thing is Paganism, and I propose to show in these pages that it is the one real rival to the Church of Christ.”

Geographically religions have started in many different places: from the snowy tips of the Himalayas, to the sandy dunes of the Americas.  There is one religion that is not based on any land worship, nor on nature.  It has gotten the short stick because it has been grouped into a category that it does not belong in:  it has guidelines but they are there not to follow but to show that we cannot follow them, it has important figures but they are all flawed.

“In truth the Church is too unique to prove herself unique. For most popular and easy proof is by parallel; and here there is no parallel. […] Now that is the sort of trick that has been tried in the case of comparative religion and the world’s religious founders all standing respectably in a row. It seeks to classify Jesus as the other would classify Jews, by inventing a new class for the purpose and filling up the rest of it with stop-gaps and second-rate copies. I do not mean that these other things are not often great things in their own real character and class. Confucianism and Buddhism are great things, but it is not true to call them Churches; just as the French and English are great peoples, but it is nonsense to call them nomads. There are some points of resemblance between Christendom and its imitation in Islam; for that matter there are some points of resemblance between Jews and Gypsies. But after that the lists are made up of anything that comes to hand; of anything that can be put in the same catalog without being in the same category.”

So a new way of categorizing is needed (emphasis mine).

“I shall here submit an alternative classification of religion or religions, which I believe would be found to cover all the facts and, what is quite as important here, all the fancies. Instead of dividing religion geographically and as it were vertically, into Christian, Muslim, Brahmin, Buddhist, and so on, I would divide it psychologically and in some sense horizontally; into the strata of spiritual elements and influences that could sometimes exist in the same country, or even in the same man. Putting the Church apart for the moment, I should be disposed to divide the natural religion of the mass of mankind under such headings as these: God; the Gods; the Demons; the Philosophers. I believe some such classification will help us to sort out the spiritual experiences of men much more successfully than the conventional business of comparing religions; and that many famous figures will naturally fall into their place in this way who are only forced into their place in the other. As I shall make use of these titles or terms more than once in narrative and allusion, it will be well to define at this stage for what I mean them to stand. And I will begin with the first, the simplest and the most sublime, in this chapter.”

Starting at the first category: God.   C.S. Lewis also reflected on how the large creates the small.  It is usually the most obvious thing that we cannot find; A pair of glasses resting on a forehead, the fork in ones hand – in the same way the largeness of religion is often forgotten.

“In considering the elements of pagan humanity, we must begin by an attempt to describe the indescribable. Many get over the difficulty of describing it by the expedient of denying it, or at least ignoring it; but the whole point of it is that it was something that was never quite eliminated even when it was ignored. They are obsessed by their evolutionary monomania that every great thing grows from a seed, or something smaller than itself. They seem to forget that every seed comes from a tree, or something larger than itself. Now there is very good ground for guessing that religion did not originally come from some detail that was forgotten, because it was too small to be traced. Much more probably it was an idea that was abandoned because it was too large to be managed. There is very good reason to suppose that many people did begin with the simple but overwhelming idea of one God who governs all; and afterwards fell away into such things as demon-worship almost as a sort of secret dissipation.”

In fact God is so large that it is frighting to think of Him.  We, as a people, run to idols and distractions because they are safe.  We are terrified by this ‘Numinous‘.  In the sinful plight of wanting to become gods we have shrunk away into the smallness and safeness of ourselves.  There is an uncomfortable danger in leaving ourselves and remembering the mysteries that still are.

“That is exactly the attitude of most paganism towards God. He is something assumed and forgotten and remembered by accident; a habit possibly not peculiar to pagans. Sometimes the higher deity is remembered in the higher moral grades and is a sort of mystery. But always, it has been truly said, the savage is talkative about his mythology and taciturn about his religion. The Australian savages, indeed, exhibit a topsyturveydom such as the ancients might have thought truly worthy of the antipodes. The savage who thinks nothing of tossing off such a trifle as a tale of the sun and moon being the halves of a baby chopped in two, or dropping into small-talk about a colossal cosmic cow milked to make the rain, merely in order to be sociable, will then retire to secret caverns sealed against women and white men, temples of terrible initiation where to the thunder of the bull-roarer and the dripping of sacrificial blood, the priest whispers the final secrets, known only to the initiate: that honesty is the best policy, that a little kindness does nobody any harm, that all men are brothers and that there is but one God, the Father Almighty, maker of all things visible and invisible. In other words, we have here the curiosity of religious history that the savage seems to be parading all the most repulsive and impossible parts of his belief and concealing all the most sensible and creditable parts. But the explanation is that they are not in that sense parts of his belief, or at least not parts of the same sort of belief. The myths are merely tall stories, though as tall as the sky, the water spout, or the tropic rain. The mysteries are true stories, and are taken secretly that they may be taken seriously. Indeed it is only too easy to forget that there is a thrill in theism.”

This feeling can be found in literature.  Words have power.  There is power to shape, power to warm hearts and to cool tempers.  However the more the power is used the more comfortable it becomes and the less meaning it has.

“Above all we feel it in those immortal moments when the pagan literature seems to return to a more innocent antiquity and speak with a more direct voice, so that no word is worthy of it except our own monotheistic monosyllable. We cannot say anything but ‘God’ in a sentence like that of Socrates bidding farewell to his judges: ‘I go to die and you remain to live; and God alone knows which of us goes the better way.’ We can use no other word even for the best moments of Marcus Aurelius: ‘Can they say dear city of Cecrops, and canst thou not say dear city of God?’ We can use no other word in that mighty line in which Virgil spoke to all who suffer with the veritable cry of a Christian before Christ: ‘O you that have borne things more terrible, to this also God shall give an end.’ In short, there is a feeling that there is something higher than the gods; but because it is higher it is also further away. Not yet could even Virgil have read the riddle and the paradox of that other divinity, who is both higher and nearer. For them what was truly divine was very distant, so distant that they dismissed it more and more from their minds.”

So what went wrong?  How did we lose this mystery?  Just like Rome they went from a singular mystery to borrowing other people’s religion.  In fact you can say they became tolerant of them.  Tolerance is both a slow and fast process – slow to notice but fast in action.  As the Romans tolerated the ‘poly’ nature it lost meaning.  The meaning and purpose of the large is abandoned by explaining away the mystery (like this just in a serious nature).

“Polytheism, therefore, was really a sort of pool; in the sense of the pagans having consented to the pooling of their pagan religions. And this point is very important in many controversies ancient and modern. It is regarded as a liberal and enlightened thing to say that the god of the stranger may be as good as our own; and doubtless the pagans thought themselves very liberal and enlightened when they agreed to add to the gods of the city or the hearth some wild and fantastic Dionysus coming down from the mountains or some shaggy and rustic Pan creeping out of the woods. But exactly what it lost by these larger ideas is the largest idea of all. It is the idea of the fatherhood that makes the whole world one.”

The contrast to this tolerance of many in the foundation of the One.  The criticism of the old testament in fact can be turned on its head.  God is not tolerant in any means.  In fact He is what C. S. Lewis writes in “The Chronicles of Narina” that Aslan is not safe but he is good.  It would far too easy if Judaism and by extension Christianity were constructed to bend to every whim of neighboring societies.  God is large enough to be personal, but small enough to be limitless.

“It is often said with a sneer that the God of Israel was only a God of battles, ‘a mere barbaric Lord of Hosts’ pitted in rivalry against other gods only as their envious foe. Well it is for the world that he was a God of Battles. Well it is for us that he was to all the rest only a rival and a foe. In the ordinary way, it would have been only too easy for them to have achieved the desolate disaster of conceiving him as a friend. It would have been only too easy for them to have seen him stretching out his hands in love and reconciliation, embracing Baal and kissing the painted face of Astarte, feasting in fellowship with the gods; the last god to sell his crown of stars for the Soma of the Indian pantheon or the nectar of Olympus or the mead of Valhalla. It would have been easy enough for his worshippers to follow the enlightened course of Syncretism and the pooling of all the pagan traditions. It is obvious indeed that his followers were always sliding down this easy slope; and it required the almost demoniac energy of certain inspired demagogues, who testified to the divine unity in words that are still like winds of inspiration and ruin. The more we really understand of the ancient conditions that contributed to the final culture of the Faith, the more we shall have a real and even a realistic reverence for the greatness of the Prophets of Israel. As it was, while the whole world melted into this mass of confused mythology, this Deity who is called tribal and narrow, precisely because he was what is called tribal and narrow, preserved the primary religion of all mankind. He was tribal enough to be universal. He was as narrow as the universe.”

This is why to Chesterton pagonism is considered the first step to becoming a Christian; there is a wonder of the universe, a questing for a question, a satisfying mystery.  All the other religions in the world give answers to earthly problems, in contrast Christianity gives riddles to hheavenly questions and yet they are enough.

“Apart from more disputed matters, there were things in the tradition of Israel which belong to all humanity now, and might have belonged to all humanity then. They had one of the colossal corner-stones of the world: the Book of Job. It obviously stands over against the Iliad and the Greek tragedies; and even more than they it was an early meeting and parting of poetry and philosophy in the mornings of the world. It is a solemn and uplifting sight to see those two eternal fools, the optimist and the pessimist, destroyed in the dawn of time. And the philosophy really perfects the pagan tragic irony, precisely because it is more monotheistic and therefore more mystical. Indeed the Book of Job avowedly only answers mystery with mystery. Job is comforted with riddles; but he is comforted. Herein is indeed a type, in the sense of a prophecy, of things speaking with authority. For when he who doubts can only say ‘I do not understand,’ it is true that he who knows can only reply or repeat ‘You do not understand.’ And under that rebuke there is always a sudden hope in the heart; and the sense of something that would be worth understanding.”

Next chapter the next category: the Gods.

Thoughts:

In the same way as the Romans we are faced with the choice to remove the mystery and wonder of a singular vision and religion or to tolerate the many gods of our ‘neighbors’.  Two contrasting views on this: For the many or for the one.  It is not the answers that are important but the keeping of the paradox and the wonder.

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