“Omnipotence and impotence”

. . .there really is a difference between being brought up as a Christian and being brought up as a Jew or a Moslem or an atheist. The difference is that every Catholic child has learned from pictures, and even every Protestant child from stories, this incredible combination of contrasted ideas as one of the very first impressions on his mind. It is not merely a theological difference.  It is a psychological difference which can outlast any theologies.  It really is, as that sort of scientist loves to say about anything, incurable. Any agnostic or atheist whose childhood has known a real Christmas has ever afterwards, whether he likes it or not, an association in his mind between two ideas that most of mankind must regard as remote from each other; the idea of a baby and the idea of unknown strength that sustains the stars.  His instincts and imagination can still connect them, when his reason can no longer see the need of the connection; for him there will always be some savour of religion about the mere picture of a mother and a baby; some hint of mercy and softening about the mere mention of the dreadful name of God.  But the two ideas are not naturally or necessarily combined. They would not be necessarily combined for an ancient Greek or a Chinaman, even for Aristotle or Confucius.  It is no more inevitable to connect God with an infant than to connect gravitation with a kitten. It has been created in our minds by Christmas because we are Christians, because we are psychological Christians even when we are not theological ones.  In other words, this combination of ideas has emphatically, in the much disputed phrase, altered human nature. There is really a difference between the man who knows it and the man who does not.  It may not be a difference of moral worth, for the Moslem or the Jew might be worthier according to his lights; but it is a plain fact about the crossing of two particular lights, the conjunction of two stars in our particular horoscope. Omnipotence and impotence, or divinity and infancy, do definitely make a sort of epigram which a million repetitions cannot turn into a platitude.  It is not unreasonable to call it unique. Bethlehem is emphatically a place where extremes meet.

The Everlasting Man (1925).

Published in: on December 30, 2009 at 3:06 pm  Leave a Comment  

“To the heathen mysteries”

If any one wants to hold the end of a chain which really goes back to the heathen mysteries, he had better take hold of a festoon of flowers at Easter or a string of sausages at Christmas. Everything else in the modern world is of Christian origin, even everything that seems most anti-Christian. The French Revolution is of Christian origin. The newspaper is of Christian origin. The anarchists are of Christian origin. Physical science is of Christian origin. The attack on Christianity is of Christian origin. There is one thing, and one thing only, in existence at the present day which can in any sense accurately be said to be of pagan origin, and that is Christianity.

Heretics (1905).

Published in: on December 23, 2009 at 8:30 am  Comments (2)  

Jargon and clarity

We all feel that the only inferior thing is to be superior; and various forms of cheap superiority are the most irritating facts of our modern life.  One impudent piece of pedantry I have noticed as very much on the increase — it is the habit of arbitrarily changing the ends of abstract words (which are bad enough already) so as to make them sound more learned.  I heard a young man, with thin, pale hair, speak some time ago at some Ethical Society; and words cannot convey the degree to which he drooped his eyelids whenever he said “Christianism,” instead of Christianity.  I was tempted to get up and tell him that what was the matter with him was Tomfoolerism, called by some Tomfoolerity, and that I felt an impulsion to bash his physiognomics out of all semblity of humanitude.  I saw a magazine the other day in which Ethics had turned into Ethology.  Now, the word Ethics is already a nuisance to God and man; but its permanent defence and its occasional necessity is that it stands for conduct considered statically as a science, whereas morality (or moralitude) stands for conduct considered actively as a choice.  One can discuss ethics.  One cannot discuss morality; one can only violate it.

The reasonable difference between ethics and morality is like the difference between geology and throwing stones or between jurisprudence and outrunning the constable.  But if Ethics is the right word, as I always supposed it was, for the science of conduct, the dispassionate study of the ethos, in that case what the deuce is Ethology?  In practice, I fear, it simply means that somebody or other, who was already too priggish to talk about morality, is by this time too priggish even to talk about ethics.  The three phrases probably represent merely three stages in sniffing superiority and the perversion of all primary moral instincts…

However this may be, there seems to be a curiously bloodless and polysyllabic style now adopted for the discussion of the most direct and intimate matters.  The human home, for example, which whether it be comfortable or uncomfortable is, after all, the only place in which humanity has ever lived, people discuss as if it were the nest of some extraordinary bird, or the cell of some occult insect which science had only just discovered.  The combination of man and woman may be, and indeed is, a dangerous chemical combination; frequently resulting in an explosion; but the explosion is one to which we might have got pretty well used by this time.  And if we are really to debate these matters with much effect, I suggest that we avoid these new polysyllables as much as possible; and if a word has already a long tail, at least that we leave it the long tail that our fathers gave it.  I fancy it will be good for our intellects and certainly (as far as I am concerned) for our tempers.  If we have to discuss the most familiar and fundamental human problems all over again, let us at least take advantage of their antiquity in the fact that the vocabulary of them is fairly popular and clear.  Let us realize that marriage is not monogamy but marriage; that fighting is not natural selection but fighting; that wine is not alchoholic stimulation, but wine; that work is not the creation of capital, but work, a very unpleasant thing.  It seems that we have a great upheaval and revision in front of us.  The discussion will certainly be long, but at least the words might be short.

The Illustrated London News, 12 June 1909.

Published in: on December 16, 2009 at 6:22 am  Comments (2)  

The Jesus of the New Testament

We have all heard people say a hundred times over, for they seem never to tire of saying it, that the Jesus of the New Testament is indeed a most merciful and humane lover of humanity, but that the Church has hidden this human character in repellent dogmas and stiffened it with ecclesiastical terrors till it has taken on an inhuman character. This is, I venture to repeat, very nearly the reverse of the truth. The truth is that it is the image of Christ in the churches that is almost entirely mild and merciful.  It is the image of Christ in the Gospels that is a good many other things as well. The figure in the Gospels does indeed utter in words of almost heart-breaking beauty his pity for our broken hearts.  But they are very far from being the only sort of words that he utters. Nevertheless they are almost the only kind of words that the Church in its popular imagery ever represents him as uttering. That popular imagery is inspired by a perfectly sound popular instinct. The mass of the poor are broken, and the mass of the people are poor, and for the mass of mankind the main thing is to carry the conviction of the incredible compassion of God.  But nobody with his eyes open can doubt that it is chiefly this idea of compassion that the popular machinery of the Church does seek to carry.  The popular imagery carries a great deal to excess the sentiment of ‘Gentle Jesus, meek and mild.’ It is the first thing that the outsider feels and criticises in a Pieta or a shrine of the Sacred Heart.  As I say, while the art may be insufficient, I am not sure that the instinct is unsound. In any case there is something appalling, something that makes the blood run cold, in the idea of having a statue of Christ in wrath. There is something insupportable even to the imagination in the idea of turning the corner of a street or coming out into the spaces of a marketplace, to meet the petrifying petrifaction of that figure as it turned upon a generation of vipers, or that face as it looked at the face of a hypocrite.  The Church can reasonably be justified therefore if she turns the most merciful face or aspect towards men; but it is certainly the most merciful aspect that she does turn. And the point is here that it is very much more specially and exclusively merciful than any impression that could be formed by a man merely reading the New Testament for the first time. A man simply taking the words of the story as they stand would form quite another impression; an impression full of mystery and possibly of inconsistency; but certainly not merely an impression of mildness. It would be intensely interesting; but part of the interest would consist in its leaving a good deal to be guessed at or explained. It is full of sudden gestures evidently significant except that we hardly know what they signify, of enigmatic silences; of ironical replies. The outbreaks of wrath, like storms above our atmosphere, do not seem to break out exactly where we should expect them, but to follow some higher weather-chart of their own.  The Peter whom popular Church teaching presents is very rightly the Peter to whom Christ said in forgiveness, ‘Feed my lambs.’  He is not the Peter upon whom Christ turned as if he were the devil, crying in that obscure wrath, ‘Get thee behind me, Satan.’  Christ lamented with nothing but love and pity over Jerusalem which was to murder him. We do not know what strange spiritual atmosphere or spiritual insight led him to sink Bethsaida lower in the pit than Sodom.  I am putting aside for the moment all questions of doctrinal inferences or expositions, orthodox or otherwise; I am simply imagining the effect on a man’s mind if he did really do what these critics are always talking about doing; if he did really read the New Testament without reference to orthodoxy and even without reference to doctrine.  He would find a number of things which fit in far less with the current unorthodoxy than they do with the current orthodoxy.

The Everlasting Man (1925).

Published in: on December 9, 2009 at 11:48 am  Leave a Comment  

“Its darkness enlightens”

Some Determinists fancy that Christianity invented a dogma like free will for fun — a mere contradiction. This is absurd. You have the contradiction whatever you are. Determinists tell me, with a degree of truth, that Determinism makes no difference to daily life. That means that although the Determinist knows men have no free will, yet he goes on treating them as if they had.

The difference then is very simple. The Christian puts the contradiction into his philosophy. The Determinist puts it into his daily habits. The Christian states as an avowed mystery what the Determinist calls nonsense. The Determinist has the same nonsense for breakfast, dinner, tea, and supper every day of his life.

The Christian, I repeat, puts the mystery into his philosophy. That mystery by its darkness enlightens all things. Once grant him that, and life is life, and bread is bread, and cheese is cheese: he can laugh and fight. The Determinist makes the matter of the will logical and lucid: and in the light of that lucidity all things are darkened, words have no meaning, actions no aim. He has made his philosophy a syllogism and himself a gibbering lunatic.

It is not a question between mysticism and rationality. It is a question between mysticism and madness. For mysticism, and mysticism alone, has kept men sane from the beginning of the world. All the straight roads of logic lead to some Bedlam, to Anarchism or to passive obedience, to treating the universe as a clockwork of matter or else as a delusion of mind. It is only the Mystic, the man who accepts the contradictions, who can laugh and walk easily through the world.

Blatchford Controversies (1904).

Published in: on December 2, 2009 at 9:48 pm  Leave a Comment