Saturday, April 20, 2013

Faith: living sanely in an often insane world

A few weeks ago Monday, upon awakening and getting ready to take my youngest daughter to school and make my way to work, I discovered that I had left my wallet in my office at the parish where I serve. As a result, after dropping my daughter off at school, I had to make my way some 15 miles in the opposite direction from my workplace in order to retrieve my wallet. As I am sure both of my readers can imagine from similar experiences, this was not a great way to begin a new work week. But one lesson I have learned over many years of petulance, impatience, and even anger at such circumstances (I am even angrier when, as in this instance, I have no one to blame but myself), such things frequently offer some consolations.

This particular Monday my consolation was being able to listen to Patrick Coffin interview Dale Ahlquist, a Catholic convert and founder of the U.S. Chesterton Society. If nothing else (there were many things) I discovered that Ahlquist's sister, Pamela Fay, was Larry Norman's first wife. Larry Norman, who passed away in 2008, was really the founder of Christian rock and even contemporary Christian music. Among his many compositions over the years "Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?" More importantly it was Norman who first encouraged the young Dale Ahlquist, who was very "into" C.S. Lewis at the time, to read Chesterton. Life is often weird the coolest way.

Of course, there are times when life is not only weird in the worst possible way, but seems downright insane and spiraling out-of-control. In the wake of our national nightmare this week, which began on Monday with the utterly brazen and evil bombing of innocent Boston marathon spectators and runners, we're all left feeling a little raw, a little stunned, perhaps even a little scared. All of which are understandable responses.

During all of this I have been reading Chesterton's novel The Ball and the Cross. It is a remarkable work, one that causes me to think, as a relatively new reader of Chesterton, that in his fiction Gilbert Keith does a better job of explicating the deep truths he is better known for encapsulating in so many neat little paradoxical aphorisms, which I frankly often find a little annoying. My annoyance made me reluctant for many years to seriously engage Chesterton. Of course, I have read Orthodoxy and other of his apologetic works even before now. As I am finding, a lot of those who quote Chesterton and admire him a lot are in the same boat, they have not read a lot of Chesterton, but have been attracted, as I was repulsed, by his many aphorisms, entire libraries of which, in the internet age, are readily available via any search engine you care to choose.

St. Francis of Assisi, about whom Chesterton also wrote

Returning to the reality of our living in a world that often seems insane, no more so than in the wake of senseless violence, in the eighth chapter of The Ball and the Cross, through a most wonderful literary character, the devout Roman Catholic from the Scottish Highlands, Evan MacIan, who is having a rolling duel with the atheist, Turnbull, who is himself a very decent man, as it turns out, Chesterton avers,
Catholic virtue is often invisible because it is normal... Christianity is always out of fashion because it is always sane; and all fashions are mild insanities. When Italy is mad on art the Church seems too Puritanical; when England is mad on Puritanism the Church seems too artistic. When you quarrel with us now you class us with kingship and despotism; but when you quarrelled with us first it was because we would not accept the divine despotism of Henry VIII. The Church always seems to be behind the times when it is really beyond the times; it is waiting until the last fad shall have seen its last summer
This is MacIan's reply to Turnbull's standard athetistic assertion "that however elaborate be the calculations of physical science, their net result can be tested. Granted that it took millions of books I never read and millions of men I never heard of to discover the electric light. Still I can see the electric light. But I cannot see the supreme virtue which is the result of all your theologies and sacraments."

Beyond this thrust and parry of their on-going duel, the two protagonists' rolling sword duel providing something of a comic backdrop, although not without a deeper purpose, Turnbull tries another standard atheistic tactic, which is an attempt to reduce to faith to mere morals: "If you think your creed essential to morals why do you not make it a test for these things?" To which MacIna responds, "We once did make it a test for these things... and then you told us that we were imposing by force a faith unsupported by argument. It seems rather hard that having first been told that our creed must be false because we did use tests, we should now be told that it must be false because we don't. But I notice that most anti-Christian arguments are in the same inconsistent style."

This dialogue occurs as Turnbull and MacIan walk through the countryside all night long. Finally, with a little exasperation, Turnbull asks, "but the question still remains: Why don't you confine yourself more to Christians if Christians are the only really good men?" It is here that Chesterton puts into the mouth of MacIan what I find to be an amazing answer:
Who talked of such folly?... Do you suppose that the Catholic Church ever held that Christians were the only good men? Why, the Catholics of the Catholic Middle Ages talked about the virtues of all the virtuous Pagans until humanity was sick of the subject. No, if you really want to know what we mean when we say that Christianity has a special power of virtue, I will tell you. The Church is the only thing on earth that can perpetuate a type of virtue and make it something more than a fashion. The thing is so plain and historical that I hardly think you will ever deny it. You cannot deny that it is perfectly possible that tomorrow morning, in Ireland or in Italy, there might appear a man not only as good but good in exactly the same way as St. Francis of Assisi. Very well, now take the other types of human virtue; many of them splendid. The English gentleman of Elizabeth was chivalrous and idealistic. But can you stand still here in this meadow and be an English gentleman of Elizabeth? The austere republican of the eighteenth century, with his stern patriotism and his simple life, was a fine fellow. But have you ever seen him? have you ever seen an austere republican? Only a hundred years have passed and that volcano of revolutionary truth and valour is as cold as the mountains of the moon. And so it is and so it will be with the ethics which are buzzing down Fleet Street at this instant as I speak. What phrase would inspire the London clerk or workman just now? Perhaps that he is a son of the British Empire on which the sun never sets; perhaps that he is a prop of his Trades Union, or a class-conscious proletarian something or other; perhaps merely that he is a gentleman when he obviously is not. Those names and notions are all honourable; but how long will they last? Empires break; industrial conditions change; the suburbs will not last for ever. What will remain? I will tell you. The Catholic Saint will remain
I think this is as good a way as any to end my quite unintentional reflections on the nature and necessity of the Church this week. I also want to add that, believe it or not, I am finding a lot of convergence in this book with Walker Percy's Love in the Ruins: The Adventures of a Bad Catholic at a Time Near the End of the World, which I read earlier this year. One main difference is Chesterton's more stalwart protagonists. But it is the angst, ambiguity, and world-weariness that gives Percy's novel it's charm

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