G.K. Chesterton on dogma and inquiry

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Reading The Everlasting Man. G.K. Chesterton isn’t always careful enough about distinguishing between what he knows and what he only thinks he knows. Speaking of that –

Mr. Chesterton, I admire your writing and your spirit, as you no doubt know. I particularly like the cavalier way you dismiss certain prevalent superstitions, and wonder if I have not unconsciously aped you in adopting some similar manner. I keep thinking to write about spirituality and our culture but haven’t yet, except in passing. Any advice, criticism, comment?

You have the proper attitude but you seem to be doing things the hard way. If you have a place to stand, you can stand firm easily enough – but how can you do it when standing on shifting sands? It is in the very dogma and authority that you distrust that you will find the solid place on which to put your lever, to move the world or at least yourself.

Your friend asks if you are going to make her into a religious fanatic. You thought, “better than an anti-religious fanatic,” which is not a bad rejoinder – but what of the fanaticism of nowhere-land? What of the fanaticism implicit in the stance that holds that you must never come to bedrock truth, lest you run aground? It is true, life in time may be seen as a river. But do you want to spend all your time floating, and never get out to stretch your legs?

To leave off metaphor and simile, let me say it this way. You have in Catholic doctrine the results of 15 centuries of considered deliberation upon the gravest subjects: the nature of the physical and nonphysical world, the nature of life and death, the conditions actually facing us as we function within these limits. These are bedrock questions, corporately and collegially considered and reconsidered, then codified and made accessible and – most importantly – made practical. Is this of no practical value to the seeker after truth? Is it not true that one ignores such an effort and such an end-result of such effort only out of fear?

Surely it is clear that someone who is afraid to look too closely into an argument is afraid that the argument may convince. One afraid of another’s thought can only be afraid that to lose ignorance of that thought is to lose the ability to withhold consent. No one is afraid to investigate what he knows in advance is nonsense. No one fears to expose error in others – but it is far from unheard-of for one to fear exposing errors dear to his own heart.

So it comes to this: If you fear to examine something, you must at least suspect yourself of hiding from the truth.

And it comes therefore to this: If you pretend to examine the subject while willfully refusing to examine the bulkiest object in the room, others must be pardoned for questioning your sincerity.

This is not to say that in order to investigate a subject, one must investigate every bit of evidence, every current of thought. But just as in academics so in metaphysics, you have a duty to demonstrate familiarity with the major works in the field. To be ignorant of the central work is to have an inescapably flawed vision of the field in question.

I do see that. Thank you. It’s a little overwhelming, though. I am no theologian.

No, you are, instead, a solitary explorer. If you prefer wandering around without maps to risking your ignorance of the terrain by glimpsing the most certain features of the landscape in a map, that is your choice. But even a bad map well used is better than none at all – and how much more so a good map!

It is a convincing argument, but I don’t think I will wind up back in the Catholic Church.

Then there isn’t much to fear, is there, in looking? But you might find that you have not ceased to be a Christian, unknowingly – and in that case, you may find that you have not ceased to be a Catholic just because you removed yourself as a communicant.

Interesting thought. I guess we’ll see. Thank you for your life’s work.

One’s life’s work is one’s life, more than any stray artifacts one may leave strewn about. But – you are welcome, old friend.


Why do you think you have resonance, as you call it, with certain writers and not others?

Hmm. I’ll think about that, maybe.

3 thoughts on “G.K. Chesterton on dogma and inquiry

  1. Well, if we hadn’t read Thomas I wouldn’t be as open to this, though I still work at separating the map of the institution of the Catholic church from the map that is the teachings of Jesus.

    And just this morning I was journaling on my “resonance array,” the things/people I resonate with in their expression–the things that carry my goals/values/dreams, often before I know them myself. I think we can have “strand history” with some, but we can have “resonance history” with others, if that makes sense, feeling aligned with and strengthened by their expression.

  2. It makes sense to me that we would carry those influences over into our own expression, too, because we’re trying to capture and express truths in our work.

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