G. K. Chesterton and the Modern Protestant


Mary of Holyrood may smile indeed,
Knowing what grim historic shade it shocks
To see wit, laughter and the Popish creed,
Cluster and sparkle in the name of Knox.

G. K. Chesterton

That little poem by a large man, c. 1932, is part of the wider bewilderment with which Chesterton beheld the modern(ist?) Protestant, something he brings out fully in his book The Thing: Why I Am Catholic (my favourite quotations here).

In The Thing, Chesterton is not impressed by the Protestants he sees around him, for they seem unable to properly define a Protestant, for one thing. For another, the virtues they find in the writings of famous Protestants such as Milton and Bunyan are not things that are peculiarly Protestant. Rather, they are things that he sees as being peculiarly Catholic.

I would argue with dear Mr. Chesterton, however, that these things are not simply Catholic but more properly catholic. That is to say, the things that modern Protestants love about Milton and Bunyan, Shakespeare and Donne, may not be peculiarly Protestant things, but they are not Catholic in the sense of Roman/Romish/Papist/what-have-you, but catholic in the sense of universal — they are part of the common store of all Christians everywhere at all times, be they Orthodox, Catholic, or Protestant.

Nevertheless, GKC has a point here. Chesterton is right in berating modern Protestants for not really liking the things that, historically, define them as Protestants. In the forefront of his mind seems to have been a dislike of some form of Calvinistic Predestination, which is a bit amusing, given that Predestination itself is as much part of the Catholic theology as Protestant, both groups being inescapably Augustinian despite their best efforts in recent times.

There is something troubling about a group that dislikes the things that define it and loves only those things that it has common with everyone else. Why, exactly, should one be part of said group? Why be a Protestant if the only things you like about Protestantism are things Protestants hold in common with Roman Catholicism? Why be a Christian if the only things you like about Christianity are things Christians hold in common with all religions?

While I do not argue we must all adhere strictly to the confessional documents of the 16th and 17th centuries, I do think we should take them into account, we should figure out if these adjectives of old — Protestant, Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican, Reformed, Orthodox — actually refer to our particular set of beliefs or if we are merely followers of the heresy of Scholiastism (insert your own name before the -ism).


Chesterton strikes again!

As I read The Thing, here are some highlights from Chesterton’s pure awesomeness:

I am very fond of revolutionists, but not very fond of nihilists.  For nihilists, as their name implies, have nothing to revolt about. (12)

To serve God is at least to serve an ideal being.  Even if he were an imaginary being, he would still be an ideal being.  That ideal has definite and even dogmatic attributes — truth, justice, pity, purity, and the rest.  To serve it, however imperfectly, is to serve a particular concept of perfection.  But the man who rushes down the street waving his arms and wanting something or somebody to serve, will probably fall into the first bucket-shop or den of thieves and usurers, and be found industriously serving them. (13)

He that hath ears to hear and will not hear may just as well have them bitten off. (17, out of context, but amusing)

This fight for culture is above all a fight for consciousness: what some would call self-consciousness.  We need a rally of the really human things; will which is morals, memory which is tradition, culture which is the mental thrift of our fathers. (22, speaking on humanism)

There will be Diocletian persecutions, there will be Dominican crusades, there will be rending of all religious peace and compromise, or even the end of civilization and the world, before the Catholic Church will admit that one single moron, or one single man, “is not worth saving.” (27)

The problem of an enduring ethic and culture consists in finding an arrangement of the pieces by which they remain related, as do the stones arranged in an arch.  And I know only one scheme that has thus proved its solidity, bestriding lands and ages with its gigantic arches, and carrying everywhere the high river of baptism upon an aqueduct of Rome. (34)

If a wealthy young lady wants to do what all other wealthy young ladies are doing, she will find it great fun, simply because youth is fun and society is fun.  She will enjoy being modern exactly as her Victorian grandmother enjoyed being Victorian.  And quite right, too; but it is the enjoyment of convention, not the enjoyment of liberty.  It is perfectly healthy for all young people of all historic periods to her together, to a reasonable extent, and enthusiastically copy each other.  But in that there is nothing particularly fresh and certainly nothing particularly free. (42)

It is perfectly right that the young Browns and the young Robinsons should meet and mix and dance and make asses of themselves, according to the design of their Creator. (44-45)

Even a short and simple length of straight and untangled wire is worth more to us than whole forests of mere entanglement. (46)

the divine dogma that Pigs is Pigs. (46-47 context not needed for awesomeness to ensue)