Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Chesterton's Intro to Fulton Sheen's Book

by G.K. Chesterton




In this book, as in the modern world generally, the Catholic Church comes forward as the one and only real champion of Reason, There was indeed a hundred years ago a school oi free-thinkers which attacked Rome by an appeal to Reason. But most of the recent free-thinkers are, by their own account rather than by ours, falling from Reason even more than from Rome. One of the best and the most brilliant of them, Mr. Bernard Shaw, said only the other day that he could nevei entirely agree with the Catholic Church because of its extreme rationalism. In this perception lie is at least quite rational; that is, as we poor rationalists would say, he is quite right. The Church is larger than the world ; and she rightly resisted the narrow rationalists who maintained that everything in all the world could be approached in exactly the same way that is used for particular material things in this world. But she never said those things were not to be approached, or that reason was not the proper way to approach them, or that anybody had any right to be unreasonable in approaching anything. She defends the wisdom of the world as the way of dealing with the world ; she defends common sense and consistent thinking and the perception that two and two make four. And to-day she is alone in defending them.

I remember a romance of a rambling but rather interesting sort which came out in one of the strange and sensational series that used to be produced by the late W. T. Stead. It began with the incident of a modern sceptical heroine going into a confessional-box and telling the priest that she did not believe in his religion. He asked her what she did believe in and she said reflectively, "Well, I don't believe in the Bible, and I don't think I believe in the immortality of the soul, and I'm not sure that I believe in God" and so on. And the unmoved cleric replied, "I didn't ask you what you didn't believe, but what you do believe." "Well," said the lady, "I believe that two and two make four." "Very well then," said the priest, "live up to that."

That always struck me as a good story, though it was in a queer setting ; but it has had a still more queer sequel. In those last days of the nineteenth century, the sceptical lady did make that quotation from the multiplication table assuming it to be a minimum which nobody could possibly help believing. Yet somewhere about the same time the typical prophet of that period, Ibsen, may have been writing the words: "Who knows that two and two do not make five in the fixed stars?" One would have thought that in an age of such fine and finished rationalists, somebody would have been rational enough to answer him with the obvious question: "If you are not sure there are any fixed facts, how do you come to be sure there are any fixed stars?" The very existence of many fixed stars is only proved by mathematics ; that is, it is made by making a million times over the assumption that two and two make four. But curiously enough I have never heard of this sort of rational reply made to a doubt like that of Ibsen's except by Roman Catholics. The mathematical formula may be the maximum of the lady's belief and the minimum of the priest's philosophy, but he is more ready to stand up for his philosophy than she is for her religion. That sort of lady to-day is running after every raving fad of mysticism and credulity so long as it is opposed to reason. She is following M. Coue who says it is better to call things better because they are worse. She is running after Mrs. Eddy because Mrs. Eddy denounces a toothache which does not exist for existing. She is running after Professor Einstein because he is credited with saying that straight lines are crooked, that parallel lines meet, and that a yard may measure more one way than another* She is running after the pragmatists because they have a proof that all proofs are worthless. She is running after the Eastern mystics because they are supposed to say that nothing is good because it is everything or else that everything is good because it is really nothing. But the little priest is still sitting in his confessional-box believing that two and two make four, and living up to that. The question to which Dr. Sheen here applies the rational as opposed to the irrational method is the most tremendous question in the world ; perhaps the only question in the world, For that reason I prefer to leave its intrinsic consideration to him; and in these few words of introduction to deal with the method rather than the subject matter. The subject matter is the nature of God in so far as it can be apprehended at all by the nature of man. As Dr. Sheen points out, the ntellectual purity of the problem itself is much confused nowadays by a sort of sentimental version of the divine dignity of man. As in every other modern matter, the people in question seize on the sentiment without the reason for it. There is nothing particular about the objective anthropoid in a hat that anybody could be actually forced to regard him as a sacred animal; like a sacred cat or a sacred crocodile. This sentiment is a sediment; it is the dregs of our dogma about a divine origin. They begin by bowing down to man as the image of God; and then forget the God and bow down to the graven image. Similarly, as he also points out, the question of yes and no is weakened with all that wearisome discussion about less and more, which has been made fashionable ever since the old fuss about Evolution. It is the view that Being is Becoming; or that God does not exist yet, but may be said to be living in hopes. The blasphemy is not ours. It is enough for us that our enemies have retreated from the territory of reason, on which they once claimed so many victories; and have fallen back upon the borderlands of myth and mysticism, like so many other barbarians with whom civilization is at war.

G. K. CHESTERTON.
God And Intelligence in Modern Philosophy by Fulton Sheen
July 1925-

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