Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Conservative Destroyer

by G.K. Chesterton

I recently found quoted from a "well-known American author" a phrase that seemed to fit for a moment that elusive yet enormous thing with which I am always grappling, or rather trying to grapple. I have tried to express it in all sorts of ways; as by saying that it always begins everything at the wrong end, or that it sets the cart to draw the horse or empties out the baby with the bath, or that it treats what is fixed as unfixed and what is unfixed as fixed, or that it will accept the name of anything if it may reject its nature. This mental habit has become so common that the old proverbs and jokes about it, made by our fathers when they knew how to think, quite fail to rise to the unreality of the real world. Men not only put the cart before the horse, but they put the cart before the man, morally as well as materially; as when they talk about abstract improvement in motoring, without mentioning the men murdered by motors; or abstract improvement in transport, without discussing what is transported, or by, for and to whom it is transported. Our ruder fathers would have said that the transporters ought to be transported. Similarly, the whole business of Birth Control is quite literally a proposal to empty out the baby with the bath. The whole structural system of the suburban civilization is based on the case for having bathrooms and the case against having babies.

Anyhow, let us contemplate with patience and resignation the following statement by the well-known American author. "The Church is being stripped of its hobgoblin, saints and divine purposes; it is being placed upon an intelligent basis in order that it may serve as a medium whereby the teachings of great men may be imparted, unhampered by superstitious fears, to the congregation." We need not dwell on something slightly odd about the diction of this paragraph. It seems a curious proceeding to strip anybody of a hobgoblin, and still more to him of a saint; and something that was encumbered at the same time with a hobgoblin and a divine purpose would seem somewhat singularly accoutered. It is not that which troubles me; it is not the association of the Church with hobgoblins, or the hobgoblins with the divine purpose. It is something much more queer and quite unconscious. It is not that the man attacks the Church. On the contrary, it is rather that he does not.

Suppose I were to say, "The Post Office is being stripped of its postmen, postmistresses, and preposterous purpose of circulating letters and communications; it will not longer waste its time in selling postage stamps or weighing parcels; it will get rid of the whole superstitious idea of sending anything to anybody anywhere; it is being placed upon an intelligent basis, in order that it may serve as a monastery for mystical contemplatives, and a house of retreat for those who wish to rest their troubled spirits with the quite and unremunerative pursuit of water-colour painting and fretwork." Suppose I were to say that, I should be thought a rather remarkable sort of reformer. And those who objected to my reform would not necessarily be people objecting to water-colours or fretwork. They would not even necessarily be people objecting to mysticism or contemplation. Their vague yet vivid feeling, that there is something a little strange about the suggestion, might very probably express itself in the exclamation, "But what do you want to call it a Post Office for?" Or more rationalizing in a more radical fashion might say, "Why the devil do you start out saying that the Post Office is going to be this or that? What you obviously mean is that there ought not to be any Post Office at all."

Now that is the odd thing about that sort of critic of the Church; that he is not even a critic of the Church. What is odd is not what he rejects, but what he accepts; not what he wants to alter but what he assumes will not be altered. He takes something that he calls the Church, assumes that it will continue, assumes that it will continue to be called the Church, and makes no condition except that it shall entirely cease to be the Church. He retains superstitious reverence for its name, while proposing entirely to obliterate its nature. But I am more puzzled by his superstition than by his rebellion. I do not object to the teachings of great men being imparted, any more than I object to fretwork or water-colours. But I have a dreadful suspicion that I could give a list of the great men whose teachings he wishes to impart. I would hazard a guess, at least, that the names will not be those of Suarez or Bellarmine or even Crashaw; but that cold blasts of Emerson and the Ethical Societies will blow upon us from that icy plain. The point is, however, this curious mechanical operation of the mind, which accepts a material institution because it is there, but cannot stretch itself to enquire what it is there for. There is the Church, built of brick, with a spire sticking up like a spike; so the human mind must accept it, as an animal accepts a post on which he leans or scratches. The dog does not try to imagine the idea of No Post; and the man cannot bring himself to imagine the idea of No Church. But neither can he imagine the notion of the aim or end of the Church; because this also is abstract. So he bows down to wood and stone, or bricks and slates, and only proposes to alter the reason for their being there.

That insane inversion is the chief peril of our time; and applies to other things besides the Church. It applies, for instance, to the House. It applies to the whole idea of private property, that is being so gigantically transformed and falsified before our very eyes. The Capitalists and plutocratic papers cling with blind superstition to the name of Property; using it as a catchword against the Communists. But they take no notice of the fact that they themselves are destroying the very nature of Property, and making it something as different as is a monastery from a post office or a lecture room from a shrine. The very notion of keeping private property private is antagonistic to the whole atomsphere of what they call Publicity. And I have more sympathy with the atheist who says he wants no Church, or the Bolshevist who says he wants no property, than with these blind and groping reformers, who start by assuming a thing to be unalterable and then go on to alter it. I might say, with a true appeal to the history of Christendom - alter it till its Mother will not know it.

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