Lecture 57: The Thing

“The Faith,” says Chesterton, “gives a man back his body and his soul and his reason and his will and his very life.” In trying to explain its comprehensiveness, the master of words has to resort to an over-used, all-purpose, all-inclusive noun: the Catholic faith is simply “The Thing.” Later editions of this 1929 book added the subtitle: “Why I am a Catholic.” The smaller title was perhaps too large.

The essays in this collection were originally written for Catholic publications and are somewhat different from his other journalism because here Chesterton is writing for a specifically Catholic audience. And yet his vigorous defense of the Catholic faith seems to invite all comers. But as for addressing Catholics, there is one passage that is strikingly relevant to modern Catholics who seem intent on “reforming” things in the Church, whether it be the liturgy, the moral teachings, or the fundamental doctrines of the faith: “In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them,” says Chesterton, there are two kinds of reformers. “Let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, ‘I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.’ To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: ‘If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.'”

The modern reformer is especially guilty of trying to do away with things he does not understand rather than trying to understand them. Reformers throughout history have done away with elements of the Catholic Church only to find that they soon need to replace them. But the replacement is always an inferior version, as psychotherapy, for instance, has proved to be a disastrous replacement for the Confessional. And so Chesterton defends the Catholic things that both Catholics and non-Catholics may not understand. They may be simple things, but as Chesterton says, “The mind must be enlarged to see the simple things — or even to see the self-evident things.” One of Chesterton’s greatest gifts is to explain to us what we already know but have never been able to explain.

Chesterton says that all the revolts against the Church, from even before the Reformation until now, tell the same strange story. Every great heretic has always exhibited three remarkable characteristics in combination. First, he picks out some mystical idea from the Church’s balance of mystical ideas. Second, he uses that one mystical idea against all the other mystical ideas. Third, he seems generally to have no notion that his own favorite mystical idea is a mystical idea, as mysterious or dubious or dogmatic as any of the Church’s other mystical ideas that he rejects. Thus Calvinists are obsessed only with the Sovereignty of God, Lutherans with the Grace of God, Methodists with the sin of man, Baptists with the Bible, Quakers with simplicity. The list goes on, it even includes religious and political movements outside of Christianity. Muslims are obsessed with the Oneness of God, Communists with the equality of men, Feminists with the equality of men and women, Materialists with creation apart from the Creator, Spiritualists with the rejection of materialism, and so on. In every case, these sects have taken one of the Church’s mystical ideas and exalted it above the rest, even against the rest. They have lost all the moderating and balancing measures of the Thing, the Catholic Faith.

What’s more, Chesterton says, the modern world, with its modern movements, “is living on its Catholic capital. It is using, and using up, the truths that remain to it out of the old treasury of Christendom.” The modern world may claim to have new ideas, but they are not new at all. They are borrowed piecemeal from the past. The modern world “is not starting fresh things that it can really carry on into the future. On the contrary, it is picking up old things that it cannot carry on at all.” He says these are the two marks of modern moral ideals. “First, they were borrowed or snatched out of ancient or mediaeval hands. Second, they wither very quickly in modern hands.” There are timeless truths imbedded in Catholic traditions, but the modern world either attacks the traditions it does not keep, or misuses and misunderstands the traditions it does keep. The result is a weak mixture of unworkable schemes that undermine not only the Church, but our whole society, our families, and our very souls. In defending the Church, Chesterton is also defending those other things. When the Church is attacked, as it is now attacked from all sides, all normal things come under attack with it.

Darwinism, for instance, has been used to attack the Church by calling into question the basic proposition that God created the earth. The Church is unthreatened by scientific theories, but people try to use scientific theories against the Church. And then extrapolations about irrelevant matters of our biological development have been used to undermine the Church’s teachings about the soul and about morality. Chesterton in one searing sentence exposes both the weakness and danger of Darwinism: “Our logic consists mostly of missing links just as our families consist mostly of missing members.”

Similarly, Calvinism was a fundamental attack on the Church’s authority that, in emphasizing the Sovereignty of God, overturned the Church’s teachings about free will. The result has been a whole series of modern philosophies that explain away our behavior and do away with personal responsibility. As Chesterton argues — and as we can certainly see by looking around at the modern world — the new idea is not an improvement.

Chesterton describes an image of a broken stained glass window, which is the present state of the world. We can pick up the pieces, each represented a particular truth – beauty, humility, chastity, virtue — but there has to be a glue that will prevent the world from falling to pieces again in a debris of individual tastes. There has to be one Truth that holds all other truths together. That is the Thing.

MENU