Lecture 68: Avowals and Denials

It is fun to see G.K. Chesterton writing about, of all things, the Loch Ness Monster, that fabled beast who is supposed to live, “for reasons best known to himself,” at the bottom of a that murky lake in Scotland. Chesterton observes that whether or not the monster is an inhabitant of Loch Ness, he is “a very popular inhabitant of Fleet Street. He is doubtless a benevolent monster, and has helped many poor journalists to place paragraphs here and there.” But Chesterton is much more interested in that even more mysterious creature called man. It is mysterious that man should find a sea serpent so mysterious, when all of God’s creatures are wonders beyond belief. It is mysterious that man should be so forgetful of wonders that he has to be reminded of them by strange stories of things that he can’t quite see. It is mysterious that man should run away from God, but chase after the things that flee.

When Chesterton wrote these essays (Avowals and Denials) for the Illustrated London News, he would see less than three more years on this earth. We get the sense he knows his own time is short. He is looking back, avowing the things he has always believed, denying the things he has never believed. Avowing the things the skeptics have too easily doubted. Denying the things that the materialists have too eagerly accepted. He is fighting fads, as he always done, affirming the traditions that have proved to be true. He is criticizing his own profession, his own street, his own nation, his own world, all of which he loves dearly, which is why he criticizes them; all of which have provided daily pleasures and endless heartbreaks.

We begin to detect a little weariness in Chesterton’s cheerful voice. He is still doing joyful battle in defense of civilization against the return of the barbarian. His humor is still evident as he notes that the most evident work of hell on earth is loud music in restaurants. But fact is the world is growing not just louder, but darker. He sees the Fascists beginning to cozy up to the Nazis, the Capitalists forming alliances with the Communists. The two party system is being exposed as the sham it is, but the grim result is one totalitarian party. The “bullet-headed atheists” are raging about religion, and even even-minded agnostics are becoming particularly touchy at any display of faith. It is no longer the prudes who are jumpy at the mention of immorality; it is the perverts. Psychology is assaulting the soul and Eugenics is assaulting the family, as scientists carefully map out what forms of humanity are most fit and which are most disposable. Civilization is on the wane. The barbarians are returning.

Chesterton defines barbarism as “the destruction of all that men have ever understood, by men who do not understand it.” The attack on Christian European civilization came out of Germany, with a combination of intellectual skepticism and racial pride. “The Hitlerite,” says Chesterton, takes “the Swastika on his flag only too seriously; while the English soldier may take the Cross on his flag not seriously enough.”

Chesterton notes the growth of Fundamentalism in America, but it is “not a growth of any kind of theology or thought about religion. It was simply the artificial protection of a prejudice.” While it is the source of revival, it usually takes “a very emotional form.”

In the secular realm, the reactions to the creeping horror of the modern world is not an emotional retreat but an mental one. Everything new is narrow: new art forms, new philosophies, new obsessions with diet and fashion. He describes modern music as the “song of the treadmill,” songs that can’t be sung, and that are not even songs but “fragments of a demented diary.” Every proposal for emancipation is a new form of slavery. “What we are facing now is not a new order, but a new disorder.”

Chesterton prophetically describes more reactions against reactions, each of which will be in its turn will be as narrow as the reaction that preceded it. “The world will become at once monomaniac and mutable, always going mad on one notion at a time, and each returning after the temporary ruin of the other.”

Does any of this sound familiar? It certainly should. We find ourselves in an age that looks more like what Chesterton is describing than the age he is actually describing. It is precisely why Chesterton’s prophetic voice must be heard right now. We are headed for the Dark Ages again. But we don’t have to go there. There is a lesson from history: the barbarians have been defeated before. But we have to be willing to fight them.

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