8/13/13

The Protestant Superstitions

THAT delightful guessing game, which has long caused innocent merriment in so many Catholic families, the game of guessing at exactly which line of an article say on Landscape or Latin Elegiacs, we shall find the Dean of St. Paul's introducing the Antidote to Antichrist; or the Popish Plot Revealed--that most familiar of our Catholic parlour games happened to be entertaining me some time ago, as a sort of substitute for a crossword puzzle, when I found I had hit on a very lucky example.  I wrote above about "Catholic families," and had almost, by force of associations written "Catholic firesides." And I imagine that the Dean really does think that even in this weather we keep the home-fires burning, like the fire of Vesta, in permanent expectation of relighting the fires of Smithfield.  Anyhow, this sort of guessing game or crossword puzzle is seldom disappointing. The Dean must by this time have tried quite a hundred ways of leading up to his beloved topic; and even concealing it, like a masked battery, until he can let loose the cannonade in a perfect tornado of temper. Then the crossword puzzle is no longer a puzzle, though the crosswords are apparent and appropriate enough; especially those devoted to the great historical process of crossing out the Cross.

In the case of this particular article, it was only towards the end of it that the real subject was allowed to leap out from an ambush upon the reader.  I think it was a general article on Superstition; and, being a journalistic article of the modern type, it was of course devoted to discussing superstition without defining superstition.  In an article of that enlightened sort, it seemed enough for the writer to suggest that superstition is anything that he does not happen to like. Some of the things are also things that I do not happen to like.  But such a writer is not reasonable even when he is right.  A man ought to have some more philosophical objection to stories of ill luck than merely calling them credulity; as certainly as a man ought to have some more philosophical objection to Mass than to call it Magic.  It is hardly a final refutation of Spiritualists to prove that they believe in Spirits; any more than a refutation of Deists to prove that they believe in Deity.  Creed and credence and credulity are words of the same origin and can be juggled backwards and forwards to any extent. But when a man assumes the absurdity of anything that anybody else believes, we wish first to know what he believes; on what principle he believes; and, above all, upon what principle he disbelieves. There is no trace of anything so rational in the Dean's piece of metaphysical journalism.  If he had stopped to define his terms, or in other words to tell us what he was talking about, such an abstract analysis would of course have filled up some space in the article. There might have been no room for the Alarum Against the Pope.

The Dean of St. Paul's got to business, in a paragraph in the second half of his article, in which he unveiled to his readers all the horrors of a quotation from Newman; a very shocking and shameful passage in which the degraded apostate says that he is happy in his religion, and in being surrounded by the things of his religion; that he likes to have objects that have been blessed by the holy and beloved, that there is a sense of being protected by prayers, sacramentals and so on; and that happiness of this sort satisfies the soul.  The Dean, having given us this one ghastly glimpse of the Cardinal's spiritual condition, drops the curtain with a groan and says it is Paganism. How different from the Christian orthodoxy of Plotinus!

Now it was exactly that little glimpse that interested me in this matter; not so much a glimpse into the soul of the Cardinal as into the mind of the Dean.  I suddenly seemed to see, in much simpler form than I had yet realised, the real issue between him and us. And the curious thing about the issue is this; that what he thinks about us is exactly what we think about him.  What I for one feel most strongly, in considering a case like that of the Dean and his quotation from the Cardinal, is that the Dean is a man of distinguished intelligence and culture, that he is always interesting, that he is sometimes even just, or at least justified or justifiable; but that he is first and last the champion of a Superstition; the man who is really and truly defending a Superstition, as it would be understood by people who could define a Superstition. What makes it all the more amusing is that it is in a rather special sense a Pagan Superstition.  But what makes it most intensely interesting, so far as I am concerned, is that the Dean is devoted to what may be called par excellence a superstitious Superstition. I mean that it is in a special sense a LOCAL superstition.

Dean Inge is a superstitious person because he is worshipping a relic; a relic in the sense of a remnant.  He is idolatrously adoring the broken fragment of something; simply because that something happens to have lingered out of the past in the place called England; in the rather battered form called Protestant Christianity.  It is as if a local patriot were to venerate the statue of Our Lady of Walsingham only because she was in Walsingham and without even remembering that she was in Heaven.  It is still more as if he venerated a fragment chipped from the toe of the statue and forgot where it came from and ignored Our Lady altogether. I do not think it superstitious to respect the chip in relation to the statue, or the statue in relation to the saint, or the saint in relation to the scheme of theology and philosophy.  But I do think it superstitious to venerate, or even to accept, the fragment because it happens to be there.  And Dean Inge does accept the fragment called Protestantism because it happens to be there.

Let us for a moment consider the whole matter as philosophers should; in a universal air above all local superstitions like the Dean's.  It is quite obvious that there are three or four philosophies or views of life possible to reasonable men; and to a great extent these are embodied in the great religions or in the wide field of irreligion.

There is the atheist, the materialist or monist or whatever he calls himself, who believes that all is ultimately material, and all that is material is mechanical.  That is emphatically a view of life; not a very bright or breezy view, but one into which it is quite possible to fit many facts of existence.  Then there is the normal man with the natural religion, which accepts the general idea that the world has a design and therefore a designer; but feels the Architect of the Universe to be inscrutable and remote, as remote from men as from microbes.  That sort of theism is perfectly sane; and is really the ancient basis of the solid if somewhat stagnant sanity of Islam.

There is again the man who feels the burden of life so bitterly that he wishes to renounce all desire and all division, and rejoin a sort of spiritual unity and peace from which (as he thinks) our separate selves should never have broken away.  That is the mood answered by buddhism and by many metaphysicians and mystics. Then there is a fourth sort of man, sometimes called a mystic and perhaps more properly to be called a poet; in practice he can very often be called a pagan.  His position is this; it is a twilight world and we know not where it ends. If we do not know enough for monotheism, neither do we know enough for monism.  There may be a borderland and a world beyond; but we can only catch hints of it as they come; we may meet a nymph in the forest; we may see the fairies on the mountains.  We do not know enough about the natural to DENY the preternatural.  That was, in ancient times, the healthiest aspect of Paganism.  That is, in modern times, the rational part of Spiritualism.  All these are possible as general views of life; and there is a fourth that is at least equally possible, though certainly more positive.

The whole point of this last position might be expressed in the line of M. Cammaerts's beautiful little poem about bluebells; LE CIEL EST TOMBE PAR TERRE.  Heaven has DESCENDED into the world of matter; the supreme spiritual power is now operating by the machinery of matter, dealing miraculously with the bodies and souls of men.  It blesses all the five senses; as the senses of the baby are blessed at a Catholic christening.  It blesses even material gifts and keepsakes, as with relics or rosaries.  It works through water or oil or bread or wine.  Now that sort of mystical materialism may please or displease the Dean, or anybody else.  But I cannot for the life of me understand why the Dean, or anybody else, does not SEE that the Incarnation is as much a part of that idea as the Mass; and that the Mass is as much a part of that idea as the Incarnation. A Puritan may think it blasphemous that God should become a wafer.  A Moslem thinks it blasphemous that God should become a workman in Galilee.  And he is perfectly right, from his point of view; and given his primary principle.  But if the Moslem has a principle, the Protestant has only a prejudice.  That is, he has only a fragment; a relic; a superstition.  If it be profane that the miraculous should descend to the plane of matter, then certainly Catholicism is profane; and Protestantism is profane; and Christianity is profane.  Of all human creeds or concepts, in that sense, Christianity is the most utterly profane.  But why a man should accept a Creator who was a carpenter, and then worry about holy water, why he should accept a local Protestant tradition that God was born in some particular place mentioned in the Bible, merely because the Bible had been left lying about in England, and then say it is incredible that a blessing should linger on the bones of a saint, why he should accept the first and most stupendous part of the story of Heaven on Earth, and then furiously deny a few small but obvious deductions from it--that is a thing I do not understand; I never could understand; I have come to the conclusion that I shall never understand.

I can only attribute it to Superstition.

~G.K. Chesterton: The Thing.

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