January 29, 2005


INTERVIEW: with GK Chesterton: Chesterton is dismayed at the onward march of relativism and secularism. He also thinks the novel has lost its way, understands Islamic grievances against the west and is a proud mentor to satirists (Tobias Jones, January 2005, Prospect)

Tobias Jones: We'll come back to Christianity. But you mention postmodernism: what do you take it to mean?

GKC: Ha! Have you ever asked a postmodernist the meaning of postmodernism? It's all absolute hogwash, or as they would say, meta-hogwash. The whole point is that postmodernism is the negation of meaning and belief and faith. Postmoderns can't say what they mean because that would imply meaning, something they're at pains to deny. Of course, at table you can ask them to pass the mustard, and they seem perfectly able; and they know two plus two is four, even though they get very cross if you affirm your belief in objective reality. In some ways my entire oeuvre, published before and after the first world war, was dedicated to battling the nascent phenomenon of postmodernism. I described the tendency in a book called Heretics and summarised its motto with the line: "let us not decide what is good, but let it be considered good not to decide it." That is their ambition: to be relieved of the responsibility of deciding what is good and what evil by pretending that those concepts don't exist. As George Bernard Shaw, the first postmodernist, wrote in his The Quintessence of Ibsenism, "the golden rule is that there is no golden rule."

TJ: Might that not be sensible in a multi-faith society? The intolerance and absolutism of monotheism can be swapped for the tolerance of multiculturalism.

GKC: Dear dear, I can see that you too have been hoodwinked. That is their rhetoric: tolerance, the peaceful coexistence of competing beliefs. In reality, now that their heresy has become enshrined as orthodoxy, you're not even allowed to express a belief. Take, for example, the country which was the cradle of this silly craze: France. There, tolerance apparently implies that one isn't even allowed into school with a veil. Come come. If I may quote myself again, "the old restriction meant that only the orthodox were allowed to discuss religion. Modern liberty means that nobody is allowed to discuss it." Or take the case of Rocco Buttiglione and his interrogation before joining the European commission: he expressed a personal belief about homosexuality and distinguished between a sin and a crime. That distinction is the cornerstone of a secular body politic; in a theocracy, and in liberal totalitarianism, it is non-existent. Buttiglione was displaying both sincerity and subtlety and tolerance. What could be more tolerant than a man believing that something is wrong but allowing it to happen because he accommodates other beliefs? By contrast, postmoderns believe in nothing and so countenance no dissent.

TJ: You're not seriously telling me we're less tolerant than we were, say, in the Edwardian era?

GKC: My dear boy, I think you're mistaking tolerance for relativism. If the only dogma you have is tolerance, the only thing you believe in is relativism. What nobility is there in tolerance if you don't believe in anything in the first place? You're like someone who makes a great show of denying themselves something they didn't even want anyway. It's an illusion of virtue. Your entire morality, if so it can be called, is negative: against racism and against sexism and against war and so on and so forth.

TJ: We do believe in things: democracy, freedom....

GKC: Your thinking is irredeemably muddled. Those are means, not ends. You can't say you believe in democracy per se. You would have to tell me what you believe democracy can achieve. Besides, I think you're confusing liberty with libertinism, freedom -- as Milton said -- with licence. Freedom, for your generation, implies the removal of all constraint. That's not freedom but licentiousness; from a Christian point of view, it's nothing other than the complete removal of freedom. It is slavery to sin. You see, freedom only has meaning if it is accompanied by morality, if it implies a choice between good and evil. You can hardly blame the vast majority of the Arab world if they equate your freedom with immorality because they know that you no longer believe in good and evil. A few decades into my afterlife I met Viktor Frankl, and I greatly admired his notion that if the east coast of America has a statue of liberty, the west one desperately requires a statue of responsibility. The one without the other has no meaning. Talk all you want about human rights, gay rights, women's rights… but I insist that you tell me what you think are the complementary human responsibilities, gay responsibilities, women's responsibilities. That is why I wrote in What's Wrong With The World that: "Most modern freedom is at root fear. It is not so much that we are too bold to endure rules; it is rather that we are too timid to endure responsibilities."

Now that's a scoop....

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 29, 2005 9:03 AM

Boy, discrediting this rant is like shooting ducks in a barrel. Where to start?

TJ: Christianity has had two millennia at the helm and only a tiny minority remain committed because the rest have judged it on dubious results: crusades, colonialism and all the rest.

GKC: What always amuses me about anti-Christian rhetoric is its predictability.

Of course it is predictable, it is one of the major indictments of religion that has never been refuted. Give a satisfactory answer to it, and we will move on.

GKC: One can always guarantee that war, crusades and colonialism will be the first three exhibits. I went to see Lewis Wolpert the other day ranting against religion and I could have written his speech, word for word, a hundred years ago. In fact, as you would know if you had read my Orthodoxy, one of the things that first tempted me towards the church was the inconsistency of anti-Christian logic. I'm glad you mentioned communism, a secular invention. It has caused mass murder on an unprecedented scale in human history, and yet I don't see you rushing to denounce secularism as you would surely rush to denounce religion. And why is it that you only list the negative aspects of Christian history? Why do you forget that it was Christians that most bitterly opposed the Spanish conquest of central and southern America, that it was Christians who brought about the abolition of slavery and so on?

If the Spanish had allowed heretics to freely express themselves, I'm sure that many of them would have opposed the conquest. What an idiotic argument! In 16th century Spain there were no other people but Christians. Christians and dead heretics. So Spanish Christians were opposed to the cruel conquest of central and southern America carried out by Spanish Christians. And of course Christians brought about the abolition of slavery that had been instituted and carried on for centuries by Christians.We're glad that Christianity was able to produce some moral people, but it set a higher bar for itself than just that.

GKC: So, in brief, let me tell you what I understand Christianity to be. It is the most profound, thorough, paradoxical and, I believe, true explanation of the world in which we live. You will tell me that it has absurd certainties but it is the rationalist, the logician, the secularist, the materialist who never has doubts.

Strawman alert 1 - everyone has doubts, even rationalists and secularists. How do you think we became secularists?

GKC: The Christian is convulsed with doubts, but admits them and allows them to become the whole secret of his mysticism: he accepts that he can understand only with the help of what he doesn't understand.

Gibberish alert 1 - Fake Chesterson is a master of profundo-speak, turning the meaning of words around in a way that makes you scratch your head and say "hmmm..". It is a skill that any sham guru/mystic/motivational speaker has to master. If you want to see a hilarious sendup of profundo-speak, see the movie "Mystery Men" and the character named "The Sphinx".

GKC: The materialist is driven mad by mysteries and incomprehension, he wants to conquer them; the Christian expresses wonder for them, gives thanks for them.

Strawman alert 2 - materialists love mysteries, because they love to solve them. If he ran out of mysteries, he'd have nothing to do. Christians have no monopoly on wonder.

GKC: And only in Christianity is the correct response to the world both delight and indignation.

Strawman alert 3 - he's not just taking on materialists, but all non-Christians. A little presumptuous, wouldn't you say?

GKC: This is, and yet isn't, our home; we're natives here, but also foreigners. Our God is both close and remote, present and transcendent. .. You'll notice many paradoxes there, and my writing, as you know, is characterised by paradox. True religion is based upon paradox.

Gibberish alert 2 - this is profundo-speak in overdrive.

GKC: And of all the belief systems, only in Christianity does the believer display humility, because his belief is predicated upon the fact of his own, unutterable worthlessness and yet a recognition of the magnificence and uniqueness of his fellow creatures.

Arrogance alert 1 - it takes a lot of arrogance to claim that much humility.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at January 29, 2005 2:06 PM

The vast majority remain committed, some two billion at last count. Those who aren't committed anymore are in such precipitous decline as to demonstrate their own folly.

The Conquest, Crusades, Slavery, Cold War, War on Terror produced many of those Christians and extended essentially Christian theory (The End of History) universally, so are good on their own terms. Of course the only basis for objecting to any of them coherently is morality and so, inevitably, Judeo-Islamo-Christian.

Secularists just adopt a different Faith (and not really different, just one with the pretense of not being derived from God). No one is truly skeptical.

It is the central conceit of materialism that the mystery is solved or will be imminently.

Christianity is paradoxical, presumptuous, but rightly so. Arrogant but rightly so and humble, rightly so.

It's gibberish to those who believe different gibberish.

Posted by: oj at January 29, 2005 3:10 PM

The Conquest and Slavery produced many of those Christians, so are good on their own terms.

OJ, that is a very amoral stance to take. Christ did not exempt Christians from the Law in order to promote Christianity. The statement is absurd on it's face.

Besides, you can't claim that the Conquest and Slavery are good and at the same time say that Cristians are good for opposing them.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at January 29, 2005 3:33 PM

One form of writing I cannot stand is the fake interview. Chesterton is dead. Make your point some other way.

Posted by: Chris Durnell at January 31, 2005 11:59 AM