A great little poem from the perspective of the donkey by the gentle giant that was G. K. Chesterton. Just right for Palm Sunday!
A great little poem from the perspective of the donkey by the gentle giant that was G. K. Chesterton. Just right for Palm Sunday!
When fishes flew and forests walkedAnd figs grew upon thorn,Some moment when the moon was bloodThen surely I was born.*With monstrous head and sickening cryAnd ears like errant wings,The devil’s walking parodyOn all four-footed things.*The tattered outlaw of the earth,Of ancient crooked will;Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,I keep my secret still.*Fools! For I also had my hour;One far fierce hour and sweet:There was a shout about my ears,And palms before my feet.
From the second chapter entitled ‘On the Negative Spirit’ of G. K. Chesterton’s book Heretics, he majestically dismantles the secualrized notion of “progress”, an idea that on the surface of things sounds mature but as Chesterton shows, is actually devoid of a telos, a true goal that most of human history (until the modern age) has been concerned with. In other words, modern secularism is self-referential to the point of madness and absurdity, “It has no perfection to point to” hence,
“All I venture to point out, with an increased firmness, is that this omission (the absence of an enduring and positive ideal [or] absence of a permanent key to virtue), good or bad, does leave us face to face with the problem of a human consciousness filled with very definite images of evil, and with no definite image of good. To us light must be henceforward the dark thing – the thing of which we cannot speak…
… The human race, according to religion, fell once, and in falling gained the knowledge of good and evil. Now we have fallen a second time, and only the knowledge of evil remains to us. A great silent collapse, an enormous unspoken disappointment, has in our time fallen on our Northern civilization…”
And now we are set for the full force of Chesterton’s genius. I have rearranged the shape of the following paragraph so that it can be seen more clearly, but the order of words and ideas is exact):
“… Every one of the popular modern phrases and ideals is a dodge in order to shirk what is good.
We are fond of talking about “liberty”; that, as we talk of it, is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good.
We are fond of talking about “progress”; that is a dodge to avoid talking about what is good.
We are fond of talking about “education”; that is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good.
The modern man says, “Let us leave all these arbitrary standards and embrace liberty.” This is logically rendered, “Let us not decide what is good, but let it be considered good not to decide it.”
He says, “Away with your old moral formulae; I am for progress.” This, logically stated, means, “Let us not settle for what is good; but let us settle whether we are getting more of it.”
He says, “Neither in religion nor morality, my friend, lie the hopes of the race, but in education.” This, clearly expressed, means, “We cannot decide what is good, but let us give it to our children.”
Chesterton later calls this “unconscious shirking” (p.14), before stating: “What is the good of begetting a man until we have settled what is the good of being a man? You are merely handing on to him a problem you dare not settle yourself.”
Concluding his astonishing Introductory Remarks in his book Heretics, G. K. Chesterton spins a yarn:
“I revert to the doctrinal methods of the thirteenth century, inspired by the general hope of getting things done. Suppose that a great commotion arises in the street about something, let us say a lamp-post, which many influential persons desire to pull down. A grey-clad monk, who is the spirit of the Middle Ages [one can’t help but think this is Thomas Aquinas], is approached on the matter, and begins to say, in the arid manner of the Schoolmen, “Let us first of all consider, my brethren, the value of Light. If Light be itself good….”
At this point he is somewhat excusably knocked down. All the people make a rush for the lamp-post, the lamp-post is down in ten minutes, and they go about congratulating each other on their unmediaeval practicality.
But as things go on they do not work out so easily. Some people have pulled the lamp-post down because they wanted the electric light;
some because they wanted old iron;
some because they wanted darkness, because their deeds were evil.
Some thought it not enough of a lamp-post,
some too much;
some acted because they wanted to smash municipal machinery;
some because they wanted to smash something.
And there is war in the night, no man knowing whom he strikes. So, gradually and inevitably, to-day, tomorrow, or the next day, there comes back the conviction that the monk was right after all, and that it all depends on what is the philosophy of Light. Only what we might have discussed under the gas-lamp, we now must discuss in the dark.”
“Theological distinctions are fine but not thin. In all the mess of modern thoughtlessness, that still calls itself modern thought, there is perhaps nothing so stupendously stupid as the common saying, “Religion can never depend on minute disputes about doctrine.” It is like saying that life can never depend on minute disputes about medicine. The man who is content to say, “We do not want theologians splitting hairs,” will doubtless be content to go on and say, “We do not want surgeons splitting filaments more delicate than hairs.” It is the fact that many a man would be dead to-day, if his doctors had not debated fine shades about doctoring. It is also the fact that European civilization would be dead to-day, if its doctors of divinity had not debated fine shades about doctrine.”
G. K. Chesterton
[The Resurrection of Rome]
As I continue my reading journey into the rich and beguilingly complex tradition of Christian theology, I see more and more the inane ‘meh-nes’ of the challenge. It’s not that I have a silly mentality that says “I have it right and you have it wrong”, irrespective of the facts or the evidence; it’s just that why would I espouse something I didn’t in fact think was right?
Gilbert K. Chesterton was no fool, and even a hundred years ago he recognised the pre-Richard Dawkins/George Bernard Shaw challenge to Christianity. We forget all too easily that these challenges, if indeed they can be called that, are in fact very old, if not tired and weary challenges, to what is, arguably, a highly sophisticated if not nuanced discussion. Chesterton made mention of “this halo of hatred around the Church of God.” Of course there is. This is a factual, true statement of the fact that where the True Church is, there will be opposition, hatred, persecution or whatever. The Gospel draws and repels in near-as-damn-it equal measure!
It is not a surprise that Shaw begat Dawkins, in precisely the same way that Ludwig Feuerbach begat Karl Marx; Marx begat Freud and Freud begat Jean Paul Satre. This begetting is as tedious as the begetting in the bible, but it serves a comparably important point: We are where we are because of where we have come from. Kierkegaard challenged the mid-19th century aggressors of Christianity, just as Chesterton challenged (in much funnier terms) the late 19th – early 20th century aggressors. The point is that they are all of a piece: a seemless woven thread of enlightenment…..wait…. of toxic enlightenment worldview that is simply blinded to a wider reality of knowing. That’s why Paul Tillich asks – following Aquinas – why modern man, in this age of technology and specialisation, fails to ask questions about being, or about the God who is the Ground of all Being – a “fragmentation” of thought he rightly says is “symbolised only by the demonic.”
After listening to a great article of Radio 4’s ‘Beyond Belief‘ and the discussion about the relationship between ‘religion and psychotherapy’ (read: Christianity & psychotherapy), I have transcribed a four minute interview with a Christian Psychotherapist, Tony Yates of Cornerstone, that takes place about half way through the program. The questions are asked by the presenter, Ernie Rea.
Q. What drew [you] to this particular discipline?
I got into Psychotherapy by coming from a troubled background, going into therapy myself, and then deciding that this might be the way in which I could work in the future with other people who had troubled backgrounds of one sort or another, and who doesn’t, really, one way or another?
Q. You’ve had widespread experience of working with all sorts of people, including Evangelical Christians, who I gather come to you in unexpectedly large numbers?
Every one of my clients, without exception, have come from the Conservative Evangelical wing of the church, or perhaps and Irish Roman Catholic background. I’ve never had a client from the Liberal wing of the Church.
Q. Well you clearly think it’s indicative of something. Why do you think Evangelical Christians are in need of such therapy?
Because of the way they’ve been brought up; with the best intentions, they’ve been brought up under a regime of a sense of sin and the consequences of sin, which are shame, it’s like a stain on the soul, it’s like you’ve transgressed the laws and expectations of God.
Q Does that mean that Evangelicals are less aware of the inner subconscious self which is the source of who we are and why we do things?
Much less aware than my secular clients. It’s almost as though the discovery of the unconscious which happens when they come into therapy, is another world they’ve hardly ever suspected. They’ve never heard much about Freud, and the discoveries in the early part of the 20th century, or if they have they’ve been warned against it, in the same way that they might be warned against Dawinian Evolution. So they’ve come trained from childhood, taught from childhood, to look upward rather than inward. And when they come to Psychotherapy they have to switch their direction from looking upward toward God, the Church and the expectations, inward to what they have repressed in their unconscious.
Q. Without breaking any patient confidentiality, can you give me one example of the sort of thing that you would encounter?
If you take sex and anger, of course they’re raised, the Evangelicals, to believe that sex before marriage a bad thing. So they have to grow up in a society that is wall-to-wall promiscuity and pornography, sex is everywhere in the modern world. They have to grow up inhibiting those expressions, while their hormones are raging. It must be a bit like sitting on the lid of a cauldron to stop it from over-flowing, and they marry in their mid-twenties, without any prior sexual experience, and they marry someone with the same background. You can imagine the problems from that.
But much more damaging than repressing sex, I’ve discovered, is repressing the natural appropriate warm expression of anger, so unlike their secular clients, they never have a teenage rebellion, and that’s very damaging. They can’t challenge their parents belief, because their parents are a little bit like the representatives of God on earth, of the Will of God. That’s a formidable array of power above a Christian child to rebel against if he dares, and if he does, the mere threat of shame stops them from ever getting there, they just keep themselves repressed so that they don’t have to feel shame.
Sadly, Evangelical Christianity has suffered and still suffers from the worst kinds of repression, a reason why: i) that all the Christian clients above, are from the same Christian tribe (Evangelicalism), and ii) why so many Evangelical churches suffer from abusive and violent forms of relationships. It is a branch of Christianity that I am affiliated to, and whilst it is not the whole picture, I have seen its rather crass tendency to illicit a kind of superman-Pharisaical Christianity that isn’t Christianity; or a super-spiritual-man gnostic Christianity. Both in fact betray the actual Gospel; a Gospel that is, if true [and it is], welcomes the sort of psychoanalytical progress we’ve seen over the past 120 years or so.
It is why theologian Rob Knowles suggests,
“Church members are trained into coming to church without any expectation of growing into ministries of various kinds”; and this is because we have often facilitated “Church cultures of ‘tot-level Sunday-school for adults’ that alienates any Christians or non-Christians who reject infantilization, and that suppress any preaching that brings the maturity-forming, disciple-making power of the Scriptures alive” (Relating Faith, pg. 122-3).
My pal Joe Haward comments in an as yet unpublished paper,
“In psychoanalysis, a person exists through a lack, a split, a fissure. We may have dreams of being complete, and perhaps at a very early point in our lives we felt no lack, no split, no separation, being just one with whatever surrounded us. But as far as we are creatures of language and desire (and to Lacan language and desire are what separates the human from the animal being), we are split beings: split between ‘things’ and ‘words’, between what we want and what we get, between what we feel like and what we look like, between present and past, between what we think we say or want and what we actually say or want (that is between conscious and unconscious).”
And now, Rene Girard, at the end of his interview with Steven Berry, published in Reading the Bible with Rene Girard, edited by Michael Hardin (review of this excellent little book coming soon), takes issue with psychoanalysis itself. In a brief critique of Freud as the one who targeted the father-figure to the degree that the father became the scapegoat of the culture. Girard argues that this cannot be done in todays more fractured culture, because of the sheer fact of the importance of peers to a child, and so not merely “the father”. This is why Girard calls Freudian analysis “outdated”, he says,
“Psychoanalysis in a way lives on values that are already outdated. I have a friend, a good friend, who’s seeing a psychiatrist but he’s also a psychoanalyst. He said today people use formulas that are unbelievable. Previously in psychoanalytical theory the Oedipus complex was what you had to fight; now psychiatrists talk about injecting more Oedipus into people. They don’t have enough meaning; the don’t have enough backbone. My friend, because we have great discussions, says he thinks it can be a death of mimetic desire, which is the worst thing of all. I mean, not a death through conquering mimetic desire, but just no more mimetic desire. I mean a world where there are so many cheap pleasures and no more taboos” pg. 192
If we were to make a link though, between the interview above and Girard, with Protestant anxiety and activism that ensures they need some kind of therapy, Girard makes this wonderful point immediately prior to his Freud comment above, he says,
“I’m taking about some relaxation of tension (with a hurried Christianity), which is a form of charity at the same time toward your fellow man. I’m talking about an acceptance of good fellowship, joy, and relaxation, which are sometimes a bit missing in modern forms of Christianity, democracy, and so forth, which are never relaxing” pg. 190
Fellowship, joy and relaxation! Who’d have thought?
I don’t know if psychoanalysis is outdated. I’m sure it has a lot more to offer, despite Girard’s comments. Even in his introduction to ‘The Church’s Pastors’ in ‘The Contemporary Christian’, John Stott lists various categories that add to the confusion about what an ordained pastor is. He writes, “Are they priests, prophets, pastors, preachers, administrators, facilitators, social workers or psychotherapists?” ( emphasis and re-ordering of the sentence mine). In my brief experience, being a pastor covers all these and then some. I don’t know whether that’s a good thing or not, it doesn’t feel like it.
However, in his typically brilliant style, G. K. Chesterton makes a telling obervation in his short article ‘A Criminal Head’ in ‘Alarms and Discursions‘. The first sentence below is only slightly pertinent to this discussion, that “heads” could be “taken to pieces” in more than a surgical manner, thus well worth a look ; the second, pertinent to contemporary debates about the rich and poor, a psychoanalytical treasure trove in its own right:
“In a popular magazine there is one of the usual articles about criminology; about whether wicked men could be made good if their heads were taken to pieces. As by far the wickedest men I know of are much too rich and powerful ever to submit to the process, the speculation leaves me cold.”
Whatever, long may psychoanalysis address what it means to be fully human; long may the Gospel of Jesus Christ speak life and truth to all humanity; and speedily may false versions of a suppressed gospel be exposed for what they are, that the victims of it may be set free to live a life less of guilt and shame, and more of life and joy!
I took this somewhere in Devon