Monday, January 15, 2007

Catholic Crisis and Revival

(cross-posted from the CIN Blog)

I've just finished reading G.K. Chesterton's The Everlasting Man. It's a fascinating and thoughtful historical outline considering the impact of Christ and the Church on the world. It's a challenging read, and I found it best to read it slowly in order to better absorb it - I read it over the course of a little more than a year.

One thing I liked about it is that, in a way consistent with C.S. Lewis' thoughts on the importance of reading old books, it allowed me to consider Church History outside the prejudices and emphases of our present day. In other words, reading the thoughts of a faithful Catholic writing in the 1920s about concerns regarding the faith and his perspective on previous problems in Church history provides some insights almost impossible from a writer from my own time period who might share any number of my own assumptions and perspectives about the state of the Church.

I found the chapter "Five Deaths of the Faith" particularly interesting in this regard. Chesterton argues that the Church has suffered a number of staggering "collapses" over the course of History - collapses that might reasonably be viewed as unrecoverable and even be considered as something that died. And yet, after each of these collapses came an incredible revival - a revival almost beyond belief given the seriousness of the collapse. He argues that this is a sign of authenticity of the Church because something fake would have stayed dead.

To have read the literature of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is to know that nearly everybody had come to take it for granted that religion was a thing that would continually broaden like a river, till it reached an infinite sea. Some of them expected it to go down in a cataract of catastrophe, most of them expected it to widen into an estuary of equality and moderation; but all of them thought its returning on itself a prodigy as incredible as witchcraft. In other words, most moderate people thought that faith like freedom would be slowly broadened down; and some advanced people thought that it would be very rapidly broadened down, not to say flattened out. All that world of Guizot and Macaulay and the commercial and scientific liberality was perhaps more certain than any men before or since about the direction in which the world is going. People were so certain about the direction that they only differed about the pace. Many anticipated with alarm, and a few with sympathy, a Jacobin revolt that should guillotine the Archbishop of Canterbury or a Chartist riot that should hang the parsons no the lampposts.But it seemed like a convulsion in nature that the Archbishop instead of losing his head should be looking for his mitre; and that instead of diminishing the respect due to parsons we should strengthen it to the respect due to priests. it revolutionised their very vision of revolution; and turned their very topsyturveydom topsyturvey.

In short, the whole world being divided about whether the stream was going slower or faster, became conscious of something vague but vast that was going against the stream. Both in fat and figure there is something deeply disturbing about this, and that for an essential reason. A dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it. A dead dog can be lifted on the leaping water with all the swiftness of a leaping hound; but only a live dog can swim backwards. A paper boat can ride the rising deluge with all the airy arrogance of a fairy ship; but if the fairy ship sails upstream it is really rowed by the fairies. And among the things that merely went with the tide of apparent progress and enlargement, there was many a demagogue or sophist whose wild gestures were in truth as lifeless as the movement of a dead dog's limbs wavering in the eddying water; and many a philosophy uncommonly like a paper boat, of the sort that it is not difficult to knock into a cocked hat. But even the truly living and even life-giving things that went with that stream did not thereby prove that they were living or life-giving. It was this other force that was unquestionably and unaccountably alive; the mysterious and unmeasured energy that was thrusting back the river.
The Everlasting Man can be read in its entirety at this link.

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