Thursday, January 26, 2012

Chesterton, developing evil & the Western Church

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Vice Moderator in a recent posting suggested that the “Bible was written by a people who, at that time of human development, were the functional cognitive equivalents of the modern six year old.” He also suggested in a comment “that societies mature in an equivalent process to individuals. Just as you and I go through a developmental process, so do groups.” That is a 19th century assumption, but it started me thinking about how evil develops in society and groups. I have been reading G.K. Chesterton and I note that in his book The Everlasting Man he basically scoffs at the 19th century idea of all ancient societies being lower in their developmental stage.

Chesterton makes a big distinction between the morality of a civilization and their development. One of the interesting contrasts he points out is a civilization that was highly advanced but yet carried within it a demonic urge that began in another society, that of the Canaanites. His chapter, “The war of the Gods and Demons,” covers the ideological difference between two great enemies, Rome and Carthage. Rome’s early gods were more of the domestic kind. Carthage’s god was a different kind all together.

Chesterton writes of the Canaanite religion with its idea of child sacrifice to Molech and how that demonic name can be traced moving via Canaan to Sidon and Tyre and finally Carthage. He contrasts the demons of Carthage with the domestic gods of Rome and suggests that we as a western civilization have much too thank the Romans for as they defeated Carthage. He writes of the god that was called Moloch:
The Romans did not at first quite know what to make of him; they had to go back to the grossest myth of Greek or Roman origins and compare him to Saturn devouring his children. But the worshippers of Moloch were not gross or primitive, they were members of a mature and polished civilization, abounding in refinements and luxuries; they were probably more civilized than the Romans. … These highly civilized people really met together to invoke the blessing of heaven on their empire by throwing hundreds of their infants into a large furnace. (149)
Chesterton goes on to the Greek gods and their mythologies. Greek vices, which may have developed from their gods or perhaps their gods developed from their vices, left the very early Romans appalled. Chesterton writes of the Greek vices, “Just as they became unnatural by worshiping nature, so they became unmanly by worshiping man.” He elaborates:
If Greece led her conqueror, she might have misled her conqueror; but these were things he did originally wish to conquer—even in himself. It is true that in one sense there was less inhumanity even in Sodom and Gomorrah than in Tyre and Sidon. When we consider the war of the demons on the children, we cannot compare even Greek decadence to Punic devil worship. But it is not true that the sincere revulsion from either be merely pharisaical. It is not true to human nature or common sense. (159)
But the Roman virtue came to an end with the dying of their mythologies. Chesterton wrote about the mythological boredom that led to atheism, drug taking and “startling obscenities.” That is where his famous quote, about teasing the cat pops up:
I do not believe that mythology must begin with eroticism. But I do believe that mythology must end in it. I am quite certain that mythology did end in it. Moreover, not only did the poetry grow more immoral, but the morality grew more indefensible. Greek vices, oriental vices, hints of the old horrors of the Semitic demons [the Canaanites] began to fill the fancies of decaying Rome, swarming like flies on a dung heap. The psychology of it is really human enough, to anyone who will try that experiment of seeing history from the inside. There comes an hour in the afternoon when the child is tired of ‘pretending’; when he is weary of being a robber or a Red Indian. It is then that he torments the cat. (164)
In the end, Rome was conquered by both demons and strange evolving gods. Even Nero participated in same gender weddings at one time calling himself a bride. The western world, and the United States in particular may be weary of the God who toppled Rome’s demons but he nonetheless stands over all our holy houses pleading with his people.

All the doors are opening to the demonic in the Western World. We have a holocaust of dead babies. Sexual sins of many kinds are finding blessings in many denominations and religious communities. Although I haven’t touched on it there is greed seeping through all of this. And yes, arrogance, because civilizations breed an awful false pride in humanity; we build our towers while leaving God’s word on the ground—perhaps as a footstool.

There is an answer. Chesterton wrote of those first believers who would not offer incense to Caesar. “We see a new scene, in which the world has drawn its skirts away from these men and women and they stand in the center of a great space like lepers.” He writes of the witnesses that form about and above them. He writes of the hatred that forms toward them. But he also writes of the light that shone in a dark night, “a white fire clinging to that group like unearthly phosphorescence, blazing its track through the twilights of history and confounding every effort to confound it with the mists of mythology and theory…”

Faithfulness in the midst of it all is what God calls us to. Jesus is faithful to his promises and we belong after all to that “begotten God” who is in the bosom of his Father. (John 1:18)


Jodie said...

That's pretty heavy handed rhetoric, Viola. Even for you.

Viola Larson said...

Sometimes I leave you there because you simply add a topping to what I have just posted. I did not finish Chesterton's quote that I used at the last about the Church standing in the arena perhaps I should.

"That shaft of light or lightening by which the world itself has struck and isolated and crowned it[the church]; by which its own enemies have made it more illustrious and its own critics have made it more inexplicable; the halo of hatred around the Church of God."

Jodie said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Viola Larson said...

This is for David Fischler (Reformed Pastor) who couldn't get his comment to post.

"I never cease to be amazed at the arrogance of moderns who assume that they must be smarter, more moral, more sophisticated, etc. than people of prior eras. In displaying that arrogance, they give the lie to their superiority."

Jodie said...

And yet the rhetoric swirls even more.

Seriously, Viola, do you know anything at all about Grace? Is the title of this blog destined to remain just a fantasy?

Dave Moody said...

Your post has pricked my conscience. I confess I am a book hoarder, my shelves and the boxes occupying our garage contain many books that I've said, "I'll get to that one day"- this vice of mine points past itself to the sins of sloth and greed. Lord have mercy. Upon reading your post though, I packed Chesteron's "Everlasting Man" into my backpack, and brought it home- where I finished the introduction last night. It'll be -40 all weekend, so I look forward to spending parts with Chesterton. Thanks for the goad!

grace & peace,

Viola Larson said...

Dave I confess I have the same problem. And yes sloth and greed are a part of it.

Alan said...

I didn't get past the arrogance of Whittset's quote. I am at a loss to figure out if the attitude I've heard for the last 20 years is paternalistic or gnostic.
Either way the progressives come off sounding exactly like the orthodox group but without the love. They are quick to judge and dismiss our ministry partners in other parts of the world and, in this case, entire civilizations.
I'd like to suggest the vice-moderator read S.M.Stirling's Island in the Sea of Time. As a progressive I'm sure he'll rejoice at the life styles but I'm hoping he'll understand that ancient cultures are just that...ancient, not stupid.

Grace to Viola and keep up the great writing.

Portland, OR

Viola Larson said...

Thank you Alan, sounds like an interesting book. And I think the word for at least this problem is paternalistic. The idea that ancient cultures are under developed reminds me of Lewis’ book Out of the Silent Planet when I think it is Weston thinks he is talking to a primitive man when he is actually talking to a high angel of God. Imagine speaking baby talk to one of God's holy angels.

Greg Scandlen said...

Good grief, what hubris. In my reading of the Bible I have been struck by how exactly like us these ancient peoples were! Even if we allow for vigorous evolution, can this fellow possibly think there could be so much in a mere 3,000 years? Fact is humankind hasn't changed a whit in all this time.

Greg Scandlen
Waynesboro, PA

Jodie said...

There are people living TODAY that are so completely different from us as to make communication virtually impossible. The process of learning to communicate in a new culture is so harsh that it is known as "culture shock".

The miracle of Scripture is not that it was written by people just like us a long time ago in a land far far away. If it was, it would be no surprise we can hear it. The miracle is that in spite of the fact that it was written by people with whom we have nothing in common at all, it speaks to us now, in our own language, and in our own time.

As it has every where and every time ever since at least Pentecost.

Is that not why some people think it was actually written by God?

And yet, in spite of it speaking to us today and in our own language, it points to something completely alien, not in the past and not in the present, but timeless in both. Bending it to our own will, and coercing it to join sides with our own petty squabbles, that I fear, is true hubris.

"Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
And with fear and trembling stand..."

Dave Moody said...

"Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
And with fear and trembling stand..."

Physician, heal thyself...