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Chesterton on Coherence and Christianity

February 26, 2012
English: G. K. Chesterton, 1920s. Silver gelat...

G. K. Chesterton

Such is the madman of experience; he is commonly a reasoner, frequently a successful reasoner…. He is in the clean and well-lit prison of one idea: he is sharpened to one painful point. He is without healthy hesitation and healthy complexity…. Just as I am affected by the maniac, so I am affected by most modern thinkers. That unmistakable mood or note that I hear from Hanwell [Insane Asylum], I hear also from half the chairs of science and seats of learning to-day; and most of the mad doctors are mad doctors in more senses than one. They all have exactly that combination we have noted: the combination of an expansive and exhaustive reason with a contracted common sense. They are universal only in the sense that they take one thin explanation and carry it very far. But a pattern can stretch for ever and still be a small pattern. They see a chess-board white on black, and if the universe is paved with it, it is still white on black. Like the lunatic, they cannot alter their standpoint; they cannot make a mental effort and suddenly see it black on white.

Take first the more obvious case of materialism. As an explanation of the world, materialism has a sort of insane simplicity. It has just the quality of the madman’s argument; we have at once the sense of it covering everything and the sense of it leaving everything out. Contemplate some able and sincere materialist, as, for instance, Mr. McCabe, and you will have exactly this unique sensation. He understands everything, and everything does not seem worth understanding. His cosmos may be complete in every rivet and cog-wheel, but still his cosmos is smaller than our world. Somehow his scheme, like the lucid scheme of the madman, seems unconscious of the alien energies and the large indifference of the earth; it is not thinking of the real things of the earth, of fighting peoples or proud mothers, or first love or fear upon the sea. The earth is so very large, and the cosmos is so very small. The cosmos is about the smallest hole that a man can hide his head in.

The Christian is quite free to believe that there is a considerable amount of settled order and inevitable development in the universe. But the materialist is not allowed to admit into his spotless machine the slightest speck of spiritualism or miracle. Poor Mr. McCabe is not allowed to retain even the tiniest imp, though it might be hiding in a pimpernel.

Orthodoxy, chapter II, ‘The Maniac.’

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 26, 2012 1:26 pm

    Chesterton always struck me as someone for whom once a vague opinion has been formed it gains the force of unalterable truth.

    One can hardly rebut his comments because he does very little to establish them in the first place, though no doubt they have an strong intuitive plausibility to Christians.

    He seems to have the attitude that the lack of spiritualism in atheism is some unintentional oversight which we stubmled into, rather than the whole point and insight. It’s like regretting that Christians have worked themselves into the unfortunate position of having to defend the divinity of Jesus.

    • February 26, 2012 1:50 pm

      The intellectual point is an important one: consistency is over-rated.

      As for the specific connection with Christianity—well, it’s Sunday. But I don’t think his attitude is that the lack of spiritualism in atheism—or materialism, rather—is an oversight. I think he’s saying that the materialist’s world is a terribly impoverished one.

      Most days I agree with him.

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