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Hitchens, Chesterton, and “The Fall into Mysticism” Print E-mail
By Robert Royal   
Monday, 20 February 2012

Czeslaw Milosz, the Nobel-prize-winning Polish poet, once remarked that in his country (before he finally moved to America) people would say of some thinker that he had “fallen into mysticism,” meaning he had become religious and, therefore, was no longer interesting.

Milsoz himself was a Catholic, though one unsettled by modern challenges to belief. But it’s clear what he meant. Evangelicals have long lamented the “closing of the evangelical mind.” Most Catholics don’t pay attention to Catholic thought, and don’t know that the Church embraces both faith and reason.

Young people (and many not so young) who might otherwise be intrigued by religious philosophy, theology, literature, and – yes – even the elaborate mystical tradition are often instead confronted with Christians who cite Bible verses, before hearers have been convinced of the Bible’s importance. Or they meet Catholics who cannot give the barest account of what the Church believes and does.

Christianity, of course, is a faith that goes beyond the rationally demonstrable. But so is science’s belief that things in the world are really there and can be understood. Both theology and science seek rational accounts of givens, i.e., things they could not have developed solely out of rational reflection.

Which is why great Christian thinkers like Augustine, Aquinas, and Newman are just as necessary to faith as a Galileo, Einstein, and Hawkings are to science.

One major difference between these forms of thought, of course, is that faith is not only philosophy or theology. It also has to be capable of being understood and practiced – albeit imperfectly – by everyone, since God addresses himself to everyone he’s created.

So the great Christian apologists – the voices that can speak to the people – are very important. And no Catholic voice has been more effectively raised in centuries than that of G.K. Chesterton.

If you doubt this, consider:  Christopher Hitchens, a bright journalist excessively praised as he was dying from esophageal cancer last year, chose to spend his dying breath, so to speak, in attacking Chesterton in an article, his last, that just came out in The Atlantic.

I knew Hitchens only slightly. He was a charming rogue, especially to the ladies, from a certain British epoch – the passing of the great English dominance. That, plus his obvious brilliance earned him a prominent place in Washington journalism.

Like many well educated Brits of his generation, he had a particular loathing of Christianity, which he loved to outrage – going so far as to trash Mother Theresa in a book entitled The Missionary Position. Since so far as I know, he never picked up a single beggar from the gutter in Calcutta, I never took seriously Hitchens’ claims that Mother Theresa could simply be dismissed as a pious tyrant.


 

His attack on GKC is another matter. In this final swipe, Hitchens intended to take on a man – C.S. Lewis is a close second – who still has enough persuasive popular power to make a difference. Otherwise, why spend your last days on him?

Unusually for Hitchens, he isn’t fair about why his target is worthy of attention in the first place. Early on, he quotes T.S. Eliot’s praise for Chesterton’s “first-rate journalistic balladry,” and comments himself on the poetry and “his magic faculty of being unforgettable.”  Later, he reports that Kingsley Amis, no mean critic, told him that he re-read The Man Who Was Thursday every year.

But besides these concessions, only one of which is Hitchens’ own, you’d never know that Chesterton wrote The Everlasting Man (his finest work), “The Ballad of the White Horse,” brilliant studies of Dickens, Chaucer, and the Victorians, Francis of Assisi and Aquinas, and two early, seminal volumes:  Heretics and Orthodoxy. For anyone who values Chesterton, these are the main event, but for Hitchens, apparently they’re a sideshow.

The reductio ad hitlerum is by now such a stale journalistic device that only a hack – which Hitchens was not – resorts to it. But he spends a lot of time in this final essay on some of GKC’s obiter dicta about Jewish financial interests and adds a vaguely sinister reference to the 1933 “Hitler-Vatican Concordat,” as if the Holy See had treaties with individuals, not nations.

The charge has to be kept vague because close attention to the concordat – concordats are arrangements protecting the legal status of the Church, which the Vatican has had with many nations – would explode in the face of whoever tries to use it as implying support for the regime in question. And the vague association of the allegedly reactionary Chesterton with Nazism is absurdity, absurdity on stilts, given his utter disgust with all such modern tyrannies.

Chesterton and his co-belligerent Hilaire Belloc are guilty of multiple historical simplifications and gaffes. And the kind of agrarian Distributism they opposed to the threats of both communism and capitalism has great weaknesses alongside its strengths. But – Hitchens notwithstanding – they understood how tyranny in politics often derives from getting things wrong in religion.

By contrast, Hitchens seems to believe that having a steady – as well as tolerant – religious perspective only makes things worse:

Chesterton became part of a forgettable rear-guard operation against the age of uncertainty, which has now definitively become our age. It seems there are no rules, golden or otherwise, even natural or otherwise, by which we can define our place in the universe or cosmos. Those who claim to know the most are convicted of claiming to know the unknowable. There is a paradox, if you like.

This is, of course, eloquent hogwash. Religion is not disappearing, except in decrepit quarters. Nor is the search for meaning and order. And Chesterton, as Hitchens conceded, had the “magic faculty of being unforgettable,” as Hitchens did not – precisely because he attached himself to no lasting truth.

Chesterton’s books are still in print and are will remain so. His voice, despite all attacks, will never fade away because it is the perennial voice of human sanity.   


Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is
The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.

© 2012 The Catholic Thing. All rights reserved. For reprint rights, write to: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it


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Comments (18)Add Comment
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written by Tom Perna , February 20, 2012
I am a big fan of Chesterton and have been since I was introduced to him while I was an undergrad in the St. Ignatius Institute at the University of San Francisco. I have read Everlasting Man, Orthodoxy, and St. Thomas Aquinas (3x), plus I have dabbled in some of his other writings. I was also introduced to Milosz and wrote my entire Senior Thesis around his poem, A Confession. It's been nearly 15 years since I finished my undergrad, but these great thinkers and writers are still with me.
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written by Jacob R, February 20, 2012
Very shortly people will realize that Hitchens contributed nothing but professional bitterness. He did not have a single original idea or greatly refine an old one. He was loved because he was one of the very few secularists in the world who learned enough about religious beliefs to rationally criticize them (and whenever he did he apparently thought he had delivered the coup de grace because it's such a powerful thing nowadays when a secularist actually uses reason to argue against religion).
The only way he will be remembered is in order to have a laugh at him for actually believing that he was worthy enough to seriously attack people like St. Teresa of Calcutta and G.K. Chesterton.
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written by Stu, February 20, 2012
And thus the capstone on Hitchen's inevitable path to obscurity.
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written by Ben Horvath, February 20, 2012
Don't worry: no one will ever read Chris Hitchens again. He was clever with words but nothing he ever wrote is worth reading twice (once actually once you caught on to what he was trying to do) even when alive.

I'm not sure that modern people in general are all that interested in rationality though in the way you mean it (which I take to be reasoning by logic in pursuit of objective truth). The modern mind (if not modern philosophy) is obsessed by power relationships without regard to objective truth. Obviously this leads to the irrational situation where objectively false things are regarded as true because the dominant power faction supposes them as true.
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written by Mary, February 20, 2012
The most brilliant of all (even his name attests to it) was Lucifer. Look where brilliance without God will get you.
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written by Che, February 20, 2012
Good article, but quick correction- I think you meant 'Hawking' not 'Hawkings'. Common error.
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written by Jacob Morgan, February 20, 2012
Hitchens was unique among liberal political writers in that he seemed to be an honest thinker, so much that he would oppose certain popular liberal views when logic and facts got in the way of ideology. That a usually rational person was uniquely irrational regarding religion led one to hope that one day he would realize that an irrational defense, not intellectual honesty, was the force behind his hostility towards religion. At that point conversion would have been a real posibility. He was the only militant atheist of this era who had a good chance of conversion. The other militant atheists of today seem to be nothing but naked ideologes, i.e., facts and logic are not true or false, they are either useful or not useful to the cause.

Chesterton said of conversion that first one started being fair with the Catholic Church, then one discovered the truth behind it and then one began to fear that it might be what it says it is, and finally one came to terms that and entered into it. As a convert myself, that is true. Maybe Hitchens realized that if he was fair with it, for even a moment, that it would only be a matter of time. Or maybe he was fair for a moment and his fear that it might be true turned into terror and terror turned to white-hot temper-tantrum hatred. His anger with Chesterton may be that Chesterton had the guts to be honest when he did not.
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written by Leo Ladenson, February 20, 2012
"as Hitchens did not – precisely because he attached himself to no lasting truth."


Not only did he not attach himself to last truths, he was yoked to ideas and ideologies discredited in his own time. That people continued to take him seriously is a testament to his charm not his mind.

As I said at the time of his passing, good riddance to bad rubbish.
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written by Steve, February 20, 2012
Hitchens is a hack!
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written by Grump, February 20, 2012
As acerbic and malicious as he could be, Hitchens nonetheless had a charming and witty side that will be missed by most of us who value a fine intelligence. Perhaps his final words were, as one non-believer uttered on his deathbed, according to Bishop Sheen: "Jesus, have mercy on me."
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written by Mack Hall, February 20, 2012
Pray for poor Hitch, who devoted his life to ephemera. But then, I suppose, most of us do. Perhaps I should consider that for Lent.
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written by Jason, February 20, 2012
I wasn't able to make it through the entire article. Hitchens was not "brilliant." He was a fool. To even mention him in the same breath as Chesterton would be an affront if it weren't so amusing.
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written by toni, February 21, 2012
do you not mean that Chesterton and Belloc proposed agrarian distributism? the article says "opposed".
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written by Robert Royal, February 21, 2012
Thanks for pointing out this lack of clarity. Maybe "proposed against" would be clearer than "opposed to," (I did not say simply opposed). In any case meaning they fought against collectivism in the name of agrarian distributism.
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written by Flamingo Art, February 21, 2012
One summer while many grandchildren were visiting, I memorized Lepanto by GK.. I recited it over and over again to them all summer.. They still remember when I did this. I had to explain to them the meanings of some terms and a few points of history and persons in this history... That was a great summer... I have not totally forgotten how to recite LEPANTO.. It takes 8 minutes to recite from heart.
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written by Tony Esolen, February 21, 2012
I discovered Chesterton relatively late -- I was in my thirties when I read The Everlasting Man. It took my breath away. Since then I've read everything of his I can find. For a few years, my mentor at Providence College, who has since passed away, introduced The Everlasting Man into our Honors program. We've also used The Dumb Ox ...

The great things that separated Chesterton from Hitchens, on a simply human level, was that Chesterton was so filled with a boyish brusque generosity of spirit, he was able to make friends with Shaw, and even keep a kind of friendship going with the remarkably dour Wells. Chesterton's love allowed him to see things: most particularly the obvious things. I imagine he'd have had a hearty belly laugh at the sight of a Hitchens calling Mother Teresa "hell's angel," just as he did when Julian Huxley blamed the Church's asceticism, of all things, for opposing the forced sterilization of mentally retarded people.

Hitch didn't love, and so he didn't see. May God have mercy on his soul -- he seems to me to have been the most human of the ragtag crew of ill-educated naysayers.
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written by Bro, February 22, 2012
What amazed me was not how ignorant Hitchens was about religion. (He did little more than build religious straw-men to his own specifications then huffed and puffed until he blew them over.) What amazed me was how popular he became precisely because of his ignorance. How an otherwise intelligent man and otherwise intelligent people could be so dumb is beyond me.
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written by Mouse, February 25, 2012
The fact that he attacked Chesterton probably means that Chesterton got to him in some way. Same for Mother Teresa, I'd say. He has to attack them and insult them in some way to convince himself that their obvious virtues or obviously sound reasoning don't mean that he, too, should become Catholic. Which of course they do...People like Mother Teresa in particular are one of the best arguments for Catholicism that there is. I hope God forgave him for his slander of that blessed woman.

Anyway, one of our saints said that If you don't know Christ, you know nothing, and if you know Christ you know everything. We shouldn't spend too much time on a lot of so-called discussion or knowledge or opinion...

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