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Chesterton on creeds

Chesterton thought that probably people were “intensely interested in theology — if possible more than in religion.” Why would he say this? It is, I think, because theology means precisely word or thought about God, the attempt to unravel and clarify what we mean by or know of the highest Being. The knowledge of whether God exists is one thing, interesting enough as it is. But the real interest comes when, once knowing of the existence of a beginning source or cause, we commence our wondering about what sort of a being or reality this origin or end might be. So we try to formulate what we think, what we conclude, what we articulate.

When we begin to do this articulating, we are in the creed making business, whatever we call it. “A creed means what anybody believes, and generally lends something of its definite character even to what he disbelieves. That the Creator is indifferent to creed is itself a creed. Even that the Creator does not exist at all is in essence a creed.” This is why it is important especially for those who claim that they are free of odious creeds to identify their own creed so that we can examine them for their validity. We can in fact state in creedal form any claim to deny the need of a creed. No one is more pitiful or more dangerous than the “creedless” professor or parson. Chesterton had the uncanny ability to perceive and articulate the hidden creeds of those who had no creeds.

What might also sound strange to us on first reading is Chesterton’s insistence that morality is not very interesting. We hear a lot about the notion that we should not bother about the differing creeds or statements of what people believe but look to their deeds. Samuel Johnson, I believe, once quipped that if a man denies in theory the validity of private property while he is visiting our house, we should count the silver after he leaves. It is true that by their fruits you shall know them. What is not true is that these fruits come from some sort of mindlessness that has no relation to a thought that might have caused them. If we really only were interested in actions with no perception of the thoughts that caused then, “the result would be a torrent of tedium, a howling wilderness of boredom.” We would eliminate “mysticism” and the consciousness of our inner lives. The attention to deeds without to the thought behind them would be only moralising, something men find “the dreariest experience on earth.” By eliminating any discussion of creed, creeds of even those who claim not to have any, we would at the same time get rid of what men “find really interesting,” namely, “the disputes about dogmas and creeds.” That is to say, we would rid ourselves of serious discussions about what is true.