TCS Daily

What Threatens Us

By Paul J. Cella - August 14, 2003 12:00 AM

Among modern writers of the English language, few exceed G. K. Chesterton and his friend Hilaire Belloc in range, fecundity and vision. Writing in the early twentieth century, these men addressed everything -- Christian apologetics, theology, history, philosophy, economics -- and always with sagacity, wit and profound penetration. Both were poets of the first order. And both wrote of Islam with strange and remarkable prescience.


Unconstrained by the intellectual prison of what is drably called "multiculturalism," these men were freer to look on Muslims with real human sympathy and curiosity, and not delude themselves that all other peoples are just bourgeois Westerners in costumes. They were of an age that still valued variety and diversity as realities, not catchphrases.


Both men recognized an immense strength in the Muslim (or the Mohammedan, as they called him); and this despite Islam's rapidly deteriorating material position vis-à-vis the West, a position now matured to uncomfortable obviousness. In this, "ChesterBelloc" again reveal narrowness of the modern world's bluster about tolerance and pluralism: having repudiated in a glib and small-minded way the power of faith on the minds of men, the modern mind makes itself ignorant as mud, and walks about the world in a kind of daze. The hardest thing for the Modern Age to do is actually see a thing other than itself.


Chesterton and Belloc saw in Islam precisely the sort of spiritual energy which was proving evanescent in the West even in their time. Belloc, for example (and probably Chesterton too, although I myself do not recall reading it) emphatically declared Islam a heresy -- a heresy which derived its strength from the affirmation of some true doctrines of Christianity while denigrating fatally other true doctrines. A heresy is not necessarily evil; it is simply wrong; staggeringly, definitively, but plausibly wrong. This sort of judgment is very nearly impossible today: it provokes the charge of crankishness, or even bigotry. But therein lies our suffocating narrowness. We have resolutely undertaken to amputate some of our mental faculties; like the faculty of distinguishing a creed from its adherents. The rigid secularist cannot see the creed, only its followers. But it is, I think, a solid fact, no matter what modern insularity avows, that a man may be an implacable enemy of Islam and still a friend of Muslims.


Modern multiculturalism denies this fact. And I will grant it this small concession; that it is no easy mental task to be an enemy of a man's creed but a friend to the man himself. Not easy, but possible -- and indeed necessary. In this sense secularism, along with its accomplice multiculturalism, is a capitulation or abdication of responsibility; it is the surrender of clever poltroons. In the face the challenge of charity, the challenge propounded by the awesome equality of the Christian creed: "love your neighbor as yourself," the modern world resigns itself to dull platitudes. At weddings we so often read that tremendous 1 Corinthians text about love; and I am often struck by the screaming contrast between St. Paul's picture of Love and the enfeebled surrogate the world erects. It is the same with the Brotherhood of Man.


We must overcome these modern capitulations to see things clearly; that is the plain truth. And to do so we should turn to those less affected by them, which often means the men of the past.


Both Belloc and Chesterton knew, at least intellectually, that Muslims are really our brothers, even if they have been led astray. Belloc in particular repeatedly wrote in his superb book on the great heresies that though Islamic civilization is at the moment materially inferior, it remains spiritually strong, and that there is no compelling reason to believe such a material impotence will persist indefinitely. He admired this strength; though he had no love for the heresy animated by it. He reminded his readers that, hardly a hundred years before the founding of the American Republic, the Turks were threatening to overrun central Europe; that, in other words, men of the American Revolutionary generation in Europe felt the menace of the "Mohammedan" not unlike the way men of the 1950s felt the menace of the Communist. Chesterton, meanwhile, noted the spiritual strength of Islam with this striking insight:


A void is made in the heart of Islam which has to be filled up again and again by a mere repetition of the revolution that founded it. There are no sacraments; the only thing that can happen is a sort of apocalypse, as unique as the end of the world; so the apocalypse can only be repeated and the world end again and again. There are no priests; and this equality can only breed a multitude of lawless prophets almost as numerous as priests. The very dogma that there is only one Mohamet produces an endless procession of Mohamets.


Reading these two towering English Catholics illuminates the inky darkness into which stiff secularism has thrown us. That which has stirred the minds of men across the centuries, in our own civilization and others, and will do so yet until the crack of doom, is distant and impenetrable to us today.


"Cultures spring from religions," wrote Belloc, "ultimately the vital force which maintains any culture is its philosophy, its attitude toward the universe; the decay of a religion involves the decay of the culture corresponding to it." This is like an alien language to the modern mind; but alien or no, it is a real and vital language, unlike the mere gibberish on offer elsewhere.


For the secularist or the multiculuralist, the resurgence of Islam, hurling itself against the battlements of the West with all the fury of fanaticism, must come as a shock. But conversant with the power of faith, defiant in the face of secularism, Belloc could make predictions such as these:


The future always comes as a surprise but political wisdom consists in attempting at least some partial judgment of what that surprise may be. And for my part I cannot but believe that a main unexpected thing of the future is the return of Islam. Since religion is at the root of all political movements and changes and since we have here a very great religion physically paralyzed but morally intensely alive, we are in the presence of an unstable equilibrium which cannot remain permanently unstable.


That is bracing stuff. We think of Chesterton and Belloc as inspired poets, brilliant apologists, eccentrically fascinating historians, but rarely prophets. Christopher Hitchens recently called them "antique," (probably because they took faith seriously) which is a frankly embarrassing judgment in light of their prescient flourishes concerning the revival of Islam as a force. It is foolish to overlook them, as it was foolish to overlook it. They provide a window into a mind that still grasped what it means to men to be alive to a religious orthodoxy, to a tradition of moral obedience and ritual. This liveliness of faith is obscured from our view in large part because of the modern rejection of its power. It is obscured by a deliberate narrowing of the intellect. And it is precisely that huge and terrible portion of the intellect which we need most to heed right now, for it is that, in other men, which threatens us.


Paul J. Cella is a frequent TCS contributor.  His online home can be found here.

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