Monday, August 27, 2012

Chesterton and the Critics' Cliche

The word cliche is the French vocable for a stereotype printing plate. Its function is to reproduce the likeness of a given object over and over again. A cliche does not give an altogether truthful picture of that object. for one thing, a cliche is never more than two-dimensional; for another, it is not alive - once cast, it will never change. And even the best cliche is never more than a rough approximation of the real thing. (Uwe Siemon-Netto, The Fabricated Luther, p. 22)

So Dr. Uwe Siemon-Netto informs us in the beginning of his seminal book on Luther's alleged anti-semitism, The Fabricated Luther. And while this post has little to do with Luther it has everything to do with another cliche common among critics of Christianity. I hear it all the time on college campuses, among so-called atheist intellectuals. And thanks to Dan Brown and his fictional books this argument has resurfaced like an outdated U-boat, waiting for someone to show up with the Enigma decryption codes and blow it out of the water.

It usually sounds something like this: "Christianity only gained strength, popularity and converts because of Emperor Constantine, his political power and influence and the ensuing support Christianity received from the government institutions, etc. etc. etc."

Never mind that Christianity was flourishing underground for the previous centuries before coming out of the catacombs into the cathedrals (and probably would have had it continued to be persecuted in the same manner). Never mind that Christianity was less interested in political power and more in the power of the Gospel to save; the message that has little regard for political correctness: Christ Crucified.

Every time I encounter this argument I have usually tried to steer the conversation back to the 1st century A.D. and the evidence of the resurrection. Sometimes this is easier said than done. Nevertheless that's where apologists should spend their time. But I've always wanted to find a short and simple way to both dismiss this alleged claim and move on to more important matters without spending an entire afternoon talking about Constantine instead of Christ, Roman history instead of Jesus' evidentially verifiable work in history.

And I think I've found it, at last, the Davinci Code breaker, an apologetic cipher: G.K. Chesterton. Many apologists have answered this very same objection and critique of Christianity before. Many have even done so winsomely and effectively. But none so simply and swiftly as Chesterton does in The Everlasting Man.  As if he predicted this resurgence of popular myths surrounding Christianity, he writes in response to this common cliche.

First, he frames the objection in a much more prosaic fashion than I have above:

"Christianity did not really rise at all; that is, it did not merely rise from below; it was imposed from above. It is an example of the power of the executive, especially in despotic states. The Empire was really an Empire; that is, it was really ruled by the Emperor. One of the Emperors just happened to be a Christian...when he adopted it [the Christian faith] it became the official religion of the Roman Empire; and when it became the official religion of the Roman Empire, it became as strong and as universal and invincible as the Roman Empire..." (Chesterton, The Everlasting Man, p. 145)

Then he goes on to refute this by calling on, of all people, the heretics to disprove the critics:

"Arius advanced a version of Christianity, which moved, more or less vaguely, in the direction of what we should call Unitarianism; though it was not the same, for it gave Christ a curious intermediary position between the divine and the human. The point is that it seemed to many more reasonable and less fanatical; and among these were many of the educated class in a sort of reaction against the first romance of conversion. Arians were a sort of moderates and a sort of modernists. And it was felt that after the first squabbles this was the final form of rationalized religion into which the civilization might settle down. It was accepted by Divus Caesar himself and became the official orthodoxy; the generals and military princes drawn from the new barbarian powers of the north, full of future, supported strongly. But the sequel is still more important. Exactly as modern man might pass through Unitarianism to complete agnosticism, so the greatest of Arian emperors ultimately shed the last and thinnest pretense of Christianity; he abandoned even Arius and returned to Apollo. he was a Caesar of the Caesars; a soldier, a scholar, a man of large ambitions and ideals; another of the philosopher kings. It seemed to him as if at his signal the sun rose again. The oracles began to speak like birds beginning to sing at dawn; paganism was itself again; the gods returned. It seemed the end of that strange interlude of an alien superstition. It was the end of it, in so far as it was the fad of an emperor or the fashion of a generation, If there really was something that began with Constantine, then it ended with Julian." (Chesterton, The Everlasting Man, p. 146)

In a few paragraphs, Chesterton gives us all the historical highlights we need to toss out this old canard of an objection to Christianity and get on with defending the faith once and for all delivered to the saints. For it was in the face of an overwhelmingly popular heresy (Arianism) that Christianity continued to declare and defend the truth of the orthodox Christian faith over and above the lie that had taken over the world. Christians must do the same today, like Athanasian against the world. The devil's lies and cliches have overwhelmed us once again. What we - and the world need - is the same as it was in Athanasius's day: the truth of Christ in His life-giving, Spirit-filled Word, the truth of Christ poured over you in Baptism, the truth of Christ given and shed for you in the Sacrament of the Altar. And this Jesus and his gifts are the real thing, living and active for you.

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