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READING/ Chesterton on the intolerance of friendship

January Fri 18, 2013

G.K. Chesterton  G.K. Chesterton

At its best, blogging is an intermediate form of expression. When done well it doesn't really descend to the banality and near cultural, historical, philosophical illiteracy of contemporary journalism, but neither is it an academic exercise, nor an on-line personal diary (David Letterman's old diary, "I love eggs. Boy do I love eggs"). At least for me, when done well blogging is a journal of ideas, a sharing of interests and passions. In my case, not new ideas, but consideration and re-consideration of enduring ideas (I make no claim either to being very original or to have mastered the art of blogging). This conception has the advantage of allowing me to look far afield, from what I am reading, movies I see, music I hear, and even public (rarely private, then with appropriate caution and even permission) discussions I engage in with friends near and far. As both of my longtime readers know, I particularly enjoy exploring provocative ideas and taking on lazy assumptions in the conviction that authentic faith can never lead us to the kind of smug certainty many people (myself included) often seem to want.

With that lengthy wind-up, first thing this morning I read a very insightful review of Ian Ker's recent G.K. Chesterton: A Biography by Ralph Wood of Baylor University in Books and Culture. Rather than review Wood's review, I want to stick to the topic of the tolerance, namely its current tyranny.

Before tackling tolerance head-on, it is useful to note, as Wood does, that part of the invective Christopher Hitchens hurled at Chesterton, whom he read on his deathbed and whose article on Gilbert Keith, "The Reactionary," appeared in The Atlantic some months after his death on 15 December 2011, consisted of this: "when [Chesterton] was posing as a theologian, he was doing little more than ventriloquizing John Henry Newman at his most 'dogmatic.'" It is also helpful to know that Ker also wrote John Henry Newman: A Biography. All of this puts the reader of both biographies in a position to judge whether Hitchens' criticism is accurate.

There can be no doubt that Chesterton, who traveled the same road as Newman from Canterbury to Rome, read Newman and was influenced by the great man. Wallace highlights Chesterton's indebtedness to Newman for his understanding of what I will call the dialectical permanence of Christian dogma and doctrine. Chesterton held that human beings are by nature dogmatic (among men there is perhaps none more dogmatic than the atheist or Darwinian evolutionist- often the same person, but not always). As Chesterton helpfully noticed, "Trees have no dogmas" and "Turnips are singularly broad-minded." This prompts Wallace to assert that "Chesterton's high estimate of dogma gives him a low regard for tolerance." It is this insight that leads me to the heart of the matter.



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