In 1908, two of G.K. Chesterton’s most famous books were published, almost back-to-back. The first was the novel The Man Who Was Thursday, about a group of anarchists who are actively trying to undermine everything normal thing in civilization, driven by a philosophy that hates property, hates marriage, and hates life itself. What makes the book such a great read is that every character is someone else in disguise, and the suspense and tension and mystery build as each one of them is unexpectedly unmasked.
A few months later came another book about revelation, that is, revealing the truth. It was Orthodoxy. In this classic of apologetics, Chesterton tries to explain how he had found the truth and how he knew it was the truth. But his challenge in making his case is that, in former times, the standard approach to defending the faith was to begin with the fact of sin, which Chesterton describes as the only Christian doctrine that can be proved. However, in the modern world, where we deny everything, we even deny sin. So we can’t talk about sin.
Chesterton takes a different tack: if we can’t talk about sin, let’s talk about sanity. Let’s show that every modern philosophy is in insane or leads to insanity, and that the only sane one is Christianity.
That would seem to be a good approach still.
But maybe not in 2020, which is the year that the world went insane. And even worse than the obvious insanity is the strange and stubborn and even deliberate hesitancy to admit that the world is insane. That would mean having to face it, maybe even doing something about it. Instead we are simply putting up with it. We can’t call evil things evil anymore, and now we can’t call insane things insane.
And so it is fitting that we are all being told to wear masks. We are trying to cover up the truth about ourselves. The modern world is a walking lie. But it’s not a bold-faced lie. It’s a shame-faced lie.
Masks. Chesterton is amazingly prophetic about masks:
“In a world where everything is ridiculous, nothing can be ridiculed. You cannot unmask a mask.” (Illustrated London News, July 10, 1927)
“A mob does not wear a mask.” (The Illustrated Review, Oct. 1923)
“In what religious age was a man allowed to thunder from the pulpit with a mask on his face?”(Illustrated London News, July 25, 1908)
And I recently stumbled across an uncollected essay by Chesterton (re-stumbled, actually, since I had read it before) called “The Materialist in the Mask,” (New Witness, June 30, 1922)
“Hmm…” I thought to myself, “Sounds like GKC is going to say something prophetic once again. And about masks!”
I was right. But it was nothing what I expected.
In this essay he begins by writing about anti-clericalism, which may be motivated by an objection to priests having too much power, but is more widely simply an objection to the priesthood. “A priesthood is a powerful thing and a man is entitled to think it too powerful.” But Chesterton has more sympathy with old-fashioned anti-clericals who were willing to be known as atheists, than with a certain sort of new anti-clericals who would be referred to as secularists, though they would never call themselves that.
People don’t want to be called secularists. They may prefer to be grouped with “non-sectarians,” but really they don’t want to be called that either. They want to be known as something positive and potent and positioned above and apart from the practitioners of religion. They want to be known only by the recognizable and respectful title of, say, governor or mayor or magistrate. Or judge. Or journalist. Or doctor. Or scientist. Or health official. They profess only to pursue some secular aim in a productive and constructive manner, and if their decisions affect religion in a negative way, it is merely by accident. Nothing intentional. Nothing personal.
Chesterton says, “There are some people of whom this is true, and they are worthy of all respect.” But for the most part and for most people, the so-called “secular” pose is only a pose. It is a pretense. It is a mask.
Most secularists really have a “destructive enthusiasm” for the Church, and Chesterton says he doesn’t blame them. What?! He doesn’t blame them?! Why not?
“If Christianity is a lie, it is certainly a great thundering lie. No man is to be blamed for denouncing what he thinks a thundering lie.”
Okay, good point. If people hate Christianity, we can’t blame them for attacking it. But can we blame them for … anything?
Yes. “No man is to be blamed for denouncing what he thinks a thundering lie, but a man is to be blamed for telling small and sniveling lies in defense of his own denunciation.”
Ah. This indeed is what the battleground looks like. We are fighting against “the small and sniveling lies” that are being told to justify the attacks on the Church. Here is a call to stand up for the truth, and tell the truth about the lies against us. We don’t have to apologize for what we believe, and for believing it wholeheartedly. And we have to point out that those who oppose us – or who would restrict our worship, close our churches, interfere with our religious education – are wearing a mask, a mask of impartiality.
“A man who professes a creed,” says Chesterton, “confesses a partiality for the creed; when he loves it he is necessarily partial. But when he hates it he generally professes to be impartial. He pretends that the thing he hates is obstructing his way to other things; such as education or hygiene or science or social reform.” But he cares more about the obstacle than the object. He cares more about his hatred for the Church than for objective truth. “No man is less likely to forget the religious question than the irreligious man.”
A month after he wrote those words, G.K. Chesterton was received into the Catholic Church.
(Note: This article was originally posted at CWR on November 29, 2020.)
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