Friday, 15 February 2008

Chesterton on the Deaths of the Church

This will be a long post. These are excerpts from Chesterton's, "The Everlasting Man," the chapter entitled, "The Five Deaths of the Church." I think am drawn to this chapter in particular because of what is happening within the Anglican Church; in Canada and, indeed, in the whole "western" world.

In the Baptist church I attend here in Edson, during our men's Bible study on Wednesday nights, I sometimes pray in thanks to God that He will not let His church die. I think sometimes others around the table wonder why I seem to have that so much on my mind. It might seem an obsession. "Why," I think they might wonder, "do I think it might?" Well, of course I know it won't, but sometimes I think they don't feel the danger. I think this congregation, this one small body of believers in a small town along the Yellowhead highway in central Alberta, Canada is, in a sense, insulated from the controversies that go on in other churches, other denominations. We are so blessed to have sound congregational leadership and a godly pastor -- a warrior for the Truth and for the Word, a lover of them both and a wonderful communicator of them both.

But I have a foot in two worlds, so to speak, and while I am not in fear of my "other" church abandoning the truth for a lie, I know there may be difficult and trying times ahead. I will be leaving Edson mid summer and returning to Edmonton. Who knows what lies ahead?

Here, then; Chesterton for tonight.

"Christendom has had a series of revolutions and in each one of them Christianity has died. Christianity has died many times and risen again; for it had a God who knew the way out of the grave.

"Arianism, as has been said, had every human appearance of being the natural way in which that particular superstition of Constantine might be expected to peter out. All the ordinary stages had been passed through; the creed had become a respectable thing, had become a ritual thing, had then been modified into a rational thing; and the rationalists were ready to dissipate the last remains of it, just as they do to-day. When Christianity rose again suddenly and threw them, it was almost as unexpected as Christ rising from the dead.

"I suspect that we should find several occasions when Christendom was thus to all appearance hollowed out from within by doubt and indifference, so that only the old Christian shell stood as the pagan shell had stood so long. But the difference is that in every such case, the sons were fanatical for the faith where the fathers had been slack about it.

"Some stones of Stonehenge are standing and some are fallen; and as the stone falleth so shall it lie. There has not been a Druidic renaissance every century or two, with the young Druids crowned with fresh mistletoe, dancing in the sun on Salisbury Plain. Stonehenge has not been rebuilt in every style of architecture from the rude round Norman to the last rococo of the Baroque. The sacred place of the Druids is safe from the vandalism of restoration.
"But the Church in the West was not in a world where things were too old to die; but in one in which they were always young enough to get killed. The consequence was that superficially and externally it often did get killed; nay, it sometimes wore out even without getting killed. And there follows a fact I find it somewhat difficult to describe, yet which I believe to be very real and rather important. As a ghost is the shadow of a man, and in that sense the shadow of life, so at intervals there passed across this endless life a sort of shadow of death. It came at the moment when it would have perished had it been perishable. It withered away everything that was perishable. If such animal parallels were worthy of the occasion we might say that the snake shuddered and shed a skin and went on...
...It is truer to say, in a more dignified image, that a clock struck and nothing happened; or that a bell tolled for an execution that was everlastingly postponed.

"...the incredible thing has happened again; the Faith has a better following among the young men than among the old. When Ibsen spoke of the new generation knocking at the door, he certainly never expected that it would be the church-door.

"In short, the whole world being divided about whether the stream was going slower or faster, became conscious of something vague but vast that was going against the stream. Both in fact and figure there is something deeply disturbing about this, and that for an essential reason. A dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it.
(I highlighted this last sentence because it is one of my personal all-time favourites, JK)

"It is already clear, and grows clearer every day, that it is not going to end in the disappearance of the diminished creed; but rather in the return of those parts of it that had really disappeared. It is going to end as the Arian compromise ended, as the attempts at a compromise with Nominalism and even with Albigensianism ended.

"...most people, were indeed by this time quite accustomed to the idea that the old Christian candle-light would fade into the light of common day. To many of them it did quite honestly appear like that pale yellow flame of a candle when it is left burning in daylight. It was all the more unexpected, and therefore all the more unmistakable, that the seven branched candle-stick suddenly towered to heaven like a miraculous tree and flamed until the sun turned pale.

"Again and again, before our time, men have grown content with a diluted doctrine. And again and again there has followed on that dilution, coming as out of the darkness in a crimson cataract, the strength of the red original wine... We have grown used to dilution, to dissolution, to a watering down that went on for ever. But 'Thou hast kept the good wine until now.''

"The faith has not only often died but it has often died of old age. It has not only been often killed but it has often died a natural death; in the sense of coming to a natural and necessary end. It is obvious that it has survived the most savage and the most universal persecutions from the shock of the Diocletian fury to the shock of the French Revolution. But it has a more strange and even a more weird tenacity; it has survived not only war but peace. It has not only died often but degenerated often and decayed often; it has survived its own weakness and even its own surrender.

"'Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away.' The civilisation of antiquity was the whole world: and men no more dreamed of its ending than of the ending of daylight. They could not imagine another order unless it were in another world. The civilisation of the world has passed away and those words have not passed away. In the long night of the Dark Ages feudalism was so familiar a thing that no man could imagine himself without a lord: and religion was so woven into that network that no man would have believed they could be torn asunder. Feudalism itself was torn to rags and rotted away in the popular life of the true Middle Ages; and the first and freshest power in that new freedom was the old religion. Feudalism had passed away, and the words did not pass away. The whole medieval order, in many ways so complete and almost cosmic a home for man, wore out gradually in its turn and here at least it was thought that the words would die. They went forth across the radiant abyss of the Renaissance and in fifty years were using all its light and learning for new religious foundations, new apologetics, new saints. It was supposed to have been withered up at last in the dry light of the Age of Reason; it was supposed to have disappeared ultimately in the earthquake of the Age of Revolution. Science explained it away; and it was still there. History disinterred it in the past; and it appeared suddenly in the future. To-day it stands once more in our path; and even as we watch it, it grows."

Find it all here...

If you can get past Chesterton's rather verbose style, I would commend the entire book to you, but tonight I am in a mood to focus on this particular chapter. I am in that mood because I see another death, that of a denomination about which I care very much. I hope that does not seem maudlin or melodramatic. But along with Chesterton, out of this death I see a rebirth, a new thing, which is really just the rediscovery, certainly the resurrection, of an old thing -- the Faith once delivered to the saints, of whom we are not only descendents, spiritually speaking, but brothers.

Take Care


stauf46 said...

Wow, great stuff. Timeless.

That bit about your Edson pastor might be over the top,* but, otherwise, great post.

*In all seriousness, thanks for the kind words. It can all change very quickly, so keep praying for us too!

John K said...

"That bit about your Edson pastor might be over the top,..."

Just another area where we don't agree, Pastor Terry. :)