Literary Witness 5

 The World’s Last Rationalist

By David Mills

One of the most persistently annoying prejudices against Christianity is that Christians are too committed to Christianity to be reliable witnesses to its truth. The unbeliever claims to be the only really objective man, precisely because he does not believe. He follows the arguments where they lead, we plead for a position we’ve already taken for other reasons. Or so says the secularist.

G. K. Chesterton told a story many of us could also tell. A young man told him no great intellect had believed in miracles, and when Chesterton gave him a long list — including Descartes, Newton, Pasteur, and the like — the man replied, “Oh, but of course they had to say that; they were Christians.” Chesterton said: “First he challenged me to find a black swan, and then he ruled out all my swans because they were black.”

Persistent, as I say, and annoying. Allied to it is the idea that Christians are gullible, and Catholics, with their statues and rosaries and popes the most gullible and simple-minded of all. “It is one of the fantasies of the twentieth century that believers are credulous people, sentimental people, and that you have to be a materialist and a scientist and a humanist to have a skeptical mind,” said Malcolm Muggeridge, early in his Christian life.

But, he continued, “exactly the opposite is true. It is believers who can be astringent and skeptical, whereas people who believe seriously that this universe exists only in order to provide a theatre for man must take man with deadly seriousness.” He added that he thought this age “will go down in history as one of the most credulous ever,” mentioning the effectiveness of advertising in selling false promises. It has certainly had its share of false prophets like Marx and Lenin, and its foolish ideological dreams, like Communism, which secular intellectuals — including the biggies of their day — once expected to bring the utopia religion had never provided.

Also allied to this prejudice is the claim that religious people are simple-minded, because we answer many questions unbelievers — and liberal Christians — insist cannot be answered at all, because the matters are too “complex” and “ambiguous” and “mysterious.” But as Ronald Knox noted, “It is easy to suspect simplicity in your opponent’s mind, when the simplicity really lies in the facts.”

To take an issue that we are forever being told is “difficult” and “irresolvable,” the belief that “You shall not kill” includes the unborn is only simple-minded if it is untrue. If it is true, it is simple but not simple-minded, because the simplicity lies in the fact of the moral law. In fact, it takes a subtle mind to recognize a simple truth.

And of course the skeptic really believes this too. He has no problem believing that “You shall not kill” includes himself. He would not appreciate being murdered at his desk by a killer who explained to him how complex and ambiguous and mysterious the matter is.

Christians, as it happens, have a far more sophisticated understanding of belief than secular people realize. For one thing, we understand doubt from the inside, something for which we are rarely given credit. “You and I have got all the apparatus in us for doubting every article of the Christian creed,” wrote Knox. “Faith is not a knife which cuts them out; it is an injection which neutralizes them.”

For another, we understand the purpose and the possibilities of thought. We are the true rationalists. Many modern philosophers, like the deconstructionists, despair of the human ability to find and articulate truth. Chesterton remarked that many moderns seemed to think that the object of the mind was merely opening the mind, whereas he thought that “The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.”

The result of this is the opposite of liberation: the result is dehumanization. Chesterton saw this clearly. “The vice of the modern notion of mental progress is that it is always something concerned with the breaking of bonds, the effacing of boundaries, the casting away of dogmas. But if there be such a thing as mental growth, it must mean the growth into more and more definite convictions, into more and more dogmas. The human brain is a machine for coming to conclusions; if it cannot come to conclusions it is rusty.”

Man, he continues, becomes more and more human in creating “tremendous schemes of philosophy and religion,” and then he explains what the modern skeptic really is. When a man “drops one doctrine after another in a refined skepticism, when he declines to tie himself to a system, when he says that he has outgrown definitions, when he says that he disbelieves in finality, . . . then he is by that very process sinking slowly backwards into the vagueness of the vagrant animals and the unconsciousness of the grass. Trees have no dogmas. Turnips are singularly broad-minded.”

David Mills is the author of Knowing the Real Jesus and Discovering Mary and writes a weblog for Patheos. He has served as the editor of Touchstone and executive editor of First Things. “The World’s Last Rationalist” appeared in the September/October issue of Lay Witness.

The quotations are taken from: Chesterton: “The Error of Impartiality” in All Things Considered; Muggeridge, The End of Christendom; Knox, The Belief of Catholics; Chesterton, ? and Heretics.