Literary Witness 11
By David Mills
The man without a settled intellectual commitment — a religion or an ideology or a philosophy — is not therefore free to think about things and come to the truth his intellectually committed peers cannot, argued G. K. Chesterton. His mind is not open. It’s just bound by bonds he cannot see. Without realizing it, Ssuch a man does inevitably thinks through holds a philosophy he does not recognize as strongly as anyone else, but unfortunately for him it is “only the used-up scraps of somebody else’s philosophy . . . the broken bits of some incomplete and shattered and often discredited philosophy.”
Philosophy “is merely thought that has been thought out.” We can only choose “between being influenced by thought that has been thought out and being influenced by thought that has not been thought out. . . . A man does test everything by something. The question here is whether he has ever tested the test.”
Some people deny that Catholics can speak against abortion because their religion tells them what to think,. yYet theymselves will declare that the mother “has a right to control her own body” or that the unborn child is not a person deserving legal protection, or even that he is a person but that his mother’s desire not to be pregnant trumps his right to live. We are “dogmatic” and therefore blind; they are undogmatic and therefore see what we cannot.
That is, of course, quite untrue. They have a philosophy that includes concepts of rights and personhood, but they have not thought it out. They have never tested their own tests. Most of them will insist that a baby may be aborted until he is born, but that he must be protected afterwards, without ever explaining why a few minutes and a change of location should save his life. They do not know why he is a person when five seconds before he was not.
Christianity provides the philosophy, the thought that has been thought out, the tested test. This clarity gives Christianity all sorts of advantages, and not just in thinking clearly about moral matters when the confused cannot distinguish between good and evil.
The Christian is not so easily seduced by the appealing ideas of the moment, for one thing. For the last 150 years or more, “modern” men have looked to the future as the guide to their actions, and often dismissed the past simply because it was the past.
Men “think of the future as a promised land which favored heroes attain.,” wrote C. S. Lewis. They do not ask whether an action is right or wrong, prudent or foolish, possible or impossible. They ask “Is it in accordance with the general movement of our time? Is it progressive or reactionary? Is this the way that History is going?” Ideas they once would have simply described as “unchanged,” and probably trusted because they had not changed, they now deride as “stagnant.”
The terms have changed slightly since Lewis wrote, but the idea is as powerful now as then. It can be found in most of Time and Newsweek’s articles on the Church.
When someone claims that a particular creed “can be held in one age but cannot be held in another,” wrote G. K. Chesterton, “you might as well say that a certain philosophy can be believed on Mondays, but cannot be believed on Tuesdays. You might as well say of a view of the cosmos that it was suitable to half-past three, but not suitable to half-past four. What a man can believe depends upon his philosophy, not upon the clock or the century.”
These modern men can’t, Lewis noted, even answer their own questions, Lewis wrote, “for they do not know the future, and what the future will be depends very largely on just those choices which they now invoke the future to help them make.” This blank check written to the future is a thought that has not been thought out.
“We all want progress,” he noted. “But progress means getting nearer to the place you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.”
Lewis called this faith in the future “chronological snobbery,” and it is as silly as most snobberies, but much more destructive. “If no set of moral ideas were truer or better than any other, there would be no sense in preferring civilised morality to savage morality, or Christian morality to Nazi morality.”
Remember those who argue for abortion. Most of them abhor infanticide, but they can say nothing effective against their peers who have recognized that birth is an arbitrary point for declaring the child a person, and declared that if he can be killed before birth he can be killed after birth. They cannot defend the good they see, because they cannot (or maybe will not) think.
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. “Thought-Out Thoughts” appeared in the September/October 2010 issue of Lay Witness.
The quotes can be found in: Chesterton, “Revival of Philosophy — Why?” in The Well and the Shallows; Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, Letter XXV; Chesterton, letter to Maurice Baring, quoted in David Fagerberg’s The Size of Chesterton’s Catholicism, p. 74; Lewis, Screwtape, op. cit.; Lewis, Mere Christianity, Book I, chapter 5; Lewis, ?; Lewis, Mere, Book I, chapter 2.