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THE CATHOLIC CHURCH AND CONVERSION BY G. K. CHESTERTON, CHAPTER IV: THE WORLD INSIDE OUT
EWTN.com ^ | 1926 | G. K. CHESTERTON

Posted on 06/11/2013 9:36:56 PM PDT by Salvation

CHAPTER IV: THE WORLD INSIDE OUT

The first fallacy about the Catholic Church is the idea that it is a
church. I mean that it is a church in the sense in which the
Nonconformist newspapers talk about The Churches. I do not
intend any expression of contempt about The Churches; nor is it
an expression of contempt to say that it would be more convenient
to call them the sects. This is true in a much deeper and more
sympathetic sense than may at first appear; but to begin with, it is
certainly true in a perfectly plain and historical sense, which has
nothing to do with sympathy at all. Thus, for instance, I have much
more sympathy for small nationalities than I have for small sects.
But it is simply a historical fact that the Roman Empire was the
Empire and that it was not a small nationality. And it is simply a
historical fact that the Roman Church is the Church and is not a
sect. Nor is there anything narrow or unreasonable in saying that
the Church is the Church. It may be a good thing that the Roman
Empire broke up into nations; but it certainly was not one of the
nations into which it broke up. And even a person who thinks it
fortunate that the Church broke up into sects ought to be able to
distinguish between the little things he likes and the big thing he
has broken. As a matter of fact, in the case of things so large, so
unique and so creative of the culture about them as were the
Roman Empire and the Roman Church, it is not controversial but
simply correct to confine the one word to the one example.
Everybody who originally used the word "Empire" used it of that
Empire; everybody who used the word "Ecclesia" used it of that
Ecclesia. There may have been similar things in other places, but
they could not be called by the same name for the simple reason
that they were not named in the same language. We know what we
mean by a Roman Emperor; we can if we like talk of a Chinese
Emperor, just as we can if we like take a particular sort of a
Mandarin and say he is equivalent to a Marquis. But we never can
be certain that he is exactly equivalent; for the thing we are
thinking about is peculiar to our own history and in that sense
stands alone. Now in that, if in no other sense, the Catholic Church
stands alone. It does not merely belong to a class of Christian
churches. It does not merely belong to a class of human religions.
Considered quite coldly and impartially, as by a man from the
moon, it is much more sui generis than that. It is, if the critic
chooses to think so, the ruin of an attempt at a Universal Religion
which was bound to fail. But calling the wreckers to break up a
ship does not turn the ship into one of its own timbers; and cutting
Poland up into three pieces does not make Poland the same as
Posen.

But in a much more profound and philosophical sense this notion
that the Church is one of the sects is the great fallacy of the whole
affair. It is a matter more psychological and more difficult to
describe. But it is perhaps the most sensational of the silent
upheavals or reversals in the mind that constitute the revolution
called conversion. Every man conceives himself as moving about
in a cosmos of some kind; and the man of the days of my youth
walked about in a kind of vast and airy Crystal Palace in which
there were exhibits set side by side. The cosmos, being made of
glass and iron, was partly transparent and partly colourless;
anyhow, there was something negative about it; arching over all
our heads, a roof as remote as a sky, it seemed to be impartial and
impersonal. Our attention was fixed on the exhibits, which were all
carefully ticketed and arranged in rows; for it was the age of
science. Here stood all the religions in a row--the churches or sects
or whatever we called them; and towards the end of the row there
was a particularly dingy and dismal one, with a pointed roof half
fallen in and pointed windows most broken with stones by passers-
by; and we were told that this particular exhibit was the Roman
Catholic Church. Some of us were sorry for it and even fancied it
had been rather badly used; most of us regarded it as dirty and
disreputable; a few of us even pointed out that many details in the
ruin were artistically beautiful or architecturally important. But
most people preferred to deal at other and more business-like
booths; at the Quaker shop of Peace and Plenty or the Salvation
Army store where the showman beats the big drum outside. Now
conversion consists very largely, on its intellectual side, in the
discovery that all that picture of equal creeds inside an indifferent
cosmos is quite false. It is not a question of comparing the merits
and defects of the Quaker meeting-house set beside the Catholic
cathedral. It is the Quaker meeting-house that is inside the
Catholic cathedral; it is the Catholic cathedral that covers
everything like the vault of the Crystal Palace; and it is when we
look up at the vast distant dome covering all the exhibits that we
trace the Gothic roof and the pointed windows. In other words,
Quakerism is but a temporary form of Quietism which has arisen
technically outside the Church as the Quietism of Fenelon
appeared technically inside the Church. But both were in
themselves temporary and would have, like Fenelon, sooner or
later to return to the Church in order to live. The principle of life
in all these variations of Protestantism, in so far as it is not a
principle of death, consists of what remained in them of Catholic
Christendom; and to Catholic Christendom they have always
returned to be recharged with vitality. I know that this will sound
like a statement to be challenged; but it is true. The return of
Catholic ideas to the separated parts of Christendom was often
indeed indirect. But though the influence came through many,
centrest it always came from one. It came through the Romantic
Movement, a glimpse of the mere picturesqueness of
mediaevalism; but it is something more than an accident that
Romances, like Romance languages, are named after Rome. Or it
came through the instinctive reaction of old-fashioned people like
Johnson or Scott or Cobbett, wishing to save old elements that had
originally been Catholic against a progress that was merely
Capitalist. But it led them to denounce that Capitalist progress and
become, like Cobbett, practical foes of Protestantism without
being practising followers of Catholicism. Or it came from the Pre-
Raphaelites or the opening of continental art and culture by
Matthew Arnold and Morris and Ruskin and the rest. But examine
the actual make-up of the mind of a good Quaker or
Congregational minister at this moment, and compare it with the
mind of such a dissenter in the Little Bethel before such culture
came. And you will see how much of his health and happiness he
owes to Ruskin and what Ruskin owed to Giotto; to Morris and what
Morris owed to Chaucer; to fine scholars of his own school like
Philip Wicksteed, and what they owe to Dante and St. Thomas.
Such a man will still sometimes talk of the Middle Ages as the Dark
Ages. But the Dark Ages have improved the wallpaper on his wall
and the dress on his wife and all the whole dingy and vulgar life
which he lived in the days of Stiggins and Brother Tadger. For he
also is a Christian and lives only by the life of Christendom.

It is not easy to express this enormous inversion which I have here
tried to suggest in the image of a world turned inside out. I mean
that the thing which had been stared at as a small something
swells out and swallows everything. Christendom is in the literal
sense a continent. We come to feel that it contains everything,
even the things in revolt against itself. But it is perhaps the most
towering intellectual transformation of all and the one that it is
hardest to undo even for the sake of argument. It is almost
impossible even in imagination to reverse that reversal. Another
way of putting it is to say that we have come to regard all these
historical figures as characters in Catholic history, even if they are
not Catholics. And in a certain sense, the historical as distinct
from the theological sense, they never do cease to be Catholic.
They are not people who have really created something entirely
new, until they actually pass the border of reason and create more
or less crazy nightmares. But nightmares do not last; and most of
them even now are in various stages of waking up. Protestants are
Catholics gone wrong; that is what is really meant by saying they
are Christians. Sometimes they have gone very wrong; but not
often have they gone right ahead with their own particular wrong.
Thus a Calvinist is a Catholic obsessed with the Catholic idea of
the sovereignty of God. But when he makes it mean that God
wishes particular people to be damned, we may say with all
restraint that he has become a rather morbid Catholic. In point of
fact he is a diseased Catholic; and the disease left to itself would
be death or madness. But, as a matter of fact, the disease did not
last long, and is itself now practically dead. But every step he
takes back towards humanity is a step back towards Catholicism.
Thus a Quaker is a, Catholic obsessed with the Catholic idea of
gentle simplicity and truth. But when he made it mean that it is a
lie to say "you" and an act of idolatry to take off your hat to a lady,
it is not too much to say that whether or not he had a hat off, he
certainly had a tile loose. But as a matter of fact he himself found
it necessary to dispense with the eccentricity (and the hat) and to
leave the straight road that would have led him to a lunatic
asylum. Only every step he takes back towards common sense is a
step back towards Catholicism. In so far as he was right he was a
Catholic; and in so far as he was wrong he has not himself been
able to remain a Protestant.

To us, therefore, it is henceforth impossible to think of the Quaker
as a figure at the beginning of a new Quaker history or the
Calvinist as the founder of a new Calvinistic world. It is quite
obvious to us that they are simply characters in our own Catholic
history, only characters who caused a great deal of trouble by
trying to do something that we could do better and that they did
not really do at all. Now some may suppose that this can be
maintained of the older sects like Calvinists and Quakers, but
cannot be maintained of modern movements like those of
Socialists or Spiritualists. But they will be quite wrong. The
covering or continental character of the Church applies just as
much to modern manias as to the old religious manias; it applies
quite as much to Materialists or Spiritualists as to Puritans. In all
of them you find that some Catholic dogma is, first, taken for
granted; then exaggerated into an error; and then generally reacted
against and rejected as an error, bringing the individual in
question a few steps back again on the homeward road. And this is
almost always the mark of such a heretic; that while he will wildly
question any other Catholic dogma, he never dreams of
questioning his own favourite Catholic dogma and does not even
seem to know that it could be questioned. It never occurred to the
Calvinist that anybody might use his liberty to deny or limit the
divine omnipotence, or to the Quaker that anyone could question
the supremacy of simplicity. That is exactly the situation of the
Socialist. Bolshevism and every shade of any such theory of
brotherhood is based upon one unfathomably mystical Catholic
dogma; the equality of men. The Communists stake everything on
the equality of man as the Calvinists staked everything on the
omnipotence of God. They ride it to death as the others rode their
dogma to death, turning their horse into a nightmare. But it never
seems to occur to them that some people do not believe in the
Catholic dogma of the mystical equality of men. Yet there are
many, even among Christians, who are so heretical as to question
it. The Socialists get into a great tangle when they try to apply it;
they compromise with their own ideals; they modify their own
doctrine; and so find themselves, like the Quakers and the
Calvinists, after all their extreme extravagances, a day's march
nearer Rome.

In short, the story of these sects is not one of straight lines
striking outwards and onwards, though if it were they would all be
striking in different directions. It is a pattern of curves continually
returning into the continent and common life of their and our
civilisation; and the summary of that civilisation and central
sanity is the philosophy of the Catholic Church. To us, Spiritualists
are men studying the existence of spirits, in a brief and blinding
oblivion of the existence of evil spirits. They are, as it were, people
just educated enough to have heard of ghosts but not educated
enough to have heard of witches. If the evil spirits succeed in
stopping their education and stunting their minds, they may of
course go on for ever repeating silly messages from Plato and
doggerel verses from Milton. But if they do go a step or two
further, instead of marking time on the borderland, their next step
will be to learn what the Church could have taught. To us,
Christian Scientists are simply people with one idea, which they
have never learnt to balance and combine with all the other ideas.
That is why the wealthy business man so often becomes a
Christian Scientist. He is not used to ideas and one idea goes to his
head, like one glass of wine to a starving man. But the Catholic
Church is used to living with ideas and walks among all those very
dangerous wild beasts with the poise and the lifted head of a lion-
tamer. The Christian Scientist can go on monotonously repeating
his one idea and remain a Christian Scientist. But if ever he really
goes on to any other ideas, he will be so much the nearer to being
a Catholic.

When the convert has once seen the world like that, with one
balance of ideas and a number of other ideas that have left it and
lost their balance, he does not in fact experience any of the
inconveniences that he might reasonably have feared before that
silent but stunning revolution. He is not worried by being told that
there is something in Spiritualism or something in Christian
Science. He knows there is something in everything. But he is
moved by the more impressive fact that he finds everything in
something. And he is quite sure that if these investigators really
are looking for everything, and not merely looking for anything,
they will be more and more likely to look for it in the same place.
In that sense he is far less worried about them than he was when
he thought that one or other of them might be the only person
having any sort of communication with the higher mysteries and
obviously rather capable of making a mess of it. He is no more
likely to be overawed by the fact that Mrs. Eddy achieved spiritual
healing or Mr. Home achieved bodily levitation than a fully
dressed gentleman in Bond Street would be overawed by the top-
hat on the head of a naked savage. A top-hat may be a good hat but
it is a bad costume. And a magnetic trick may be a sufficient
sensation but it is a very insufficient philosophy. He is no more
envious of a Bolshevist for making a revolution than of a beaver
for making a dam; for he knows his own civilisation can make
things on a pattern not quite so simple or so monotonous. But he
believes this of his civilisation and his religion and not merely of
himself. There is nothing supercilious about his attitude; because
he is well aware that he has only scratched the surface of the
spiritual estate that is now open to him. In other words, the
convert does not in the least abandon investigation or even
adventure. He does not think he knows everything, nor has he lost
curiosity about the things he does not know. But experience has
taught him that he will find nearly everything somewhere inside
that estate and that a very large number of people are finding next
to nothing outside it. For the estate is not only a formal garden or
an ordered farm; there is plenty of hunting and fishing on it, and,