Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Chesterton's Bourne Identity

I have been embroiled for quite some time in a dialogue on another website about the existence of God. I don't mean to drag all my readers into it here but recently in this debate we came around to the matter of the more intangible evidences for God's existence. One of them of course being the "spiritual experience" or the "sense of the transcendent" within humanity.

Of course there may be physical, social, or chemical explanations for our spiritual experiences, but re-reading Orthodoxy today I was struck again by Chesterton's take on the whole thing.

He talks about the discovery of gravity, which of course explained why the apple fell. As such it might be said that Newton's discovery spoiled the prayers of many an apple picker who had been thanking the gods every day that the apples fell when they plucked them rather than floating off into space and proving difficult to make a living from.

It might be said that the discovery of gravity took away the mystery and the miracle and therefore put one more notch in the argument against God.

But Chesterton is rightfully perplexed by this. He wonders why those who think this way "feel that because one incomprehensible thing constantly follows another incomprehensible thing the two together somehow make up a comprehensible thing."

Just because we are now able to attach another physical thing to a spiritual feeling does not reduce the mystery but increases it. Maybe now we know why the apple falls, but why is there gravity? Maybe now we know it comes about because of planetary dynamics, but why are there planetary dynamics? And why do we get to know them? And why do we get to walk about in them rather than be crushed by them?

In recent years scientists have been able to show how chemical reactions in the brain effect emotions and DNA affects personality and sociology affects our perceptions. This is pretty incredible and I find these discoveries quite amazing. But as I meditate on them I realize that these discoveries do not reduce the amount of mystery and wonder in the world. With every discovery science unvovers more to explain!

It would seem to me that for every human explanation there will still remain a sense--even and ever-increasing sense--of the transcendent. So is there a satisfying answer to this?

I, for one, had a transcendent experience myself today just reading Chesterton's take on the issue. His apologetic is at the same time a beautiful art. Commenting on that sense of the transcendent in arts and music, sunsets and surprises, epics and especially fairy tales, he says that they serve to remind us from where we've come:

"These tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green.

. . . We have all read in scientific books, and, indeed, in all romances, the story of the man who has forgotten his name. This man walks about the streets and can see and appreciate everything; only he cannot remember who he is. Every man has forgotten who he is.

. . . We have all forgotten what we really are. All that we call common sense and rationality and practicality and positivism only means that for certain dead levels of our life we forget that we have forgotten. All that we call spirit and art and ecstasy only means that for one awful instant we remember that we forget" (Quotations from Orthodoxy).

This rings very true to me. It reminds me of The Bourne Identity and I'm startled to think of the possiblitiy that we're all living it. It makes a lot of sense of a lot of things to think that what is wrong with the world is that it was made right and has gone wrong and we are a lot of people looking to find out who we are.

And those moments of transcendence are when we remember that we were born, that being born we were given life, that being given life means we have someone to thank, and that being thankful we find our identity.


Tony Tanti said...

Great thoughts on your birthday Jon. To me, Orthodoxy continues to be the greatest and most thorough defense of the possibility of that which can never be fully proved, that is the existence of God. What I love about Orthodoxy is that it is a simple exploration of complex ideas and that makes it accessible to any reader.

Happy Birthday Jon.

jon or angie said...


matthew a. wilkinson said...

How can I argue with Chesterton?

You wrote, 'He wonders why those who think this way "feel that because one incomprehensible thing constantly follows another incomprehensible thing the two together somehow make up a comprehensible thing."'


jon or angie said...

hee hee. yeah, he has a way with words. i try very hard not to write this blog for one of my readers specifically (unless I say so I guess), but i did wonder if you'd like that one matt.

Christina said...

Great entry...

The silent modern assumption/illusion that modern man has conquered all mystery, shed light on all obscurities, exposed all the primitive superstition of our ancestors etc. etc. has really led to a quiet sort of arrogance that will not allow us to see that every day we not only participate but are immersed in a world of mysteries whether its humor, dreams, love, beauty etc... We need to regain some humility so we can again "see things that are above us"

"The poet only seeks to get his head into the heavens. the logician seeks to get the heavens into his head... and it is his head that splits" GKC