Sunday, November 1, 2015

The Journalist as Theologian

Just recently there was a bruhaha over a New York Times columnist commenting about the recent Synod on the Family.  A Catholic layman, he had expressed some rather overwrought fears about a plot to change doctrine, and the next thing you know there was one of those rebuttal letters, in this case signed by a few score academics at various Catholic universities and seminaries, expressing outrage.  The letter most notably contained a swipe that the columnist had no "theological credentials."

This then generated a webstorm for a few days--but I really don't want to get much into the merits of the thing.  I think the columnist, like a lot of right-leaning Catholic bloggers, need not have had such a set of the vapours over the synod.  By the same token, the suggestion that a Catholic needs some sort of academic degree to discuss the Faith is a little heavy-handed (I'm sure my papers are hardly in order on that score).

But, what interested me as I thought about it was whether I could in fact think of any journalist who could justifiably be called a genuine theologian.  And then I remembered Gilbert Keith Chesterton.

One might assume that Chesterton was subject to comparable academic criticism from Hilaire Belloc's "Lines to a Don":

     Remote and ineffectual Don
     That dared attack my Chesterton,   
     With that poor weapon, half-impelled,   
     Unlearnt, unsteady, hardly held,   
     Unworthy for a tilt with men—
     Your quavering and corroded pen;   
     Don poor at Bed and worse at Table,
     Don pinched, Don starved, Don miserable;   
     Don stuttering, Don with roving eyes,   
     Don nervous, Don of crudities;   
     Don clerical, Don ordinary,
     Don self-absorbed and solitary;   
     Don here-and-there, Don epileptic;   
     Don puffed and empty, Don dyspeptic;   
     Don middle-class, Don sycophantic,   
     Don dull, Don brutish, Don pedantic;
     Don hypocritical, Don bad,
     Don furtive, Don three-quarters mad;   
     Don (since a man must make an end),   
     Don that shall never be my friend.

(Now in fact Belloc doesn't yet make an end; he takes his imprecations on through the canonical fifty lines.  But I digress.)

I discovered Chesterton in my late twenties and was much taken with him.  He was a journalist who wrote novels still read and poetry still today enjoyed.  His rather eccentric economic theories, which repudiated capitalism, socialism and fascism in equal measure, anticipated the approach of "Small is Beautiful" economist (and fellow Catholic convert) E.F. Schumacher.  The Father Brown detective stories still puzzle,surprise and amuse us.  But Chesterton is best known as a religious writer.

He was baptized as an infant in the Church of England, but only in his late twenties, after some drifting and wandering, did he find in the Christian faith an adequate approach to the moral, social and political ills of his day.  Though Chesterton is often characterized as a Catholic writer, he didn't enter the Catholic Church until his forty sixth year, only fourteen years before his death in 1936.

In a previous post on Gustavo Gutiérrez's Teología de la Liberación I noted his discussion of different types of theology--mystical, philosophical, and the more topical theology addressed to the "signs of the times."  Gutiérrez put his own work in the latter category (along with de civitate Dei), and there also in all likelihood belongs Mr. Chesterton.

No less an academic than Étienne Gilson highly praised St. Thomas Aquinas, and that was in fact my first exposure to Chesterton.  But most still find in Orthodoxy his most original contribution, the work in which his love of paradox most humorously and surprisingly casts a cold eye on the various fads and movements that would make of orthodox Christianity a worn-out historical relic.  At the risk of going on too long I think it worthwhile to quote from some of his thunder:

'Men who begin to fight the Church for the sake of freedom and humanity end by flinging away freedom and humanity if only they may fight the Church. This is no exaggeration; I could fill a book with the instances of it. Mr. Blatchford set out, as an ordinary Bible-smasher, to prove that Adam was guiltless of sin against God; in manoeuvring so as to maintain this he admitted, as a mere side issue, that all the tyrants, from Nero to King Leopold, were guiltless of any sin against humanity. I know a man who has such a passion for proving that he will have no personal existence after death that he falls back on the position that he has no personal existence now. He invokes Buddhism and says that all souls fade into each other; in order to prove that he cannot go to heaven he proves that he cannot go to Hartlepool. I have known people who protested against religious education with arguments against any education, saying that the child's mind must grow freely or that the old must not teach the young. I have known people who showed that there could be no divine judgment by showing that there can be no human judgment, even for practical purposes. They burned their own corn to set fire to the church; they smashed their own tools to smash it; any stick was good enough to beat it with, though it were the last stick of their own dismembered furniture. We do not admire, we hardly excuse, the fanatic who wrecks this world for love of the other. But what are we to say of the fanatic who wrecks this world out of hatred of the other? He sacrifices the very existence of humanity to the non-existence of God. He offers his victims not to the altar, but merely to assert the idleness of the altar and the emptiness of the throne. He is ready to ruin even that primary ethic by which all things live, for his strange and eternal vengeance upon some one who never lived at all.

"And yet the thing hangs in the heavens unhurt. Its opponents only succeed in destroying all that they themselves justly hold dear. They do not destroy orthodoxy; they only destroy political courage and common sense. They do not prove that Adam was not responsible to God; how could they prove it? They only prove (from their premises) that the Czar is not responsible to Russia. They do not prove that Adam should not have been punished by God; they only prove that the nearest sweater should not be punished by men. With their oriental doubts about personality they do not make certain that we shall have no personal life hereafter; they only make certain that we shall not have a very jolly or complete one here. With their paralysing hints of all conclusions coming out wrong they do not tear the book of the Recording Angel; they only make it a little harder to keep the books of Marshall & Snelgrove. Not only is the faith the mother of all worldly energies, but its foes are the fathers of all worldly confusion. The secularists have not wrecked divine things; but the secularists have wrecked secular things, if that is any comfort to them. The Titans did not scale heaven; but they laid waste the world."

This, to me, is a prime example of journalism in the theological mode.  It isn't common, but I would say from this that it is obviously possible.

Even, let us say, for cartoonists:      

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