The difference between Puritanism and Catholicism is not about whether some priestly word or gesture is significant and sacred. It is about whether any word or gesture is significant and sacred. To the Catholic every other daily act is a dramatic dedication to the service of good or evil. To the Calvinist no act can have that sort of solemnity, because the person doing it has been dedicated from eternity, and is merely filling up his time until the crack of doom.
———G. K. Chesterton (1974–1936), What’s Wrong with the World (1910)
At one point in time (and perhaps still today), it was recommended in jest that the best way to begin any paper or article was with a G. K. Chesterton quotation—indeed, the English wit sometimes seems to have written just for the purpose of being excerpted wildly, producing these little quips that seem to have the ring of truth about them, provided they are not considered too carefully. For example, when this English Catholic writer asserts that a man “can no more possess a private religion than he can possess a private sun and moon,” he sounds in the right somehow, at least for those already in awe of his oeuvre or those most willing to be convinced by what he has to say, the believers struggling for validation in a modern world that seems not unlike Chesterton’s early twentieth century, so rife with heresies such as Darwinism and socialism. However, a moment’s reflection reveals that Chesterton rather seeks to prescribe than describe, to fit the world into the frame of revelation rather than reveal what is actually there. After all, we can easily bring to mind the Catholic who practices birth control, the Southern Baptist not so critical of dancing and drinking as his preacher would wish, or the Jew whose evening Chinese takeout might stand outside ancient kosher regulations. In Europe, there has even recently been opened a gay-friendly mosque. Quite a lot of private moons out there in the universe.
Similarly, when Chesterton writes about the difference between Catholicism and Puritanism, it sounds wonderful (at least, if your sympathies do not lie with the predestinationist view). For Catholics, every moment of this life is imbued with meaning, every decision one for good or evil. This, of course, has the effect of rendering the individual Catholic either hero or villain—either way a starring role in the narrative of salvation, the story of our very existence. Chesterton’s penchant for romance has the shine of a newly polished set of the Armor of God, on loan from St. Paul. And for Chesterton, life only has meaning if part of the larger “romance of faith,” to use the subtitle of his 1908 book Orthodoxy.
Of course, many people less eloquent than Chesterton have made similar claims—indeed, it is a staple of the evangelical set today that a life without God is a life without meaning. Often, this is rather taken as a given, understood to be self-evident. Apparently, such claimants mean that, unless one’s actions (or, at least, the one action of “being saved,” if you’re a true Southern Baptist) stand some sort of judgment by some sort of higher power, then one’s life is pointless—meaning comes from goodness being recognized and evil being punished. In their nightmare world without meaning, you will not be rewarded for overcoming all those trials and temptations, but neither will you be reprimanded for giving into them. A universe without a divine overseer allows you to be the worst person you can possibly be with no greater judgment than the disapprobation of your peers or the legal system. For Chesterton, perhaps, the atheist is not all that different from the Calvinist, merely biding his time until the bell tolls its final toll.
Once in my life, especially during a five-year experiment with Roman Catholicism, I rather held to Chesterton’s schema, to his romantic worldview. Therefore might I reflect upon my present state of mind and say with Benedict of Much Ado about Nothing, “A man loves the meat in his youth that he cannot endure in his age,” for Chesterton was the meat of my youth (though my endurance of his writing ability has not lessened one whit—just my endurance of his worldview). However, the change in my appreciation of him is more than the change in personal taste that accompanies the addition of years to one’s life. Instead, it is a judgment upon the romance he so eagerly propagated. One might say of Chesterton what Dame Rebecca West wrote of Rudyard Kipling in 1936 after his death, that he “never had the courage to face a single fact that disproved the fairy-tales he had invented about the world in his youth… [but] nevertheless was so courageous in defending his uncourageous position that he had to be respected as one respects a fighting bull making his last stand.” This was the Chesterton who, in Why I Am a Catholic (1926), defended his Church by observing that “those who complain that Catholicism cannot say anything new, seldom think it necessary to say anything new about Catholicism.” This was the Chesterton, who, in The Everlasting Man (1925), so wittily denied all the evidence offered for evolutionary theory and mocked the modern anthropologist by quipping that “sometimes the professor with his bone becomes almost as dangerous as a dog with his. And the dog at least does not deduce a theory from it, proving that mankind is going to the dogs—or that it came from them.”
It is almost fitting that Chesterton was so dismissive of evolutionary theory, for it is evolutionary theory which creates a story far more enchanting than the old romance of faith in which all humanity stands lined up behind the banners of either God or Satan. Indeed, this is the problem of Chesterton’s romance. Oh, it is indeed democratic, giving everyone a vote (and even allowing folks to change their votes over the course of their lives), and thus far more satisfying than the strict Puritanism which hands people their already-filled-out ballots at the moment of their birth. However, this divine system mirrors only too closely our current American political system in allowing but two main parties to the practical exclusion of all others. Even making allowances for Purgatory does nothing to overcome this flaw—rather, it illuminates a fundamental commonality between these ostensible opposites (again, all too like our own political system), demonstrating that both party leaders have a fundamental investment in the sufferings of their respective constituencies.
By contrast, what we might dub the romance of fact reveals the stunning beauty of the universe rather than stunning the beautiful universe with revelation. Let us take as an example the phenomenon of homosexuality, which still persists as the subject of so much controversy in our present political climate. Within the romance of faith, homosexuality constituted an “intrinsically disordered” behavior, to use the words of Church thinkers, and to engage in homosexual acts—even to possess those inclinations—marked one as subject to the forces of evil. End of story. However, because the romance of fact can comprehend phenomena outside the dualism of good versus evil, it can actually produce a richer story than that created by faith. The story which some thinkers have begun to piece together includes the persistence of homosexuality as an adaptive behavior which helps to foster group solidarity within environments where access to partners of the opposite sex might be limited (as within certain hierarchical primate communities). This story holds that group cohesion has, for some species, as powerful a role in evolution as does the act of reproduction itself, that communities which retain structural integrity have a greater chance of survival, and therefore individuals need not themselves reproduce in order to aid the survival of their species, in order to make their mark upon the world. Richard Dawkins, in The Selfish Gene (1976), eloquently spelled out how altruistic acts, even those which result in the death of the actor, can serve the cause of survival for a group or for the species as a whole, producing a story in which our acts become more than dramatic dedications “to the service of good or evil” (non-ontological categories, those) but rather play a part in the destiny of something larger than ourselves.
“There is grandeur in this view of life,” as Charles Darwin himself wrote at the end of The Origin of Species (1859). It is a grandeur that the Chestertons of the world miss when they insist upon seeing only an anthropologist with his bone and not the broader story heralded by those remnants of the past, by the human endeavor to understand our origins and, therefore, perhaps apprehend our future a little more clearly. Within the romance of fact, our very cells, the atoms which make up the world, constitute revelations—and, more importantly, unlike the revelations of old, set in stone from the time in which they are delivered and never altering, these can change as our understanding of the universe grows. The romance of faith is, yes, a better story than that supplied us by the Puritans, and it is a story in which our actions have some modicum of meaning. However, even still our story is not our own—or, perhaps, it would be better to say that it is only our own, individually, and no others. Despite the advantages over the predestinate schema of Calvinism, the fundamental ending of the romance of faith remains known, being that vision, that consummation of history, that parousia which has been revealed to prophets and seers, the ultimate triumph of the forces of God and Light. To return to our political metaphor, we might imagine an election fixed by the political bosses of the day, and though we do indeed have free will in casting our ballots for whatever candidate or party we choose, we cannot hope to change the outcome already decided upon in smoky, dingy rooms. Our votes only determine to what extent we suffer any individual repercussions from the powers that be.
By contrast, within the romance of fact, every decision has that meaning to which Chesterton attributed the Catholic perspective. Indulging in what might seem a bit of paradox, we could well say that our actions have meaning because the universe has none itself, because the future is open and undecided. In other words, our every action as human beings living in this world, our every word and gesture, constitutes a dramatic dedication to the service of either life—of our species, of the species of the world—or destruction, all the more so precisely because the fundamental plan of the universe is not laid out neat and ready before us. Oh, there is evil in this world, but its basis is this world, not another realm of spirit. In her two books on the subject of evil—The Atrocity Paradigm: A Theory of Evil (2002) and Confronting Evils: Terrorism, Torture, Genocide (2010)—philosopher Claudia Card has produced a secular definition of evil as constituting reasonably foreseeable, intolerable harms produced (maintained, supported, etc.) by inexcusable wrongdoing. The evil of this world is our own. If we as a species choose the path of destruction in whatever form—nuclear war, or ignoring the reality of global climate change—then we effectively salt the earth with our own corpses, never to be seen again.
It is this possibility of our real and irrevocable extinction which endows each action with meaning in the world. And there we might find some little agreement with Chesterton, who, in Saint Thomas Aquinas (1933), tried to rescue the world from the likes of the Manicheans and the Calvinists, the former of whom “taught that Satan originated the world attributed to God,” while the latter “taught that God originates the work of damnation commonly attributed to Satan”—both sharing “the idea that the creator of the earth was primarily the creator of the evil, whether we call him a devil or god.” As Chesterton adds, “The work of heaven alone was material; the making of a material world. The work of hell is alone spiritual,” as typified by the perversion of the material world for a particular ideological end.
But, of course, it is the schema of good versus evil as a spiritual reality—the schema embodied in the “romance of faith”—which supplies the impetus for, and the justification of, this perversion of material reality. As the unknown writer of the Letter to the Hebrews put it, “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” The work of heaven may be material, but the means of getting to that heaven are grounded in a denial of the material, in the conviction that things not seen trump things that are, in becoming a stranger to this world. Only by supplanting the romance of faith with the romance of fact can we do away with the pull toward perversion and begin truly to embrace the realities of our own existence. The evil of this world is our own—but then so is the goodness, if we but dedicate ourselves to it.