“Of all horrible religions,” G. K. Chesterton remarked in his book Orthodoxy, “the most horrible is the worship of the god within.” Chesterton (1874–1936) is full of such pungent, discomfiting accuracies. (Here’s another favorite, from the same book: “the old humility made a man doubtful about his efforts, which might make him work harder. But the new humility makes a man doubtful about his aims, which will make him stop working altogether.”) For more than twenty-five years, the G. K. Chesterton Institute has been publishing The Chesterton Review, a quarterly devoted to exploring Chesterton’s themes and thought. It is an eminently worthy enterprise. Chesterton’s famous penchant for paradox, his impatience with cant, his pugnacious endorsement of unfashionable opinions—all this makes him a worthy ally in the effort to understand and critique the sillinesses of contemporary culture. Chesterton wrote three-quarters of a century ago. But when he speaks about “the false theory of progress, which maintains that we alter the test instead of trying to pass the test,” he has a distinctly contemporary relevance. When he observes that “pragmatism is a matter of human needs; and one of the first of human needs is to be something more than a pragmatist,” you wish that someone had given Richard Rorty Chesterton instead of Marx to read when he was young and impressionable.
The current, double issue of The Chesterton Review (Volume XXVI, Numbers 1 & 2) reprints several brief pieces by Chesterton himself with a large handful of papers delivered at a conference in Houston, Texas, last October on the topic of “The Light Within: The New Age and Christian Spirituality.” Although the papers are unfailingly polite, most exhibit a salutary, indeed Chestertonian, skepticism about the merits of so-called New Age spirituality. We recommend in particular “Chesterton and the ‘Age of Aquarius’” by John Coates and “From Helen of Troy to Helena Blavatsky” by Harold O. J. Brown. The last word, however, should go to Chesterton. In an excerpt from his Autobiography (1936), Chesterton, looking back on his young adulthood, dilates on his dislike of Theosophy:
Perhaps I did not dislike Theosophy, but only Theosophists. . . . But I did not dislike them because they had erroneous doctrines, when I myself had no doctrines; or because they had no claim to be Christians, when in fact they would have claimed Christianity . . . much more confidently than I could myself. I disliked them because they had shiny pebbly eyes and patient smiles. Their patience mostly consisted of waiting for others to rise to the spiritual plane where they themselves already stood. It is a curious fact, that they never seemed to hope that they might evolve and reach the plane where their honest greengrocer already stood.
In an age of political correctness and the smug assumption of virtue—the age of what Joseph Epstein has called the “virtuecrat”—it is a pleasure to turn to pretense-puncturers like Chesterton. The Review is a reliable source of this pleasure. Subscriptions may be had from The Chesterton Review, c/o the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, P.O. Box 4431, Wilmington, Delaware 19807 or by calling (800) 526–7022.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 19 Number 2, on page 2
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