For a long time after “modern” first came into the language, it was an innocuous little word, the simple opposite of “ancient,” and insofar as it had connotations, they were not very good ones. Shakespeare always used it to mean “commonplace,” with strong suggestions of the slipshod and the second-rate.
The Enlightenment and the French Revolution changed that. The elite spirits of Europe, convinced they were living under what George Bush would call a “new order,” consigned most things ancient to oblivion, and decided that being modem was a necessity. One result was that every institution that traced its origins to the distant past or that lived by tradition found itself in serious philosophical trouble. And of course the Catholic Church, besieged by liberals, socialists, evolutionists, higher critics, and Hegelians, was one of them. The Church’s tussle with the new order produced the “modernist crisis” of 1902-1907, which ended (for the time being) with the condemnation of modernism as a synthesis of the heresies and the imposition of an antimodernist oath. Chesterton and the Modernist Crisis consists of nine essays placing Chesterton in relation to those events, and offering some comment on the crisis and on some of the actors in it. The book originated in 1989 as an issue of the Chesterton Review.
The essays are a varied group. For collectors of ecclesiastical eccentricity—always a wide and growing field—there are fascinating contributions by Valentine Moran and Aidan Nichols on the English modernist Father Tyrrell and his aristocratic backer, Maud Petre. In “The Politics of the Anglican Modernists,” Alan Wilkinson describes some peculiar characters on the modernist side of the Church of England, in particular Dean Inge and Bishop Barnes of Birmingham, the latter an oddity who advocated “race hygiene” and speculated that St. Francis owed his stigmata to scratching instead of washing. There are also contributions by specialists on theological modernism. Emile Poulat writes on “The Catholic Church in the Modernist Revolution,” and Gabriel Daly on “Apologetics in the Modernist Cultural Context.” From these essays one gathers that, despite the fulminations of Pius X, modernism has triumphed.
The chief focus of the book is on Chesterton, and here the big difficulty is that during the crisis Chesterton was an Anglican who was not very interested in Rome’s troubles. His attention was focused on the larger phenomenon of cultural modernism; this was the whole of which the Church’s troubles were a part. Ian Boyd, the Review‘s editor, has made the best of Chesterton’s sketchy non-Catholic views of the subject in “Chesterton’s Anglican Reaction to Modernism.” Aidan Nichols argues in “Chesterton and Modernism” that Chesterton as a Catholic combined theological orthodoxy with social modernism, and praises his work as an early example of liberation theology. One sees why that formulation” should have gratified some Catholic reviewers. A simpler explanation of Chesterton’s odd mix of the traditional and the modem is that, like many compatriots, he traveled to Rome via Canterbury and took a lot of Anglican baggage along with him, including his social views.
The strongest essay is John Coates’s “Chesterton and the Modernist Cultural Context,” based on the “obvious but essential point” that Chesterton detected and attacked modernism “in so many departments of life and thought.” This formidable piece corrects the parochialism of literary and artistic criticism by pointing out that the heart of modernism is not in the aesthetic styles of the postwar years, but, as Chesterton understood, in the later Victorian period with its contending evolutionary and immanentist cosmologies associated with Nietzsche, Haeckel, Spencer, and Shaw among others.
Ian Crowther also presents Chesterton as a champion of antimodernism in an elegantly written little book that is a good introduction to Chesterton’s thought. Though not a biography, it follows a biographical pattern. Its five chapters begin with the “heresies” the young Chesterton first attacked, proceed to the orthodoxy he adopted and defended, and end with a particularly good account of the social thought that occupied his later years.
These are both admirable books, and yet each, approaching Chesterton exclusively as an antimodernist, now seems slightly off-target. Chesterton wins his arguments so easily in Ian Crowther’s pages that one wonders why his modernist opponents bothered arguing with him. M. Poulat has the answer: perhaps they didn’t. He tells us that modernism has imposed itself on the Church “as her actual, historic condition,” and that she is now preparing to enter “into the new set of mind, at the price of a new intellectual and social equilibrium, a new regime of life and thought.” And Gabriel Daly, who criticizes Chesterton for defending Christianity on cultural grounds, believes that Chesterton’s approach is outdated because “the advance in interfaith and interchurch dialogue” has rendered his combativeness embarrassing, and “Christianity in the West is not under serious attack.” Like M. Poulat, he anticipates the new time when apologetics will have been “absorbed into a newly structured fundamental theology.”
Why do these statements seem so dated and beside the point, even a little dotty? Only a couple of years ago there was still a market for antimodernist arguments, however unsubtle, and there was still a case to be made for Poulat’s and Daly’s kind of accommodationism. That is no longer so. The collapse of the Soviet empire has discredited a great deal more than Marx and Lenin. The whole progressive, evolutionary, immanentist enterprise has been shown up for the verbal legerdemain it always was, and Chesterton’s old opponents. Wells, the Webbs, Shaw, Dean Inge, Bishop Barnes—the whole squadron of them, known and unknown—are rags flapping in the wind. The war is over. Within his terms of reference, Chesterton was right, and his side has won.
The odd thing about these books is that neither tells the essential truth about Chesterton’s place in that battle. Each, though written from a generally Christian standpoint, falls into the modernist habit of writing as though results hinged upon joining the right party, adopting the right program. That was not Chesterton’s experience. As his best poem, ‘The Ballad of the White Horse,” makes very clear, his position was a lonely one, and for much of the time nearly hopeless. From the standpoint of the worldly, he gained attention by playing the fool, and his allies were a ragtag platoon of eccentrics and misfits. Nor was he primarily fighting for Christian culture, how-‘ ever much he valued it. The discomforting fact is that he took his stand on sheer Christianity. He believed in Jesus Christ, a proposition as absurd and as shaming to the average intellectual of his time, lay or clerical, as it is today.
As the modernist squabbles fade from memory and new dangers shape themselves in the world, the probative and exemplary value of Chesterton’s writing will lie in the prophetic accuracy of his delineation of his times, and in his expression of the faith that guided his eye. One sees the difficulties of that position for the average agnostic reader, but one also sees its justice and its necessity if truth is to be told. After all, there is one man in the postmodernist world we can be sure Chesterton would understand, and that is John Paul II, who has recently, and unfashionably, dedicated post- Soviet Russia to the Immaculate Heart of Mary—not, on the face of it, a modernist thing to do.
[Chesterton and the Modernist Crisis, Edited by Aidan Nichols, O.P. (Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada: The Chesterton Review Press) 222 pp., $24.50]
[Thinkers of Our Time: G.K. Chesterton, by Ian Crowther (London: The Claridge Press) $21.00]