In his trenchant 1919 Introduction to Scott Montcrieff’s translation of The Song of Roland, G.K. Chesterton was especially stirred by the Old French epic poem’s final stanza, after “Charlemagne the Christian emperor” had already victoriously fought on the Spanish March against encroaching Islam and seemed, at last, to have “established his empire in quiet.” But then, the final poignant stanza surprises us, says Chesterton—namely, King Vivien’s unexpected appeal to Charlemagne for help:
And there appears to him the angel of God crying aloud that his arms are needed in a new and distant land and that he must take up again the endless march of his days. And the great King tears his long white beard and cries out against his restless life. The poem ends, as it were, with a vision and vista of wars against the barbarians; and the vision is true. For that war is never ended, which defends the sanity of the world against all the stark anarchies and rending negations which rage against it for ever. That war is never finished in this world, and the grass has hardly grown on the graves of our own friends who fell in it.
In 1917, one year before his courageous brother, Cecil, died in France, Chesterton published A Short History of England. It was written in response to “a sort of challenge,” and he calls it, with characteristic modesty, merely “a popular essay in English history.”
This little work contains several profound insights, not only about the “fury of the Iconoclasts”—Jews, Muslims, and Christian heretics—but about “the inner emotions of the Crusade.” That is to say, the permanent intellectual and moral resistance to those who still think that “Incarnation is itself Idolatry.” (The following quotations, unless otherwise noted, are all from that work.)
Let us consider what Chesterton calls the adventure, as well as the romance and reality, of “the Crusade; and why, for example, Richard Coeur de Lion’s departure for the Crusade” was “in truth . . . more like a responsible Englishman now going to the Front” (in World War I). For, at that time—the second half of the 12th century—“Christendom was nearly one nation, and the Front was the Holy Land. . . . The Crusades were, for all thoughtful Europeans, things of the highest statesmanship and the purest public spirit.”
To understand this view better, we must consider the larger religious issues involved and view them in the longer light of history:
Some six hundred years after Christianity sprang up in the East and swept westwards, another great faith arose in almost the same eastern lands and followed it like its gigantic shadow. Like a shadow, it was at once a copy and a contrary. We call it Islam, or the creed of the Moslems; and perhaps its most explanatory description is that it was the final flaming up of the accumulated Orientalisms, perhaps of the accumulated Hebraisms, gradually rejected as the Church grew more European, or as Christianity turned into Christendom. Its highest motive was a hatred of idols, and in its view Incarnation was itself an idolatry.
Moreover, says Chesterton, with an allusion to iconoclasm,
The two things that [Islam] persecuted were the idea of God being made flesh and of His being afterwards made wood or stone. A study of the questions smouldering in the track of the prairie fire of the Christian conversion favours the suggestion that this fanaticism against art or mythology was at once a development and a reaction from that conversion, a sort of minority report from the Hebraists. In this sense Islam was something like a Christian heresy. The early heresies had been full of mad reversals and evasions of the Incarnation, rescuing their Jesus from the reality of his body even at the expense of the sincerity of his soul.
Connected with the onslaught of Islam, there was an aggressive heresy coming out of the Greek Church, aided by some emperors in Constantinople (including Leo III, the Isaurian, who was also a great military commander against Islam) in the early eighth century:
And the Greek Iconoclasts had poured into Italy, breaking the popular statues and denouncing the idolatry of the Pope, until routed, in a style sufficiently symbolic, by the sword of the father of Charlemagne. It was all these disappointed negations that took fire from the genius of Mahomet, and launched out of the burning lands a cavalry charge that nearly conquered the world.
Pointing, as well, to the later Puritan or Calvinist fury against “images,” Chesterton then politely says:
And if it be suggested that a note on such Oriental origins is rather remote from a history of England, the answer is that this book may, alas! contain many digressions; but that this is not a digression. It is quite peculiarly necessary to keep in mind that this Semite god haunted Christianity like a ghost; to remember it in every European corner, but especially in our corner. If anyone doubts the necessity, let him take a walk to all the parish churches in England within a radius of thirty miles, and ask why this stone virgin is headless or that coloured glass is gone. He will soon learn that it was lately, and in his own lanes and homesteads, that the ecstasy of the deserts returned, and his bleak northern island was filled with the fury of the Iconoclasts.
Then, Chesterton returns to the paradox of “limitations and liberties,” which was so characteristic of rooted Christendom or the corporate, historical reality of Christian culture:
It was an element in this sublime and yet sinister simplicity of Islam that it knew no boundaries. Its very home was homeless. For it was born in a sandy waste among nomads, and it went everywhere because it came from nowhere. But in the Saracens of the early Middle Ages this nomadic quality in Islam was marked by a high civilization, more scientific if less creatively artistic than that of contemporary Christendom. The Moslem monotheism was, or appeared to be, the more rationalist of the two. This rootless refinement was characteristically advanced in abstract things, of which a memory remains in the very name of algebra.
By contrast, Christian civilization was “full of local affections, which found form in that system of fences which runs like a pattern through everything mediaeval, from heraldry to the holding of land.”
There was a shape and colour in all their customs and statutes which can be seen in all their tabards and escutcheons; something at once strict and gay. This is not a departure from an interest in external things, but rather a part of it. The very welcome they would often give to a stranger from beyond the wall was a recognition of the wall. Those who think their own life all-sufficient do not see its limit as a wall, but as the end of the world. . . . The mediaeval spirit loved its part in life as a part, not a whole; its charter for it came from something else. . . . I mean that everything is blessed from beyond, by something which has in its turn been blessed from beyond again; only the blessed bless.
“We must,” he says, “put ourselves in the posture of men who thought that almost every good thing comes from outside—like good news,” “grace,” and our “dependence on God and other good things.” The answering heart of gratitude, in response to a gift, is vitally important to Christendom, and, says Chesterton, “I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought; and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.” The Benedictine monks were courteously formed and ready to receive a stranger and a guest as if he were Christ Himself humbly asking for hospitality: “Hospes venit, Christus venit.”
Chesterton keenly saw another of “the inner emotions of the Crusade” deriving from this rootedness and gratitude and culture of mutual benediction:
But the point which is the clue to the Crusades is this: that for them the beyond was not the infinite, as in a modern religion. Every beyond was a place. The mystery of locality, with all of its hold on the human heart, was as much present in the most ethereal things of Christendom as it was absent from the most practical things of Islam. England would derive a thing from France, France from Italy, Italy from Greece, Greece from Palestine, Palestine from Paradise. It was not merely that a yeoman of Kent would have his house hallowed by the priest of the parish church, which was confirmed by Canterbury, which was confirmed by Rome. Rome herself did not worship herself, as in the pagan age. Rome herself looked eastward to the mysterious cradle of her creed, to a land of which the very earth was called holy. And when she looked eastward for it she saw the face of Mahound [Muhammad]. She saw standing in the place that was her earthly heaven a devouring giant out of the deserts, to whom all places were the same.
We may at least say that the Muslim nomadic sense of “the mystery of locality” is distinctively different from “the mystery of locality” rooted in the Incarnation and Christianity’s reverence, not for the merchant cities of Mecca and Medina, but for little Nazareth and Bethlehem.
Such were “the inner emotions of the Crusade.” However, even in 1917, Chesterton saw that “the modern English reader” was “widely cut off from these particular feelings of his fathers” and from an understanding of “the real quarrel of Christendom and Islam.”
Now, almost a century later, “that corporate Christendom” is hardly to be seen and barely vestigial, and the Faith that formed it also appears to be weak and deliquescent—inasmuch as large parts of the Catholic Church Herself are now quite absorbed with “inculturation” and ecumenism, or perhaps even historical and cultural relativism and syncretism; and where “dialogue” has often become a sentimental and deceitful cover for “dialectic,” for a study of the inherent contradiction of things, as in the “revolutionary dialectic” of Marxism.
This “dialectic,” manifested in the subtly subversive principle of solve et coagula (“dissolve and re-amalgamate”), thereby destroys the integrity of the Faith, as well as its life and rooted spiritual substance. Such a restless dialectical process inherently rejects the nature and essence of things and moves toward a monist or syncretist fusion.
In Chesterton’s words, published in 1925, from The Everlasting Man:
Nobody understands the nature of the Church, or the ringing note of the creed descending from antiquity, who does not realise that the whole world once very nearly died of broadmindedness and the brotherhood of all religions, . . . boiled down to one lukewarm liquid in that great pot of cosmopolitan corruption.
Today, in our “progressive globalism” and “economies without borders,” such a spiritual convergence and amorphousness is returning. Is this seeming dialectical revolution to be only a temporary “increase in entropy” or a more permanent breakdown of differentiation into a new monism?
Or will we see, as has happened often before, the return of a deeper faith and true conversion of heart?
What “faith,” if any, is Europe or the European Union now proposing to oppose to the current westward movement of Islam—in resistance to its spiritual and demographic permeation? Or will there be any moral or spiritual resistance at all? Moreover, will our non-Christian revolutionary dialectic now also attempt to—and be able to—dissolve Islam itself and “aggressive Islamofascism”? Or, will it, rather, dissolve into Islam, in a “more inclusive convergence”?