A fuller title for this article might be The Contradictions of Francis of Assisi, Thomas Aquinas, and Martin Luther Through the Contradictions of G.K. Chesterton.
The subject of this post has been renting space in my mind for the past couple of weeks. I am not sure that I know how to express my thoughts, but that is a major part of the reason why I write to begin with. Part of the problem is that the subject has as much, perhaps more, to do with a mood than an idea. The mood in question is that of a conscientious Protestant coming to grips with a purposeful rejection of Roman Catholicism while at the same time honoring the ancient doctors of the church (imperfect as they, and I, are) and their teachings, especially when dealing what I deem to be major errors in their teaching and lives.
I am by no means a historian, but I am a lover of church history; for I am a lover of the church, and hence of Christians in general. I am a lover of Francis of Assisi, of Thomas Aquinas, and of G.K. Chesterton. Therefore it would make sense that I would love books written by Chesterton on Francis of Assisi and Thomas Aquinas.
Yet I am a Protestant, and I doubt that any of these men, but especially Chesterton, would have much time for me. This is why, I think in at least one sense, Protestants can be, and should be, more catholic than the Roman Catholics. I can, and do, love Chesterton and Martin Luther. But Chesterton could never love Martin Luther (though perhaps he has by now learned to do so). We can say that we believe in ‘the holy catholic church’ and mean it in an entirely different sense; indeed a greater sense; for we really do mean ‘universal.’ I can think that the asceticism of Francis, the philosophy of Aquinas, and the anti-Protestant priggishness of Chesterton are all deeply flawed, and yet still love the men. But I digress.
Chesterton waxes hagriographically about Francis and Thomas, and that is all fine and good. I would expect nothing less. His defense of their ascetic ways, they were monks after all, is par for the course. I can even see some sense in his defense of the monastery. But his diatribe against Luther at the end of his biography of Thomas Aquinas set me in a melancholy mood for over a week; and I’m still fighting my way through it, trying to dance in the gray rain with my typing fingers.
Chesterton praises the Christian rationalism of Thomas and the Christian naturalism of Francis to the high heavens. And certainly, though imperfect, those things are indeed worthy of praise. He acknowledges the contradiction of Francis, who, though he loved nature and romance, practically gave up on it through his asceticism. Chesterton argues that he did not pursue marriage and fasted himself to death out of a greater romance with God; to him it is a justifiable contradiction: that is, more of a paradox or parable of history. It is no surprise that materialistic Christians give up on nature when the great saint of ecology did the same
Chesterton is not so fast to point out the great contradiction of Thomas, though he acknowledges the event that displays it. For Chesterton, Thomas was, perhaps, the first true Christian humanist; for he valued the mind of man, and called mankind to love God with the mind. Aquinas was an Aristotelian philosopher and therefore a rationalist of sorts. He spent his life in charitable debate, writing tomes upon tomes in defense of the faith. But, since he loves Aquinas, and sets him up as the great Christian humanist, it causes Chesterton to (mostly) implicitly and (sometimes) explicitly set Aquinas the humanist over and against Augustine of Hippo, whom Chesterton implicitly portrays as anti-humanist.
The anti-humanism of Augustine, as alluded to by Chesterton, is his belief in the total inability of man, in his own strength, to please God. How can one exalt humanity who says that man has nothing, and can do nothing, that is pleasing to God? Chesterton excuses this in Augustine as merely a point of emphasis: true, but perhaps over emphasized, especially by Augustine’s ‘followers.’ Of course there really should be no problem with Augustine’s teaching on man’s inability, for it is only the logical extension of the doctrine of Original Sin (which Chesterton himself argued was the only doctrine of Christianity that could be proved by universal experience), which is only an extension of the teaching of the epistles of the apostle Paul.
At the end of his biography of Aquinas, Chesterton sets the historical stage for the Protestant Reformation; and he sets it as a battle between two monks:
It is often remarked, as showing the ironical indifference of rulers to revolutions, and especially the frivolity of those who are called the Pagan Popes of the Renaissance, in their attitude to the Reformation, that when the Pope first heard of the first movements of Protestantism, which had started in Germany, he only said in an offhand manner that it was ‘some quarrel of monks’…
…And it was a quarrel of monks (p. 182).
The monks that Chesterton has in mind are not Luther and Tetzel, but Augustine and Aquinas.
Luther, Chesterton says, took the anti-humanism of Augustine to the extreme. After all, Luther was the one who wrote and sang (though he was only paraphrasing Psalm 130), ‘To wash away the crimson stain, grace, grace alone, availeth/Our works, alas, are all in vain, in much the best life faileth/No man can glory in thy sight/All must alike confess Thy might/And live alone by mercy. Luther made man into a beggar. Yet, ironically, as Luther made man into a beggar, he actually left the monastery and went out into the world.
A long quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer summarizes Luther’s pilgrimage to, and from, the monastery well:
Luther had left all to follow Christ on the path of absolute obedience. He had renounced the world in order to live the Christian life. He had learnt obedience to Christ and to his Church, because only he who is obedient can believe. The call to the cloister demanded of Luther the complete surrender of his life. But God shattered all his hopes. He showed him through Scripture that the following of Christ is not the achievement or merit of a select few, but the divine command to all Christians without distinction. Monasticism had transformed the humble work of discipleship into the meritorious activity of the saints, and the self-renunciation of discipleship into the flagrant spiritual self-assertion of the ‘religious.’ The world had crept into the very heart of the monastic life, and was once more making havoc. The monk’s attempt to flee from the world turned out to be a subtle form of love for the world. The bottom having thus been knocked out of religious life, Luther laid hold upon grace. Just as the whole world of monasticism was crashing about him in ruins, he saw God in Christ stretching forth his hand to save. He grasped that hand in faith, believing that “after all, nothing we can do is of any avail, however good a life we live.” The grace which gave itself to him was a costly grace, and it shattered his whole existence. Once more he must leave his nets and follow. The first time was when he entered the monastery, when he had left everything behind except his pious self. This time even that was taken from him. He obeyed the call, not through any merit of his own, but simply through the grace of God. Luther did not hear the word: “Of course you have sinned, but now everything is forgiven, so you can stay as you are and enjoy the consolation of forgiveness.” No, Luther had to leave the cloister and go back to the world, not because the world in itself was good and holy, but because even the cloister was only part of the world.”
Luther’s return from the cloister to the world was the worst blow the world had suffered since the days of early Christianity. The renunciation he made when he became a monk was child’s play compared with that which he had to make when he returned to the world. Now came the frontal assault. The only way to follow Jesus was by living in the world…(The Cost of Discipleship, pp. 47-48).
For Chesterton, Luther was truly a bull trampling on the vineyard of the church; but what he was actually trampling on was the waste pile of the sort of humanism that destroys humans. The humanism Luther destroyed was the sort that starts with a capital H; the kind that exalts man and his powers. If that happened to be something that was rampant within the church, then so be it; ‘let God be true though every man be a liar.’ We have now set the stage for the contradictions.
Francis, we have already noted, essentially gave up on romance and nature for the ascetic life of extreme, perpetual self-denial; and by self-denial, we are not speaking of the denial of sinful pleasures, but of the denial of good, God-given pleasures. This asceticism came to a climax in the last days of Francis; for it would appear that he essentially fasted himself to death. At the very least his fasting ruined his health and precipitated his death. The naturalist denied nature.
As for Thomas, the climax of contradiction comes for him, like Francis, near the point of death. Thomas, that great rationalist and writer, gave up writing on account of a mystical experience:
His friend Reginald asked him to return also to his equally regular habits of reading and writing, and following the controversies of the hour. [Aquinas] said with a singular emphasis, ‘I can write no more.’ There seems to have been a silence; after which Reginald again ventured to approach the subject; and Thomas answered him with even greater vigor, ‘I can write no more. I have seen things which make all my writings like straw’ (p. 116).
Francis is the naturalist who gives up on nature. Thomas is the rationalist who has a mystical experience and gives up on reason. Martin Luther only gave up on himself. Luther, says Chesterton, was a man with a loud voice that attracted attention. Ironically, Luther himself decried the voice of man and said all man’s babbling availed nothing. Chesterton writes, I will not say argues, for he doesn’t argue but only asserts, that Luther was essentially a cult of personality. Ironically, he also says that Luther’s great sin was the destruction of personality in the doctrine of man’s total inability.
Thomas is a rationalist who, in the end, sees its futility and covers his mouth (again, no wonder modern experientialists give up on reason when the great doctor of reason gave up on it long before). Francis is a lover of creation who gives up on all creation, including himself. Martin is a monk who leaves the worldliness of the monastery for the sake of a lost world. A monk who leaves the monastery that he might find true holiness outside of it – how Chestertonian.
Chesterton loves the monks, but he despises Puritanism as a movement to bring the monastic life of prayer, meditation, and spiritual discipline into the common house of the common family. What do we say to these things?
I will not give up on Francis of Assisi, Thomas Aquinas, or G.K. Chesterton; nor will I give up on Martin Luther. But I will give up on myself. In the battle of the monks I will side with Augustine. But there is no real battle here. For, in the words of Luther,
That Word above all earthly powers, no thanks to them abideth
The Spirit and the gifts are ours, through Him who with us sideth.
Let us be Christian naturalists: that is, lovers of nature, because Christ is a lover of His creation. Let us be Christian rationalists: that is, deep thinkers, for Christ calls us to love God with all our minds. Let us be despisers of ourselves because we are sinners, and lovers of our fellow-men because they are created in the image of God. Let us be people of discipline and self-denial, but let us go into the world and enjoy the good gifts of God as we do so. If we give up on anything, let it be on our own abilities. For, ironically, Chesterton sums it up well when he says, ‘The truth is that people who worship health cannot remain healthy’ (St. Francis of Assisi, p. 20).
But, perhaps, St. Francis himself said it even better: ‘Blessed is he that expecteth nothing, for he shall enjoy everything’ (p. 67).