Thursday, June 7, 2007

A Nation with the Soul of a Church

Peter Lawler has a nice response to my Chesterton exerpt here. I responded at "No Left Turns," and paste it below as well.

"Thanks, Peter, for the thoughtful comments. I want to assure you that I don't slight Chesterton's admiration for American universalism as articulated in the Declaration, a creed that led Chesterton to conclude that "America is a nation with the soul of a Church." Yet, Chesterton is also aware not only of the dangers of such universalism (as the exerpt of my essay points out), but that such universalism can only be relevant to lived human life when it's contained and animated within a definite structure. Chesterton writes in "What I Saw in America," “the experiment of a democracy of diverse races … has been compared to a melting pot. But even that metaphor implies that the pot itself is of a certain shape and a certain substance; a pretty solid substance. The melting pot must not melt….. America invites all men to become citizens; but it implies the dogma that there is such a thing as citizenship." Elsewhere in the essay he writes that the creed in practice "is not internationalism; on the contrary, it is decidedly nationalism." To put a finer point on it: if ours is the nation with the soul of a church, we need to recognize that a church has a definite form and structure; it is a communion of particular people, even as its members aspire to know the universal, above all, the divine.
In short, in the full essay I don't stint on Chesterton's admiration for America's universal creed, but in our cosmopolitan age especially (no less during his own time, combatting such cosmopolitan liberals as H.G. Wells and G.B. Shaw), it is important to point out that even such a universalistic creed itself is in need of a home."

Moreover, Peter hardly needs be reminded that Chesterton, along with other perceptive analysts of America like Orestes Brownson and John Courtney Murray, noted that one limiting factor on America's universalistic creed was the fact that America wasn't wholly formed or completely founded upon Enlightenment philosophy. Here's another snippet from my full essay on Chesterton, where Chesterton acknowledges a pre-modern basis for the American polity:

"Chesterton contended that America could not simply be understood as a nation formed out of the whole cloth of enlightenment philosophy. While there could be no denying that America’s founding philosophy was grounded in the rationalism of the Enlightenment, Chesterton nevertheless detected a mixed lineage, and in particular an older substratum that underlie the apparently new philosophy of modernity. “The real quality of America is much more subtle and complex than this; and is mixed not only of good and bad, and rational and mystical, but also of old and new. That is what makes the task of tracing the true proportions of American life so interesting and so impossible” (What I Saw in America [WA], 182). For Chesterton, America was a palimpsest, a “new” world founded on the tenets of liberal self-interest and the rights of man, which overlay but could not entirely obscure the self-sacrificing devotion to “public things” that for which he lauds the Stoics and Romans (WA, 185-6). These positive affirmations of public devotions, in his view, “redeemed the dreary negations of the eighteenth century” (WA, 186). In America, Chesterton believed he discerned an “old-world atmosphere of the new world,” but worried that the republican ideal might increasingly “lie in ruins” (WA, 187).

1 comment:

Russell Arben Fox said...

Chesterton writes in "What I Saw in America," "the experiment of a democracy of diverse races....has been compared to a melting pot. But even that metaphor implies that the pot itself is of a certain shape and a certain substance; a pretty solid substance. The melting pot must not melt....America invites all men to become citizens; but it implies the dogma that there is such a thing as citizenship."

That is a simply brilliant thought from Chesterton, Patrick; thank you for calling it to your readers' attention. I hadn't read it before myself; it's a point I've made before, in different contexts, but never with the wit shown here. I haven't read a great deal of Chesterton; this quote alone convinces me I need to make the time this summer to do so.