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The Great Heresies - by Hilaire Belloc

Religion requires certainty
James Lovelock

Not for the first time, Lovelock was wrong, although if he’d read Belloc, it’d be an easy mistake to make. Best remembered today (and quite rightly so) as the poet laureate of light verse, he was also one half of “The Chesterbelloc”, that formidable tag-team of Catholic apologists, through which he, together with his close ally GK Chesterton, struck terror into the hearts of atheists everywhere. As is often the case in these matters, the respective styles of the two were strikingly different, yet in some strange, symbiotic way, complementary. Chesterton, the more avuncular of the two, would seek to persuade the sceptic with his wonderfully unique logic, as imaginative as it was original; and if that didn’t succeed, Belloc would duff them up.

An abrasive and ferociously prolific author, the strength of Belloc’s intellect is staggering, though it is of a much more volatile and obsessive nature than Chesterton’s. Covering subjects as diverse as Louis XIV, political economy and the newspaper industry, he took the Catholic doctrine that “error has no rights” and turned it into a war-cry. The clarity of his vision was simultaneously his strength and his weakness. Once, when HG Wells wrote a book unfavourable to Christianity, and to the Catholic Church in particular, Belloc accused him of “being ignorant that he is ignorant”, a charge which, while quite probably true, would have been levelled in a somewhat more charitable manner by Chesterton.

In this 1938 offering, Belloc takes us through what he considers five of the greatest heresies against Catholicism. His vision in this is somewhat debatable and, depending on your view, either novel or an exhibition in mental gymnastics. For one thing, he classes Islam as a heresy of Catholic doctrine. In fact, this view, while it may seem incredible to us today, was actually the accepted wisdom in Europe right up until at least the Reformation. Belloc compares it with the earlier heresy of Arianism. Both appealed to the elite of their respective societies. Arianism in particular was a religion of the patrician class in the late Roman/early Byzantine empire, and while Islam of course had a more general appeal, initially at least the most important converts were the powerful warrior castes of Arabia and Asia. Unlike Arianism, however, Islam did not collapse, paradoxically, because it was born outside of Christendom, and, unlike Arianism, there was no orthodoxy for the people to return to.

It is (to me, at least) questionable whether the Albigensians were actually heretical. Their creed - that the world is inherently evil - is certainly hostile to Christianity, but its origins in the Gnostic mystery cults of the ancient world would suggest essentially a different religion entirely. In any event, Belloc’s wry commentary regarding the all too temporal considerations which were involved in the calculations of various French nobility and aristocracy to become involved on either side certainly gives the lie to the notion of the Albigensian Crusade being a religious conflict.

The section on Protestantism is perhaps the most interesting, and Belloc’s views on the German religious wars of the seventeenth century gels pretty much with those of David Bentley Hart. By no means can these conflicts truly be termed religious in nature, not when we consider that one of the biggest backers of the “Protestant” cause in Germany was none other than d’Artagnan’s old nemesis, Cardinal Richelieu. Richelieu may have been a prince of the Church, but sticking it to the Hapsburgs definitely comes under the heading, “Taking Care Of Business”.

Perhaps nowhere more than in this section do we understand the relevance of Belloc’s definition of heresy: the dislocation of some complete and self-supporting scheme by the introduction of a novel denial of some essential part therein. Whatever else Catholicism may be, it is “complete and self-supporting”. It should be after 2000 years. In Protestantism, we have something (particularly in its higher, Anglican, manifestations) which looks like Catholicism, but introduces the notion of every man being his own priest, so to speak. Initially, that led to an explosion of literacy (necessary to read your Bible, of course) and the development of a sceptical turn of mind (necessary to interpret same), both conditions good for the expansion of science and industry. Ultimately, however, that scepticism became corrosive to the very structure of society as the capitalism which grew out of Protestantism ate away the social fabric of the Protestant societies, undermining the ancient rights of peasants and dislocating social orders which had existed for hundreds of years.

Belloc’s opinions on this seem to presage more recent work, notably Alister McGrath’s hugely accessible Twilight of Atheism and Mark Lilla’s stunning history of political theology, The Stillborn God. Both books develop the themes Belloc raises in the Protestantism section, with McGrath’s honing in on the effects on Protestant society of Darwin’s theory of natural selection, and Lilla’s exploring the devastating effect the development of textual analysis had on Protestant culture when its techniques were applied to scripture.

Belloc’s final “heresy” is modernism, and if I use inverted commas it is because, like Albigensianism, it is questionably whether or not it actually is a heresy. In the sense that the moral values of most modernists could actually be considered a kind of heavily diluted Christianity, then I suppose modernism is heretical; another way to look at it, however, would be as a return to the kind of personal freedom (or perhaps “licence” would be a better word) practiced in the Roman Empire. Whether the way we live today is an improvement on Rome or a degeneration of Christianity is a question for the individual, but Belloc is in no doubt - he very rarely was.

Belloc was a buzz-saw of a man, and you got on his wrong side at your peril, as one unfortunate academic who had the temerity to criticize Chesterton found to his cost. As towering as his intellect was, it didn’t have the completeness of Chesterton, and there were points where his writing became downright ugly, as, for instance, his casual references to such things as “Jewish communism”. Chesterton might have recognized that Jews were represented within Bolshevism out of all proportion to their numbers, but he would also realize that, considering what they’d suffered under the Tsar, that would hardly be surprising.

Despite his shortcomings, however, Belloc’s overall vision holds up surprisingly well. The book, however, comes with a somewhat patronizing health warning from the modern publishers: This book is a product of its time and does not reflect the same values as it would if it were written today. It appears to be lost on the modern mind that, actually, it does. However, I’m forced to admit that it’s not really in Chesterton’s class, and perhaps one should read it as an addendum to GK and with his charitable outlook.


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 21st, 2012 02:37 am (UTC)
Like many "traditionalists" you rail against "modernity" but you never really define what it is.

Just because you believe in and prattle on about your self-serving tribalistic Christian God-idea, the Bible, Jesus and the "Catholic" religion, does not mean that you are NOT AFFECTED by it (modernism).

In fact the world-view and values of modernism pervade, saturate and pattern every minute fraction of the modern Western world, including everything that is now promoted as religion in the market place of whats-in-it-for-me consumerist religion.

The anti-"culture" created in the image of TV now rules the entire world.

Applied right-wing ("conservative") Christian politics 101




Feb. 21st, 2012 08:26 pm (UTC)
You may make of this comment what you will. It's anonymous, which I don't like, but opinion is free.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )



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