G. K. Chesterton: The Keys and the Creed

It is being claimed more and more often that, not only is Christianity principally about love (which, in an ultimate sense, it is) but that this is the end of the story – all you need is love, and love is all you need, as it were. I am not here speaking about those who seek to reduce the Christian ideal of love as Charity – sacrificial, self-forgetting, all-consuming love – to an insipid endorsement and/or toleration of all kinds of destructive behaviour in the name of being loving (love as indifferent kindness if you will). I am speaking here of those who, in recognising the truth that Love is the heart of the Faith, believe that as long as we exhibit Christian Charity in our lives to some extent, doctrine and dogma do not really matter in the long run.

Some would even go as far as to say that doctrine and dogma (particularly in the realm of ecclesiology) are barriers to love, and the sooner we relegate them to the level of something worth discussing but not essential to what Christianity is all about, the better. The problem here is that a.) the ideal of Christian Love is itself a doctrinal ideal, supported by other doctrinal and dogmatic definitions (i.e.; those of the Incarnation and Holy Trinity), and b.) once dogma is sidelined or denied, the very shape of Christianity – its essential structure and identity – begins to disintegrate, and it becomes harder to discern what is the loving thing to in many situations.

In The Everlasting Man, G. K. Chesterton emphasises the importance of dogma by examining the symbolic significance of the keys given to Saint Peter, and comparing the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (a dogmatic definition that can be agreed on by most Christians) to this symbol. He considers the Creed to be ‘key-like’, in several different ways. Firstly, it has a definite shape – it is the enemy of shapelessness, either in the sense of Manichean or Buddhist formlessness, or of evolutionary aimlessness. Secondly, its shape is a rather fantastic and unexpected one – its shape is not something we would expect, and it is useless therefore to argue about how we might wish to re-shape it into a form more to our liking. Finally, and most importantly:

…as the key is necessarily a thing with a pattern, so this was one having in some ways a rather elaborate pattern. When people complain of the religion being so early complicated with theology and things of the kind, they forget that the world had not only got into a hole, but had got into a whole maze of holes and corners. The problem itself was a complicated problem; it did not in the ordinary sense merely involve anything so simple as sin. It was also full of secrets, of unexplored and unfathomable fallacies, of unconscious mental diseases, of dangers in all directions. If the faith had faced the world with platitudes about peace and simplicity some moralists would confine it to, it would not have had the faintest effect on that luxurious and labyrinthine lunatic asylum. What it did do we must now roughly describe; it is enough to say here that there was undoubtedly much about the key that seemed complex, indeed there was only one thing about it that seemed simple. It opened the door.

The Everlasting Man (2010), p.142, Martino Publishing.

            The idea that Christianity was, in the beginning, a simple religion of peace and love (again, the type of love one imagines is here is not the point) that found itself needlessly complicated by the need of some to tidy it up into a doctrinal system and make divisive dogmatic pronouncements is itself an over-simplification. The most foundational claim of the Faith – that Jesus of Nazareth was and is the Son of God Incarnate – is itself something that is simple enough to state, but endlessly complicated in working out its meaning and significance; the same goes for the doctrine of the Atonement – as soon as one says that Christ died for our sins, the complex questions of ‘how’, ‘in what sense’, and ‘how does this work itself out in the life of the believer’ immediately arise.

As Chesterton points out, not only do the essential doctrines of Christianity themselves become very complicated when any time is given to thinking about them, but Christianity was born into a world full of competing ideas about God, the world, humanity, and salvation. To suggest that simply saying ‘God is Love’ and leaving it at that would have been able to last in this environment (or any subsequent environment, least of all our own) does not do justice to the situation. The statement that ‘God is Love’ is, to reiterate, absolutely the essence of the thing, but it requires a great deal of unpacking, and the subsequent outworkings also require definition, so that the faithful may rest easy in knowing what it is they put their faith in.

When we claim that it is possible to relegate doctrine and dogma to the level of interesting but non-essential theological discussion, we also take for granted just how much of this theological back-and-forth has preserved what we enjoy today. To return to Chesterton:

If the Church had not renounced the Manicheans it might have become merely Manichean. If it had not renounced the Gnostics it might have become Gnostic. But by the very fact that it did renounce them it proved that it was not either Gnostic of Manichean…

…The early Church was ascetic, but she proved that she was not pessimistic, simply by condemning the pessimists. The creed declared that man was sinful, but it did not declare that life was evil, and it proved it by damning those who did. The condemnation of the early heretics is itself condemned as something crabbed and narrow; but it was in truth the very proof that the Church meant to be brotherly and broad.

ibid, p.148.

            In short, Christianity is, was, and always will be a delicate balancing act – declaring the Gospel of Christ in a world filled with half-truths ready to lead us astray from the fullness of that Gospel’s meaning is a subtle, complex, and difficult business, which requires difficult and often unpopular decisions. But the whole purpose of the Church’s being dogmatic and inflexible in the face of falsehood is in order to preserve that very simple truth of God’s being endless, self-giving Love. It is in some ways a perfectly natural desire to place this simple truth above all the noise of theological clash and dogmatic trumpeting, but if we do so, we lose the Love into the bargain.

How doctrines were formed, and who had the authority to shape them (as well as deciding how to preserve their shape in later eras, and deciding on which others were needed to clarify earlier ones), is another question, and I have written elsewhere of the difficulties that Protestantism has in giving an account of what basis it has for accepting some Christian doctrines (as well as Holy Scripture itself, the sourcebook for most doctrinal decision-making) but not others, given its rejection of an institutional Church capable of pronouncing things universally and infallibly. Who decides what the doctrines and dogmas are is another question though, and my main point here is that doctrine and dogma per se cannot be rejected in the name of a ‘simpler’ religion.

If we want to preserve the simple heart of the Faith, we must learn to accept the fact that the truths from which that simple heart flow are themselves by no means simple, and that their expression in a world not only complex in itself but also filled with ideas subversive of or downright hostile to Christianity is inevitably going to be rather complicated. If we value what Christianity stands for in essence, and wish to preserve a simple faith in it in ourselves, then we must also value the slow and multifarious process by which the Church discerns and defines for us what that essence is, both in terms of its interior logic, and how it relates to the world. Like most things in life, it is a beautiful paradox – complexity and simplicity working hand in hand.

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One thought on “G. K. Chesterton: The Keys and the Creed

  1. Pingback: Listening to Heresy: How Error Can Refine Truth | Journey Towards Easter

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