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What would Chesterton think of “spiritual but not religious”?

G. K. CHESTERTON
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Imagining a talk between GKC and a basic spiritualist.

“I am spiritual, not religious.” Every religious person has heard these words, usually followed up with some variation of “Rituals are artificial and corrupt.” This is a position sometimes called “spiritualism” or “non-denominationalism,” and it’s something G.K. Chesterton addresses brilliantly in several places, because he reasons that every authentic expression of one’s spirituality demands some measure of ritual.

The following is my imagined dialogue between Chesterton (GKC) and a “Basic Spiritualist” (BS), which calls mainly upon Chesterton’s own words from his essay “Christmas and the Aesthetes,” found in Heretics. Passages in quotation marks are Chesterton’s own.

Does God have a calendar?

A disheveled G.K. Chesterton (GKC) enters the room. The Basic Spiritualist (BS) extends his hand toward Chesterton and they shake and are seated.

GKC: Sorry I’m late.

BS: Yes, are you alright? You look like you’ve been through something; you’ve a smudge on your head.

GKC: They are ashes.

BS: Bumped into a sweep on the way?

GKC: Today is Ash Wednesday. On Ash Wednesday, I attend Mass and receive ashes.

BS: Ah, you are religious.

GKC: I am.

BS: I am spiritual, not religious. I keep the spirit and discard the ritual. This is my religion. (He holds up a brightly-colored sticker that reads COEXIST).

GKC: “Hence the difficulty which besets ‘undenominational religions.’ They profess to include what is beautiful in all creeds, but they appear to many to have collected all that is dull in them.”

BS: Say what? This is a message of inclusion, a plea for togetherness!

GKC: “All the colors mixed together in purity ought to make a perfect white. Mixed together on any human paint-box, they make a thing like mud, and a thing very like many new religions. Such a blend is often something much worse than any one creed taken separately, even the creed of the Thugs.” [Editor’s note: The Thugs (from which we get our modern sense of the word) were a Hindu assassination cult devoted to the goddess Kali. They robbed and strangled victims in a ritually prescribed manner.]

BS: Why would it be better for me to have faith in “the creed of the Thugs”?

GKC: Because then you would have faith in something.

BS: I have faith in everything.

GKC: Most moderns who say they have faith in everything mean to say they have faith in nothing.

BS: With all due respect, you have dirt on your face; you’ve marked yourself like some ancient tribalist. Don’t you think your faith makes you look foolish?

GKC: “A man who has faith must be prepared not only to be a martyr, but to be a fool. It is absurd to say that a man is ready to toil and die for his convictions when he is not even ready to wear a wreath round his head for them.”

BS: “So, on Ash Wednesday, you are marked with dirt. This Friday, I suppose you’ll eat a fish, as though that matters. Do you really think God has a calendar?

GKC: I think man has a calendar, and needs it.

Read more: 3 Catholic practices for the “spiritual but not religious”

BS: So, you need a calendar to worship God? What use is it, really? When we want to teach men about science we don’t give them a calendar, we teach them scientific truth, which matters because it is useful.

GKC: Indeed it is. I am hugely fond of science, but less so of utility for utility’s sake. “…while the brutes have all the useful things, the things that are truly human are the useless ones.”

BS: No, hold on. What is the point of anything but to be of use? I am saying that rites and forms are useless.

GKC: Yes, and so we are agreed!

BS: Now, forgive me, but I feel a little condescended to. You’re sitting there with your forehead smudged, yet you’re agreeing with me that religion is useless, which means the Church is useless and ritual is useless.

GKC: Yes, precisely. If there really is an all-knowing, all-powerful, omnipotent God; I should think man and the Earth useless, except to be the praise of his glory.

BS: God is not a ritualist, and wouldn’t need it.

GKC: But man is and does. “Ritual is really much older than thought; it is much simpler and much wilder than thought. A feeling touching the nature of things does not only make men feel that there are certain proper things to say; it makes them feel that there are certain proper things to do … and man was a ritualist before he could speak.”

BS: I am a man, and I’ve never been a ritualist.

GKC: You shook my hand when I entered the room. Is that not a ritual? You’re wearing a tie. Is that not a ritual?

BS: My wearing of this tie proves nothing. Wearing this tie is still useless.

GKC: Think of all the men who adopt rituals just as useless. Think of all the men who have gathered in communities to do such useless things together. If we want to recruit men for our cause, such useless things we would find useful.

BS: One recruits men to Christ by proving the value of Christ’s teachings: Here is a hospital inspired by Christ’s works about the sick. Here is a water pump installed because Christ said to serve the poor. This is rational. Ritual is not rational, it is value-less because it is irrational.

GKC: “…anything which is rational is always difficult for the lay mind. But the thing which is irrational any one can understand. That is why religion came so early into the world and spread so far, while science came so late into the world and has not spread at all.”

BS: Not a student of physics are you? It’s more understandable than your metaphysics.

BS: “History unanimously attests the fact that it is only mysticism which stands the smallest chance of being understood of the people.” Try evangelizing to a 20-year-old with common sense and you will learn what that means.

BS: You’re saying common sense is has a limited appeal?

GKC: I am. Common sense is ordinary, but a young man wants to be part of something extraordinary, which they find in stories of heroic saints and repentant sinners. Men willing to die for the faith, but also willing to be made fools first. Men willing to wear ashes on their heads and wreaths around their necks. Families saying grace in public restaurants. In a word: beauty. The beauty of our faith, that we call “religion.” We cannot win them over with logic, but we can let our light shine before all.

BS: That’s just marketing; it turns heads, but that’s all.

GKC: It turns heads toward Christ. And good … if only it turns heads toward Christ. As the Christians shed their creeds and saints, more men will turn toward materialism, atheism, and pantheism. Take away the supernatural and what remains is unnatural.

BS: Sure, because it’s so natural to be bowing and genuflecting, or fasting, or beating one’s chest whilst chanting, “mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa”?

GKC: Oh yes, bring on all the rituals, which are not natural yet not “unnatural.” They are supernatural.

BS: It’s jumping through hoops in a gross parody of faith.

GKC: As to jumping through hoops, like Bartleby the Scrivener, “I would prefer not to.” As to gross parodies of faith? “And as creed and mythology produce this gross and vigorous life, so in its turn this gross and vigorous life will always produce creed and mythology.”

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