Tag Archives: G.K. Chesterton

Nothing Against Logicians! Promise!

A properly functioning mind can destroy itself. It can think itself, in a logical and rational pattern, into madness. But that’s really more about the motive than the mode. It’s not logic and rationality themselves that are the source of the problem. In that respect, my recent quotation of G.K. Chesterton might have been misleading in regards to my outlook. Chesterton wrote, “The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.” But I don’t have anything against logicians! Promise! I have no campaign against logic or rationality. From classical Stoicism to contemporary psychological therapies like logotherapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and rational emotive behavior therapy, logical and rational thinking has been a sturdy pattern for healthiness. But logic and rationality also could be used in an unhealthy way. In quoting Chesterton there, my point was to identify a problem that was once explained by an evangelical psychologist, Larry Crabb. “There is an enormous difference between the joy of discovery and the passion to explain,” Crabb wrote. “The former gives life a sense of adventure. The latter makes us hate mystery.” And, I think, as Chesterton suggests, that passion to explain gets exhausting, overwhelming, and eventually, devastating. So his single metaphorical dichotomy provides me inexhaustible help: I’m not trying to get the heavens into my head; I’m just trying to get my head into the heavens. And by heavens, I’m thinking figuratively. I’m thinking about all the questions and all the data and all the good theories and all the history and all the apparent unknowns—better to sit within it all than to insist upon a perfectly systematic account for it all. The former is wonderful; the latter is exhausting. I think someone could simultaneously say discovery in any field is an amazing, exhilarating journey, and logical, rational methods help discovery on its way. Motivation makes the difference.

Happy G.K. Chesterton on Sad William Cowper

In his book Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton begins an illuminating passage on madness, predestination, reason, and poetry with some observations about the English poet William Cowper:

“[O]nly one great English poet went mad, Cowper. And he was definitely driven mad by logic, by the ugly and alien logic of predestination. Poetry was not the disease, but the medicine; poetry partly kept him in health. He could sometimes forget the red and thirsty hell to which his hideous necessitarianism dragged him among the wide waters and the white flat lilies of the Ouse. He was damned by John Calvin; he was almost saved by John Gilpin. Everywhere we see that men do not go mad by dreaming. Critics are much madder than poets. Homer is complete and calm enough; it is his critics who tear him into extravagant tatters. Shakespeare is quite himself; it is only some of his critics who have discovered that he was somebody else. And though St. John the Evangelist saw many strange monsters in his vision, he saw no creature so wild as one of his own commentators. The general fact is simple. Poetry is sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea, and so make it finite. The result is mental exhaustion, like the physical exhaustion of Mr. Holbein. To accept everything is an exercise, to understand everything a strain. The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.”

Knowing and not knowing stuff about God

Philosopher Charles Hartshorne apparently had a strong belief in divine love. However, he questioned the historically mainstream idea that we should think about God in terms of what He is not.

This excerpt is from an article entitled “Charles Hartshorne: Dipolar Theism,” from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

“Many theologians, eager to affirm the transcendence of God, emphasize what cannot be known of God and argue that, in view of this ignorance, the most appropriate theological language is by way of negation (via negativa): God is not finite (infinite), not changeable (immutable), not affected by anything external (impassible), not contingent (necessary), not in time (non-temporal), and so forth. Hartshorne also emphasized what is not known of God and he did not deny that negations play an important role in religious discourse. In A Natural Theology for Our Time, he comments that our knowledge of the concrete divine reality is ‘negligibly small.’ He argues, however, that as the sole or even primary approach to religious language, ‘the negative way’ is a case of false modesty. Negative theologians are supposedly being deferential to God by stressing what cannot be known or said of God, but this masks the fact that they consider themselves privy to enough knowledge about the divine reality to know what cannot be attributed to it.

(Boldface added.)

As far as that boldfaced section goes, I have a vague recollection of reading something similar in a Norman Geisler book. His characterization of knowledge, at least in one respect, went something like this: Does it make sense to say we know we can go up to a certain point and go no further? Is it possible to know exactly where our knowledge stops without knowing something of what’s just beyond? Figuratively speaking, am I standing at an opaque wall or am I standing in a fog in which some objects and items are easily identified and others are harder to recognize?

I like the fog analogy because of something I recently re-read in G.K. Chesterton, not that Chesterton had the academic credentials of a Hartshorne or a Geisler. Chesterton said, essentially, the logician tries to get heaven into his head (and his head splits), while the poet just wants to get his head into heaven (and he is filled with wonder). I’m trying to re-route my own mind along those lines: do I want to sort everything out and explain everything and nail it all down, or do I want to discover and enjoy and immerse myself? One mode tries to get everything into one’s head, and the other mode tries to get one’s head exposed to everything.

Granted, ignorance is the mode that allowed bad religion to influence so much of history, and so much of my own life. A guy at least needs tools to protect himself, just as a farmer needs a fence around his flock and a rifle for the larger predators. Knowledge can be real light when it has real meaning for our lives. But once reasonable defenses are built against arrogant ignorance and manipulative control, maybe a guy can settle down and get back to enjoying life, the cosmos, even God.