The Usual Article

by Circle or Line

The Editor of an evening paper published recently what he announced as, and even apologized for as “an unusual article.” He anxiously guarded himself from expressing any opinion on the dreadful and dangerous views which the unusual article set forth. Needless to say, before I had read five lines of the unusual article, I knew it was a satisfactory sample of the usual article. It was even a careful and correct copy of the usual article; a sort of prize specimen, as if a thing could be unusually usual. I had read the article before, of course–thousands and thousands of times (as it seems to me)–and had always found it the same; but never before, somehow, had it seemed so exactly the same.

There are things of which the world to-day is subconsciously very weary. It does not always know what they are; for they commonly bear large though faded labels, describing them as the New Movement or the Latest Discovery. For instance, men are already as tired of the Socialist State as if they had been living in it for a thousand years. But there are some things on which boredom is becoming acute. It is now very near the surface; and may suddenly wake up in the form of suicide or murder or tearing newspapers with the teeth. So it is with this familiar product, the Usual Article. It is not only too usual; it has become intolerably, insupportably, unbearably usual. It is appropriately described as “A Woman’s Cry to the Churches.” And I beg to announce that, though I am of a heavy and placid habit, and have never been accused of any such feminine graces as hysteria, yet, if I have to read this article three more times, I shall scream. My scream will be entitled, “A Man’s Cry to the Newspapers.”

I will repeat somewhat hurriedly what the lady in question cried; for the reader knows it already by heart. The message of Christ was perfectly “simple”: that the cure of everything is Love; but since He was killed (I do not quite know why) for making this remark, great temples have been put up to Him and horrid people called priests have given the world nothing but “stones, amulets, formulas, shibboleths.” They also “quarrel eternally among themselves as to the placing of a button or the bending of a knee.” All this gives no comfort to the unhappy Christian, who apparently wishes to be comforted only by being told that he has a duty to his neighbour. “How many men in the time of their passing get comfort out of the thought of the Thirty-Nine Articles, Predestination, Transubstantiation, the doctrine of eternal punishment, and the belief that Christ will return on the Seventh Day?” The items make a curious catalogue; and the last item I find especially mysterious. But I can only say that, if Christ was the giver of the original and really comforting message of love, I should have thought it DID make a difference whether He returned on the Seventh Day. For the rest of that singular list, I should probably find it necessary to distinguish. I certainly never gained any deep and heartfelt consolation from the thought of the Thirty-Nine Articles. I never heard of anybody in particular who did. Of the idea of Predestination there are broadly two views; the Calvinist and the Catholic; and it would make a most uncommon difference to MY comfort, if I held the former instead of the latter. It is the difference between believing that God knows, as a fact, that I choose to go to the devil; and believing that God has given me to the devil, without my having any choice at all. As to Transubstantiation, it is less easy to talk currently about that; but I would gently suggest that, to most ordinary outsiders with any common sense, there would be a considerable practical difference between Jehovah pervading the universe and Jesus Christ coming into the room.

But I touch rapidly and reluctantly on these examples, because they exemplify a much wider question of this interminable way of talking. It consists of talking as if the moral problem of man were perfectly simple, as everyone knows it is not; and then depreciating attempts to solve it by quoting long technical words, and talking about senseless ceremonies without enquiring about their sense. In other words, it is exactly as if somebody were to say about the science of medicine: “All I ask is Health; what could be simpler than the beautiful gift of Health? Why not be content to enjoy for ever the glow of youth and the fresh enjoyment of being fit? Why study dry and dismal sciences of anatomy and physiology; why enquire about the whereabouts of obscure organs of the human body? Why pedantically distinguish between what is labelled a poison and what is labelled an antidote, when it is so simple to enjoy Health? Why worry with a minute exactitude about the number of drops of laudanum or the strength of a dose of chloral, when it is so nice to be healthy? Away with your priestly apparatus of stethoscopes and clinical thermometers; with your ritualistic mummery of feeling pulses, putting out tongues, examining teeth, and the rest! The god Esculapius came on earth solely to inform us that Life is on the whole preferable to Death; and this thought will console many dying persons unattended by doctors.”

In other words, the Usual Article, which is now some ten thousand issues old, was always stuff and nonsense even when it was new. There may be, and there has been, pedantry in the medical profession. There may be, and there has been, theology that was thin or dry or without consolation for men. But to talk as if it were possible for any science to attack any problem, without developing a technical language, and a method always methodical and often minute, merely means that you are a fool and have never really attacked a problem at all. Quite apart from the theory of a Church, if Christ had remained on earth for an indefinite time, trying to induce men to love one another, He would have found it necessary to have some tests, some methods, some way of dividing true love from false love, some way of distinguishing between tendencies that would ruin love and tendencies that would restore it. You cannot make a success of anything, even loving, entirely without thinking. All this is so obvious that it would seem unnecessary to repeat it; and yet it is necessary to repeat it, because it is the flat contradiction of it that is now incessantly repeated. Its flatness stretches around us like a vast wilderness on every side.

It is a character of the Usual Article that it alludes occasionally to the New Religion; but always in a rather timid and remote fashion. It suggests that there will be a better and broader belief; though it seldom touches on the belief, but only on the broadness. There is never in it by any chance anything resembling even the note of the true innovator. For the true innovator must be in some sense a legislator. We may put it in a hostile fashion, by saying that the revolutionist always becomes the tyrant. We may put it in a friendly fashion, by saying that the reformer must return to the idea of form. But anybody really founding a new religion, even a false religion, must have a certain quality of responsibility. He must make himself responsible for saying that some things shall be forbidden and some permitted; that there shall be a certain plan or system that must be defended from destruction. And all the things in any way resembling new religions, to do them justice, do show this quality and suffer this disadvantage. Christian Science is theoretically based on peace and almost on the denial of struggle. But for all that there has been not a little struggle in the councils of that creed; and the relations of all the successors of Mrs. Eddy have by no means been relations of peace. I do not say it as a taunt, but rather as a tribute; I should say that these proceedings did prove that the people involved were trying to found a real religion. It is a compliment to Christian Scientists to say that they also had their tests and their creeds, their anathemas and their excommunications, their encyclicals and their heresy-hunts. But it is a compliment to Christian Scientists which they can hardly use as an insult to Christians. Communism, even in its final form of Marxian materialism, had some of the qualities of a fresh and sincere faith. It had one of them at least; that it did definitely expel men for denying the creed. Both the Communist and the Christian Scientist were under this grave disadvantage; that they did turn a faith into a fact. There is such a thing as a Bolshevist government and it governs, even if it misgoverns. There are such things as Christian Science healers; there probably is such a thing as Christian Science healing, even if we do not fully admit that the healing is health. There is a Church in active operation; and for that reason it exhibits all the dogmas and differences charged against the Church of Christ. But the philosophy expressed in the Usual Article avoids all these disadvantages by never coming into the world of reality at all. Its god is afraid to be born; its scripture is afraid to be written; it only manages to remain as the New Religion by always coming to-morrow and never to-day. It puffs itself out with spiritual pride, because it does not impose what it cannot even invent. It shines with Pharisaical self-satisfaction, because there are no crimes committed for its creed and no creed to be the motive of its crimes. This sort of critic is a surgeon who never performs an unsuccessful operation because he never operates; a soldier who never falls because he never fights. Anybody can talk for ever about a non-existent religion which shall be free from all the evils of existence. Anybody can dream of that entirely humane and harmonious Christianity, whose Christ is never born and never crucified. It is so easy to do, that half a hundred people in the papers and the public discussions have been doing nothing else for the last twenty or thirty years. But it is every bit as futile as applied to a spiritual ideal as it would be if applied to a scientific theory or a political programme; and I only mention it because I have just heard it for the hundredth time; and feel a faint hope that I may be mentioning it for the last time.

G.K. Chesterton