The Catholic Church, referred to as Mother and Teacher in Catholic documents, is attacked on all sides – it has largely been discredited by the modern secular media and by Hollywood, and then the modern love of scientism has made Christianity seem incompatible with intelligent thought. And she is attacked from within when she is betrayed by those who are Christian in name but not in conduct. Beyond all this, however, is the fact that this Mother, like other mothers, requires adherence to certain standards of behaviour, and that’s not very appealing for a world that sees rules about morality as pointless, suffocating and almost offensive.
But even when people are no longer listening to her as an authority on morality and other spiritual matters, they are still attracted to spiritual things. They just turn their focus from Christian practices to non-Christian ones.
Indeed, nowadays paganism is quite fashionable. Since we come from a Christian past, what is pagan is unfamiliar, and is utterly romanticized. It’s glorified as something mysterious and attractive. (The current trend is to identify a pagan precedent to whatever is Christian – that there are such precedents is not denied – in order to suggest that the pagan religions were better than Christianity, and in order to suggest that Christianity plagiarized other belief systems.)
Details like child-sacrifices and the grotesque self-mutilation that accompanied many of these pagan religions, for example, are not taken into account. In fact, the whole climate of paganism isn’t understood. It’s an idealized vision of paganism that is imagined nowadays, where the icky bits are deleted and all the rough edges of those religions are softened by our experience of a world shaped by Christianity. As Chesterton says, Christianity didn’t invent religious impulses, it regulated them.
Because we haven’t yet dismantled all the effects of Christianity in our society (would this even be possible?), we see things through a Judeo-Christian lens for the most part. When we envision the pre-Christian societies, it is almost impossible to avoid projecting onto them the Christian-based ethics we’ve inherited, such as ‘do unto others,’ and ‘everyone has equal dignity.’ We erroneously visualize a pagan world that contains a good portion of these ethics. We don’t realize what an incredible difference Christianity made; the Christian values moved humanity great strides away from what is cruel, inhumane and barbaric. Society’s attitude towards the poor, the sick, the unborn, the infants, the disabled, women, prisoners, refugees, was radically improved. True, sometimes it’s talk more than practice, but there was a time when the talk wasn’t even there. Even warfare was changed by the Christian doctrine. We can’t experience the barbarism and cruelty of the pre-Christian world because we haven’t lived in it.
When we look back on history, it’s hard to remember to remove every last modern element. And it’s always like this, even if we’re trying to think back ten years ago – when things change, you can’t imagine how it was before the change; you can’t go back, even in your imagination, unless you lived then and there. Things were different in so many ways even so recently. Do you know how things went and felt before the internet? Before the cell phone and the cordless phone? Before the phone? And the further you go back, the more foreign it gets. It’s the same with the pre-Christian times. They didn’t look and feel at all like how our Christianized cultures feel. Sure, people are people, but Christianity was a revolution like nothing before or since, and it left such an enormous footprint that we’re living in the contours of it without even realizing it.
But as we move away from Christianity, something has to take its place. After all, people are spiritual, and most people have an intuition that there’s more to our lives than what meets the eye. So enter paganism. It sounds like a good idea to many modern minds; it sounds progressive even. People sometimes say, “I’m spiritual but I’m not religious.” With paganism, you’ve got spiritual stuff without any rules! How convenient! How entertaining! And there are variations on paganism – some practices approach occultism.
So one thing that’s becoming increasingly popular are the practices of spiritualism. Spiritualism encompasses a range of practices, including the use of ouija boards, psychic readings, channelling, séances and so on. Chesterton says that the increased modern fascination with all these things turned the corner during his lifespan. In his childhood, barely anybody in his area believed in ghosts, but as he reached middle-age, “great men of science of the first rank claimed to have studied spirits as they might have studied spiders . . . At the time I write, the thing has grown into a considerable religious movement.”
When they were younger, Gilbert Chesterton and his brother Cecil experimented with “planchette, or what the Americans call the ouija board.” He writes in his autobiography, “I dabbled in Spiritualism without having even the decision to be a Spiritualist.” They played with the ouija board as a diversion, asking it questions about various things.
Nowadays, in keeping with our love of convenience and our decreasing literacy, even the ouija board is too much of a hassle and has too many letters, and so yes-no versions of spiritualist practices are more popular. Charlie Charlie was one of these. The point is that there’s nothing really new about such games; we’ve just dumbed them down and made them more accessible. Or, for a legal analogy, we’ve gone from examination-in-chief to cross-examination style.
I found four things interesting about Chesterton’s discussion of spiritualism.
In the first place, he defends spiritualism against those who will say that strange occurrences related to these practices are not caused by anything supernatural. Such people will say that there’s no such thing as the supernatural, and anything that seems odd has a natural and scientific explanation. Against this, Chesterton’s own experience at the time, recalled in his autobiography at the age of 62, proved to him that something was definitely going on; something beyond the ordinary was taking place:
I saw quite enough of the thing to be able to testify, with complete certainty, that something happens which is not in the ordinary sense natural, or produced by the normal and conscious human will. Whether it is produced by some subconscious but still human force, or by some powers, good, bad or indifferent, which are external to humanity, I would not myself attempt to decide.
G.K. Chesterton, Autobiography, Chapter 4
And with these words, he is not demonstrating ‘blind faith’ or superstition. Chesterton relies on, and trusts, his senses – what he has seen with his not-blind eyes – and his own intelligence and reasoning powers, in order to reach the conclusion that what he experienced was not part of the natural order.
And when he considers those people who deny the existence of a positive and real evil, he excuses their naivety:
But when they say, ‘Evil is only relative. Sin is only negative. There is no positive badness; it is only the absence of positive goodness’ – then I know that they are talking shallow balderdash only because they are much better men than I; more innocent and more normal and more near to God.
As for himself, he mentions his pride in Catholic beliefs and then says:
But I am not proud of believing in the Devil. To put it more correctly, I am not proud of knowing the Devil. I made his acquaintance by my own fault; and followed it up along lines which, had they been followed further, might have led me to devil-worship or the devil knows what.
And with this as his introduction, he begins his discussion of the spiritualism that he experienced in his life.
The second noteworthy thing he says about his communications via planchette, is that it deceives:
The only thing I will say with complete confidence, about that mystic and invisible power, is that it tells lies. The lies may be larks or they may be lures to the imperilled soul or they may be a thousand other things; but whatever they are, they are not truths about the other world; or for that matter about this world.
Chesterton gives a couple of examples, where his father tested planchette with questions that neither Cecil nor Gilbert would have known the answer to. The answers that appeared on the board were entirely wrong but also entirely mischievous: Chesterton points out that if they had believed and acted on these lies, serious harm would have resulted. In one case, when they asked planchette, in a spirit of fun, what advice it would give a certain British politician, the answer had nothing to do with politics: “Divorce.”
And the third thing which I find interesting, is that Chesterton wonders whether his involvement with these practices had something to do with this problematic phase of life, which was characterized by indifference, inertia and detachment. Chesterton points out that his planchette activities were during “what I may call my period of madness” and during “a period of drifting and doing nothing; in which I could not settle down to any regular work. I dabbled in a number of things; and some of them may have had something to do with the psychology of the affair.” Did the dabbling in spiritualism contribute to this state of mind? He cannot say for sure, but wonders:
I have sometimes fancied since that this practice, of the true psychology of which we really know so little, may possibly have contributed towards the disturbed or even diseased state of brooding and idling through which I passed at the time.
And last, Chesterton would undoubtedly agree with the Church’s direction concerning divination and such practices – to avoid them. He writes that he “would not touch her [planchette] again with a barge pole.”
The Catechism sets out the Catholic Church’s teaching on this point:
All forms of divination are to be rejected: recourse to Satan or demons, conjuring up the dead or other practices falsely supposed to ‘unveil’ the future. Consulting horoscopes, astrology, palm readings, interpretation of omens and lots, the phenomena of clairvoyance, and recourse to mediums all conceal a desire for power over time, history, and, in the last analysis, other human beings, as well as a wish to conciliate hidden powers. They contradict the honor, respect, and loving fear that we owe to God alone.
Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 211
Charlie Charlie, a game along the lines of the ouija board, is now being called a hoax, a mere publicity stunt to heighten interest in an upcoming Hollywood release. But the word ‘hoax’ doesn’t apply here – the game didn’t just happen once on a television show. It was repeated over and over at home by regular people, just like the ice bucket challenge. And like the ice bucket challenge, there may have been less known about it than was later revealed, but the fact is that real people participated and they are the best judges of whether what they saw was natural or not. The wild popularity of it suggests to me that people were getting results more unusual than they could explain. But in any case, the ice bucket people poured water and got wet; the Charlie Charlie people called on a demon, and got – perhaps – what they asked for.
Chesterton said, in reference to these activities, that he was not taking them seriously, but he also says that this doesn’t change what they were doing: “We were among the few, I imagine, who played in a mere spirit of play. Nevertheless I would not altogether rule out the suggestion of some that we were playing with fire; or even with hell-fire.”
No matter how such games start, and no matter what the intention is of those who play, those involved can get more than what they bargained for. To experiment with these things is like heading into dry bush with gasoline and lighters. We are unaware or dismissive of what Mother would say about this behaviour; her rules might cramp our harmless fun, and so we proceed. We set a fire without knowing how to put it out; we call a demon without knowing how to send it back.
And if the fire rages, then let us do as many others have done: put aside our prejudices against the Church and request from her the kind of help that only she can give.