“Tolerating Other Religions”
By G.K. Chesterton
“Illustrated London News” May 31, 1913
When I was a boy, in the old indescribable days which I can only describe as the great days of Stead, a thing met that was called the Parliament of Religions. It had all the evils of a Parliament. It had the narrow novelty, the deaf dignity, the profound isolation and unpopularity that a Parliament so often commands. A Member of Parliament must be a man who comes to think more of the men he argues with than of the men he argues for. The club is mightier than the constituency. This can be seen in all political Parliament’s; it is notorious that in all such assemblies … The back benches fight, while the front benches make peace.
All this, which is true of political Parliament’s, was a little true even of the poor old Parliament of Religions. Every man was a very cultured representative of a very distant constituency. If it is hard to make a man represent Surrey, or even Surbiton, it is harder still to make him represent the Central plains of Asia or the ultimate islands of Japan. Thus, I say, the Parliament of Religions seemed almost as useless as the Parliament at Westminster.
Men did not come there to explain their religion. They came to explain it away. At that gathering, everyone had to have a silky manner just as (at some social gathering) everyone has to have a silk hat. It would be improper in the Parliament at Westminster to knock off another man’s hat. It would be improper in the Parliament of Religions to knock off another man’s head. Yet the whole object of theology and philosophy and pure reason is to knock off another man’s head. As the philosophical world goes, just now, it is rather a compliment. One can pass through crowds of earnest modern thinkers without finding a head to knock off.
Yet only the other day I came across a little book by a man who was really defending one of the great philosophies of the earth, and not merely excusing it. His book is really an apologia and not an apology. It is concerned with the Creed of Zoroaster, the great Persian mystic who has left behind him the sect of the Parsees. It is published by Mr. Dent, and the name of the author on the title page is Ardasir Scrabjee N. Wadia. I intend no flippancy about this highly intelligent author if I do not know what part of this is his name. I only intend to indicate of the subject — of all such subjects as Persia and the Parsees. “Wadia” at the end of his name may be something like Esquire, for all I know. N. may be his telephone number for all I know. I know nothing about his nation; I know nothing about his civilisation; I know nothing about him. But I do know something about his religion. I did not know it five hours ago, and I owe what I know to him. His book is one of the very few books about the religions of the world of which this can be said.
Generally, the difficulty is not to tolerate other people’s religion. The trouble is to tolerate our own religion. Or rather (to speak more strictly), to get our own religion to tolerate us. Comparatively few modern religious people are intolerant. But a great many modern religious people are intolerable. Nor are these specially those that are called bigots; it is rather I think, the other way. The person we find really exasperating is he who does not understand our beliefs, and yet also does not agree with his own. Now, the author of this book does agree with his own. His philosophy is not in the least like mine, but it seems to me to be one of the two or three intelligent alternatives to mine. It is a philosophy which is roughly, perhaps too roughly, describes as Dualism: the theory that good and evil are, in one sense at least, exactly balanced in the universe: that, in one sense, at least, their balance creates the universe. The very pattern of the cosmos, so to speak, is a pattern of crossed swords. Life and death are fencing forever; and ( I say again in one sense, at least) the issue is always doubtful. With a movement of iron self control, I here refrain from making a pun about a Dualist and a duellist.
The author writes like a man who really has ideas; for ideas are always most original when they are grown from the old religious origins. It is not a paradox; but a very common fact of human nature. A man’s ideas are much more his own if they come out of his father’s Creed than if he had got them out of a book: just as a man’s cabbages are much more his own if they come from his father’s field than if he had got them out of a shop. There is something convincing even in a sort of weird simplicity which the writer shows, and which is often shown by men writing in the language of another civilisation: as where he speaks of “our revered Master — RUSKIN, to whom I belong so entirely and so devotedly that I invariably that I invariably use his words, expressions, and even paragraphs as if they were my own.” I feel myself on delicate ground; and I do not know whether I shall be considered as clearing him of the charge of imitation, or insulting him with the charge of bad imitation, if I say that I do not think there are any solid chunks of Ruskin embedded in his prose. But there really are solid chunks of what is more fresh and interesting for English readers; the real ideas of a real and able believer in the Creed of Zoroaster.
The great principle of the Zoroastrian philosophy seems to be that the thorn is essential to the rose. Or, to put it more correctly, that the life of man is a chess-board, because chess is a royal game — the great game for the human intellect. And in chess it is necessary, not only that there should be black and white, but that black and white should be equal. There must be a pattern f black and white, and the pattern must be exact.
To all this view of life I should only answer that the chess-board is only a pattern, and therefore cannot be a picture. A black-and-white artist always treats one or the other color as the background. The artist may be scrawling black on white,when he is a illustrator in pen and ink. He may be scrawling white on black, when he is a schoolboy chalking the school master’s nose on the blackboard. But the pen and ink artist knows that the page is white prior to the arrival of the pen and ink. The wicked schoolboy knows that the blackboard is black. So we, as Christians, should always believe that this is a white world with black spots, not a black world with white spots. I should always believe that the good in it was its primary plan. Also, I should remember that chess came from Persia.