God Save the Queen

It is a strange thing eulogizing a monarch in these democratic days. Still stranger is it to eulogize another people’s monarch. Nevertheless, decorum and the sanctity of the moment demands that we honor a woman who has seen more of the world, and arguably done more for it, than any US politician could dream.

We Americans have always had a special relationship with the United Kingdom. Despite our rejection of foreign rule some two centuries ago, having defeated the greatest military force on earth (twice), having gone our separate political ways, we still feel drawn to the British. It is surely due in part to our shared global interests in perpetuating Western values. It is most certainly due to a shared language and similar culture. But it is also due, I think, to the pageantry of an institution we consciously forget but secretly admire.

This pageantry can become a distraction, no doubt, as illustrated by Charles’ antics, Andrew’s escapades, and Meghan’s snobbery. But for every self-congratulatory Oprah interview, there is the humble service of Diana, the constancy of Kate, and the honorable dignity of Elizabeth herself. The Royals occupy a curious fascination in the American imagination, though not, I think, for the same reasons as it does the British imagination. Ours indulges an obsession with celebrity, theirs fulfills a need for cultural unity.

The argument has been made many times that the monarchy exists as an important symbol—to give the people something to which they can aspire. Oscar Wilde satirizes this idealization in The Importance of Being Earnest when he says that the lower classes should provide moral examples to the upper classes, mocking the sentiment while only proving the point. This is not to say that the aristocrat is innately more moral than the commoner, nor that the commoner should grasp for wealth and land. Rather, the commoner should adopt the cultural values of the aristocrat to mold himself, in the truest sense of the term, into something more noble. Chaucer is right in The Wife of Bath’s Tale when he says that nobility is not inherited but created by elegant manners and right living. In this sense, the monarchy—when practiced well—is a good thing. The ignoble aristocrat, thus, is a walking contradiction, a blight on his name and title. The iconoclasts of America—and some in the UK—point to the ignoble aristocrat as a reason to tear down the entire edifice, much like unbelievers will point to the Crusades as a reason not to be a Christian. Both are lost in the forest attempting to find their way out while fixating on one rotten tree.

Sometimes a symbol is only that, but those are the symbols that do not endure. The true symbols have substance, something that guides us toward a higher truth and a greater reality. The colonists, in establishing the theories of Locke, Rousseau, and Montesquieu, did not seek to demolish the culture on which those theories rested. Similarly, they did not reject the pageantry and symbol, only the divine investiture of those things as essential to good government. We are not so wise in our own day. The cynic sees the throne as a mere chair and the crown as a mere hat (as Chesterton might have said), but the fool sees the throne and crown as mere paperweights.

This queen was no paperweight—and there was nothing mere about her. She consistently rose above the political infighting necessary to parliamentary government without taking sides in debates of the pendulum. She maintained her composure while much of the British empire threw off the imposition of the British crown, encouraging them to choose their own national destinies without war—even if that meant her own influence shrank. She remained steadfastly committed to her duty when many members of her own family chose personal advancement and selfish pleasure. She exercised the art of statecraft when many politicians behaved like demagogues. She provided the symbol of resilience, sacrifice, and hope that her people needed in an era of unprecedented change. Watching from across the pond, Elizabeth II has modeled civic truths many an American could learn.

It is in our national DNA to reject tyranny and to balk at monarchy; but this is a truth only half-glimpsed. Constitutional self-governance is surely preferable to monarchical rule. But in the absence of self-governance, lacking a moral center through which to view the world, and confronted with the rejection of constitutional norms, monarchical rule is surely preferable to chaos. So though I am not a Briton, I greatly admire Elizabeth II, both as a woman and as a crown. Though I am not nearly as fond of Charles of Wales, I still bend the knee to Charles III—and that only figuratively as a true American citizen—proclaiming boldly

God Save the Queen.

A Summer with G.K. Chesterton

The academic calendar affords a limited freedom not permitted other professions. It is much like the liturgical calendar in its rhythms: its intense periods of vigils, labors, and fasting; its quiet stretches of introspection and passive action. One of those elements I relish about that liminal space of summer, that visit to the borderlands between one year and the next, is the sacred space I reserve for reading.

After an invigorating walk, each morning begins in prayer, readings from the psalms, wisdom literature, and the New Testament. This regimen provides me with the poetry and dogma I need to fortify my soul and begin summer’s less urgent tasks. This summer, I walked those borderlands each day with an essay of G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936). An excellent collection entitled In Defense of Sanity, selected by luminaries Dale Ahlquest, Joseph Pearce, and Aidan Mackey, gives readers a devotional-style snippet of surprising cultural commentary.

While it was probably his Father Brown mystery novels that brought him the greatest commercial renown, Chesterton’s breadth of learning and depth of thought can be found first in his continuing arguments for traditionalism and rejection of modernist theology, Heretics, Orthodoxy, and The Everlasting Man. His surrealist novel The Man Who Was Thursday forces the reader to question the nature of good and evil and confront the consequences of his own values. His history of St. Thomas Aquinas is simple as it is expansive, and rarely is biography so philosophical. But for brevity and a moment’s amusing reflection, I think I prefer Chesterton’s essays. His language is ripe with wit, saturated with a sarcasm more biting than his intellectual successor, C.S. Lewis. But perhaps he is more whimsical, too, than Lewis, were such a thing possible. He refuses to be worn down by the world’s atheistic ambitions and the church’s un-Christian behaviors. In Chesterton is always the ardent optimist, the self-proclaimed democrat who believes men redeemable through Christ, and that the world, doomed ultimately to destruction, may be ever more transformed the more men are redeemed.

A master of paradox, Chesterton reveals what it means to have saving faith in an age that rejects what it cannot define. He smacks down modernism with an epigram, and with a sharp, passing paragraph anticipates postmodernism before it has a chance to interject. A few passages will serve to illustrate his rhetorical power and the marvel of his imagination:

Realism is simply Romanticism that has lost its reason.

The refusal of God to explain His design is itself a burning hint of His design. The riddles of God are more satisfying than the solution of man.

I wave away, with wild gestures, that merely dingy and spiteful democracy which consists in declaring that every throne is a chair. The true democracy consists in declaring that every chair is a throne.

Logic, then, is not necessarily an instrument for finding truth; on the contrary, truth is necessarily an instrument for using logic, for using it, that is, for the discovery of further truth and for the profit of humanity. Briefly, you can only find truth with logic if you have already found truth without it.

In his own day, Late-Victorian and Modern England were shedding the last of its Christian beliefs, and they were beginning even to deconstruct their Christian heritage. Faith makes little sense in such a culture, as the old philosophy is exhausted and a new generation knows not with what to replace it. Chesterton spoke loudly but humbly to remind them of eternal things, those things that had held together English culture for fifteen hundred years. He laughed at the world’s seriousness and lamented its foolishness. And though it was a futile fight, if by futile we mean that Chesterton’s arguments won the culture war, he pressed on with whimsy, rationality, and joy.

His struggle was not too unlike our own. We, too, are shedding our beliefs without any cohesive cultural values to replace them. We, too, are an unanchored people, lost in the strident conviction of our own, incorrectly, ethical rightness and objectivity and, worse, moral superiority. We, too, will be bowled over with the force of reality when it confronts our false ideas about it. Like the British Christian of the early twentieth century, that bemused stalwart standing astride the presumably unstoppable force of history, the American Christian today might be tempted to despair. But if British history has taught anything, it is that history is never predictable, nor can modern man dictate its direction. Chesterton’s is a voice reminding us that if the Kingdom of Heaven is to endure in the west, then it will likely be won in this age man by man, woman by woman, not culture by culture. History will do what God wills, and we will do naught but submit.

So by way of recommendation, I advise a summer—or other latent period of your choosing—with G.K. Chesterton. In a world unmoored by the extremes of its own values, he offers moments of tranquil chaos.