The decadence of atheism


The vision of a haloed host
That weep around an empty throne;
And, aureoles dark and angels dead,
Man with his own life stands alone.

‘I am,’ he says his bankrupt creed:
‘I am,’ and is again a clod:
The sparrow starts, the grasses stir,
For he has said the name of God.

I have loved this poem by Chesterton since first reading it some twenty years ago. I can’t help but think that Chesterton had Nietzsche in mind when he wrote it. The scene opens with a meeting of the Church, of the saints: what are we doing? We are in tears. Lamentations, and mourning abound. Why? Because we have been robbed of our purpose, our telos, our principle for existence. In this scene God is not dead, killed by the onslaught of German higher criticism, but he is gone, vanished. Much like Baal on Mt. Carmel there is no one to hear our cries. Moreover, there are no saints, as there are no halos (he uses the word aureoles, which are the gold plates that are behind the heads of saints, angels, and our Lord in icons). There is no sanctity. And it is now the angels who are dead. What is left? Man. Man with his will to self-determination

And now the real point: it is no longer God, the Lord of History, who is the selfexistent one, who speaks to Moses from the bush: “I AM WHO I AM.” No, it is man. Man asserts, man decrees, man affirms, man makes the laws, man establishes justice. Why? Because he is all that is, he alone exists, and he alone determines reality. But no sooner does he say it, then he himself turns back to the earth from which he was formed, and is again a clod. The sparrow and the grass, the two items that our Lord pointed to in the Gospels as comparable to man in only the most superficial ways, in that we men are so much better than either, react. Why, for we have arrogated to ourselves God’s name. And in this the sparrow and grass show human folly, for what are we in comparison: the beauty of the grass surpasses Solomon, but it lasts but for a day and then is throne in the furnace. The sparrow is fed by God, and if God so provides for them, won’t He do so for us, we who are of greater worth than many sparrows? But in denying God what has man become? Nothing but a more mature sparrow, a more sentient blade of grass. In denying God, man has become less than what he is, not more.


About Cyril Jenkins

Professor of History
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6 Responses to The decadence of atheism

  1. Pingback: Orthodox Collective

  2. marcusjosephus says:

    Perhaps by denying God Man has even become less than a sparrow. At least the sparrow fulfills his purpose of being a sparrow. Since Modernist accuse most of Human Civilization of “imposing belief on the Universe”, I find it is much more difficult an exercise to “impose UN-belief on the Universe”.

    Of course the other infamous Screed of the Modern “I AM” is Renee Descartes. In the Seven Storey Mountain Thomas Merton wrote,

    “If there are no self-evident first principles, as a foundation for reasoning to conclusions that are not immediately apparent, how can you construct any kind of a philosophy? If you have to prove even the basic axioms of your metaphysics, you will never have a metaphysics, because you will never have any strict proof of anything, for your first proof will involve you in an infinite regress, proving that you are proving what you are proving and so on, into the exterior darkness where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth. If Descartes thought it was necessary to prove his own existence by the fact that he was thinking, and that his though therefore existed in some subject, how did he prove that he was thinking in the first place? But as to the second step, that God must exist because Descartes had a clear idea of him – that never convinced me, then or at any other time, or now either. There are much better proofs for the existence of God than that one.”
    ― Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain

    Later on Merton described the Alienation of Descartes.

    “Nothing could be more alien to contemplation than the “cogito ergo sum” of Descartes. “I think, therefore I am.” This is the declaration of an alienated being, in exile from his own spiritual depths, compelled to seek some comfort in a proof for his own existence (!) based on the observation that he “thinks.” If his thought is necessary as a medium through which he arrives at the concept of his existence, then he is in fact only moving further away from his true being.
    At the same time, by also reducing God to a concept, he makes it impossible for himself to have any intuition of the divine reality which is inexpressible. He arrives at his own being as if it were an objective reality, that is to say he strives to become aware of himself as he would of some “thing” alien to himself. And he proves that the “thing” exists. He convinces himself: “I am therefore some thing.” And then he goes on to convince himself that God, the infinite, the transcendent, is also a “thing,” an “object,” like other finite and limited objects of our thought!
    ― Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation

  3. Madeleine says:

    Seems that perhaps Chesterton had both Nietzsche and Sartre in mind? Beautiful post, Dr. Jenkins. Thank you for the insight.

  4. Cyril says:

    Sartre was a bit after Chesterton, but the sentiments would apply. I like reading Nietzsche far more than reading Sartre, however.

  5. Thanks for posting this thoughtful piece. I had never read this Chesterton poem. The comments are very interesting also!

  6. Cyril says:

    Thanks so much, Pr. Linsley. Christ is Risen!

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