G.K. Chesterton. Where to begin?
I suspect he had an insatiable curiosity and child-like wonder as big as his belly and a sense of humor that outran itself so often that he had to restrain it with paradox. In fact, his wit was so quick, he gave up trying to catch it.
Thankfully, he was a wholly sweet-tempered and virtuous man, so his wit wasn’t used to belittle.
And though he had an irrepressible sense of wonder and innocence that rivaled a child’s, he was more grown-up than the most of us when it came to understanding the world. There was not an ounce of pretension in that hulking figure of his, either. Not an ounce.
I am going to give him a big hug when I meet him one day.
Chesterton was the consummate romantic, I guess. Reading him is like being taken on a journey through a heavily wooded forest (like in my favorite Pacific Northwest). I don’t necessarily know where I am going and the woods are dense, but the air is clear and very wholesome. There is a lightness all around that is refreshing and young. A faint sound of far-off fairy revelry in the woods beckons and I simply don’t care that I don’t know the exact route on which I am being taken because I feel so light-hearted. Plus, the mystery is kind of fun. It’s entirely unpredictable. I can’t wait until I am made to laugh again, too, for there is a jovialness in the woods. Finally, I feel safe despite the mystery of it all. Very safe.
Of course, the journey is kind of tiring. At times, in his youthful exuberance, Chesterton doesn’t stop long enough for me to take it all in. My senses can become quite overwhelmed. I have to read Chesterton in small chunks. I guess I have grown too old.
Yet anytime I am tempted to feel discouraged, just the thought of his writing makes my heart feel lighter.
I always take a dip into his writing when my own seems to have run dry, too. If anyone had the gift of Mercury, it was Chesterton. His talent for wordsmithing is most infectious!
Chesterton embodied a rare combination of traits: he was an extraordinarily clear-sighted realist when it came to the fallen state of the world, yet he was a stubborn optimist with an unquenchable love for this world full of mud. Most of us favor either one or the other: we can love the world when we think only of its marble. The moment it shows us its true composition (usually with an unmistakable slap of muck across the face) we flee in disgust and long for the next world. This master of paradox was able to do both: love the world for its marble and love it all the more for its mud.
He wrote that “the world is not a lodging-house at Brighton, which we are to leave because it is miserable. It is the fortress of our family, with the flag flying on the turret, and the more miserable it is the less we should leave it. The point is not that this world is too sad to love or too glad not to love; the point is that when you do love a thing, its gladness is a reason for loving it, and its sadness a reason for loving it more.” (from Orthodoxy, “The Flag of the World”)
I imagine Chesterton approached people this way, too.
It’s amazing to me how many great Christian thinkers he influenced. C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien come to mind. Indeed, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve come across passages in their writings that remind me of something Chesterton wrote. I think these writers took Chesterton into the 20th century – they translated him for a later age, if you will.
Who will carry him into the 21st century? It must be done, for we are in desperate need of his wisdom and light-hearted wit.
In his book, Orthodoxy, he makes an observation about the modern world that is incredibly insightful, even for today (it was written in 1908). In his chapter called the “Suicide of Thought”, he observes that when a society loses the idea of a single, unifying moral system, like Christianity, not only is evil left unrestrained, the virtues are let loose, too, and in some ways these cause more harm. He writes: “The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone. Thus some scientists care for truth; and their truth is pitiless. Thus some humanitarians only care for pity; and their pity (I am sorry to say) is often untruthful.” Because the foundation of Christianity has been broken, the virtues are no longer unified and, in isolation, they do great damage for they are practiced out of proportion to the others. He might be alluding to the idea of the proper ordering of loves, too.
When I understood what he was saying, I began to see this phenomenon everywhere! I think this applies to the modern rejection of hell because we value mercy apart from valuing justice and free will. It also applies to valuing compassion above all else, even truth, as Chesterton indicates above. Finally, I think we apologists can value truth over and above compassion, so our delivery is often very harsh.
Here is another favorite: “Whether the human mind can advance or not, is a question too little discussed, for nothing can be more dangerous than to found our social philosophy on any theory which is debatable but has not been debated. But if we assume, for the sake of argument, that there has been in the past, or will be in the future, such a thing as a growth or improvement of the human mind itself, there still remains a very sharp objection to be raised against the modern version of that improvement. The vice of the modern notion of mental progress is that it is always something concerned with the breaking of bonds, the effacing of boundaries, the casting away of dogmas. But if there be such a thing as mental growth, it must mean the growth into more and more definite convictions, into more and more dogmas. The human brain is a machine for coming to conclusions; if it cannot come to conclusions it is rusty. When we hear of a man too clever to believe, we are hearing of something having almost the character of a contradiction in terms. It is like hearing of a nail that was too good to hold down a carpet; or a bolt that was too strong to keep a door shut. Man can hardly be defined, after the fashion of Carlyle, as an animal who makes tools; ants and beavers and many other animals make tools, in the sense that they make an apparatus. Man can be defined as an animal that makes dogmas. As he piles doctrine on doctrine and conclusion on conclusion in the formation of some tremendous scheme of philosophy and religion, he is, in the only legitimate sense of which the expression is capable, becoming more and more human. When he drops one doctrine after another in a refined scepticism, when he declines to tie himself to a system, when he says that he has outgrown definitions, when he says that he disbelieves in finality, when, in his own imagination, he sits as God, holding no form of creed but contemplating all, then he is by that very process sinking slowly backwards into the vagueness of the vagrant animals and the unconsciousness of the grass. Trees have no dogmas. Turnips are singularly broad-minded.” -G.K. Chesterton Heretics (1905)
As I have written elsewhere, Chesterton excelled at turning the paradoxes of our faith that tend to frustrate us (and enliven the church’s detractors) from inconveniences into adventures. Paradoxes are the juxtaposition of extremes and it was this aspect of the dogmas of Christianity that caught his attention as an atheist. He would spend his career as a Christian exploring and revelling in these, playfully tossing them back at enemies as proof of the Gospel’s truth.
All in all, Chesterton had an incredible talent for taking arguments against Christianity, many of them quite strong, and turning them completely on their head into powerful arguments for our Faith. And he did this with a twinkle in his smiling eyes. What a gift!
You can read more here about Chesterton’s influence on Lewis here: “The Everlasting Man” and Baptizing the Intellect
When we visited Oxford this past summer, we stopped by the G.K . Chesterton Library tucked away in a humble little corner of St. Giles Street. It was one of the highlights of the trip. The library was unassuming, disordered, and immensely welcoming, exactly how I imagine what Chesterton was like in person. No stuffy self-importance here in that grand city of great Oxford minds! Its curator, Father Jerome, was equally unassuming, gracious, and welcoming. Everything about this little library truly took itself lightly.
One of my professors happens to be on its board, so I asked him if they were in need of a librarian. They are! It’s been added to my daydreams, along with visiting Oxford every summer from now on.