Introducing G.K.Chesterton

Dec 19, 2018 by

By David Pickering.

Chesterton’s story

Who was Gilbert Keith Chesterton? He was born in London in 1874, at the height of the Victorian era, into a family of estate agents. He grew up in 11 Warwick Gardens, in Kensington. His family ran the estate agents called Chesterton, although his father had to retire very young because of ill health, and spent his time reading, writing, drawing, painting and making toy theatres. It was a very creative home. It wasn’t at all a religious home. They rarely went to church. His own verdict was: ‘In the purely religious sense, I was brought up among people who were Unitarians and Universalists.’ From them he learnt what he called a kind of ‘optimistic theism’ but not Christianity.

He spent his school years finding ways of entertaining himself and his classmates, rather than studying, and yet his headmaster’s conclusion was to say to Chesterton’s mother, ‘Six foot of genius. Cherish him, ma’am, cherish him.’ After school, he first spent a couple of years rather casually attending University College, London, and the Slade School of Art, without completing any sort of degree, then went into publishing and ended up as a journalist because, he claimed, it was the easiest way to make a living.

He was brought into serious contact with Christian things at the age of 22. How? He met a young lady who rejoiced in the name of Frances Blogg. She startled him because, while the circles they moved in were full of people who loved to talk about religion and philosophy, ‘she actually practised a religion.’ She was a committed Anglo-Catholic. In the dedication to his poem ‘The Ballad of the White Horse’ he wrote that she ‘brought the Cross to me.’ He fell in love with her and, eventually, when he’d managed to get a steady enough job to support them, she agreed to marry him, perhaps to escape her surname, and they were wed in 1901, the year Queen Victoria died. She was an Anglo-Catholic and through her and the Christian circles she introduced him to, he gradually became an Anglo-Catholic Christian too.

His journey to faith was a gradual process and he recorded a fictionalized version of it in his book Orthodoxy. Here, he depicted Christianity as answering the question: ‘How can we contrive to be at once astonished at the world and yet at home in it?’ He liked to use ridiculous illustrations to make the reader look at something in a new way, so he began this book by playfully considering ‘writing a romance about an English yachtsman who slightly miscalculated his course and discovered England under the impression that it was a new island in the South Seas’ to illustrate his own experience of discovering orthodox Christian faith. He went on to say that his story is like that of the yachtsman: he thought he had discovered a new philosophy, only to find he was over 1800 years out of date:

‘And I was punished in the fittest and funniest way, for I have kept my truths: but I have discovered, not that they were not truths, but simply that they were not mine. When I fancied that I stood alone I was really in the ridiculous position of being backed up by all Christendom.’

He was incredibly prolific, writing over 100 books and over 5,000 articles, and became extremely influential for over thirty years until his death in 1936. He wrote in many different genres, as a poet, novelist, essayist, biographer, historian, dramatist, literary critic, social critic, political theorist, Christian apologist, and debater. He was perhaps the best-known spokesman for Christianity in his generation, debating with people like H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw. It helped that almost everybody liked him; he was enormously kind. He was also famously absent-minded, once sending his wife a telegram which read: ‘Am in Market Harborough. Where am I supposed to be?’ He was also very fat. George Bernard Shaw declared, ‘What a gentleman Chesterton is. I saw him give up his seat to two women on a bus.’

He divided his readers from the beginning, and he does still. Some, like Shaw, and Henry Murray, editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, thought him brilliant, a genius even. Others thought he was maddening and lightweight. The journalist CK Shorter declared: ‘I do not think Mr Chesterton has the faintest talent either as a novelist, a literary critic, or a literary biographer’ and an Evening Standard review called Chesterton’s writing ‘page after page of the thickest dotted nonsense it was ever our misfortune to read’. Why was someone who divided opinion like that so influential?


Chesterton’s approach

He presented Christianity on a ‘note of triumphant challenge.’ He went on the attack rather than staying on the defensive. He didn’t defend the historicity of the Bible or miracles or Christian doctrines. He engaged Christian ideas with the culture of his time to show that Christianity explains life better than any alternative. He also brought humour into public debates and the defence of Christianity. He was always on the side of the ordinary man and woman against the experts and the elites. That preference was theologically based: he believed that being made in the image of God and being sinners unites us all much more than anything divides us. As he put it: ‘Be a human being and look down on all the kings of the earth.’

He didn’t just talk about religion. He mixed up religion with politics, literature, history, psychology, art, and all sorts of things, in his own way of looking at life. That was very against the grain of the academic world, where they like to keep each subject in its own distinct box. And even then plenty of people were trying to say that Christianity was irrelevant. Yet Chesterton was sure that Christianity was relevant to all of life, not just the religious parts. As he put it:

‘Philosophy and theology are not only the only democratic things, they are democratic to the point of being vulgar …There is no fact of life, from the death of a donkey to the General Post Office, which has not its place to dance and sing in, in the glorious Carnival of theology.’

That, perhaps, was his way of saying that Christianity has something to say about every subject. He was quite insistent about this. The readers of the Daily News on 12th December, 1903, may have got more than they bargained for over their cornflakes:

Things can be irrelevant to the proposition that Christianity is false, but nothing can be irrelevant to the proposition that Christianity is true. Zulus, gardening, butchers’ shops, lunatic asylums, housemaids and the French Revolution – all these things not only may have something to do with the Christian God, but must have something to do with Him if He lives and reigns.’

Not the usual diet of the newspaper-reading public, even then, but this was the man who declared that: ‘I have always engaged, and shall always engage, in any sort of discussion on the first principles of human existence.’

Debating all the way from those first principles onwards, he created a kind of theology without frontiers. His own version of Christianity sat within the boundaries of orthodoxy, while remaining highly distinctive in tone and mode of expression. In his youth, he developed a theory that, as he put it:

‘At the back of our brains, so to speak, there was a forgotten blaze or burst of astonishment at our own existence. The object of the artistic and spiritual life was to dig for this submerged sunrise of wonder; so that a man sitting in a chair might suddenly understand that he was actually alive, and be happy.’

Chesterton felt that existence was a gift inspiring wonder and joy, and that it could only have been given by a divine creator, to whom gratitude was the only appropriate response. He went so far as to say, ‘I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought; and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.’ In his writing and speaking, he was constantly trying to help ordinary men and women to see beyond the surface dullness and oppression of their lives and find the true view of creation. He wrote: ‘Of one thing I am certain, that the age needs, first and foremost to be startled; to be taught the nature of wonder,’ and he referred to the ‘art of wonder’ as ‘the life of man.’ In one of his earliest essays, he declared: ‘The function of imagination is not to make strange things settled, so much as to make settled things strange; not so much to make wonders facts as to make facts wonders.’

His understanding of creation is not one of a remote deity setting the universe in motion, but of the immediate presence of God, actively creating all of existence moment by moment. Taking this view of creation, he then looked for a philosophy that lived up to the wonder of life and he found it in Christianity. He pictured this sense of the immediacy of God’s creative action in whimsical fashion his book Orthodoxy in this way: It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them.’ He liked to startle people, and he used odd and striking illustrations to suggest new approaches to old questions in order to make people think.

After wonder, a second consequence of the wonder of creation was, for Chesterton, an expanded role in theology for the idea of joy. He argued that

‘Praise should be the permanent pulsation of the soul. Pessimism is at best an emotional half-holiday; joy is the uproarious labour by which all things live … by [Christianity’s] creed joy becomes something gigantic … Joy, which was the small publicity of the pagan, is gigantic secret of the Christian.’

There was a kind of collision in his thinking between his strong emphasis on wonder and joy and an equally strong belief in the reality of evil and of original sin, which he called ‘the only part of Christian theology that can really be proved.’ When The Times newspaper asked for letters on the subject ‘What’s Wrong with the World?’, Chesterton’s letter read, ‘Dear Sir, I am, Yours sincerely, G.K. Chesterton.’ Original sin may not ordinarily be the most popular of Christian ideas; he turned that on its head. He argued that it is the most democratic of doctrines, writing: ‘whatever primary and far-reaching moral dangers affect any man, affect all men.’ Here and elsewhere he pointed out that Christianity’s diagnosis of the problem of human sin makes Christianity the most democratic and egalitarian of religions.

Moreover, he often defended the poor and marginalised, even from attack by other Christians. He lived at a time when the eugenics was fashionable in many of the smartest circles, and supported by a number of Christian leaders. The Liberal Anglican Bishop Barnes of Birmingham, in his Galton Lecture to the Eugenics Society in 1926, said: ‘Christianity seeks to create the Kingdom of God, the community of the elect. It tries to make what we may call a spiritually-eugenic society. When religious people realise that, in . . . preventing the survival of the socially unfit, they are working in accordance with the plan by which God has brought humanity so far on its road, their objections to repressive action will vanish.’ The fact that bishops and other Anglican eminences could espouse views such as this, without being sanctioned, may partly explain why Chesterton left the Church of England for the Roman Catholic Church, while keeping up a running battle with the likes of Bishop Barnes.

His practical theology ranged enormously widely, from social questions such as this, to theological engagement with art and literature. He linked Christianity’s view of the human condition to the best of human literature and art, and pointed out that a Christian view of life is the view that best explains all aspects of being human. He demonstrated the power of Christian ideas in poetic as well as philosophical ways. For example, he wrote of the idea of the Fall as illuminating:

‘…that sublime sense of loss that is in the very sound of all great poetry, and nowhere more than in the poetry of pagans and sceptics – ‘We look before and after and pine for what is not’; which cries against all prigs and progressives out of the very depths and abysses of the broken heart of man that happiness is not only a hope but also in some strange manner a memory; and that we are all kings in exile.’

The contrast between his belief in the wonder of creation and his understanding of the power of sin led him to the view that life itself is paradoxical, that ‘paradox is built into the very foundations of human affairs,’ even that: ‘An element of paradox runs through the whole of existence itself.’ He used the paradoxical to upturn the settled assumptions of his secularist foes, declaring: ‘All the real argument about religion turns on the question of whether a man who was born upside down can tell when he comes right way up. The primary paradox of Christianity is that the ordinary condition of man is not his sane or sensible condition; that the normal itself is an abnormality.’

He enjoyed subverting secular certainties. To take but one, he rejected the supposed opposition between a reverence for tradition and a belief in democracy and progress, pointing out that:

‘Tradition may be defined as an extension of the franchise. Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking around.’

He pointed out that Christianity is both traditional and democratic, and represents the truest progress that humanity can make. Then, and perhaps now, those who thought themselves the most progressive were often much more regressive than they realised. He saw that even 100 years ago, Christianity was on the outside in this country, and the centres of power were non-religious. As he put it: ‘We do not need a censorship of the press. We have a censorship by the press.’

These views, so trenchantly expressed, naturally led him into a great deal of debate, which he loved. He managed to spend his whole career arguing with people like George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells while remaining friends with them, quite an example for us amid the acrimonious disputes we see today. Indeed, Shaw thought of Chesterton as ‘a colossal genius,’ even though Chesterton insisted that when secular moderns turned their backs on Christian theology they lost the unifying scheme that gave balance and proportion to values and morals. As he put it: ‘the modern world is full of wild and wasted virtues’ because it ‘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.’ He foresaw that this would lead to a sceptical relativism, suggesting that ‘A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed … We are on the way to producing a race of men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table.’

He loved to use the most whimsical of illustrations in his war on scepticism. In the case of miracles, he declared,

‘For some extraordinary reason, there is a fixed notion that it is more liberal to disbelieve in miracles than to believe in them. … For some inconceivable cause a “broad” or “liberal” clergyman always mean a man who wishes at least to diminish the number of miracles; it never means a man who wishes to increase that number. It always means a man who is free to disbelieve that Christ came out of His grave; it never means a man who is free to believe that his own aunt came out of her grave. It is common to find trouble in a parish because the parish priest cannot admit that St. Peter walked on water; yet how rarely do we find trouble in a parish because the clergyman says that his father walked on the Serpentine?’

The exuberance of Chesterton’s approach made his Christian apologetics fun, and funny, where it is so often a deadly serious business. His humour and enthusiasm got all sorts of previously non-religious people to engage with Christianity with a new interest. Rather than circling the wagons and defending Christian ideas, he took those ideas out into the world and showed how they made sense of things precious to the non-religious: marriage, for example. He answered the ‘common murmur … against monogamy’ with a sense of wonder at the very possibility of marriage: ‘Keeping to one woman is a small price for so much as seeing one woman. To complain that I could only be married once was like complaining that I had only been born once.’

At the same time he tempered that wonder with practical wisdom stemming from the Christian idea of original sin, expressed in whimsical and disarming ways: ‘the wise old fairy tales (which are the wisest things in the world, at any rate the wisest things of worldly origin), the wise old fairy tales never were so silly as to say that the prince and the princess lived peacefully ever afterwards. The fairy tales said that the prince and princess lived happily ever afterwards: and so they did. They lived happily, although it is very likely that from time to time they threw the furniture at each other.’

He also understood the power of story. He tried out writing Christian ideas into stories, not always successfully. In that he followed George MacDonald and help pave the way for C.S. Lewis, Tolkien and others. He also wrote theology in the form of non-fiction narratives, notably in Orthodoxy, the story of the his own life, and The Everlasting Man, the story of the world and the story of Jesus as the centre of the world’s story. He was writing narrative theology before that term had been invented. Much of the Bible is written that way, of course, but theologians had largely ignored that fact for a very long time.

If Chesterton is such positive news, why is he not more popular? For one thing, as a journalist, he cheerfully exaggerates, is imprecise, and his style annoys many. More importantly, even his admirers have to admit, straightaway, that he imbibed the sexism, racism and anti-semitism of his day at an early age, and never shook much of it off. These views remain a blot on his record, although he did defend the Jews of Russia against Tsarist pogroms and the Jews of Germany against Nazi persecution. His faults were of his time, however, while his strengths were all his own. He used wit, paradox and imagination to subvert the secular arguments that were even then in the ascendant. He understood Christianity as the eternal revolution, forever in revolt against the world’s evils, and he elevated joy and wonder to a central place in his theology, in a way that perhaps no one else has ever quite done.


Chesterton’s influence

If we look for the Biblical basis for Chesterton’s work, we might think of John 10, where we hear Jesus’ words: ‘I am come that they may have life, and have it to the full.’ You might say that G.K. Chesterton made it his mission to campaign in support of those words. He believed that Christ came not to take away life but to bring the fullness of life. In his one of his earliest writings, for his school magazine, he wrote that true Christianity “is not a curtailment of human life, but an expansion of it, … it is not a rejection of the material, but a comprehension of it, … it is not a more vague but a more vivid humanity.”

In Isaiah 55, God is pictured as inviting all hearers to a feast of the spirit. That open-hearted and generous approach was something Chesterton constantly echoed, and a whimsical spirituality raises its head at intervals throughout his work. He once wrote, ‘Make your religion less of a theory and more of a love affair,’ and in his writing he mapped out signposts towards a religion of love, wonder and joy. For all of that, and in spite of his flaws, we may remember him with gratitude, and learn from him.

What he did was largely pre-evangelism, in the sense that he presents Christianity as a religion of joy and wonder, a positive force in the world. He shows how Christianity is relevant to all aspects of human culture and experience. He doesn’t go on to make altar calls and ask people to become Christians, yet quite a few people did become Christians through his work, and he had a very major effect on the next generation of Christian thinkers and writers. C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Evelyn Waugh, Charles Williams, Ronald Knox, Herbert Marshall McLuhan, W.H. Auden, Graham Greene, and Dorothy L. Sayers all acknowledged his influence. Lewis said that reading Chesterton’s book The Everlasting Man had shown him that a Christian view of history made sense.

The way he engaged with non-Christians and drew them in to friendly debate was to use a lot of natural theology, that is, theology that doesn’t depend on revelation, the kind of thing Paul referred to in Romans 1:20 where he said that ‘ever since the creation of the world’ God’s ‘eternal power and divine nature … have been understood and seen through the things he has made’. Psalm 19 talks of ‘the heavens’ declaring ‘the glory of God’ and Acts 17 sees Paul engaging with Athenian culture and poetry as he explains the faith. Chesterton took natural theology a long way, in engaging with literature, art, politics and other areas of life. By doing that he opened up common ground for debate. We could learn from that today. The gulf between a Christian view of life and many secular worldviews is so great now that we need bridge-builders like Chesterton who can use natural theology to create common ground for discussion and persuade young sceptics that a Christian worldview makes sense, as Chesterton’s writing persuaded the young C.S. Lewis.

That said, with Chesterton, natural theology was the road, not the destination. In his major books, he ended up with the Incarnation, by taking his readers to Jesus Christ. In his book on the philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas, he ended with a reminder that the joy and wonder of the Christian view of life make Christianity the most hopeful of religions. He explained that the Christian understanding of creation reveals that:

‘If things deceive us, it is by being more real than they seem. As ends in themselves they always deceive us; but as things tending to a greater end, they are even more real than we think them. If they seem to have a relative unreality (so to speak) it is because they are potential and not actual; they are unfulfilled, like packets of seeds or boxes of fireworks. They have it in them to be more real than they are. And there is an upper world of what the Schoolman called Fruition, or Fulfillment, in which all this relative relativity becomes actuality; in which the trees burst into flower or the rockets into flame.’


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