The World Made Strange
G. K. CHESTERTON did not think of himself as a theologian. In his era, Catholic theology was still the domain of a highly trained clerical elite. Granting the title “theologian” to a journalist in those days would have been as outrageous as dubbing a journalist a “physicist” or “lawyer” today.
But within a generation of Chesterton’s death, “lay theologian” was no longer sounding to Roman Catholic ears like a contradiction in terms. Chesterton’s striking contributions to theology, partly the fruit of his unusual perspective, more than made up for his lack of formal qualifications.
In nineteenth-century England, which saw the restoration of the Roman episcopal hierarchy after centuries of suppression, Catholic culture developed in several different directions at once.
On an administrative level, a flood of Irish immigrants built a strong and loyal foundation for the revival of the parishes. Intellectually, the church was blessed with several generations of highly educated literary men such as John Lingard, John Henry Newman, and Coventry Patmore.
This double infusion of energy led to a vast program of building (churches, schools, seminaries) on the one hand, and what became known as the “Catholic literary revival” on the other. Newman had prophesied as much, foreseeing in 1852 an imminent “second spring” for Catholic Christianity in Britain. This literary revival continued until the 1950s.
Gilbert Keith Chesterton was at its heart. Priests and bishops, philosophers and theologians, Church of England and Church of Rome took an interest in his writing.
Like several of the revival’s leaders, Chesterton was not in Holy Orders, but his great intellect and education enabled him to penetrate any subject he addressed—including theology. As he commented in The New Jerusalem, “Theology is only thought applied to religion.” On another occasion, he described theology as a “sublime detective story” in which the purpose is not to discover how someone died, but why he is alive.
Hans Urs von Balthasar, the great Swiss theologian who died in 1988, recognized Chesterton as a masterful practitioner of the “lay style” of theology. He found in Chesterton’s humor the antidote to much of the “bestial seriousness and desperate optimism of modern world views,” as well as a brilliant demonstration that only in Christianity “can one preserve the wonder of being, liberty, childlikeness, the adventure, the resilient, energizing paradox of existence.”
Absurd, but true
"Paradox” is a word consistently used to describe Chesterton’s style. It refers to statements that seem contradictory but are actually true.
Hugh Kenner’s classic study Paradox in Chesterton shows how his use of this device is not, as it may appear, a weakness. Chesterton’s paradoxes flow from the “direct intuition of being,” a metaphysical vision of reality shaped by his transforming encounter with God.
Chesterton did not so much make paradoxes as see them. Most of the time, we fail to notice them because we are content to think in clichés and truisms—what Kenner calls “mental inertia.” And this is precisely why Chesterton’s statements so often appear absurd when we first encounter them. For example, in the introduction to The Defendant, he writes:
Religion has had to provide that longest and strangest telescope—the telescope through which we could see the star upon which we dwelt. For the mind and eyes of the average man this world is as lost as Eden and as sunken as Atlantis. There runs a strange law through the length of human history—that men are continually tending to undervalue their environment, to undervalue their happiness, to undervalue themselves.
The great sin of mankind, the sin typified by the fall of Adam, is the tendency, not towards pride, but towards this weird and horrible humility.
This is the great fall, the fall by which the fish forgets the sea, the ox forgets the meadow, the clerk forgets the city, every man forgets his environment and, in the fullest and most literal sense, forgets himself. This is the real fall of Adam, and it is a spiritual fall.
It is a strange thing that many truly spiritual men, such as General [Charles] Gordon, have actually spent some hours in speculating upon the precise location of the Garden of Eden. Most probably we are in Eden still. It is only our eyes that have changed.
The passage provides several Chestertonian paradoxes and helps to explain why they are theologically important. It is a paradox, seemingly in flat contradiction to received wisdom, that the primary sin of man is not pride but humility. It is a paradox that the Fall was an undervaluing not of God but of ourselves. Above all it is a paradox that we live in a world that must be discovered.
The last of these is the fundamental paradox that underlies almost everything Chesterton tried to do. He expands upon it throughout The Defendant and in a dozen stories in which a character journeys far for adventure or treasure but succeeds only by returning to the place he left, this time with eyes wide open.
One might even argue that only someone with a talent for seeing paradox can do theology. This talent can manifest itself in different ways, though, encompassing both the winsome wit of Chesterton and the philosophical prose of his biggest theological influence, Thomas Aquinas.
Aquinas dared to address some of the most puzzling apparent contradictions of the Christian faith. God is three, and God is one. The Fall irreparably damaged human intellect, yet through intellect humans can discover important truths. God predestines, yet Christians are commanded to pray.
In addition to large frames and unusually sharp minds, Chesterton and “the colossal friar” shared an ability to find truth in contrasts. They then had to help others see those truths.
"I believe in preaching to the converted,” Chesterton wrote, “for I have generally found that the converted do not understand their own religion.” But Chesterton preached paradox to those outside the fold as well.
Against the liberal theologians and so-called “free-thinkers” of his day, he asserted that the dogmas of Christianity set us free. It is the refusal to believe them that closes “all the doors of the cosmic prison on us with a clang of eternal iron.”
Furthermore, if the early church had not asserted the paradox of the Trinity (three Persons, one God) or the paradox of the Incarnation (two natures, one Person), the human mind would long ago have collapsed into a comfortable heresy.
"People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum and safe,” Chesterton wrote. “There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy.”
Echoes of laughter
Recently, Chesterton has been remembered more for his Father Brown stories and his quotable bon mots than for his Christian apologetics, but the rediscovery of Chesterton the “defender of the faith” is well underway.
In his own time Chesterton was undoubtedly one of the most influential Christian writers alive. His prolific output for a variety of magazines and newspapers (including his own), his role as a popular debater and lecturer, and even his work as a broadcaster in the early days of the BBC all made him a media superstar.
Nor can his indirect influence through those who read him—from Mahatma Gandhi to C.S. Lewis—be overestimated. Even today there is no more inspiring example of the “lay style” of theology than this humble giant of a journalist who was always laughing at himself.
Chesterton was a theologian whose thought constantly unfolded the supreme and simple truth that creation springs from nowhere but the love of God. The emotion he seems to feel most often—and to write most movingly about—is simple gratitude.
He never grew tired of the simplest things, and he projects this feeling onto God as well. Perhaps, he speculates, the sun rises the same way each morning because God is like a child, crying, “Do it again!” while the grown-ups weary of the sight.
Chesterton may have been an amateur theologian, but an “amateur” is defined as one who loves. The love of God is certainly the best qualification for doing theology. CH
By Stratford Caldecott
[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #75 in 2002]Stratford Caldecott is director of the Centre for Faith & Culture at Plater College, Oxford, and co-editor of the journal Second Spring (www.secondspring.co.uk).
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