Author Archives: Patrick

Next Book: The Happiness of Heaven

Our next book to read and “study” is The Happiness of Heaven, by Fr. J. Boudreaux. Since it is a shorter one, we will knock out two chapters per meeting. This is one that I read and enjoyed years ago, so it will be good to revisit it with you.

You can find a copy to purchase by way of Tan Books:

Link: The Happiness of Heaven: The Joys and Rewards of Eternal Glory

There is also a free PDF download available as well:

Link: The Happiness of Heaven PDF


Orthodoxy: Chesterton on the “Delight” of Truth

Orthodoxy: Chesterton on the “Delight” of Truth
Rev. James V. Schall

“I had heard that I was in the wrong place, and my soul sang for joy” — this is Chesterton’s startling reaction to his discovery that man is not made only for this earth but through it for eternal life. The “splendor” of truth, I suppose, stresses its own luminousness, its own shining, its reality, while “delight” indicates our proper reaction to what is, that it is at all, to what sheds its light before us when we realize at last that we need light, that there is light.

But doesn’t everyone see this luminous truth? Why was Chesterton any different? To be sure, no one lacks the power to see truth. The power is given with what we are. But many, evidently very many, having the power to see it, choose — the word is important — not to accept it. Chesterton is different because he saw, accepted, and affirmed it. His enthusiasm for reality, for what is, is our grace. If our lives are disordered, however, it is likely that we do not experience any delight in truth because we actively prevent ourselves from seeing the splendor that is there. We can seek, like the young Augustine, all those beautiful things, without letting ourselves aver to why they might be beautiful in the first place. We want things before we appreciate what they are in their fullness — the exact opposite of the right order of things.

We oftentimes suspect where truth might lead us, so we cleverly refuse to go there without ever honestly spelling out to ourselves what we are doing. We choose to deceive ourselves. We build an apparently plausible “counter-truth” to justify how we choose to live. We quietly put aside in our hearts any comparison between what we do and what we ought to do. The good, the true, and the beautiful, however, are interrelated in ways that can hide their inner-connections from those who do not want to see what is there. “The test of all happiness is gratitude; and I felt grateful, though I hardly knew to whom” is Chesterton’s way of expressing his realization of the truth that the good is really good even though he did not himself create it, perhaps primarily because he did not create it. He is grateful that he did not hide from the truth that he saw. He wants to know, in fact, who “caused” it since he knows he didn’t, yet it is there.

Chesterton wrote Orthodoxy in 1908. He was a young man at the time, already into his journalism career. He had an uncanny, almost supernatural, knack for discerning in their incipient principles what events would come about later in the twentieth century, even to its end, because he simply “saw” things, saw the truth in them and, more importantly, affirmed it. His What’s Wrong with the World (1910) spells out the cause of almost every societal aberration about which we read in our papers each day. Chesterton indeed was one of those remarkable people who learned about truth not from itself but from the common and fashionable errors he saw all about him. They left him perplexed because he could see that they were not true, in spite of their popularity.

Chesterton delighted in things because he was acutely conscious of the fact that they need not exist at all — “every man in the street is a great might-not-have-been,” as he put it. Every might-not-have-been in the streets, including ourselves, is filled with a divinely guaranteed dignity. We are all like the penny, he said in his Charles Dickens, because we have the image of the king stamped on us, the divine King. Yet every actual existence is so overwhelmingly unexpected that everyone who exists at all seems like the result of some huge, improbable choice.

When he realized that the world need not exist (the doctrine of Creation) and that God did not need to create it (the doctrine of the Trinity), Chesterton knew that he was free of all the depressing philosophies of necessity that implied that he had no other purpose of existing but necessity itself, that reality was merely an unraveling of what had to be. If the world was the result of choice, however, so much the more so was he. Yet, if a man did not need to exist, what was the “golden key,” as Chesterton called it, that could account for the wondrous fact that he did exist without his having anything to do with it? At a minimum, every person, who might not have been at all, is at least vaguely aware that his own particular existence rose out of nothingness through no input of his own.

Heretics, Chesterton’s first major book in 1905, explained, in a still penetrating read, just why he was not a follower of various modern intellectual movements, most of which are still around in some form or another at the turn of the twenty-first century. Basically, he did not follow them because he understood them; he understood their disorder. He knew that the purpose of a mind was to know reality, to come to a conclusion about claims to be right or true. “I am a rationalist,” he explained in Orthodoxy. “I like to have some intellectual justification for my intuitions. If I am treating man as a fallen being it is an intellectual convenience to me to believe that he fell, and I find, for some odd psychological reason, that I can deal better with a man’s exercise of free will if I believe that he has got it.” Chesterton always had the deadly capacity to see our implicit contradictions.

To meet the mind of Chesterton is to meet a mind that will not let our intellectual errors remain hidden from ourselves, however much we might prefer not to have them boldly spelled out. The most wide-spread contemporary intellectual error is no doubt something known as cultural relativism. Chesterton is always amusing when he points out the error of some such theory that asks us to maintain its contradictions as if they did not exist. “An imbecile habit has risen in modern controversy of saying that such and such a creed can be held in one age but cannot be held in another. Some dogma was credible in the twelfth century, but is not credible in the twentieth. You might as well say that a certain philosophy can be believed on Mondays, but cannot be believed on Tuesdays.” About the principle at issue, little further needs to be said in any age, in any place.

Chesterton insists on putting blame where it be longs. Many, like Marx, have blamed God for man’s problems and claim that they could do better for man by leaving God completely out of the picture. Chester ton was not so sure. “The secularists have not wrecked divine things, but the secularists have wrecked secular things.” A human error about the nature or reality of the divinity does not lead to a change in or threat to the divinity, but it does, like Marxism eventually did, ironically wreak havoc among human lives and institutions. We may not be able directly to test the divinity, but we can test what men do because of their mis-understanding of the divinity, or whatever they have chosen to take its place. Our culture is wont to teach us that ideas make little difference. Chesterton thinks that any difference there is comes from our ideas. The real issue is whether ideas are true or not.

The provocativeness of Heretics, its charming reduction of well-known philosophic and religious positions to humorous absurdity, annoyed someone so much that he challenged Chesterton to write a book explaining, not what he was against, but what he was for. This challenge energized him even more than his enterprise of pointing out the errors of his friends and critics in Heretics. Chesterton, incidently, was, even in issues of great and passionate controversy, an amazing sort of man who never lost a friend because he pointed out the impossibility of his ideas. This is a rare gift and speaks much of the greatness of Chesterton.

Thus, when confronted, Chesterton took up the writing of Orthodoxy, in which he set forth what he did hold. He discovered that what he did come to maintain, which he thought so original, was in fact what all Christians profess in the Creed, many of whom, I might add, unlike Chesterton, profess the Creed without seeing its wonder, its standing at the foundation of all healthy and human things. Orthodoxy is itself one of the best and most profound commentaries on the great Christian Creed. Chesterton ex plains in his own way what it affirms and why what it affirms is directed to the freedom and dignity of man because it is first directed to the revelation of who God is.

Because Chesterton later wrote his own Auto biography, itself a marvelous book, Orthodoxy is not an autobiography, though it is completely autobiographical. Though he was not a Catholic when he wrote it, it is nevertheless completely Catholic. Though it is written in a completely unscholarly and familiar style, it is thoroughly scholarly and formal in its argumentation. When everyone else found “orthodoxy” to be a bad word, Chesterton found it to be the exact description of what keeps us sane. “When ever we feel there is something odd in Christian theology, we shall generally find that there is something odd in the truth.”

To begin to understand Chesterton, it is worth recalling the last sentences of Heretics, as they reveal his soul perhaps as well as anything he ever wrote — not denying that Chesterton’s great soul clearly shone through everything he did write, even his shortest essay. But fully to comprehend what Chesterton concluded at the end of Heretics, we have to be familiar with one of the great scenes in the New Testament, with the passage that, perhaps more than any other in our literature, has consoled ordinary folks who, while bearing constant witness to the difficulties of belief and its living, nevertheless still believe.

The scene is of the Apostle Thomas, the famous “Doubting Thomas,” who will not believe reports of the Risen Lord until he sees the wounds of Christ’s body and hands. When the Lord appears to Thomas and fulfills his demand to see and to touch, evidential things, Christ says to him, with His own paradox, which Chesterton surely noticed, “Blessed are they, Thomas, who have not seen but who have believed.” We cannot be unaware that this latter group includes the vast majority of mankind who have continued to believe.

“The great march of mental destruction will go on. Everything will be denied,” Chesterton concludes his analysis of modern thought in an almost prophetic voice.

Everything will become a creed. It is a rational position to deny the stones in the street; it will be a religious dogma to assert them. It is a rational thesis that we are all in a dream; it will be mystical sanity to say that we are all awake. Fires will be kindled to testify that two and two make four…. We shall be left defending, not only the incredible virtues and sanities of human life, but something more incredible still, this huge impossible universe which stares us in the face. We shall fight for visible prodigies as if they were invisible. We shall look on the impossible grass and the skies with a strange courage. We shall be of those who have seen and yet have believed.

Unlike Thomas before the Lord, who now believes because he has seen, Chesterton is talking to those modern philosophers who see the ordinary things before their very eyes and still do not believe in their existence, in their existence that reaches to the order of what is. Chesterton intimated, in fact, that in our era, we will need the faith to believe in what is evident to our senses, to our reason. The subsequent history of modern philosophy does not in the least prove that Chesterton was wrong in his supposition.

The end of Heretics, thus, reveals Chesterton’s profound insight that the ultimate result of the rejection of the evidence for belief in modernity would end up with a doubt about the existence of the world itself. Logically, in order to “prove” that God does not exist, we have to maintain at some point that the world and its order — the very point at which we started — do not exist. Somehow in some albeit un expected wisdom, to maintain the existence of natural things as they are involves the belief in supernatural ones. Chesterton makes this observation not as a matter of doctrine, which it isn’t, but as a matter of historical fact, of what happens in the minds of those who consistently reject belief and its evidence and then try to explain consistently what they are doing.

It would most often be the scientists, the philosophers, and the academics who would come to doubt their senses and any concrete extra-sensory object they might reveal to us as existing. This observation was one reason that Chesterton was a democrat and loved ordinary folks — “the common man” as he called him. They were, as he knew them, less susceptible to an intellectual “proof” that the world did not exist since they saw quite clearly that it did, no matter what the specialists might tell them. Chesterton’s philosophy, as he put it, allowed him to accept or reject miracles on the basis of evidence. But a determinist philosopher is not free to accept or reject any mere evidence, because his philosophy has already precluded any possibility of miracles or evidence for them. His philosophy, in other words, has caused him to doubt his senses.

The title of Orthodoxy means literally right opinion. First of all, it implies that there can be a wrong opinion and that the difference between the two makes considerable difference in how we live. It means further that how we live is directly affected by how we think. Almost a hundred years after Chesterton, we live in an age that doubts everything about itself — that the mind can know the truth, even that it ought to know the truth, that it ought to know anything. We advocate a kind of relativism or multiculturalism that, far from simply pointing to the myriad differences in the reality of time and space, maintains that nothing is certain, that there are no standards, particularly no human standards. Therefore, because there are no standards, no truth, we are said to be “free.” In this system, it is not the truth that makes us free. We make ourselves free by denying any criterion outside of ourselves. Everything is permitted because not only is nothing known, but nothing can be known. We choose our choices so that we are enslaved by what we want.

Second, orthodoxy implies that it is possible to establish what right opinion is by examining all opinion, especially wrong opinion. Chesterton’s favorite book list seems to have been the famous Index of Forbidden Books. It was from errors in the most popular and most scientific positions that he found the raw material of truth. “All I had hitherto heard of Christian theology had alienated me from it. I was a pagan at the age of twelve, and a complete agnostic by the age of sixteen…. I never read a line of Christian apologetics.” Nietzsche was a favorite author if only because he put what was wrong so well. Literally, as he tells us, Chesterton learned truth from the weirdness of the constant error he read.

On the basis of the impossibility of what theories the great modern philosophers used to explain reality, Chesterton set out to found his own “heresy,” as he delighted in calling it. He himself, however, as he conceived it, was the ultimate “heretic”! And when he found the truth, he discovered to his astonishment that it was invented some eighteen hundred years before his time and was called “orthodoxy.” He was glad that he did not have to invent the “heresy of orthodoxy” himself but could simply recognize it as already having been invented — a fact that made him even more curious. Invented by whom?

Chesterton was constantly amused by the fact that the most true and delightful teaching was the one to which most opposition was found. It was quite contrary to what was actually taught in the modern schools. Yet, “there never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy,” he reflects. It was “perilous” because it affirmed that our choices were infinitely serious and potentially dangerous; it was “exciting” because it showed us that our choices could lead either to damnation or to what was infinitely worthwhile. Chesterton defended the possibility of excitement by defending the doctrine of free will and the fact that it could choose rightly or wrongly, but freely, not necessarily. We may not want to have this choice, which logically means that we may not want to be what we are. But the fact is that denying our freedom leads not to excitement and drama, but to dullness and indifference. Chester ton preferred the world of freedom and excitement with its dangers and its glory.

Chesterton as a young man never heard of Christian truth, but he knew that what was proposed, especially against the faith, on examination could not be true. He could understand contradictions and therefore errors. Chesterton was converted intellectually by the heretics, not by the orthodox. He could not at first understand the odd nature of the opposition to the classic faith, but what he did notice made him wonder, finally, if it might be true because it could not be all the contradictory things said against it. “Men who begin to fight the Church for the sake of freedom and humanity end by flinging away freedom and humanity if only they may fight the Church.” This was, I say, not something he expected as a matter of theory, but something he observed as a matter of fact. He reflected that something against which every sort of accusation is made, even if it be contradicted by another accusation, might be very odd indeed, but it might also be the normal. For to the abnormal, it is only the normal that looks most grotesque. Somehow most modern philosophy seemed to picture an utterly abnormal world that bore little relation to what was true.

One of the chapters in Orthodoxy is called the suicide of thought. Roughly, this means that no one can think if he maintains that his organ of thinking cannot know anything or that his organ of will cannot decide anything about what is known. Moreover, no one allows his organ of deciding to decide anything if there are, on the basis of what he knows to be true, certain things that will be forbidden to him. If it should so happen that some things are right and true, we may just not want to know about them if we suspect that they might interfere with what we have already chosen to do. When we act on this failure to know what we should know, we sin, to use the classic word that indicates both the seriousness of our thoughts and the choices that follow from them. Not surprisingly, then, when asked, the reason Chester ton himself gave for his final conversion to the faith was that he wanted to get rid of his sins. He knew that the structure of reality was such that they were possible, and he knew himself well enough to know that he, no one else, committed them.

Chesterton liked to talk about sin, no doubt because it was so serious and so common. Indeed, in his Father Brown stories, he liked to write about it. He thought we should be sinning all the time, not by actually murdering or stealing or committing adultery, of course, but by writing about such aberrations. Though he loved the sinner, he did not have any sympathy for those who refused to understand the reality or depths of sin. He often suggested, furthermore, that those who know most about sin are not the sinners themselves but the pure of heart, those who have decided not to commit it. The knowledge of sin and its attraction is not itself a sin but a necessary element in our understanding ourselves. But the existence of sin and its terribleness was part of the risk of the universe that contained the finite free creature. If God wanted to create a finite person who could love Him freely, He had to accept, as in all love, the possibility of being rejected.

Chesterton was acutely aware that what made the universe particularly interesting was not the existence of sin in it, with its pre-condition of free will, but the possibility and condition of its forgiveness. In determinist theory, “the cosmos went on forever, but not in its wildest constellation could there be anything really interesting; anything, for instance, such as forgiveness or free will.” Free will meant that we could sin and were responsible for it. It also meant that we could be grateful for existence itself. For giveness meant that even if we sinned, what we sinned against could forgive us, that sin was personal both on our parts and on the part of what we sinned against. “Such … was the joy of man; … happiness depended on not doing something which you could at any moment do, but which, very often, it was not obvious why you should not do it.” All romance depended on not doing what ought not to be done. Sometimes on crucial things, we simply had to obey. “Thou shalt not ….”

Chesterton, moreover, thought that the doctrine of original sin grounded democracy and was the only reason we could give for not absolutely trusting a ruling elite. “The unpopular parts of Christianity (like original sin) turn out when examined to be the very props of the people.” Original sin explained why we needed to bind even our rulers by law, morality, and sanction. They too were sinners and lived in the worst possible occasion for sin — the life of power, publicity, and comfort. “In the best Utopia, I must be prepared for the fall of any man, in any position, at any moment….” But no matter in what sort of society or situation in which man lived, sin is always caused by will, not by something external to us. No arrangement of society or state, contrary to Rousseau and his tradition, would ever eliminate the possibility of sin and wrong doing from among us, especially from the elite. “For she (the Church) has maintained from the beginning that the danger was not in man’s environment, but in man.” This awareness of the possibility of sin in anyone, even rulers, is one fundamental element of any charter of liberty, of any understanding of responsibility.

What is surprising at first sight is the amount of attention that Chesterton gives in Orthodoxy to questions of sin, original sin, and free will. These three are, no doubt, essential doctrines of the faith and its philosophic support. If there is such a thing as sin, the deliberate choice of a thought or action against God and man, there must first be a free will to choose such thought or action. Moreover, it is clear that from time immemorial, man has had difficulty in living virtuously, even when he wanted to and chose to do so. Indeed, this difficulty in living virtuously will seem to justify theories which maintain that sin is the normal condition of mankind, so we should not worry about it but expect it, even excuse it, make it “normal” because it is so frequent. Chesterton’s response to this position is again amusing: “Men may have had concubines as long as they have had horses- still they were not part of him if they were sinful.” The frequency of any sin does not somehow indicate its rightness but its wrongness.

The greatest thing about Orthodoxy, however, is its enthusiasm for and delight in what is.

The structure of Orthodoxy is cast in the form of the adventure of a man who set out around the world to discover some strange land. Finally, his ship reaches this distant land; only there he discovers that it is England, his original home. The analogy, of course, is to Chesterton’s own spiritual adventure in discovering orthodoxy to be the home he was looking for all along only he did not recognize it right before his very eyes. One of the mysteries of his life, Chester ton tells us, was why he could be “homesick at home.” This homesickness-at-home is a most striking image, for Chester ton loved home and thought it the noblest word in the language. Yet, he understood that even when we have everything, even when we do not sin, we feel that there is something missing to us. We seek our true home even at home.

In his musings about what it is we want, what sort of freedom is the greatest, even at home, Chesterton argued that it is the freedom to bind ourselves. “I would never conceive or tolerate any Utopia which did not leave to me the liberty for which I chiefly care, the liberty to bind myself.” This freedom of binding oneself was for Chesterton the key to the highest wisdom about the most basic things of life. “I could never mix in the common murmur of that rising generation against monogamy, because no restrictions on sex seemed so odd and unexpected as sex itself… 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 could only be born once.” Chesterton was capable of elevating this principle to the more universal idea that our individual uniquenesses, in being bound by love, lie at the heart of all true relationships. “I want to love my neighbor not because he is I, but precisely because he is not I. I want to adore the world, not as one likes a looking-glass, because it is one’s self, but as one loves a woman, because she is entirely different.”

And because God too is entirely different and stands at the heart of all binding promises, of all freedom, it is possible to love Him because we know we are first chosen, that being ourselves is not enough. Our ideas of God decide our ideas of the world. “By insisting especially on the transcendence of God we get wonder, curiosity, moral and political adventure, righteous indignation, Christendom. Insisting that God is inside man, man is always inside himself. By insisting that God transcends man, man has transcended himself.” In transcending himself, in what he might expect of himself, man does not cease to be himself. We do not become “gods.” We love God and this is our joy. Eternal life comes precisely to us, as we are.

Chesterton ends Orthodoxy by suggesting that the only thing that the Incarnate God did not show us while He was on earth was his “mirth,” his joy. He did not show us this mirth because we could not bear it now, not because this was not of the essence of His being. “The mass of men have been forced to be gay about the little things, but sad about the big ones. Nevertheless (I offer my last dogma defiantly) it is not native to man to be so. Man is more himself, man is more manlike, when joy is the fundamental thing in him, and grief the superficial. … Joy … is the gigantic secret of the Christian.” This at last is the secret of Chesterton and of his Orthodoxy. All that is is created in joy because this is what God is. Life is our seeking to find wherein joy is our home. And we can finally only have a home if we bind freely ourselves. Only this philosophy, this “heresy” of “orthodoxy” — which Chesterton discovered and in discovering leaves its gift of sanity to us — “has again and again said the thing that does not seem to be true, but is true.” Ultimately, this truth, in its splendor, is the delight of orthodoxy.


Father James Schall, S.J. “Orthodoxy: Chesterton on the “Delight” of Truth.” Catholic Dossier (May/June 1998).

Was G.K. Chesterton a Theologian?

Was G.K. Chesterton a Theologian?
Stratford Caldecott 

G.K. Chesterton was not a “theologian” if by that you mean a professional theologian. On the other hand, very few have applied thought to religion as effectively as he. Chesterton once described theology as a “sublime detective story” in which the purpose is not to discover how someone died, but why he is alive. The notable author may qualify as a theologian after all.

He was not a theologian in the sense of having a degree in theology. He was not a theologian in the sense that he wrote books of theology — exploring, for example, the advantages and disadvantages of applying the title “Coredemptrix” to the Blessed Virgin Mary or possible solutions to the Filioque controversy with reference to the Christology of the Cappadocian Fathers. He was not a theologian in the sense that he identified himself as such or what he wrote as theology. For example, he writes that “supernatural truths are connected with the mystery of grace and are a matter for theologians; admittedly a rather delicate and difficult matter even for them”.

On the other hand, we should note Chesterton’s comment in The New Jerusalem: “Theology is only thought applied to religion”. Very few have applied thought to religion as effectively as he. On another occasion, Chesterton described theology as a “sublime detective story” in which the purpose is not to discover how someone died, but why he is alive. The notable author of the “Father Brown” stories and President of the Detection Club may qualify as a theologian after all.

Theology in East and West

The Eastern Orthodox Church only honours three people in the whole history of the Church with the formal title “Theologian”: the author of the Fourth Gospel, Gregory Nazianzen (330-390) and Symeon the New Theologian (949-1022). Each was a “mystic” (in Lossky’s sense): that is, he spoke or wrote from an experience of union with God. The true theologian is caught up in the life of God; theology or “theo-logic”, the logic of God, is something higher than human reason: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts: nor your ways my ways, says the Lord” (Is. 55:8-9).

The great example, of course, of a mystery that human thinking could not have discovered on its own, and which is known only by faith, is the Trinity: the fact that God is One undivided nature, yet Three Persons. For a human being to theologize is to attain “things beyond the mind of man” (1 Cor. 2:10), and that is possible only by the grace of participation in God. In the case of the three Theologians we find it impossible to separate their “thought” from their “spirituality”. This is the whole point of the Eastern and ancient spirituality of Christianity, as it was recorded in that collection of texts called the Philokalia: thought must be integrated with spirituality, and the mind with the heart.

The Latin Church, of course, was more or less united with the Orthodox throughout the first millennium. The “New Theologian” died in 1022; the great Schism took place in 1054. But right up to modern times Western theology has been understood as a prayerful unfolding of what Scripture can reveal to the eyes of faith.

How it was that in many modern universities, and even in some cases modern Catholic universities, theology became the name of a mere academic subject like biology or history or maths is a long story. No longer “queen” of the sciences, theology tends to be viewed as their poor relation: a type of embarrassing, incontinent great grandmother the sciences might prefer to keep hidden upstairs when visitors come to tea. Fortunately theology is not confined to the modern university — and even there we may find theologians who regard prayer as the indispensable foundation of their subject. They are encouraged and supported by the magisterium of the Church.

The 1990 document of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on The Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian, speaks of the relationship of love and method in theology: “Obedient to the impulse of truth which seeks to be communicated, theology also arises from love and love’s dynamism” (section 7). Thus we may say that even today both East and West are agreed on this fundamental point, that, just as the primary theology in the Church is Scripture itself, and the primary theologians are the Evangelists (especially John), so all secondary theology derives from Scripture, the study of which the Second Vatican Council describes as the very “soul” of theology (Dei Verbum, 24).

Theology and the Convert

After these preliminaries, we must turn to the question of G.K. Chesterton and his relationship to “theology” thus understood. I will call to the witness box the Western theologian who has done more than any other in our time to reintegrate the study of Scripture and the study of theology with the life of faith: Hans Urs von Balthasar, the Swiss theologian who died in 1988.

Balthasar’s theological career can be said to have begun when he realized during his Jesuit training how utterly boring theology was. He ended up sitting through his lectures with plugs in his ears, reading the complete works of St Augustine under the desk. As he says, “My entire period of study in the Society of Jesus was a grim struggle with the dreariness of theology, with what men had made out of the glory of revelation. I could not endure this presentation of the Word of God! I could have lashed out with the fury of a Samson. I felt like tearing down, with Samson’s own strength, the whole temple and burying myself beneath the rubble.”

This righteous indignation in fact fuelled a more constructive project: the rebuilding of modern theology in a great trilogy of series, each containing several massive volumes, on the themes of Beauty, Goodness and Truth. A true theologian, for Balthasar, is one who perceives and helps to reveal the glory of God revealed in Christ. He recognized in Chesterton an exponent of what he called the “lay style” of theology (mentioning him indeed in the same breath as Newman), and he finds in Chesterton’s humour the providential response to much of the “bestial seriousness and desperate optimism of modern world views”; a brilliant demonstration that only in Christianity (and ultimately only in Catholicism) “can one preserve the wonder of being, liberty, childlikeness, the adventure, the resilient, energizing paradox of existence”.

A wonderful essay of Chesterton’s in The Common Man called “Reading the Riddle”, begins by describing the success of a trendy theological book called The Great Problem Solved. The success of this book was due to the fact that people were buying it under the impression that it was a detective story; and, of course, they ended up being disappointed. Chesterton then asks, “Why is a work of modern theology less startling, less arresting to the soul, than a work of silly police fiction? Why is a work of modern theology less startling, less arresting to the soul, than a work of old theology?… There must be something wrong if the most important human business is also the least exciting.”

He goes on: “Those early friends of mine bought the book when they thought that it solved the mystery of Berkeley Square, but dropped it like hot bricks when they found that it professed only to solve the mystery of existence. But if those people had really believed for a moment that it did solve the mystery of existence they would not have dropped it like hot bricks. They would have walked over hot bricks for ten miles to find it.” This book, he says, “may stand as a type of all the new theological literature. What is wrong with it is not that it professes to state the paradox of God, but that it professes to state the paradox of God as a truism.

You may or may not be able to reveal the divine secret; but at least you cannot let it leak out. If ever it comes, it will be unmistakable, it will kill or cure. Judaism, with its dark sublimity, said that if a man saw God he would die. Christianity conjectures that (by an even more catastrophic fatality) if he sees God he will live for ever. But whatever happens will be something decisive and indubitable. A man after seeing God may die; but at least he will not be slightly unwell, and then have to take a little medicine and then have to call in a doctor.”

Connected with this insight that true theology cannot be boring is the realization that lies at the heart of Chesterton’s thought about Christianity, as it does at the heart of Balthasar’s (and that of his teacher Henri de Lubac), that there is something in Christianity that can never age, that can never become old; something that is always brand new. “A century or two hence Spiritualism may be a tradition and Socialism may be a tradition and Christian Science may be a tradition. But Catholicism will not be a tradition. It will still be a nuisance and a new and dangerous thing.”

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger speaks of the centrality of conversion to theology for this very reason. Conversion is the acceptance of the “new beginning in thought” — as it is also a new beginning in life — brought about by an encounter with the Incarnate Word. Both faith and philosophy are equally essential to theology, but they can be integrated only through the process of personal conversion. For conversion involves transformation and deepening; it is “the indispensable means for penetrating into the truth of one’s own being”. This is why, he says, “in every age the path to faith can take its bearings by converts; it explains why they in particular can help us to recognize the reason for the hope that is in us (cf. 1 Pet. 3:15) and to bear witness to it.” For Ratzinger, this is the real purpose and meaning of theology: to recognize our reason for hope, and to witness to that hope in the life of the mind.

It would not, then, on the basis of this formulation, be foolish to argue that theology in our day should actually take its bearings from a great convert like Chesterton — and perhaps particularly from those books, such as Orthodoxy (1908) and his later book The Catholic Church and Conversion (1926), in which he describes and accounts for his own conversion to Christianity and to Catholicism, or The Everlasting Man (1925) in which he gazes upon the event of the Incarnation with a convert’s freshness of vision and wondering astonishment. Chesterton himself in the second of the books just mentioned calls conversion “the mark of the Faith”: that is, as in some way belonging to the essence of the Faith and not merely a necessary point of entry to it which we gradually leave behind us.

This means, also, that there can be no very clear distinction between theology and what has in recent centuries been called apologetics — for apologetics is also the art of bearing witness to “the hope that is in us”. Apologetics is generally aimed at those who are yet to be converted, while theology is for those who may be presumed to have the faith already; but in Tremendous Trifles Chesterton observes that converts are always in need of conversion: “I believe in preaching to the converted, for I have generally found that the converted do not understand their own religion.”. (Once again, this blurring of the sharp distinction between theology and apologetics is something we notice in the work of de Lubac and Balthasar.

A theology that aims to communicate the attractiveness, the excitement, the glory of Christianity cannot help but be a form of evangelization. Conversion becomes a permanent possibility for the Christian thanks to the Sacrament of Penance. Indeed, the claim of the Church to forgive sins was one of the main things that attracted Chesterton to Catholicism. As he says, the most hardened and hoary sinner may emerge from the confessional as innocent as though born one minute ago. This is the miracle of the old becoming young, of the sun rising in the evening of the world:

And sudden as laughter the rivulets run
And sudden for ever as summer lightning
The light is bright on the world begun.
The Towers of Time

It is amazement at this supernatural morning that we catch in Chesterton’s voice when he writes of the faith; and when we hear it we are reminded of the Apostles who stood blinking long ago in the same dawn, which is the dawn of theology.

The Sword of Surprise

A little book called Paradox in Chesterton by Hugh Kenner is extremely pertinent to our theme. A “paradox” is, of course, a statement that at first sight appears absurd, either because it seems to contradict itself or because it contradicts accepted opinion. Examples can be found in every paragraph of Chesterton’s writing; it is the most noticeable, and to many the most irritating, feature of his style.

Kenner shows how his use of this device is not, as it may appear, a weakness, but flows from the “direct intuition of being”, a metaphysical vision into reality as such. It is, in fact, closely connected to the fact that Chesterton writes as a convert, and from the depths of his experience of the encounter with God. It reflects the very process of his thought: its continual reconversion or revitalization in the meeting with the real. (And in his case, as Noel O’Donoghue points out, thought is never far from imagination; it depends for its effect on images and vivid metaphors.)

To defend Chesterton’s use of paradox is not to commend him as a literary stylist. Believing that “the Edwardian decay of art and thought is traceable” to the neglect of paradox and the denial of its importance, Kenner nevertheless admits that as an artist Chesterton had other, more serious faults. “Chesterton the writer scarcely left a page that is not (as he would have cheerfully admitted) in some way botched or disfigured: nor is the deficiency that vitiates the bulk of his poetry and fiction merely technical.” But it is not his merits as an artist that concern us here.

The point is about paradox, and it is this: that Chesterton did not so much make paradoxes as saw them. He was able to discover them because they exist in the world all around us. Most of the time we fail to notice them because we are content to think in cliches and truisms, or in metaphors that have rusted solid. (Kenner calls this “mental inertia”.) And this is precisely why Chesterton’s statements so often appear absurd when we first encounter them. Absurd, or hilarious. The clue, for me, is provided in the Introduction to The Defendant, particularly at the beginning and at the end of the following passage:

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 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 both provides several examples of Chestertonian paradox, 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, and even that we are capable of undervaluing our own happiness. But above all it is a paradox that we live on a star that has to be discovered.

The last of these is the fundamental paradox that underlies almost everything that Chesterton tried to do and which he expands, not only through each of the various chapters of The Defendant but through a dozen stories in which he portrayed a character who goes away from home in search of adventure or treasure and succeeds — eventually, after many vicissitudes — only by returning to the place he left, this time with eyes wide open. He begins Orthodoxy by saying,

“I have often had a fancy for 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. I find, however, that I am either too busy or too lazy to write this fine work, so I may as well give it away for the purposes of philosophical illustration.”

In fact, of course, he was too busy to write it because he was writing that very story in a thousand other guises, and not least in his religious essays and apologetics. His purpose was always to “renew our acquaintance with things” (as Kenner says), including religious doctrines, by making us see them as though for the first time; by opening our eyes and showing us Eden.

It was not that Chesterton evaded the effects of the Fall. The reason that he was able to regain and retain his childhood innocence of vision was — he would have said — the fact of the Incarnation and Redemption. He was able to live, as it were, in Eden because the world has been washed clean and made new again by the birth and death within it of the Son of God. It is therefore as a Christian and not a pagan that he points to the beauties of an environment and of a life that sin has obscured. He perceives, as Julian of Norwich did, the whole world held in the hand of God like a hazelnut, issuing forth in every moment from the love of God like a fountain. “He was accustomed,” as Kenner says, “to looking at grass and seeing God”; to seeing “not lamp-posts but limited beings participating in All Being” (p. 44). And this gift was connected with a fundamental “habit of thought” that can be called thankfulness. “I would maintain,” he wrote (in A Short History of England, although it might have been anywhere), “that thanks are the highest form of thought; and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.”

He himself calls this a “faith in receptiveness” and “respect for things outside oneself”. When once we can see things for the first time, we become grateful for the gift of life itself as one might be grateful for a surprise party or a win on the lottery (a win so big that it enables us to have not just a round-the-world cruise with our closest friends, but life, friends and the world itself).

We did not deserve to be born: we could do nothing to bring it about. But to state this in philosophical terms is one thing. To express it, as Chesterton does, in paradox and poetry, is quite another. Take his Introduction to the Book of Job.

“God will make Job see a startling universe if He can only do it by making Job see an idiotic universe. To startle man God becomes for an instant a blasphemer; one might almost say that God becomes for an instant an atheist. He unrolls before Job a long panorama of created things, the horse, the eagle, the raven, the wild ass, the peacock, the ostrich, the crocodile. He so describes each of them that it sounds like a monster walking in the sun. The whole is a sort of psalm or rhapsody of the sense of wonder. The maker of all things is astonished at the things He has Himself made.”

Or take the passage in Orthodoxy, where he compares the world to the things Robinson Crusoe pulls out of the sea. “The trees and the planets seemed like things saved from the wreck: and when I saw the Matterhorn I was glad that it had been overlooked in the confusion.”

“That there are two sexes and one sun, was like the fact that there were two guns and one axe. It was poignantly urgent that none should be lost; but somehow, it was rather fun that none could be added.” In such ways does Chesterton convey the fact that the world itself is something to be thankful for, which rather lays upon us the obligation to consider whether there is someone to thank for it.

As I have suggested, paradox as a technique is well suited to a writer who is a perpetual convert. Not only does it help us look at things “as though for the first time”, but it is a way of bringing out something paradoxical in the nature of reality, and particularly in the nature of Christianity. One might even argue that only someone with a talent for seeing paradox can do theology. Kenner makes much of the fact that for St Thomas Aquinas being is intrinsically analogical.

The idea of analogy is the idea of “likeness at the core of difference”, or of one thing mirroring another within a greater (or even infinite) “unlikeness”. God and man are not, for example, “good” in the same sense of the word “good”, but there is a relationship of likeness that we call analogy between the goodness of God and the goodness of man. Often the best way of communicating a sense of that likeness in the difference is by means of paradox. At the heart of the Christian mystery, we are in Chesterton country. Christmas, the feast of the Incarnation, provides Chesterton with his favourite paradox:

A mass of legend and literature, which increases and which will never end, has repeated and rung the changes on that single paradox; that the hands that had made the sun and stars were too small to reach the huge heads of the cattle. Upon this paradox, we might almost say upon this jest, all the literature of our faith is founded…. Any agnostic or atheist whose childhood has ever known a real Christmas has ever afterwards, whether he likes it or not, an association in his mind between two ideas that most of mankind must regard as remote from each other: the idea of a baby and the idea of an unknown strength that sustains the stars.

With the Incarnation, “the whole universe had been turned inside out”. In Hinduism, too, there is a story that Krishna’s mother looked inside her child’s mouth and was startled to see there the starry heavens and infinite worlds. Chesterton would have liked the story, but he would have seen in it a prophecy or intimation of what only became true with Jesus and Mary. Other religions (notably Zen) may employ the technique of paradox, but none is founded on a living paradox as apparently absurd as to be complete “foolishness” to the Greeks and a “stumbling block” to Jesus’ own people (1 Cor. 1:18-25, 2). The wonder of Christmas is that the Lord of heaven and earth came forth from a human womb, and entered into a human life. In The Queen of Seven Swords, Chesterton’s poem called a “Little Litany” is a commentary on the titles attributed to the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Litany of Loreto. It includes the lines:

Star of his morning; that unfallen star
In the strange starry overturn of space
When earth and sky changed places for an hour
And heaven looked upwards in a human face.

Or risen from play at your pale raiment’s hem
God, grown adventurous from all time’s repose,
Of your tall body climbed the ivory tower
And kissed upon your mouth the mystic rose.

A Christmas creche is a never-ending source of delight for Chesterton for, “it is the paradox of that group in the cave, that while our emotions about it are of childish simplicity, our thoughts about it can branch with a never-ending complexity. And we can never reach the end even of our own ideas about the child who was a father and the mother who was a child”. He does not forget, either, the note of drama and peril, the presence of the Enemy at that feast of Christmas, the danger of death and the massacre of the innocents that it would provoke.

He finds in that tableau with the shepherds and the kings the whole mystery of the life and even the death of Christ. What he calls here “the mightiest of the mysteries of the cave” is the paradox “that henceforth the highest thing can only work from below”. Heaven is now under the earth; royalty “can only return to its own by a sort of rebellion”. This was implicit in Mary’s Magnificat, that God “casts the mighty from their thrones and raises the lowly”; it will be a theme running right through the teaching of Christ, from the Sermon on the Mount to the Washing of the Feet. And it will be carried to its conclusion in the death of Christ and his descent into hell.

Compared to his remarks on Christmas, Chesterton’s comments on Easter — the Passion and the Resurrection — occupy little space. It was almost as though he shied away from applying the full power of his imagination to a mystery that tragic and glorious, and could not bring himself to “play” with it in his mind and with his pen as he played with the idea of Christmas. The reason is not that he took less interest in the Cross than the Crib or took it less seriously, but that it lends itself less easily to his kind of commentary.

Of course, in The Everlasting Man he does not avoid the topic altogether. He begins by contrasting Christ with all other philosophers, prophets and founders of religions. Jesus came not to teach, but to die. He came not so much to fulfil the philosophies as to fulfil the mythologies. The death of Socrates could only be what Chesterton called the end of the philosophers’ picnic, or at best another lesson to his disciples, the lesson on how to die. But “Death was the Bride of Christ as Poverty was the bride of St Francis”. Unlike the Buddha, “The primary thing that He was going to do was to die”. There is nothing morbid about this, as Chesterton might have remarked; Jesus had to die because his object was to overcome Death, and Death could only be conquered in its own domain and at the height of its strength.

At this point in his chapter on “The Strangest Story in the World”, in a passage of remarkable eloquence, Chesterton sets forth his reasons for not writing at length about the passion of Christ. “The grinding power of the plain words of the Gospel story is like the power of mill-stones; and those who can read them simply enough will feel as if rocks had been rolled upon them.” “It is more within my powers,” he says, to point out that, just as “kings and philosophers and the popular element had been symbolically present at his birth, so they were more practically concerned in his death”.

By this he means that they were either involved in killing him, or involved in being unable to save him. They represent “the great historical truth of the time; that the world could not save itself.” “Rome and Jerusalem and Athens and everything else were going down like a sea turned into a slow cataract.” At this precise moment in history, the Cross was the turning point. And at the deepest point of the Passion Chesterton senses the mystery at its very heart, of which the sign is the great cry of abandonment: My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? He writes:

“There were solitudes beyond where none shall follow. There were secrets in the inmost and invisible part of that drama that have no symbol in speech; or in any severance of a man from men. Nor is it easy for any words less stark and single-minded than those of the naked narrative even to hint at the horror of exaltation that lifted itself above the hill. Endless expositions have not come to the end of it, or even to the beginning…. and for one annihilating instant an abyss that is not for our thoughts had opened even in the unity of the absolute; and God had been forsaken of God.”

There are no deeper resources for reflection in theology than these. It is noticeable that in the last words I have quoted Chesterton again presents a parallel to Balthasar. Chesterton’s sensitivity to the mystery of Christ was so great that only this greatest of modern theologians can do justice to the depths of his insight. Balthasar makes much of the fact that an “abyss” had opened “even in the unity of the absolute”, which yawned wide enough to encompass all the lostness of the world. His “theology of Holy Saturday” is a remarkable (and still controversial) development of that insight, guided in part by the experiences of the mystic Adrienne von Speyr.

Even Chesterton’s remark, quoted earlier, that God can be “astonished at the things He has Himself made” finds an echo in Balthasar’s Theo-Drama. Notice, finally, that in Ch. VIII of Orthodoxy Chesterton even touches on that controversial theme in Balthasar, the possibility of universal salvation. “To hope for all souls is imperative,” he writes; “and it is quite tenable that their salvation is inevitable. It is tenable, but it is not specially favourable to activity or progress.

Our fighting and creative society ought rather to insist on the danger of everybody, on the fact that every man is hanging by a thread or clinging to a precipice. To say that all will be well anyhow is a comprehensible remark: but it cannot be called the blast of a trumpet.” So, he concludes, “Christian morals have always said to the man, not that he would lose his soul, but that he must take care that he didn’t.”

To pursue this thought further would take us astray, but at least we are beginning to see something of what Chesterton meant: there are secrets that theology has not begun to touch in two thousand years. Once again, we realize that the Christian religion is not old; it has barely begun. And however far it travels in its continually renewed beginning, the job and the delight of the theologian will be to circle around the same two points, points that define the centre of a circle whose perimeter is the cosmos itself: the birth of God and the death of God, Christmas and Easter.

The “Amateur” Theologian

Chesterton’s use of paradox (and even his fondness for puns) places him in the company of the Fathers of the Church and the great Christian poets, such as Donne, Traherne, Crashaw, Blake, John of the Cross, Hopkins and Eliot. I do not claim that he was as great a poet as any of these, because such comparisons would be pointless and even ridiculous. No more do I wish to claim that he was as great a theologian as Irenaeus or Augustine. But just as he was indisputably a poet, if only because he wrote and published some fine poetry.

I do now wish to claim that he was — given our earlier definition which liberates the word somewhat from its modern academic context — a “theologian”; that is to say, an explorer of Revelation, endowed with a generous measure of intellectual grace. One sign of this indwelling grace is pointed out by Kafka: “He is so happy, one might almost think he had discovered God.” More than the natural fruit of a happy childhood, and unlike mere placid contentment or self-satisfaction, this overflowing joy seemed to come from an unknown depth and communicate itself to those around him.

It was manifested, too, in his gift for friendship: even those who disagreed with him most violently (such as George Bernard Shaw) admitted they loved him. Chesterton was not a “man of the world” but a man of the Kingdom, a man who lived in the light of that Paradise which awaits us on the other side of the Cross. He was a man of letters; but he was more than that. He was one who put the letters together in a way that makes sense. He was a man of the Word.

A word is a sign, and has a meaning; it expresses something. By saying one thing, it denies another. It is a light that shines in the darkness: when it is spoken the darkness is separated from it. Chesterton gloried in the definiteness of words; he positively basked in the capacity of light to cast (and to cast out) shadows. He loved the dogmatic quality of Christianity, its ability to divide right from wrong and true from false.

Against the “liberal” theologians and so-called “free-thinkers” he asserted that it is the dogmas of Christianity — the dogma of free will, for example — that set us free, and the refusal to believe them that closes “all the doors of the cosmic prison on us with a clang of eternal iron.” He loved words and dogmas not for their own sake, but for the sake of the one Truth, the one Word, the one Reality that shines at the heart of all words and gives them their strength as it gives them their direction.

That one Truth, spoken in the language of the body and the language of history and incarnate in the man Jesus, speaks itself in many other fragmentary ways. In fact everything (in its deepest reality) is a word, or a letter in a word, that refers to him. We see this intensively in Holy Scripture: in the pattern of types and antitypes, of prophecies and fulfilments, that the Church Fathers loved to dwell upon. For them as for Chesterton, the symbolism of Scripture merely crowned a symbolic character present in reality itself.

This comes out in many places, but particularly in William Blake (1910), where Chesterton speaks of Blake’s “realism”: a “rooted spirituality which is the only enduring sanity of mankind”. In this Blakean realism, the things we see about us are real because they are symbols; they are real to the extent they contain within them that which makes them what they are — the monkeyhood of the monkey, the lambness of the lamb, even the motorishness of the motor car. Similarly at the human level, “The personal is not a mere figure for the impersonal; rather the impersonal is a clumsy term for something more personal than common personality. God is not a symbol of goodness. Goodness is a symbol of God.”

Thus God for Blake “was not more and more vague and diaphanous as one came near to Him. God was more and more solid as one came near. When one was far off one might fancy Him to be impersonal. When one came into personal relation one knew that He was a person.” God is the most concrete of all realities; not the most abstract. And so, despite the inconsistencies and even heresies he notes in Blake (which he sees as a betrayal of the poetry), Chesterton enlists him on the side of orthodox Christianity. “Realist” mysticism suits Christianity down to the ground: all it needs to become sacramental is for God to become incarnate at its very centre.

Chesterton writes that the truest religion is the most “materialistic”. An incarnational or sacramental quality runs right through Christianity like a kind of watermark (at least in its Catholic and Orthodox traditions). Only through the incarnation of God does the material substance of the world become more than the illusion it must be for all other religions and philosophies — because, of course, for them it is doomed to come to an end. That is how Chesterton saw things, and it means that he has seized on the one point that really makes Christianity unique and unassimilable.

“Paganism was the largest thing in the world and Christianity was larger; and everything else has been comparatively small.” Firm in his grasp of this essential point, he was able to trace — especially in Orthodoxy, Saint Francis of Assisi, Saint Thomas Aquinas and The Everlasting Man — the central line of Christian thought through the centuries. Each of these books, it will be observed, are presented as historical (or autobiographical) rather than theological. But precisely because history has become theology in Christianity, they are at the same time theological works.

The sacramental principle is the “golden key” to Chesterton’s vision of reality. Two years before his death, Chesterton wrote in G.K.’s Weekly, “Before the Boer War had introduced me to politics, or worse still to politicians, I had some vague and groping ideas of my own about a general view or vision of existence…. I had it in the beginning; and I am more and more coming back to it in the end…. my original and almost mystical conviction of the miracle of all existence and the essential excitement of all experience.” In the light of this conviction, “the most common thing becomes a cosmic and mystical thing. I did not want so much to alter the place and use of things as to weight them with a new dimension; to deepen them by going down to the potential nothing; to lift them to infinity by measuring from zero.”

This “almost mystical conviction” lies behind the gratitude Chesterton felt for the very gift of existence — that gift whose permanence and value is finally guaranteed only by the Incarnation of God and the Resurrection of the flesh. The “most logical form” expressing that gratitude is in the act of giving “thanks to a Creator”, and in that act “the commonest things, as much as the most complex, …leap up like fountains of praise”. One thinks of the Canticle of Daniel, in which the Church herself gives voice to these “fountains of praise” leaping up from the clouds of the sky, the showers and the rain, the darkness and the light, the mountains and hills, the birds, beasts and children of men.

One thinks, too, of the Mass; for the supreme liturgical act of Christians is “Eucharist”, thanksgiving, the “sacrifice of praise” in which the Son of God offers himself to the Father in the power of the Holy Spirit through a human priest, the only perfect expression of the love of man for God and God for man.

Chesterton’s spirituality, his whole psychology as a Christian, was “eucharistic” — that is to say, a joy in existence overflowing into thanks. It was, by the same token, Trinitarian, for it is in the Trinity that all thanks begin and end. The Son receives everything from the Father and his gratitude is boundless. He gives to the Father in return all that he has received. That exchange of love includes the creation, which the Father entrusts to the Son and the Son redeems with his blood, handing it back to the Father in the act of giving up his Spirit on the Cross.

At the centre of the Incarnation, which culminates in the Passion, is the act of eucharist, the sacrifice accomplished only by way of total abandonment. It is this eucharistic character in his life and his writing which marks Chesterton as a “theologian” in the deepest sense. He was a theologian whose thought unfolded the supreme and simple truth that the creation springs from nowhere but the love of the triune God. He was an amateur theologian, for an “amateur” is one who loves, and the love of God is the best qualification for theology. He is a theologian, finally, who leads us by the way of paradox, from darkness at noon and the mystery of the shedding of blood, into an undying dawn as “sudden as laughter”.


Stratford Caldecott “Was G.K. Chesterton a Theologian?” The Chesterton Review, November 1999.

Introduction to G.K. Chesterton

Introduction to G.K. Chesterton
Edward Peter 

Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936) was the brightest star in a constellation of great men who illuminated English and Catholic letters during the first half of the twentieth century. Forever linked with such giants as Hilaire Belloc, Msgr. Ronald Knox, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Evelyn Waugh, writers who excelled in two or three forms of writing, Chesterton worked in a half-dozen genres, and mastered nearly all of them. Moreover, his gentle personality and friendly manner of persuasion preserve him as the most readable of the great apologists who fought for Christian truth at the beginning of the bloody 20th century.

Chesterton is often called the most quoted man in English; he was certainly one of the most prolific. Beyond his vast literary output, his exhaustive public speaking and debating work did much to advance the cause of common sense in general, and of Christian spiritual wisdom in particular. Indeed, Chesterton’s conversion to the Catholic Church in 1922 was (second only to the disruption of the First Vatican Council during the Italian Revolution) the most talked-about religious event in Europe since the conversion of fellow Englishman John Henry Newman some 75 years earlier.

Upon his death, Chesterton was named by Pope Pius XI a “Defender of the Catholic Faith” thereby redeeming somewhat a similar title bestowed on but squandered by another Englishman 400 years earlier. His devoted wife of 35 years, Frances Blogg, who helped bring the younger Chesterton out of a confused mishmash of world-views into a more critical Christianity, eventually followed her husband into the Church and died just two years after him.

Fr. John Hardon has said that “the best word to describe Chesterton’s writings is brilliant” and no serious Catholic American leader today is unfamiliar with his works. Because Chesterton’s writings fill such a wide scope of topics and styles, one can begin studying him almost anywhere. But the following suggestions might help to get one started.


Almost all of Chesterton’s poetry rhymes. Moreover, for all its beauty and brilliance, it makes immediate sense to the average reader. It easily lends itself to either silent study or oral recitation. Although much of Chesterton’s poetry is humorous (e.g., satires on British politics) some of it is bardic and historical and, because Chesterton always saw the finger of God in history, it is deeply inspirational without becoming pietistic.

By any measure Chesterton’s epic “Ballad of the White Horse” is his poetic masterpiece. Its narration of the fierce struggle between the Christian princes of England and the pagan Nordic chiefs was so poignant that the British press freely and frequently quoted from it during the Second World War when England stood alone against neo-pagan Nazism.

A much shorter, but still wonderful, poem in the manner of White Horse is “Lepanto”, the story of the naval battle in 1571 which saved Europe from Moslem invasion and which gave the Church the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary (October 7). Almost all of Chesterton’s poetry is found conveniently and affordably in The Collected Poems of G. K. Chesterton (Dodd & Mead, 1980).


Chesterton’s fiction falls into two types: short novels and even shorter short-stories. Despite their relative brevity, at least two of Chesterton’s novels rank among the best fiction works produced this century. The Napoleon of Notting Hill, released in 1904, is proposed by many as the best first novel ever written by any of England’s many great fiction writers. Just four years later, though, The Man Who Was Thursday proved forever Chesterton’s skill for serious literature in a book that was then, and remains now, renowned for both its secular appeal and its Christian perception.

Throughout his career, Chesterton worked on and published the short detective thrillers thanks to which, more than any other of his writings, he is most widely known. The “Father Brown” series are not just entertainment, for Fr. Brown’s unique ability to solve crimes is based on his priestly knowledge of human nature and foreshadows what Pope Paul VI would say many decades later: the Church is an expert in humanity. Complete sets are widely available — but if you acquire the Father Brown series in parts, start with the stories in The Innocence of Father Brown. You will have the main characters more clearly in mind that way. Also available is the new series from Ignatius Press: Father Brown and the Church of Rome, which includes stories in which Father Brown’s Catholic Faith plays a central role in solving crimes.


Even if one discounts the mass of material written by Chesterton the journalist, the non-fiction works of Chesterton as social commentator, philosopher, theologian, biographer, and literary critic are daunting. One’s own tastes and interests are the best guide here, but at least two works stand out no matter what one’s other reasons for reading Chesterton: St. Francis of Assisi (1923) and The Everlasting Man (1925).

The first is a short biography of, second only to Our Lady, the most popular Catholic saint. Not a collection of dates and places, Chesterton’s superb picture of St. Francis will forever keep the founder of the world’s largest religious family from being relegated like a curio to a collection of eccentric bird lovers. The second book, a somewhat longer but still very approachable work, was originally written as a corrective to H. G. Well’s biased and naive Outline of History, but Chesterton went far beyond that immediate goal and penned his own interpretation of human history, a history which Chesterton showed can make sense only if it is seen in the light of Christ.

Finally, if one is already a fan of other authors like Robert Louis Stevenson, Robert Browning, or especially Charles Dickens, Chesterton’s remarkable studies of the works of these leading authors must be consulted. George Bernard Shaw, for example, one of Chesterton’s steadiest opponents and most devoted admirers, once called Chesterton’s book on his writings “the best piece of literary criticism I have ever inspired.”


It is not surprising that Chesterton’s life has spawned so many biographies, each with their strengths and weaknesses. All of them agree, however, on their debt to the first biography of G. K. Chesterton, Maisie Ward’s Gilbert Keith Chesterton (Sheed & Ward, 1944). Read this life first (even before Chesterton’s own Autobiography) and then you can better select among the many others.

Interest in, and appreciation for, Chesterton’s work has always remained strong, but recently it seems to be spreading with renewed vigor. Ignatius Press, mentioned earlier, is well along in its project of publishing the complete works of Chesterton. Another important contributor to that growth is due to the quarterly journal, The Chesterton Review, edited by Fr. Ian Boyd, C.S.B., and published by the G. K. Chesterton Society out of St. Thomas More College in Saskatoon, Canada. Regional meetings, notably the periodic Lewis/Chesterton Conference held in Seattle, are another source of continuing study of the life and work of this great man. Many communities also have Chesterton reading and discussion groups, some of them sponsored by the Chesterton Society.

Chesterton’s Orthodoxy Overview

Chesterton’s Orthodoxy Overview

Chapter 1: “Introduction in Defence of Everything Else”

Chapters 2 and 3: “The Maniac” and “The Suicide of Thought”

Chapters 4 and 5: “The Ethics of Elfland” and “The Flag of the World”

Chapters 6 and 7: “The Paradoxes of Christianity” and “The Eternal Revolution”

Chapter 8: “The Romance of Orthodoxy”

Chapter 9: “Authority and the Adventurer”

Chapter 1

Structure of the general argument suggested in Chapter 1 of Orthodoxy and brought to a completion in chapter 8:

(1) Human beings have a double spiritual need for adventure and security (or: balance between imagination and reason–or the exciting and the commonsensical).

(2) This need is not pathological, but is identical with a need for psychological health, i.e., sanity.

(3) This need is better satisfied by accepting the Christian worldview than by accepting any alternative worldview.

Therefore, it is at least reasonable to accept the Christian worldview.

(4) Furthermore, alternative worldviews fail to a greater or lesser extent to satisfy the aforementioned double spiritual need.

Therefore, it is unreasonable to prefer any such alternative to the Christian worldview.

It is crucial to note that until the last chapter, chapter 9, the argument of the book is aimed at showing that Christian belief and practice is healthy and not that it is true.  As Chesterton puts it in chap. 2:  “It must be understood that I am not now discussing the relation of these creeds to truth but, for the present, solely their relation to health.  Later in the argument I hope to attack the question of objective verity; here I speak only of a phenomenon of psychology.”

Chapters 2 and 3

A taxonomy of some of the views concerning the stature of reason canvassed by Chesterton in Chapters 2 and 3:

I. Religious authority:(i) Truth is a standard independent of the human mind that “measures” the mind and serves as its goal.

(ii) Reason is a generally reliable guide to truth. (Moderate optimism with respect to reason.)

(iii) In regard to the really big questions, reason on its own is severely limited and requires the light of faith and authority in order to attain the truth.  (Moderate pessimism with respect to reason.)

(iv) This is the view held by St. Thomas, St. Augustine, and the Catholic tradition especially.

II. The Maniac (Enlightenment Rationalism or Modernism or so-called “Free Thought”):

(i) Truth is a standard independent of the human mind that “measures” the mind and serves as its goal.

(ii) Reason is a generally reliable guide to truth.

(iii) Reason on its own is in principle capable of attaining wisdom. More specifically, reason can attain wisdom without authority, and indeed needs to be freed from authority–especially religious authority but also political, economic and social authority–in order to do so. In general, ideal inquiry is affect-less with respect to its object.  Affections distort, but reason without affection can find fundamental truths that all reasonable people will agree to.  (Enthusiastic optimism with respect to reason.)

(iv) This is the view at least suggested by Descartes and Locke, among early modern philosophers, and by Mill later on. It is characteristic of the so-called “free-thinkers” who either rejected Christian revelation (e.g., materialists, evolutionary naturalists) or else attempted to reinterpret Christian revelation in such a way as to eliminate its supernaturalistic character (liberal theology).

III. The Suicide of Thought (Postmodernism, generated in the 19th and early 20th centuries by the perceived failure of Enlightenment Rationalism):

All of the views included here exhibit a marked pessimism with respect to reason. In general, they see that reason cannot validate itself, and this leads them to reject appeals to reason as illegitimate:

A. Academic Skepticism: Reason turned upon itself raises doubts about its own reliability and can be seen to be wholly unreliable at least with respect to the big questions in metaphysics and moral theory.  A skeptic of this stripe might despair of finding wisdom and instead romanticize the unfulfilled “search for wisdom.” Alternatively, this sort of skeptic might might accept Christian revelation despite its being in conflict with fallen reason (fideism — suggested by Philo at the end of Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion).  In addition, this sort of skepticism can easily lead to the forms of intellectual pessimism that follow.

B. Pragmatism: Reason is wholly unreliable with respect to the big questions in metaphysics and moral philosophy. However, the realization that this is so should not lead to despair but should instead make us see that it is a waste of time (not to mention dangerous) to try to answer the big questions in metaphysics and moral theory. Therefore, we should resolve to concentrate only on those matters (e.g., satisfying needs, pursuing scientific knowledge, trying to reduce human suffering) which reason is proportioned to. (Hume, Dewey, Rorty, Simonides (as quoted by Aristotle in the Metaphysics).)  A variant of this view allows that people have the freedom to (arationally) adopt comprehensive worldviews, but that these should be strictly private commitments and should not enter into public discourse, where they tend to be divisive.)

C. Nietzscheanism: Reason is wholly unreliable with respect to the big questions in metaphysics and moral theory. Indeed, reason applied to the big questions is in general rationalization, so that appeals to reason on these questions are simply excuses for the will to power, i.e., for the will to dominate others. Given this, the strong (or “free spirits”) should assert themselves without apology, so that they can become the best exemplars of the human spirit — and such individuals should be dominant and not held back by the weak and fearful, who constitute the vast majority of human beings.

D. Quietism: Reason is wholly unreliable with respect to the big questions in metaphysics and moral philosophy. Indeed, reason applied to the big questions is in general rationalization, so that appeals to reason on these questions are simply excuses for the will to power, i.e., for the will to dominate others. Given this, we should resist the will to power and try to make ourselves as much as possible impervious to the temptation to dominate others or in general to exercise our power. (Tolstoy, certain strands of Stoicism and Buddhism.)

Chapters 4 and 5

Chesterton’s five pre-Christian basic attitudes

P1. The world does not explain itself. It is at first glance astonishing, even in its regularities.

“Here is the peculiar perfection of tone and truth in the nursery tales. The man of science says, ‘Cut the stalk and the apple will fall’; but he says it calmly, as if the one idea really led up to the other. The witch in the fairytale says, `Blow the horn and the ogre’s castle will fall’; but she does not say it as if it were something in which the effect obviously arose out of the cause. Doubtless she has given the advice to many champions, and has seen many castles fall, but she does not lose either her wonder or her reason. She does not muddle her head until it imagines a necessary mental connection between a horn and a falling tower…. [The scientific men, on the other hand,] feel that because one incomprehensible thing constantly follows another incomprehensible thing the two together somehow make up a comprehensible thing” (pp. 56-57).

“This elementary wonder, however, is not a mere fancy derived from the fairy tales; on the contrary, all the fire of the fairy tales is derived from this. Just as we all like love tales because there is an instinct of sex, we all like astonishing tales because they touch the nerve of the ancient instinct of astonishment” (pp. 58-59).

P2. The world is like a work of art. It has a meaning.

“The strongest emotion was that life was as precious as it was puzzling. It was an ecstasy because it was an adventure; it was an adventure because it was an opportunity” (p. 60).

“This was my first conviction; made by the shock of my childish emotions meeting the modern creed in mid-career. I had always vaguely felt facts to be miracles in the sense that they are wonderful: now I began to think them miracles in the stricter sense that they were wilful” (p. 66).

P3. The world is beautiful and admirable in its design despite its defects.

“The goodness of the fairy tale was not affected by the fact that there might be more dragons than princesses; it was good to be in a fairy tale. The test of all happiness is gratitude; and I felt grateful, though I hardly knew to whom” (p. 60).

P4. The proper form of thanks for the world is some form of humility and restraint. (Doctrine of Conditional Joy.)

“The true citizen of fairlyland is obeying something he does not understand at all. In the fairy tale an incomprehensible happiness rests upon an incomprehensible condition. A box is opened, and all evils fly out. A word is forgotten, and cities perish. A lamp is lit, and love flies away. A flower is plucked, and human lives are forfeited. An apple is eaten, and the hope of God is gone” (p. 61).

“Such, it seemed, was the joy of man, either in elfland or on earth; the happiness depended on not doing something which you could at any moment do and which, very often, it was not obvious why you should not do. Now, the point here is that to me this did not seem unjust. If the miller’s third son said to the fairy, `Explain why I must not stand on my head in the fairy palace,’ the other might fairly reply `Well, if it comes to that, explain the fairy palace’ … And it seemed to me that existence was itself so very eccentric a legacy that I could not complain of not understanding the limitations of the vision when I did not understand the vision they limited. The frame was no stranger than the picture. The veto might well be as wild as the vision; it might be as startling as the sun, as elusive as the waters, as fantastic and terrible as the towering trees … For this reason (we may call it the fairy godmother philosophy) I never could join the young men of my time in feeling what they called the general sentiment of revolt” (p. 62).

P5. In some way all good is a remnant to be stored and held sacred out of some primordial ruin.

“Every man has forgotten who he is. One may understand the cosmos, but never the ego; the self is more distant than any star. Thou shalt love the Lord thy God; but thou shalt not know thyself. We are all under the same mental calamity; we have all forgotten our names. We have all forgotten what we really are. All that we call common sense and rationality and practicality and positivism only means that for certain dead levels of our life we forget that we have forgotten. All that we call spirit and art and ecstacy only means that for one awful instant we remember that we forgot” (p. 59).

Chapters 6 and 7

The paradoxes of Christianity

Because the truth of Christianity is a complex truth, it is hard to argue directly for it. The case for it is cumulative, and this makes it hard to know where to begin. C. says that the anti-Christian literature of his day provided the clue as to how to begin (see p. 91).


a. Christianity is too pessimistic: spreads gloom, keeps people from taking joy in nature, in their bodies, in their own autonomy, etc.

BUT Christianity is also too optimistic: consists in wishful thinking with its doctrines of Providence and life after death.

“This puzzled me; the charges seemed inconsistent. Christianity could not at once be the black mask on a white world, and also the white mask on a black world. The state of the Christian could not be at once so comfortable that he was a coward to cling to it, and so uncomfortable that he was a fool to stand it” (p. 92).

b. Christianity makes one too timid: emphasis on virtues like kindness, non-violence, monkishness

BUT Christianity also makes one too warlike: crusades, mother of wars.

“The Gospel paradox about the other cheek, the fact that priests never fought, a hundred things made plausible the accusation that Christianity was an attempt to make a man too like a sheep … [But] I turned the next page in my agnostic manual, and my brain turned upside down. Now I found that I was to hate Christianity not for fighting too little, but for fighting too much” (p. 93).

c. Christianity is just one among other religions; as a creed it divides people but as a moral code it is universal

BUT Christianity preaches a benighted and outmoded morality.

“I was thoroughly annoyed with Christianity for suggesting (as I supposed) that whole ages and empires of men had utterly escaped this light of justice and reason. But then I found an astonishing thing. I found that the very people who said that mankind was one church from Plato to Emerson were the very people who said that morality had changed altogether, and that what was right in one age was wrong in another. If I asked, say, for an altar, I was told that we needed none, for men our brothers gave us clear oracles and one creed in their universal customs and ideas. But if I mildly pointed out that one of men’s universal customs was to have an altar, then my agnostic teachers turned clean round and told me that men had always been in darkness and the superstition of savages. I found it was their daily taunt against Christianity that it was the light of one people and had left all others to die in the dark. But I also found that it was their special boast for themselves that science and progress were the discovery of one people, and that all other peoples had died in the dark” (p. 94).

d. Christianity attacks the family by dragging women to the cloister

BUTChristianity forces marriage and the family upon us.

e. Christianity shows contempt for women’s intellect

BUT Christianity is such that in Europe “only women” follow it.

f. Christianity is reproachable because of its pomp and ritualism

BUT Christianity is reproachable because of its sackcloth and dried peas.

g. Christianity restrains sexuality too much

BUT Christianity does not restrain sexuality enough.

h. Christianity is primly respectable

BUT Christianity is religiously extravagant.

i. Christianity is too disunified

BUT Christianity is too monolithic.

C’s conclusion at that point was not that Christianity is true, but simply that it must be very odd to be wrong in all these ways at once. There are just two possibilities: either Christianity is a very odd shape or the critics themselves are odd in many opposed ways. (p. 97).

Chapter 8

The Romance of Orthodoxy

In this chapter C.’s main aim is to show that Christian doctrines, not watered down according to liberal tastes, have social consequences consonant with real progress and freedom from oppression, and that the proposed liberal substitutes make for oppression and regression:

“In actual modern Europe a freethinker does not mean a man who thinks for himself. It means a man who, having thought for himself, has come to one particular class of conclusions, the material origin of phenomena, the impossibility of miracles, the improbability of personal immortality and so on. And none of these ideas are particularly liberal. Nay, indeed almost all these ideas are definitely illiberal, as it is the purpose of this chapter to show.

“In the few following pages I propose to point out as rapidly as possible that on every single one of the matters most strongly insisted upon by the liberalisers of theology their effect upon social practice would be definitely illiberal. Almost every contemporary proposal to bring freedom into the church is simply a proposal to bring tyranny into the world. For freeing the church now does not even mean freeing it in all directions. It means freeing that particular set of dogmas loosely called scientific, dogmas of monism, of pantheism, or of Arianism, or of necessity…. There is only one thing that can never go past a certain point in its alliance with oppression–and that is orthodoxy” (p. 330).

Chesterton deals with six doctrines:

1. ORIGINAL SIN (vs. Oligarchy): See chapter 7.

2. MIRACLES (vs. Naturalism or Materialism)

“The only thing which is still old-fashioned enough to reject miracles is the New Theology. But in truth this notion that it is “free” to deny miracles has nothing to do with the evidence for or against them. It is a lifeless verbal prejudice of which the original life and beginning was not in the freedom of thought, but simply in the dogma of materialism. The man of the nineteenth century did not disbelieve in the Resurrection because his liberal Christianity allowed him to doubt it. He disbelieved in it because his very strict materialism did not allow him to believe it. Tennyson, a very typical nineteenth-century man, uttered one of the instinctive truisms of his contemporaries when he said that there was faith in their honest doubt. There was indeed. Those words have a profound and even a horrible truth. In their doubt of miracles there was a faith in a fixed and godless fate; a deep and sincere faith in the incurable routine of the cosmos. The doubts of the agnostic were only the dogmas of the monist….

“A holiday, like Liberalism, only means the liberty of man. A miracle only means the liberty of God. You may conscientiously deny either of them, but you cannot call your denial a triumph of the liberal idea. The Catholic Church believed that man and God both had a sort of spiritual freedom. Calvinism took away the freedom from man, but left it to God. Scientific materialism binds the Creator Himself; it chains up God as the Apocalypse chained the devil. It leaves nothing free in the universe. And those who assist this process are called the ‘liberal theologians’.” (pp. 133-134).

“Reform or (in the only tolerable sense) progress means simply the gradual control of matter by mind. A miracle simply means the swift control of matter by mind…. If a man cannot believe in miracles there is an end of the matter; he is not particularly liberal, but he is perfectly honourable and logical, which are much better things. But if he can believe in miracles, he is certainly the more liberal for doing so; because they mean first, the freedom of the soul, and secondly, its control over the tyranny of circumstance” (pp. 134-135).

3. DIVINE TRANSCENDENCE (vs. Pantheism and Immanentism, and especially Buddhism)

“The truth is that the difficulty of all the creeds of the earth is not as alleged in this cheap maxim: that they agree in meaning, but differ in machinery. It is exactly the opposite. They agree in machinery; almost every great religion on earth works with the same external methods, with priests, scriptures, altars, sworn brotherhoods, special feasts. They agree in the mode of teaching; what they differ about is the thing to be taught” (p. 136).

“All humanity does agree that we are in a net of sin. Most of humanity agrees that there is some way out. But as to what is the way out, I do not think that there are two institutions in the universe which contradict each other so flatly as Buddhism and Christianity” (p. 137).

“A short time ago Mrs. Besant, in an interesting essay, announced that there was only one religion in the world, that all faiths were only versions or perversions of it, and that she was quite prepared to say what it was. According to Mrs. Besant this universal Church is simply the universal self. It is the doctrine that we are really all one person; that there are no real walls of individuality between man and man. If I may put it so, she does not tell us to love our neighbours; she tells us to be our neighbours. That is Mrs. Besant’s thoughtful and suggestive description of the religion in which all men must find themselves in agreement. And I never heard of any suggestion in my life with which I more violently disagree…. Upon Mrs. Besant’s principle the whole cosmos is only one enormously selfish person” (p. 138-139).

“We come back to the same tireless note touching the nature of Christianity; all modern philosophies are chains which connect and fetter; Christianity is a sword which separates and sets free. No other philosophy makes God actually rejoice in the separation of the universe into living souls. But according to orthodox Christianity this separation between God and man is sacred, because this is eternal. That a man may love God it is necessary that there should be not only a God to be loved, but a man to love him. All those vague theosophical minds for whom the universe is an immense melting-pot are exactly the minds which shrink instinctively from that earthquake saying of our Gospels, which declare that the Son of God came not with peace but with a sundering sword. The saying rings entirely true even considered as what it obviously is; the statement that any man who preaches real love is bound to beget hate. It is as true of democratic fraternity as of divine love; sham love ends in compromise and common philosophy; but real love has always ended in bloodshed” (pp. 139-140).

“That external vigilance that has always been a mark of Christianity (the command that we should watch and pray) has expressed itself both in typical western orthodoxy and in typical western politics: but both depend on the idea of a divinity transcendent, different from ourselves, a deity that disappears. Certainly the most sagacious creeds may suggest that we should pursue God into deeper and deeper rings of the labyrinth of our own ego. But only we of Christendom have said that we should hunt God like an eagle upon the mountains: and we have killed all monsters in the chase…. If we want reform, we must adhere to orthodoxy” (p. 141).

4. TRINITY (vs. Unitarianism)

“There is nothing in the least liberal or akin to reform in the substitution of pure monotheism for the Trinity. The complex God of the Athanansian Creed may be an enigma for t he intellect; but He is far less likely to gather the mystery and cruelty of a Sultan than the lonely god of Omar or Mahomet. The god who is mere awful unity is not only a king but an Eastern king. The heart of humanity, especially of European humanity, is certainly much more satisfied by the strange hints and symbols that gather round the Trinitarian idea, the image of a council at which mercy pleads as well as justice, the conception of a sort of liberty and variety existing even in the inmost chamber of the world” (p. 142).

5. HELL (vs. Universalism)

“To hope for all souls is imperative; and it is quite tenable that their salvation is inevitable. It is tenable, but it is not specially favourable to activity or progress. Our fighting and creative society ought rather to insist on the danger of everybody, on the fact that every man is hanging by a thread or clinging to a precipice. To say that all will be well anyhow is a comprehensible remark: but it cannot be called the blast of a trumpet. Europe ought rather to emphasize possible perdition; and Europe always has emphasized it. Here its highest religion is at one with all its cheapest romances. To the Buddhist or the eastern fatalist existence is a science or a plan, which must end up in a certain way. In a thrilling novel (that purely Christian product) the hero is not eaten by cannibals; but it is essential to the existence of the thrill that he might be eaten by cannibals. The hero must (so to speak) be an eatable hero. So Christian morals have always said to the man, not that he would lose his soul, but that he must take care that he didn’t. In Christian morals, in short, it is wicked to call a man “damned”: but it is strictly religious and philosophic to call him damnable” (p. 143).

6. DIVINITY OF CHRIST (vs. Arianism)

“This truth is yet again true in the case of the common modern attempts to diminish or to explain away the divinity of Christ. The thing may be true or not; that I shall deal with before I end. But if the divinity is true it is certainly terribly revolutionary. That a good man may have his back to the wall is no more than we knew already; but that God could have His back to the wall is a boast for all insurgents for ever. Christianity is the only religion on earth that has felt that omnipotence made God incomplete. Christianity alone has felt that God, to be wholly God, must have been a rebel as well as a king. Alone of all creeds, Christianity has added courage to the virtues of the Creator. For the only courage worth calling courage must necessarily mean that the soul passes a breaking point–and does not break” (pp. 144-145).

“Let the revolutionists choose a creed from all the creeds and a god from all the gods of the world, carefully weighing all the gods of inevitable recurrence and of unalterable power. They will not find another god who has himself been in revolt. Nay (the matter grows too difficult for human speech), but let the atheists themselves choose a god. They will find only one divinity who ever uttered their isolation; only one religion in which God seemed for an instant to be an atheist” (p. 145).

Conclusion: see pp. 146-147

Chapter 9

Authority and the Adventurer

The purpose of this chapter is to argue that Christianity is not only conducive to social progress and reform but also true. The chapter takes the form of an extended answer to the question: Why not just accept the moral and social teaching without all the metaphysical doctrine?

“The last chapter has been concerned with the contention that orthodoxy is not only (as is often urged) the only safe-guardian of morality or order, but is also the only logical guardian of liberty, innovation and advance…. A reasonable agnostic, if he has happened to agree with me so far, may justly turn round and say, `You have found a practical philosophy in the doctrine of the Fall; very well. You have found a side of democracy now dangerously neglected wisely asserted in Original Sin; all right. You have found a truth in the doctrine of hell; I congratulate you. You are convinced that worshippers of a personal God look outwards and are progressive; I congratulate them. But even supposing that those doctrines do include those truths, why cannot you take the truths and leave the doctrines? …’ This is the real question; this is the last question; and it is a pleasure to try to answer it” (pp. 148-149).

The ultimate answer is that (i) GKC has found the arguments against Christianity to be based on `facts’ that are not really facts at all, and that (ii) he has come to the general conclusion that the Church which teaches these doctrines is a truth-telling thing. The argument itself can be divided as follows:

1. Rationality and the arguments against Christianity

I, says GKC, like the agnostic, have no demonstration of my position but only an “enormous accumulation of small but unanimous facts.” But the agnostic’s `facts’ turned out not to be facts. For instance, it is not the case that man is just another animal, that religion arose in ignorance and fear, or that the Catholic religion is full of doom and gloom:

“Thus these three facts of experience, such facts as go to make an agnostic, are, in this view, totally turned around. I am left saying, `Give me an explanation, first, of the towering eccentricity of man among the brutes; second, of the vast human tradition of some ancient happiness; third, of the partial perpetuation of such pagan joy in the countries of the Catholic Church.’ One explanation, at any rate, covers all three: the theory that twice was the natural order interrupted by some explosion or revelation such as people now call `psychic’. Once Heaven came upon the earth with a power or seal called the image of God, whereby man took command of Nature; and once again (when in empire after empire men had been found wanting) Heaven came to save mankind in the awful shape of a man. This would explain why the mass of men always look backwards; and why the only corner where they in any sense look forwards is the little continent where Christ has His Church” (p. 152).

Again, it is not the case that Jesus was a gentle creature, that Christianity flourished only in the dark ages of ignorance, or that strongly religious people like the Irish are week, unpractical, and behind the times.

“The sceptic is too credulous; he believes in newspapers and encyclopedias. Again the three questions left me with three very antagonistic questions. The average sceptic wanted to know how I explained the namby-pamby note in the Gospel, the connection of the creed with mediaeval darkness and the political impracticability of the Celtic Christians. But I wanted to ask, and to ask with an earnestness amounting to urgency, `What is this incomparable energy which appears first in one walking the earth like a living judgment and this energy which can die with a dying civilization and yet force it to a resurrection from the dead; this energy which last of all can inflame a bankrupt peasantry with so fixed a faith in justice that they get what they ask, while others go empty away; so that the most helpless island of the Empire can actually help itself?’

“There is an answer; it is an answer to say that the energy is truly from outside the world…. It is no injustice…to say that only modern Europe has exhibited incessantly a power of self-renewal recurring often at the shortest intervals and descending to the smallest facts of building or costume. All other societies die finally and with dignity. We die daily. We are always being born again with almost indecent obstetrics…. For our civilization ought to have died, by all parallels, by all sociological probability, in the Ragnorak of the end of Rome. That is the weird inspiration of our estate: you and I have no business being here at all. We are all revenants; all living Christians are dead pagans walking about. Just as Europe was about to be gathered in silence to Assyria and Babylon, something entered into its body. And Europe has had a strange life–it is not too much to say that it has had the jumps–ever since” (pp. 155-156).

2. Rationality and belief in the supernatural

Chesterton then summarizes the point that his own acceptance of miracles and the “objective occurrence of the supernatural” is more based on evidence than his opponents’ rejection of these things. This is in effect his argument against Hume’s ad hominem against the ignorant masses who are the source of most miracle stories:

“Somehow or other the extraordinary idea has arisen that the disbelievers in miracles consider them coldly and fairly, while believers in miracles accept them only in connection with some dogma. The fact is quite the other way. The believers in miracles accept them (rightly or wrongly) because they have evidence for them. The disbelievers in miracles deny them (rightly or wrongly) because they have a doctrine against them. The open, obvious, democratic thing is to believe an old apple-woman when she bears testimony to a miracle, just as you believe an old apple-woman when she bears testimony to a murder. The plain, popular course is to trust the peasant’s word about the ghost exactly as far as you trust the peasant’s word about the landlord. Being a peasant he will probably have a great deal of healthy agnosticism about both. Still you could fill the British Museum with evidence uttered by the peasant, and given in favour of the ghost. If it comes to human testimony there is a choking cataract of human testimony in favour of the supernatural. If you reject it, you can only mean one of two things. You reject the peasant’s story about the ghost either because the man is a peasant or because the story is a ghost story. That is, you either deny the main principle of democracy, or you affirm the main principle of materialism–the abstract impossibility of miracle. You have a perfect right to do so; but in that case you are a dogmatist. It is we Christians who accept all actual evidence–it is you rationalists who refuse actual evidence being constrained to do so by your creed. But I am not constrained by any creed in the matter, and looking impartially into certain miracles of mediaeval and modern times, I have come to the conclusion that they occurred” (pp. 157-158).

3. Rationality and the truth of Christianity

Given this belief in the supernatural, he then must choose among the competing claims as to the nature of the supernatural, and to distinguish good spirits from bad ones.

“It is not enough to find the gods; they are obvious; we must find God, the real chief of the gods. We must have a long historic experience in supernatural phenomena–in order to discover which are really natural. In this light I find the history of Christianity, and even of its Hebrew origins, quite practical and clear. It does not trouble me to be told that the Hebrew god was one among many. I know he was, without any research to tell me so. Jehovah and Baal looked equally important, just as the sun and the moon looked the same size. It is only slowly that we learn that the sun is immeasurably our master, and the small moon only our satellite. Believing that there is a world of spirits, I shall walk in it as I do in the world of men, looking for the thing that I like and think good” (pp. 160-161).

So the main strategy is to argue that once the question becomes one of choosing a particular account of the world, an account which includes a recognition of the supernatural–both the good supernatural and the bad supernatural–Christianity and particularly Catholicism looks really good.

“I have now said enough to show (to any one to whom such an explanation is essential) that I have in the ordinary arena of apologetics, a ground of belief. In pure records of experiment (if these be taken democratically without contempt or favour) there is evidence, first, that miracles happen, and second that the nobler miracles belong to our tradition. But I will not pretend that this curt discussion is my real reason for accepting Christianity instead of taking the moral good of Christianity as I should take it out of Confucianism.

“I have another far more solid and central ground for submitting to it as a faith, instead of merely picking up hints from it as a scheme. And that is this: that the Christian Church in its practical relation to my soul is a living teacher, not a dead one. It not only certainly taught me yesterday, but will almost certainly teach me tomorrow. Once I saw suddenly the meaning of the shape of the cross; some day I may see suddenly the meaning of the shape of the mitre. One fine morning I saw why windows were pointed; some fine morning I may see why priests were shaven. Plato has told you a truth; but Plato is dead. Shakespeare has startled you with an image; but Shakespeare will not startle you with any more. But imagine what it would be to live with such men still living, to know that Plato might break out with an original lecture tomorrow, or that at any moment Shakespeare might shatter everything with a single song. The man who lives in contact with what he believes to be a living Church is a man always expecting to meet Plato and Shakespeare tomorrow at breakfast. He is always expecting to see some truth that he has never seen before. There is one only parallel to this position; and that is the parallel of the life in which we all began. When your father told you, walking about the garden, that bees stung or that roses smelt sweet, you did not talk of taking the best out of his philosophy. When the bees stung you, you did not call it an entertaining coincidence. When the rose smelt sweet you did not say `My father is a rude, barbaric symbol, enshrining (perhaps unconsciously) the deep delicate truth that flowers smell.’ No: you believed your father, because you had found him to be a living fountain of facts, a thing that really knew more than you; a thing that would tell you the truth tomorrow as well as today. And if this was true of your father, it was even truer of your mother; at least it was true of mine, to whom this book is dedicated…

“I give one instance out of a hundred; I have not myself any instinctive kinship with that enthusiasm for physical virginity, which has certainly been a note of historic Christianity. But when I look not at myself but at the world, I perceive that this enthusiasm is not only a note of Christianity, but a note of Paganism, a note of high human nature in many spheres…. With all this human experience allied with the Christian authority, I simply conclude that I am wrong, and the Church right; or rather that I am defective, while the church is universal. It takes all sorts to make a church; she does not ask me to be celibate. But the fact that I have no appreciation of the celibates, I accept like the fact that I have no ear for music. The best human experience is against me, as it is on the subject of Bach. Celibacy is one flower in my father’s garden, of which I have not been told the sweet or terrible name. But I may be told it any day.

“This, therefore, is, in conclusion, my reason for accepting the religion and not merely the scattered and secular truths out of the religion. I do it because the thing has not merely told this truth or that truth, but has revealed itself as a truth-telling thing. All other philosophers say the things that plainly seem to be true; only this philosophy has again and again said the thing that does not seem to be true, but is true. Alone of all the creeds it is convincing where it is not attractive; it turns out to be right, like my father in the garden” (pp. 161-164).

And Chesterton believes that this philosophy has obvious advantages over the superficially more liberal, but in truth enslaving, philosophies of the modernist:

“The outer ring of Christianity is a rigid guard of ethical abnegations and professional priests; but inside that inhuman guard you will find the old human life dancing like children, and drinking wine like men; for Christianity is the only frame for pagan freedom. But in the modern philosophy the case is opposite; it is its outer ring that is obviously artistic and emancipated; its despair is within.

“And its despair is this, that it does not really believe that there is any meaning in the universe; therefore it cannot hope to find any romance; its romances will have no plots. A man cannot expect any adventures in the land of anarchy. But a man can expect any number of adventures if he goes travelling in the land of authority. One can find no meanings in a jungle of scepticism; but the man will find more and more meanings who walks through a forest of doctrine and design” (pp. 164-165).

And finally:

“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…. It is only since I have known orthodoxy that I have known mental emancipation” (p. 165).

“And when rationalists say that the ancient world was more enlightened than the Christian, from their point of view they are right. For when they say `enlightened’ they mean darkened with incurable despair. It is profoundly true that the ancient world was more modern than the Christian. The common bond is in the fact that ancients and moderns have both been miserable about existence, about everything, while mediaevals were happy about that at least. I freely grant that the pagans, like the moderns, were only miserable about everything–they were quite jolly about everything else. I concede that the Christians of the Middle Ages were only at peace about everything–they were at war about everything else. But if the question turn on the primary pivot of the cosmos, then there was more cosmic contentment in the narrow and bloody streets of Florence than in the theatre of Athens or the open garden of Epicurus. Giotto lived in a gloomier town than Euripides, but he lived in a gayer universe…. Man is more himself, man is more manlike, when joy is the fundamental thing in him, and grief the superficial” (p. 166).

Orthodoxy G.K. Chesterton

Orthodoxy G.K. Chesterton
Philip K. Weingart

Paul the Apostle noticed that few great intellects were called to the faith, because God wanted to make the wisdom of the wise seem foolish.(i) When intellectuals do come to the faith, they often explain to fellow intellectuals why they’ve fallen into this religion they used to scorn. The need to apologize has given the world St. Augustine’s Confessions, C. S. Lewis’ Surprised By Joy, John Cardinal Newman’s -Apologia, and a real gem of Christian apologetics from the great Victorian writer G. K. Chesterton, called Orthodoxy.

Chesterton, one of the most influential writers of the Victorian era, wrote over 100 books himself and contributed to 200 more, wrote scores of essays on any topic imaginable, wrote poetry, detective stories, history, Christian apologetics, and did it all in an age before word processors were even a dream. His well-known works include The Father Brown Omnibus (a collection of mysteries featuring a priest as hero), The Man Who Was Thursday, Heretics, and Orthodoxy. His Christian writings influenced the writers of the mid-twentieth century (C. S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkein, etc.) as those writers have, in turn, influenced ours.

Raised in a Unitarian home, Chesterton traveled from skepticism to Christianity during his twenties, mostly by analyzing the various “free-thinking” philosophies he encountered as a lecturer. Noting in them what he considered serious errors about the nature of the universe, Chesterton published a criticism of several major writers of his day, including Rudyard Kipling, George Bernard Shaw, and H. G. Wells, entitled Heretics. A reviewer named G. S. Street countered that he would worry about his philosophy only after “Mr. Chesterton has given us his.” Chesterton, with all the solemn dignity of youth, accepted the challenge and delivered Orthodoxy in 1908, which chronicled his own journey from skepticism to faith in a stream of ideas and arguments. He was 34 years old at the time.

Since Chesterton was both a genius and the son of a saner era than our own, the ideas which coursed through his head may astonish modern readers. He seems to turn the world on its head; the book is a continuous feast of the delightfully unexpected. To Chesterton, faith is reason, orthodoxy is liberty, the order of our universe is as unexpected as the wildest fairy tale, and heeding tradition is as natural as allowing all citizens to vote. Modern readers at first will think him just a little bit crazy, but as they warm up to his approach, they will begin to feel that perhaps his point of view is healthier than theirs, and in the best of cases, they will begin to right themselves.

That it is we, and not Chesterton, who are upside down, is proved by prophecy; the philosophies against which Chesterton argued have run their full course in the 20th century, and everything Chesterton claimed they would produce has come to pass. Chesterton predicted modernism would lead to madness, and in the following 80 years the world went mad. Chesterton predicted that questioning everything would lead to the abandonment of reason, and Postmodernism has finally admitted to exactly that. Chesterton claimed that man was at the crossroads, and man clearly made the wrong turn.

Orthodoxy is subtitled “The Romance of Faith,” because Chesterton’s thesis claims that it is romance, mystery, fairy tales, which keep men sane and connects them with eternal truth. By contrast, the Materialist’s insistence on causation within our universe is like the delusion of a man who thinks he’s God:

if the man in [an insane asylum in London] is the real God, he is not much of a god. And, similarly, if the cosmos of the materialist is the real cosmos, it is not much of a cosmos. The thing has shrunk. The deity [of the madman] is less divine than many men; and … the whole of life is something much more grey, narrow, and trivial than many separate aspects of it. The parts seem greater than the whole.

At first blush, insisting on mysteries violates our 20th century intuition, but it turns out to be the right prescription for the disease; Materialism errs precisely because it lacks humility, and restoring mystery to the cosmos also restores our humility before God’s creation.

Developing this notion of mystery, Chesterton observes that our universe is a most improbable and miraculous place, first in the sense that it is odd: I could never mix in the common murmur… against monogamy, because no restriction on sex seemed so odd and unexpected as sex itself.

And then in the sense that it appears to be willful: 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 be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we. His argument ends with the claim that the mirth of heaven is too great for men to apprehend.

…the frantic energy of divine things would knock us down like a drunken farce. We can take our own tears more lightly than we could take the tremendous levities of the angels. So we sit perhaps in a starry chamber of silence, while the laughter of the heavens is too loud for us to hear.

Between those two points, Chesterton cites his discoveries about the world and the faith as they occurred to him, in order, during his journey to faith. He read all the doubters of Christianity and wondered, “This must be an extraordinary religion to incite so diverse and contradictory a set of claims against it.” He realized the futility of constantly altering goals, and how the notion of progress itself denoted an ideal fixed before the foundations of the world. He discovered that Christianity predicted each of the truths he was discovering about the world and its inhabitants. He noticed that all attempts to make Christianity more “liberal” or “scientific” or “free” actually made the world more tyrannical, more limited, and more drab.

Thus Chesterton came to understand the great beauty and romance of orthodoxy, “the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints.”(ii) He saw that only within the bounds of orthodoxy were men free to innovate, to advance, to fight tyranny, oppression, or poverty.

The orthodoxy Chesterton defends is an old and ecumenical one, the doctrines articulated in the Apostles’ Creed. He claims to lack the space to address the question of where lies the seat of apostolic authority. However, there is herein a challenge to Protestants worth mentioning: Chesterton is Catholic, and his notion of orthodoxy includes not only the creeds but the Church which embodies them. He refers once to the Reformation as “the shattering of a religion.” He describes the Roman church as teetering between chasms of error on either side, but miraculously maintaining a precarious and dangerous balance. His defense of Romanism is faint, but present.

While Chesterton thus occasionally incites in Protestant readers a twinge of caution, he more often incites in them respect for traditional thought. There is nothing here of the “works righteousness” for which so many Protestants condemn the Roman church; there is only good sense and humility in the face of an eternal and wise God, and a sense of profound joy in His creation. This same sense permeates the works of the greatest Catholic writers (and Protestant ones as well), and one hopes that Chesterton may occasion more Protestants to esteem their Catholic brothers more highly.

Though Orthodoxy is brief, it is hard going for the modern reader. Chesterton thought deeply and often poetically, and his argument is woven in a complex and beautiful fashion which is difficult to follow in one reading. It took this author three readings to understand the flow of his argument. Still, each of the arguments in the book is robust enough, and, to our modern and skeptical world, heretical enough, that even considering them piecemeal is useful. This book will make the average reader work, but it is worth the effort.

One of the great benefits of reading Chesterton is that one begins to understand how people thought at the turn of the last century. In Chesterton we find not only good reason and a sense of wonder, but a level of sanity and civility foreign to modern culture. Even his philosophical enemies are his jovial friends. We would do well to drink deeply and often from the well of an earlier West, from before the Great Poisoning of the 20th century.

Orthodoxy should be required reading for any modern apologist, for those who defend Christianity in the marketplace of modern ideas. It is also useful for anyone who wants a more general overview of man’s place in the universe. This book is a thinker’s paradise, mostly because it goes beyond mere thought to deep feeling, to joy and humility, where man and God rejoice together in the great dance of heaven.

i I Corinthians 1:19-21

ii Jude 3

Why I Am A Catholic

Why I Am A Catholic
G.K. Chesterton 

The difficulty of explaining “why I am a Catholic” is that there are ten thousand reasons all amounting to one reason: that Catholicism is true. I could fill all my space with separate sentences each beginning with the words, “It is the only thing that . . .”

As, for instance, (1) It is the only thing that really prevents a sin from being a secret. (2) It is the only thing in which the superior cannot be superior; in the sense of supercilious. (3) It is the only thing that frees a man from the degrading slavery of being a child of his age. (4) It is the only thing that talks as if it were the truth; as if it were a real messenger refusing to tamper with a real message. (5) It is the only type of Christianity that really contains every type of man; even the respectable man. (6) It is the only large attempt to change the world from the inside; working through wills and not laws; and so on.

Or I might treat the matter personally and describe my own conversion; but I happen to have a strong feeling that this method makes the business look much smaller than it really is. Numbers of much better men have been sincerely converted to much worse religions. I would much prefer to attempt to say here of the Catholic Church precisely the things that cannot be said even of its very respectable rivals. In short, I would say chiefly of the Catholic Church that it is catholic. I would rather try to suggest that it is not only larger than me, but larger than anything in the world; that it is indeed larger than the world. But since in this short space I can only take a section, I will consider it in its capacity of a guardian of the truth.

The other day a well-known writer, otherwise quite well-informed, said that the Catholic Church is always the enemy of new ideas. It probably did not occur to him that his own remark was not exactly in the nature of a new idea. It is one of the notions that Catholics have to be continually refuting, because it is such a very old idea. Indeed, those who complain that Catholicism cannot say anything new, seldom think it necessary to say anything new about Catholicism. As a matter of fact, a real study of history will show it to be curiously contrary to the fact. In so far as the ideas really are ideas, and in so far as any such ideas can be new, Catholics have continually suffered through supporting them when they were really new; when they were much too new to find any other support. The Catholic was not only first in the field but alone in the field; and there was as yet nobody to understand what he had found there.

Thus, for instance, nearly two hundred years before the Declaration of Independence and the French Revolution, in an age devoted to the pride and praise of princes, Cardinal Bellarmine and Suarez the Spaniard laid down lucidly the whole theory of real democracy. But in that age of Divine Right they only produced the impression of being sophistical and sanguinary Jesuits, creeping about with daggers to effect the murder of kings. So, again, the Casuists of the Catholic schools said all that can really be said for the problem plays and problem novels of our own time, two hundred years before they were written. They said that there really are problems of moral conduct; but they had the misfortune to say it two hundred years too soon. In a time of tub-thumping fanaticism and free and easy vituperation, they merely got themselves called liars and shufflers for being psychologists before psychology was the fashion. It would be easy to give any number of other examples down to the present day, and the case of ideas that are still too new to be understood. There are passages in Pope Leo’s Encyclical on Labor [Also known as Rerum Novarum, released in 1891] which are only now beginning to be used as hints for social movements much newer than socialism. And when Mr. Belloc wrote about the Servile State, he advanced an economic theory so original that hardly anybody has yet realized what it is. A few centuries hence, other people will probably repeat it, and repeat it wrong. And then, if Catholics object, their protest will be easily explained by the well-known fact that Catholics never care for new ideas.

Nevertheless, the man who made that remark about Catholics meant something; and it is only fair to him to understand it rather more clearly than he stated it. What he meant was that, in the modern world, the Catholic Church is in fact the enemy of many influential fashions; most of which still claim to be new, though many of them are beginning to be a little stale. In other words, in so far as he meant that the Church often attacks what the world at any given moment supports, he was perfectly right . The Church does often set herself against the fashion of this world that passes away; and she has experience enough to know how very rapidly it does pass away. But to understand exactly what is involved, it is necessary to take a rather larger view and consider the ultimate nature of the ideas in question, to consider, so to speak, the idea of the idea.

Nine out of ten of what we call new ideas are simply old mistakes. The Catholic Church has for one of her chief duties that of preventing people from making those old mistakes; from making them over and over again forever, as people always do if they are left to themselves. The truth about the Catholic attitude towards heresy, or as some would say, towards liberty, can best be expressed perhaps by the metaphor of a map. The Catholic Church carries a sort of map of the mind which looks like the map of a maze, but which is in fact a guide to the maze. It has been compiled from knowledge which, even considered as human knowledge, is quite without any human parallel.

There is no other case of one continuous intelligent institution that has been thinking about thinking for two thousand years. Its experience naturally covers nearly all experiences; and especially nearly all errors. The result is a map in which all the blind alleys and bad roads are clearly marked, all the ways that have been shown to be worthless by the best of all evidence: the evidence of those who have gone down them.

On this map of the mind the errors are marked as exceptions. The greater part of it consists of playgrounds and happy hunting-fields, where the mind may have as much liberty as it likes; not to mention any number of intellectual battle-fields in which the battle is indefinitely open and undecided. But it does definitely take the responsibility of marking certain roads as leading nowhere or leading to destruction, to a blank wall, or a sheer precipice. By this means, it does prevent men from wasting their time or losing their lives upon paths that have been found futile or disastrous again and again in the past, but which might otherwise entrap travelers again and again in the future. The Church does make herself responsible for warning her people against these; and upon these the real issue of the case depends. She does dogmatically defend humanity from its worst foes, those hoary and horrible and devouring monsters of the old mistakes. Now all these false issues have a way of looking quite fresh, especially to a fresh generation. Their first statement always sounds harmless and plausible. I will give only two examples. It sounds harmless to say, as most modern people have said: “Actions are only wrong if they are bad for society.” Follow it out, and sooner or later you will have the inhumanity of a hive or a heathen city, establishing slavery as the cheapest and most certain means of production, torturing the slaves for evidence because the individual is nothing to the State, declaring that an innocent man must die for the people, as did the murderers of Christ. Then, perhaps, you will go back to Catholic definitions, and find that the Church, while she also says it is our duty to work for society, says other things also which forbid individual injustice. Or again, it sounds quite pious to say, “Our moral conflict should end with a victory of the spiritual over the material.” Follow it out, and you may end in the madness of the Manicheans, saying that a suicide is good because it is a sacrifice, that a sexual perversion is good because it produces no life, that the devil made the sun and moon because they are material. Then you may begin to guess why Catholicism insists that there are evil spirits as well as good; and that materials also may be sacred, as in the Incarnation or the Mass, in the sacrament of marriage or the resurrection of the body.

Now there is no other corporate mind in the world that is thus on the watch to prevent minds from going wrong. The policeman comes too late, when he tries to prevent men from going wrong. The doctor comes too late, for he only comes to lock up a madman, not to advise a sane man on how not to go mad. And all other sects and schools are inadequate for the purpose. This is not because each of them may not contain a truth, but precisely because each of them does contain a truth; and is content to contain a truth. None of the others really pretends to contain the truth. None of the others, that is, really pretends to be looking out in all directions at once. The Church is not merely armed against the heresies of the past or even of the present, but equally against those of the future, that may be the exact opposite of those of the present. Catholicism is not ritualism; it may in the future be fighting some sort of superstitious and idolatrous exaggeration of ritual. Catholicism is not asceticism; it has again and again in the past repressed fanatical and cruel exaggerations of asceticism. Catholicism is not mere mysticism; it is even now defending human reason against the mere mysticism of the Pragmatists. Thus, when the world went Puritan in the seventeenth century, the Church was charged with pushing charity to the point of sophistry, with making everything easy with the laxity of the confessional. Now that the world is not going Puritan but Pagan, it is the Church that is everywhere protesting against a Pagan laxity in dress or manners. It is doing what the Puritans wanted done when it is really wanted. In all probability, all that is best in Protestantism will only survive in Catholicism; and in that sense all Catholics will still be Puritans when all Puritans are Pagans.

Thus, for instance, Catholicism, in a sense little understood, stands outside a quarrel like that of Darwinism at Dayton. It stands outside it because it stands all around it, as a house stands all around two incongruous pieces of furniture. It is no sectarian boast to say it is before and after and beyond all these things in all directions. It is impartial in a fight between the Fundamentalist and the theory of the Origin of Species, because it goes back to an origin before that Origin; because it is more fundamental than Fundamentalism. It knows where the Bible came from. It also knows where most of the theories of Evolution go to. It knows there were many other Gospels besides the Four Gospels, and that the others were only eliminated by the authority of the Catholic Church. It knows there are many other evolutionary theories besides the Darwinian theory; and that the latter is quite likely to be eliminated by later science. It does not, in the conventional phrase, accept the conclusions of science, for the simple reason that science has not concluded. To conclude is to shut up; and the man of science is not at all likely to shut up. It does not, in the conventional phrase, believe what the Bible says, for the simple reason that the Bible does not say anything. You cannot put a book in the witness-box and ask it what it really means. The Fundamentalist controversy itself destroys Fundamentalism. The Bible by itself cannot be a basis of agreement when it is a cause of disagreement; it cannot be the common ground of Christians when some take it allegorically and some literally. The Catholic refers it to something that can say something, to the living, consistent, and continuous mind of which I have spoken; the highest mind of man guided by God.

Every moment increases for us the moral necessity for such an immortal mind. We must have something that will hold the four corners of the world still, while we make our social experiments or build our Utopias. For instance, we must have a final agreement, if only on the truism of human brotherhood, that will resist some reaction of human brutality. Nothing is more likely just now than that the corruption of representative government will lead to the rich breaking loose altogether, and trampling on all the traditions of equality with mere pagan pride. We must have the truisms everywhere recognized as true. We must prevent mere reaction and the dreary repetition of the old mistakes. We must make the intellectual world safe for democracy. But in the conditions of modern mental anarchy, neither that nor any other ideal is safe. just as Protestants appealed from priests to the Bible, and did not realize that the Bible also could be questioned, so republicans appealed from kings to the people, and did not realize that the people also could be defied.

There is no end to the dissolution of ideas, the destruction of all tests of truth, that has become possible since men abandoned the attempt to keep a central and civilized Truth, to contain all truths and trace out and refute all errors. Since then, each group has taken one truth at a time and spent the time in turning it into a falsehood. We have had nothing but movements; or in other words, monomanias. But the Church is not a movement but a meeting-place; the trysting-place of all the truths in the world.


G.K. Chesterton. “Why I Am A Catholic.” From Twelve Modern Apostles and Their Creeds (1926).

G.K. Chesterton Quotes

I recently came across some great and thought provoking quotes attributed to G.K. Chesterton, which I believe hold as much wisdom and insight for us as when he originally spoke or penned these adages:

The real difference between Francis and Dominic, which is no discredit to either of them, is that Dominic did happen to be confronted with a huge campaign for the conversion of heretics, while Francis had only the more subtle task of the conversion of human beings. It is an old story that, while we may need somebody like Dominic to convert the heathen to Christianity, we are in even greater need of somebody like Francis, to convert the Christians to Christianity.

-G.K. Chesterton

Just going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than standing in your garage makes you a car.

-G.K. Chesterton

Beware of no man more than yourself; we carry our worst enemies within us.

-G.K. Chesterton

If there were no God, there would be no Atheists.

-G.K. Chesterton

The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies, probably because they are generally the same people.

-G.K. Chesterton

The most astonishing thing about miracles is that they happen.

-G.K. Chesterton

The rich are the scum of the Earth in every country.

-G.K. Chesterton

Marriage is a duel to the death which no man of honor should decline.

-G.K. Chesterton

Drink because you are happy, but never because you are miserable.

-G.K. Chesterton

The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him.

– G.K. Chesterton

Once abolish the God, and the government becomes the God.

– G.K. Chesterton

I have little doubt that when St. George had killed the dragon he was heartily afraid of the princess.

– G.K. Chesterton

To love means loving the unlovable. To forgive means pardoning the unpardonable. Faith means believing the unbelievable. Hope means hoping when everything seems hopeless.

-G.K. Chesterton


Discovering G.K. Chesterton

Discovering G.K. Chesterton
Ken Concannon

“The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried” — G.K. Chesterton, 1910. Today marks the 130th birthday of the author of that quote, a man many believe to be the greatest writer and thinker of the 20th century — the very large (he stood 6’ 4,” weighed about 300 pounds), very Catholic, very brilliant Gilbert Keith Chesterton.

Born in 1874 in London, England, the giant genius lived only 62 years, the last fourteen of them as a Catholic. He converted in 1922, and during those fourteen years became the most effective defender of the Catholic faith of his era. When he died in 1936, the Vatican mourned his loss.

Poet, novelist, essayist, journalist, short story writer, playwright and humorist, G. K. Chesterton was definitely one of the most prolific writers that ever lived. Writing over a period of about 35 years, he wrote over 4,000 newspaper essays; two hundred short stories — including a popular series featuring the priest-detective, Father Brown; hundreds of poems; five plays; a hundred books and contributed to another two hundred books. When he wasn’t doing that, he edited his own newspaper, G.K.’s Weekly, debated the likes of George Bernard Shaw, Bertrand Russell, and Clarence Darrow, and illustrated books for the writer Hillaire Belloc. Chesterton was also an accomplished artist.

The subjects of Chesterton’s writing covered the landscape of human thought. He apparently thought about everything, and then wrote about it, usually with a dry wit that still stings to this day. He can, and should, be quoted on subjects ranging from religion (“If there were no God, there would be no atheists”) to politics (“When a politician is in opposition he is an expert on the means to some end; and when he is in office he is an expert on the obstacles to it”) to modern art (“Savages and modern artists are alike strangely driven to create something uglier than themselves, but the artists find it harder”).

Food for the Mature Catholic Mind

I was first introduced to Chesterton many, many years ago. I think it was in high school. At the time I was too young and too stupid to appreciate the man’s genius, and quickly forgot whatever I was required to learn about him. A few weeks ago, however, while flicking television channels, I came across the tail end of one episode of an EWTN series on Chesterton hosted by Dale Ahlquist, President of the American Chesterton Society.

The topic of this particular episode apparently had to do with the twin evils of big government and big business. Chesterton had concluded, many decades before it became obvious to anyone else, that the concentration of power inherent in the giant bureaucracies of government and business diminished the role and importance of the family and, by extension, individual freedom.

Fascinated, I determined to learn more about the writer I ignored so many years before.

I located the American Chesterton Society on the Internet ( and contacted Mr. Ahlquist, advising him of my interest and telling him that I was thinking of doing an article on Chesterton. He offered to provide any assistance I might need, and he did. Responding to a question I asked him about what he thought Chesterton’s reaction would be to Catholic politicians who describe themselves as “practicing Catholics” while supporting and promoting things that are in direct violation of Catholic teaching, Mr. Ahlquist responded that Chesterton had little regard for “politicians who were only concerned about getting into office and staying there rather than doing anything worthwhile.”

Good Humor, Common Sense and a Gift of Prophecy

He then gave me more than I asked for. He talked of Chesterton’s views on the then very fashionable eugenics movement and its relationship to moral problems that were only beginning to take root while the great man was still alive.

“Chesterton’s prophetic writing about eugenics shows where a lot of the modern ideas about birth control, cloning and stem cell research come from. He predicted that birth control would lead to abortion and then to infanticide. He predicted that birth control would be instituted into public policy ‘applied to everybody and imposed by nobody.’ And he certainly showed that all these crazy ideas arise the farther we get away from the teachings of the Church.”

Chesterton’s entire life was a search for the truth, and that search would eventually lead him to his conversion to the Catholic faith. His life was also an ongoing battle in defense of that truth, a battle he waged in debate and in his writings. He had much to contend with. The era during which he lived witnessed the rise of atheism, socialism, communism, capitalism, moral relativism and the awful eugenics movement. He was a contemporary of many of the authors of these movements, and he recognized, early on, the inherent threat to human freedom that all these isms and movements represented. And yet he approached the battle in good humor and with a common sense that has not since been seen in this world.

As I have learned in my brief research for this article, to sum up the contribution of the “apostle of common sense” in a mere thousand words is virtually impossible. And to describe his approach to the stupidity he encountered without quoting him is pointless. So I leave the reader with one classic example of how Chesterton dealt with that stupidity — in this case atheists and moral relativists who saw no real distinction between human beings and other forms of life, while expressing disdain for Catholic dogma and tolerance for everything.

Creating dogmas, he explained, is what human beings, and only human beings, do. On the other hand, “trees have no dogmas, and turnips are also quite broadminded.”

G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy


We are slowly, but thoughly making progress through G.K. Chesterton’s literary work Orthodoxy. It certainly lends itself to a lively and animated discussion, that’s for sure! When some friends ask me what G.K. Chesterton writing style is like, I say how he comes across as a “Catholic” Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain.

If you are interested in joining us, please feel free to let us know. We would very much love to have you!

Here is another great photo of G.K. that I came across recently…enjoy!

G.K. Chesterton2

Hello and Welcome

Hello and Welcome!

This is really exciting to finally get our Traditional Catholic Book Club “off the flight deck” as the classic saying goes!

The first book we will be reading is Orthodoxy, by G.K. Chesterton.

You can find a free version of it at

I will be posting articles on G.K. Chesterton, as well as his book as I come across them, so make sure to come back every so often.

Lets get to reading!

Link: G.K. Chesterton Orthodoxy