talk given at the 2016 Louisiana Chesterton Conference
But before I get into the thick of it, I would like to extend an important apology, a retraction of sorts. It is a proper thing to explore the many sides of a man, for in seeing the parts, we are looking for the whole. But what we must not do in such an exercise is mistake a part for the whole, or mistake a whole for the parts. I believe the title of this talk may have done this already. This conference is called “The Many Sides of Chesterton.” And the side I have chosen is Chesterton’s Christian side.
Think on it for a moment: Chesterton’s Christian side. Is this even possible? Can a Christian have a Christian side? Can one who is in Christ, who is a member of the Church, the body of Christ, have a Christian side? Much more, can a man who is moving ever closer to sainthood have a Christian side? What is insinuated in my title is that Chesterton had a Christian side, that Christianity fit neatly on a façade of Chesterton, and therefore may be able to fit on any one side of our lives. Chesterton was large enough where perhaps anything could fit on any one of his facades. And hopefully at my funeral, no one will say the same of me. But really, this, I think, is precisely Chesterton’s most important theological lesson to us: Christian doctrine must always be the whole, always all encompassing, and never just a part of our lives.
Asking if Chesterton had a Christian side is almost like asking, can a fish have a wet side or an elk have a mammalian side? Can a baby have a human side? If we say yes, all we have done is mistake the whole for a part. For to see a fish swimming on any side is to see a wet side. To see a baby on any side is to see its humanity. But if we say, “No, a Christian man like Chesterton cannot have anything resembling a Christian side,” then we have ignored each and every part altogether. We have said the swimming fish, the crying baby, and the roaming elk do not exist, because we have said water, humanity, and mammals do not exist. For when a man is a faithful Christian, as Chesterton most certainly was, he is a Christian on every side, even the darker ones. For to be a Christian is not to be perfect, but to be broken.
Still, to say Chesterton had a Christian side, and only a Christian side, is to say something untrue about Chesterton. Even worse, it is to say something untrue about Christ, namely that he can fit neatly on any one side of our lives, that Christ can be compartmentalized or relegated in one’s life. It is false to say that Christianity is a system of religious ideas and religious practices merely added onto human life. As Dr. Peter Leithart of the Theopolis Institute once said, “Scripture does not urge us to embrace religion in this sense. The Christian is not a natural man who has become religious…To be a Christian means to be refashioned in all of one’s desires, aims, attitudes, actions, from the shallowest to the deepest.” (page 15 in Against Christianity). Therefore, Chesterton didn’t have a Christian side, as if another one of his sides was something other than Christian. Chesterton was a Christian. He was a man whose desires, aims, attitudes, and actions were refashioned, new creations, from the shallowest to the deepest. He was a Christian philosopher, a Christian poet, a Christian theologian, a Christian husband, a Christian essayist, and a Christian Englishman. In so being these things, he has much to teach us.
To be clear, my talk today is not on Chesterton the theologian or Chesterton the prophet. It is not even on Chesterton as a religious figure, in the broad sense. What I would like to put forth today is Chesterton the Christian, and that means the Chesterton who looked most like Christ, who looked most human. Chesterton’s Christian profession was a distinctly human one, and that’s important. I believe four very basic pairs of ideas set the theological themes we see in Chesterton’s work, and therefore the theological themes which should set our own eyes when looking at Chesterton. By accident, design, and sovereignty, these four pairs all start with the letter “c”, and they are all paradoxical.
#1 Curious and Creedal
An initial read of most anything Chesterton wrote will quickly reveal he was a lover of curiosity and creeds, of wonder and boundaries. These go hand in hand. Not only was he constantly looking in himself for his own philosophical allegiances, but he was encouraging others to the same. In all this, Chesterton wants us to see that true curiosity and wonder, and therefore true joy and pleasure, can only happen within not just dogma, for all men have dogma, but the right dogma. As he says, “The modern world is filled with men who hold dogmas so strongly that they do not even know that they are dogmas” (p. 148 in Ker bio, said by Chesterton but I don’t know where)
Many think curiosity is a kind of wandering away from dogma, away from the current structure. But that is not how Chesterton saw it. For Chesterton, wonder and curiosity were only possible within boundaries. There is an application here for theologians. When as theologians we get the itch to do what may be called creative theology, we can only do so if we first adhere to creedal theology. That is to say, true creativity, true curiosity, and true wonder will only be fruitful when we first adhere to God’s revealed boundaries for us. This interplay of wonder and boundaries made Chesterton a happy man who wasn’t comfortable, and that is the premise of his work Orthodoxy. That is a result of his Christian faith.
To be sure, we need a Chestertonian Christianity, because we need to unwaveringly confess and live by the simple and clear boundaries of Christianity orthodoxy. Without them, we have nothing. As Chesterton indicated, we ought to believe the Christian creed because life was, “logical and workable with these beliefs, and illogical and unworkable without them.”
#2 Communal and Comprehensive
One of the greatest needs for the Christian Church in the 21st century is the need to have a complete view of the Christian life where all things are under the Lordship of Christ (education, art, food, politics), and I believe Chesterton is a big help in getting us there. This comprehensiveness begins by our understanding the relationship of all things to God. We must see, as the Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias once noted, that “Worship is co-extensive with life!”
C.S. Lewis said that to be discontinuous from God, as I am discontinuous from one of you, would be annihilation. Chesterton always, even before his conversion to the Catholic Church, had a deep and abiding sense of this continuity between our being, even all existence, and God’s being. In so much as we have our being in God, God calls us to have the being of all in God. Again, Lewis is helpful, “In Pantheism God is all. But the whole point of creation surely is that He was not content to be all. He intends to be ‘all in all.’” (page 70 of Letters to Malcolm) This comprehensiveness is the basis of real community, of common unity.
For Chesterton, community was a broad word which encompassed the past, the present, and the future. The past is history; the present is one’s neighbor, friend or foe; the future is our posterity, and hence Chesterton’s important and correct position on education. For Chesterton, a man can be most sure of his steps, and the steps of others, when he walks facing backwards. Chesterton had a romance with the past we would do well to emulate. But this was no chronological snobbery. It is a distinctly Christian view of the family of mankind, of community.
At the heart of the matter is our ability as Christians to see every moment and every relationship as a gift from God. C.S. Lewis, again in his Letters to Malcolm, is helpful, and it wouldn’t surprise me if Lewis was thinking of Chesterton when he wrote this concerning prayer:
“It’s comical that you [Malcolm], of all people, should ask my views about prayer as worship or adoration. On this subject you yourself taught me nearly all I know. On a walk in the Forest of Dean. Can you have forgotten? You first taught me the great principle ‘begin where you are.’ I had thought one had to start by summoning up what we believe about the goodness and greatness of God, by thinking about creation and redemption and ‘all the blessings of this life.’ You turned to the brook and once more splashing your burning face and hands in the little waterfall and said, ‘Why not begin with this?’ And it worked. Apparently you have never guessed how much. That cushiony moss, that coldness and sound and dancing light were no doubt very blessings compared with ‘the means of grace and the hope of glory.’ But then they were manifest. So far as they were concerned, sight had replaced faith. They were not the hope of glory, they were an exposition of the glory itself.” (Letters to Malcolm, p. 88-89)
#3 Critical and Committed
Chesterton was so critical and committed because he had a rightful allegiance to ideas. He was a man who had many and believed he had the right ones. He had a clear view of fundamentals and the need to both understand our own and require our opponents to account for theirs. Chesterton, in short, believed, as Richard Weaver’s book proclaims, that ideas have consequences. While a critic, he was not a cynic. He wouldn’t have adhered to today’s academic obsession with critical thinking, and he certainly wouldn’t have upheld its practice and purpose. While committed, he was not closed off to debate. From his boyhood, debate was one of the defining marks of him and his brother’s relationship.
You and I are prone to assume certain parts of a modern worldview (for example, ambiguous words like progress, tolerance, rationalism) without a Christian critique of their meaning or purpose. Chesterton, better than most writers throughout history, can strip us of this tendency to simply believe the spirit of our age. He does this because his acute ability to disembowel modern sentiments with cogent and clever arguments. He also does this by his own practice, a life which stood against a flood of ideas. It is astonishing, when we consider the spirit of Chesterton’s own times and the number of notable and heavy intellectuals whose words propelled the modern swell, how steadfast Chesterton stood, almost as a singular voice. He did in his own time the very thing many of us are unwilling to do in ours: be intolerant when intolerance is the only remaining virtue.
Not only are we prone to adopt modern sentiments, many Christians today, leaders and laypersons, have actually adopted the very thing Chesterton spoke against: modern definitions of tolerance, progress, etc. The ensuing result is that the Christian Church in the west has never been in a more compromised position. Today we see the new catholic motto “Growing in Understanding.” A first glance at this phrase shows us its immense vagueness. And Chesterton was not a fan of vague. For Chesterton, vague was the enemy of truth, the enemy of real understanding. As he states, “The one argument that used to urged for our creedless vagueness was that at least it saved us from fanaticism. But it does not even do that. On the contrary, it creates and renews fanaticism with a force quite peculiar to itself.” (What’s Wrong with the World, p. 24-25) Likewise, a brief look at the words in the phrase “Growing in Understanding”, much like Chesterton would have done, reveals to us that one cannot grow in understanding without growing in submission, for in the word understanding we see the phrase standing under. So in the vagueness of this phrase, we see that the modern Catholic pursuit of “growing in understanding” could be a great blessing for the Church or a great curse. The question therefore is growing in standing under what? Standing in submission to what?
The Protestant church is certainly no better. The strident motto over the past few decades in the Methodist church has been “Open hearts. Open minds. Open doors.” Again, this motto falls under the same condemnation as the Catholic one. It’s vague. It could be said that this has created so much openness, the Methodist church has lost its Christian profession. Chesterton said that the mind is open so that it may close on truth. This is quite true. The mind that is forever open is an empty mind. Similarly, if the mind is open so that it may close on truth, the heart is open so that it may love the truth. And if our doors are open, they are open so as to reveal the truth. Doors are open so that people may come into a standing building, a building with walls as dogmatic as the Apostles’ Creed.
This same vagueness can be seen in the aisles of your local Hobby Lobby. I see wall trinkets everywhere that say “Live. Laugh. Love.” But this tells us nothing. Chesterton would have demanded clarity. What is missing are the objects to which these verbs point. Live for what? Laugh at what? Love what? Christian churches—be they Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox—will not recover orthodoxy until we recover orthodoxy in whole, orthodoxy in every tremendous trifle and detail. Therefore, like Chesterton, our Christian profession cannot be a side of us, one of many sides we may choose or not choose to show. Our Christianity must encompass and inform every side of each of us. If we are in political office, we must be committed and critical Christians in political office. If we open a restaurant, we must be committed and critical Christian chefs. If we write or teach or paint or preach or philosophize or design a city or bake cookies for Mrs. Myrtle’s eightieth birthday, we must do so as committed and critical Christians, letting Christ inform not a part but the whole of our lives, the whole of every part of our lives.
If we are Christians in America, the ideal we are to seek is not America’s founding fathers. The ideal is not a utopian democracy replete with all the elected officials being fiscally conservative, gun-totin’ Republicans. And at a Chesterton conference, it must be said that the ideal isn’t even Chesterton. Chesterton can bring us to the ideal, but he himself is not it. As Chesterton reminds us in chapter three of What’s Wrong with the World, “…there is a permanent human ideal that must not be either confused or destroyed. The most important man on earth is the man who is not there. The Christian religion has specifically uttered the ultimate sanity of Man, says Scripture, who shall judge the incarnate and human truth. Our lives and laws are not judged by divine superiority, but simply by human perfection. It is man, says Aristotle, who is the measure. It is the Son of Man, says Scripture, who shall judge the quick and the dead.” (What’s Wrong with the World, page 26-27)
#4 Catholic and Common
When Chesterton entered into the Catholic Church, he wore it unashamedly. Once canonized, he will be even further rooted in the Catholic expression of faith, and this will be an important part of how future generations read Chesterton. I believe it can be said without contradiction, and without taking away from Chesterton’s importance, that Chesterton is no Saint Augustine, no pietistic writer. He doesn’t prove to be an Alcuin, a liturgist and educational reformer. He likewise avoids the distinct theological grooves set by Thomas Aquinas. That is, Chesterton did not give us tomes of systematic theology in the scholastic method, not even one. And for this we should be grateful. If you want to study how an individual’s will works in a small episode where a boy steals a pear, go to Augustine. But if you want to read an essay about how an unrepentant boy who amidst his friends steals pears and becomes the wily senator who steals money from his constituents, go to Chesterton. He is the ordinary saint. In this way, his brilliance was in what we may call his anti-theology. His brilliance was in his theological humility, keeping his thoughts of God close to earth. Time and again, Chesterton calls us back to the foundations of Christian belief, and the importance of unapologetically seeing our world through that lens.
Chesterton’s most apologetic work, Orthodoxy, was grounded in something very common: the Apostles’ Creed. Chesterton’s own spiritual journey shows that the vulgar was always a part of his theological construct. In one of his earliest Christian poems, composed in 1896, the same year he met his wife, Chesterton writes, “There was a man who dwelt in the east centuries ago, / And now I cannot look at a sheep or a sparrow, / A lily or a cornfield, a raven or a sunset, / A vineyard or a mountain, without thinking of him; / If this be not to be divine, what is it?” (Oddie’s Chesterton and the Romance of Orthodoxy, p. 156)
Saints become the saints of things, the guardians of something here on earth. Monica is the matron saint of mothers. Saint Jerome is the patron saint of librarians, scholars, and students. And Saint Anthony will help you find your car keys. I’d like to put forth that Chesterton’s ongoing Catholicity must be viewed alongside his immense commonness. So, here is my specific recommendation: Chesterton, when one day canonized, ought to be the patron saint of vulgarity. Not only would the reversal please Chesterton very much, but so would the meaning. I use vulgar here not in the connotative sense, as in a vulgar word, but in the denotative sense, as in the Latin Vulgate, Scripture given in the common tongue. Chesterton’s most distinguishing mark, above all his others and above all other saints throughout history, was to see the baser things with new eyes, and those things always led him beyond himself, to greater goods, to the divine. He is the theologian for the common man, for the common man’s ills and the common man’s vocation, his calling. Chesterton opens the common man’s world and seeks to give him eyes to see, a heart to love, a mind to think, and a belly full of laughter. This is most strongly witnessed in Tremendous Trifles, but it is also indicative of Chesterton as a man. Nonetheless, if the patron saint of vulgarity is too provocative, we may call him the patron saint of the oikos, the home. Or the patron saint of wonder. Or the patron saint of laughter. For as Ian Ker says in his biography of Chesterton, “One can, without exaggeration, find in Chesterton a mini-philosophy, not to say mini-theology, of laughter.”
This is true whether you are here and are Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox. If you don’t believe we should pray to the saints, you should at least believe we should pray with them. If you don’t think Chesterton is praying for you, he is at least praying alongside you, and his prayer would likely be something vulgar, something about the obvious, the common.
The Christian life is not the life lived in the spiritual realm alone. It is not a life which cares only for the spiritual dimension. Christian doctrine gives us no false dichotomies. It is the great unifier of all things. It is a life which cares for the whole man: heart, soul, mind, strength, and neighbor. Chesterton cared for the whole man, that the whole man would be reconciled to God in Christ. Chesterton had so many sides precisely because Christianity was not just another side. It was the whole. As Kevin Belmonte writes in The Quotable Chesterton, “…at the back of it all—at the heart of the matter—was Chesterton’s faith. No one has ever talked about God as he did, mingling laughter, creativity, intellectual acumen, eloquence, imagery, and power. Chesterton’s vibrant curiosity seemingly encompassed every conceivable subject, and on whatever subject he chose to write about, God was there.” (The Quotable Chesterton, by Kevin Belmonte) Chesterton had so many sides precisely because he was a Christian. When a man finds forgiveness, or rather I should say when forgiveness finds a man, there is plenty to be said. And when each day forgiveness finds that same man, as Christ does, that man wants to write of that profound truth in as many genres as possible. That man wants to see that truth as a poet, as a philosopher, and as a progressive. He wants to see his whole world in relation to that truth. Redemption is pervasive. It is effectual. It spreads and does not leave any part of our lives untouched, as far as the curse is found.