Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man 1 – Ian Ker

February 26, 2013

Chesterton begins The Everlasting Man, one of the two or three greatest of his half-dozen or so major works, by pointing out that in a post-Christian age it is very difficult to see Christianity for what it is: post-Christians `still live in the shadow of the faith and have lost the light of the faith.

Chesterton begins The Everlasting Man, one of the two or three greatest of his half-dozen or so major works, by pointing out that in a post-Christian age it is very difficult to see Christianity for what it is: post-Christians `still live in the shadow of the faith and have lost the light of the faith.

H. G. Wells’s best-selling The Outline of History had been published in serial paperback form in 1919 and then as a hardback in 1920. Wells’s `outline’ was quite simple: through the centuries man had evolved from a primitive animal form to the civilized man of the twentieth century who would finally establish world peace and prosperity. The book was a best-seller — although its view of history was certainly rather remarkable, given its publication only one year after the end of the horrors of the First World War and ten years before the Great Depression began with the Wall Street crash of 1929, only to be followed ten years later by the Second World War. Wells had naturally been dismissive of Christianity, attacking the Roman Catholic Church in particular. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man, published in September 1925, was at least in part a response to Wells.

Chesterton begins The Everlasting Man, one of the two or three greatest of his half-dozen or so major works, by pointing out that in a post-Christian age it is very difficult to see Christianity for what it is: post-Christians still live in the shadow of the faith and have lost the light of the faith. They are in a state of `reaction’: ‘They cannot be Christians and they cannot leave off being Anti-Christians. They are not `far enough away not to hate ‘Christianity, nor are they ‘near enough to love it’. And so, `while the best judge of Christianity is a Christian, the next best judge would be something more like a Confucian’.

But the `worst judge of all is the man now most ready with his judgments; the ill-educated Christian turning gradually into the ill-tempered agnostic … ‘. The `anti-clericalism’ of post-Christians `has become an atmosphere, an atmosphere of negation and hostility from which they cannot escape. Compared with that, it would be better to see the whole thing as something belonging to another continent, or to another planet.’ It is only when one is `impartial’ that one can `know why people are partial to it’. And Chesterton `seriously’ recommends `those in whom a mere reaction has thus become an obsession’ to imagine the Apostles as if they were pagans, `to try to do as much justice to Christian saints as if they were Pagan sages’.

Living in a country full of churches, post-Christians need `to walk past a church as if it were a pagoda’ rather than `to stand permanently in the porch, impotent either to go inside … or to go outside and forget’. Chesterton is quite candid about his apologetic method: to `invoke … the imagination that can see what is there’. For Christianity makes very serious claims that it would be absurd to dismiss with contempt. Consequently, `when its fundamentals are doubted, as at present, we must try to recover the candor and wonder of the child; the unspoilt realism and objectivity of innocence’.

If that is not possible, then `we must try at least to shake off the cloud of mere custom and see the thing as new, if only by seeing it as unnatural. Things that may well be familiar so long as familiarity breeds affection had much better become unfamiliar when familiarity breeds contempt.’ The `heavy bias of fatigue’ made it `almost impossible to make the facts vivid, because the facts are familiar’.

If, for example, one has lost `the sane vision’ of who man is, then one `can only get it back by something very like a mad vision; that is, by seeing man as a strange animal and realizing how strange an animal he is’. In short, `it is exactly when we do regard man as an animal that we know he is not an animal’. Only then can we recover our sense of `wonder’ at the nature of man. And so, Chesterton’s avowed purpose is `to strike wherever possible this note of what is new and strange, and for that reason the style even on so serious a subject may sometimes be deliberately grotesque and fanciful’.

For his aim is `to help the reader to see Christendom from the outside in the sense of seeing it as a whole, against the background of other historic things; just as I desire him to see humanity as a whole against the background of natural things’. When both Christianity and humanity are `seen thus, they stand out from their background like supernatural things’.

After this introduction, Chesterton does indeed begin with man himself, about whom the `simplest truth. is that he is a very strange being; almost thing grows from a seed, or something smaller than itself. They seem to forget that every seed comes from a tree, or from something larger than itself.’ In the case of religion, it was much more likely that monotheism preceded polytheism, that `religion did not originally come from some detail that was forgotten, because it was too small to be traced’: `Much more probably it was an idea that was abandoned because it was too large to be managed.

There is very good reason to suppose many people did begin with the simple but overwhelming idea of one God who governs all; and fell away into such things as demon-worship almost as a secret dissipation.’ In paganism God `is something assumed and forgotten and remembered by accident’. He is `the higher deity’ who `is remembered in the higher moral grades and is a sort of mystery’.

What seemed clear to Chesterton was that `there was never any such thing as the Evolution of the Idea of God. The idea was concealed, was avoided, was almost forgotten, was even explained away; but it was never evolved.’ Polytheism itself seems often to have consisted of `the combination of several monotheisms’, while Confucianism seems to be `a rather vague theism’ in which `a simple truth’ seems to have `receded, until it was remote without ceasing to be true’.

The fact that there was `a strange silence’ about God certainly suggested `the absence of God’ — but not necessarily the `non-existence’ of God: there was `a void’ but not `a negation’. There was `an empty chair’ or rather `an empty throne’. And Chesterton invokes his favorite image of the back: `it was as if some immeasurable presence had turned its back on the world.’ There was `in a very real sense the presence of the absence of God’, which one could feel, for example, `in the unfathomable sadness of pagan poetry’.

There was the implication that the gods of the pagans were `ultimately related to something else, even when that Unknown God has faded into a Fate’. For `what was truly divine’ seemed `very distant, so distant that they dismissed it more and more from their minds’. But what was quite clear was that they knew there was something wrong with the world: `These men were conscious of the Fall, if they were conscious of nothing else…’. Still, God `really’ had been `sacrificed to the Gods; in a very literal sense of the flippant phrase, they have been too many for him’.

Chesterton rejects any glib notion of religious pluralism: `We are accustomed to see a table or catalogue of the world’s great religions in parallel columns, until we fancy they are really parallel.’ But these so-called religions — which `we choose to lump together’ — `do not really show any common character’. True, Islam followed Christianity and `was largely an imitation of Christianity.

But the other eastern religions; or what we call religions, not only do not resemble the Church but do not resemble each other.’ Indeed, Confucianism was not even a religion, and could no more be compared with Christianity than `a theist with an English squire’. Christianity was bound up with the idea of a Church, while Confucianism and Buddhism were `great things’ but could not be called ‘Churches’ – any more than the English and French peoples could be called `nomads’ although they were `great peoples’.

The truth was that, `humanly speaking’, `the world owes God to the Jews’. And the world also owed it to the Jews that they refused `to follow the enlightened course of Syncretism and the pooling of all the pagan traditions’: `It is obvious indeed that his [God's] followers were always sliding down this easy slope; and it required the almost demoniac energy of certain inspired demagogues, who testified to the divine unity in words that are still like winds of inspiration and ruin.’

While the rest of the world `melted’ into a `mass of confused mythology,’ this God of the Jews, `who is called tribal and narrow, precisely because he was what is called tribal and narrow, preserved the primary religion of all mankind’. It was the Jews who had enabled the world, which `would have been lost’ otherwise, `to return to that great original simplicity of a single  authority in all things’.

It was to this `secretive and restless nomadic people’ that the world owed `the supreme and serene blessing of a jealous God’. An example of the secretiveness of the Jews, who `stood apart and kept their tradition unshaken and unshared’, was the way they had `kept a thing like the Book ofJob out of the whole intellectual world of antiquity. It is as if the Egyptians had modestly concealed the Great Pyramid.’ And Chesterton cannot resist the ultimate paradox: `He [the God of the Jews] was tribal enough to be universal. He was as narrow as the universe.’

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