Despite Chesterton’s slaughter of perhaps the most sacred of all Enlightenment bovines, Hitchens might have found a strange point of contact in Chesterton’s idea of divine presence in the world. In God Is Not Great and elsewhere, Hitchens heaps scorn on the “God” whom William Blake ridiculed as Old Nobodaddy — namely, the Big Guy in the Sky who jumps in and out of his creation like a heavenly factotum, answering the imperatives of those whose pleas are sufficiently abject, managing the universe like a divine designer, and thus appearing all too akin to Feuerbach’s divinity, the deity invented all too much in our own image.
Hitchens fails to discern that thoughtful Christians also abominate such a heavenly projection of human desire. For him, however, it is ludicrous to believe in either a Creator or Redeemer when the world is so evidently a botched job: “Evolution has meant that our prefrontal lobes are too small, our adrenal glands are too big, and our reproductive organs apparently designed by committee; a recipe which, alone or in combination, is very certain to lead to some unhappiness and disorder.”
“Unhappiness and disorder,” especially as they derive from the natural world, are Chesterton’s own native ground. “Nightmare” is the single most frequently occurring trope in the whole of his work. It occurs most notably in his only novel that can be likened to a masterpiece. The Man Who Was Thursday (1908). It’s subtitle, “A struggle with Nightmare,” refers to Chesterton’s own struggle with nihilism during the Mauve Decade of the 1890s, when such decadents as Beerbohm, and Lytton Strachey dominated British literary culture. Chesterton was driven almost to suicide by their mockery of all morality. He also feared that the Impressionists may have been right — that everything is merely an affair of veils and shadows, mirages and chimeras. His lifelong spiritual horror is expressed most memorably by the novel’s protagonist:
Was there anything apart from what it seemed? …. Was not everything, after all, like this bewildering woodland, this dance of dark and light? Everything only a glimpse, the glimpse always unforeseen, and always forgotten. For Gabriel Syme had found in the heart of that sun-splashed wood … that final skepticism which can find no floor to the universe.
Syme’s fear that the cosmos constitutes a huge Void, an infinite Nada that comes from Nada and returns to it, is actually worsened by the novel’s resolution. Syme had thought himself to be a double agent in the employ of Sunday, the master of six so-called “philosophical policemen.” Sunday has recruited these six detectives so that they might pose as anarchists and thus subvert a cell of bomb-throwers by unmasking their nihilist notions no less than their terrorist plots. Each of the six thought-sleuths has been given a secret code name matching the days of the week; Syme is thus “the man who was Thursday.” Yet in the end Syme discovers that the other alleged anarchists are, like him, counterspies of ideas!
The macabre quality of the novel derives from our not knowing who is good and who is evil, or even how we might distinguish between them. At the same time, we are made to enjoy the many hilarious undeceptions of these would-be deceivers. Mime and slapstick are piled atop the farcical and the grotesque, in a veritable farrago of nonsensical incidents whose implausibility is their essence. Most outrageous of all is the revelation that the Prime Detective is also the Presiding Anarch — a single figure named Sunday. The one who seemed to be the embodiment of good is the same as one who seemed to be the quintessence of evil.
In a mock-epic chase, Sunday mocks his pursuers as if he were an unfeeling prankster, a cat playing with the mouse that it will soon devour. Chesterton makes clear that here Sunday is wearing the mask of Nature, the visor of the brutal Darwinian realm that, as Tennyson famously said. remains “red in tooth and clan, Far from being a distant Newtonian divinity, he is utterly near, too close to identify with anything created, yet invisibly present in the roughshod and quite impersonal actions of Nature.
Hence the novel’s real terror, a fright that might have attracted a more patient atheist than Christopher Hitchens. Like the ancient patristic theologians, Chesterton instinctively understood that our first knowledge of God must always remain apophatic (vocab: apophatic – of or relating to the belief that God can be known to humans only in terms of what He is not (such as `God is unknowable’): we know who God is by knowing who he is not. He transcends and negates every human category, even being itself:
“I? What am I?” roared the President, and he rose slowly to an incredible height, like some wave about to arch above them and break. “You want to know what I am, do you? …. I tell you this, that you will have found out the truth of the last tree and the topmost cloud before the truth about me. You will understand the sea, and I shall still be a riddle; you shall know what the stars are, and not know what I am. Since the beginning of the world all men have hunted me like a wolf — kings and sages, and poets and law-givers, all the churches, and all the philosophies. But I have never been caught yet, and the skies will fall in the time I turn to bay.”
Ker comes close to discerning the significance of this most controversial scene, and yet he finally fails to see that, when Sunday at last cataphatically reveals himself, he no longer appears as the mask of darkness but as the visage of light.
“His face frightened me,” Gabriel Syme confesses, “as it did everyone; but not because it was brutal, not because it was evil. On the contrary, it frightened me because it was so beautiful, because it was so good.” The face of divine goodness is terrible in its beauty because it also frightening in its truth. Syme thus admits that evil often produces unintended good, just as good often becomes the occasion for inadvertent evil.
Such contradictions inhere in God’s good creation, Syme shouts, not in lament but praise. The world’s endemic suffering is not the mark of its godlessness; such affliction is indeed the will of God — paradoxical and exceedingly difficult though this claim must surely remain. Only “by tears and torture,” only in being “broken upon the wheel,” only in “descend[ing] into hell,” Syme affirms, can we both discern and embrace the deepest and truest things — bravery and goodness and glory. To reject this dark admixture of good and evil prompts us to pluck the tares from the wheat, to winnow evil from good according to our own measure, to seek perfection but wreak destruction.
A single character refuses to acknowledge the paradox that only in anguish do we encounter life in its otherwise unfathomable goodness. Julian Gregory, the true nihilist and sole terrorist who never took a code name, alleges that Sunday has permitted his speciously appointed detectives to suffer this contradiction while remaining immune from their misery and distress. “’Have you’ [this true anarch] cried in a dreadful voice, ‘have you ever suffered?’” Demanding a theodicy from Sunday, Gregory is given something at once far better and far worse – a verbal theophany amidst darkness such as occurred at Mt. Sinai and again at Mt. Golgotha:
As [Gregory] gaze, the great face [of Sunday] grew to an awful size, grew larger than the colossal mask of Memnon, which had made him scream as a child. It grew larger and larger, filling the whole sky; then everything went black Only in the blackness before it entirely destroyed his brain [Julian] seemed to hear a distant voice saying a commonplace text that he had heard somewhere, “Can ye drink of the cup that I drink of?”
Chesterton prepares readers for this stunning climax when, early in the novel, the disguised Sunday recruits Syme as a double agent. Syme complains that he is both inexperienced and unfit for such a difficult calling. Sunday replies that Syme’s willingness to serve is quite sufficient. “I don’t know any profession,” Syme again objects, “of which merely willingness is the final test.” “I do,” Sunday replied — “martyrs. I am condemning you to death. Good day.”
Such jaunty exchanges lie at the heart of Chesterton’s darkly comic novel. His understanding of human existence is as unsentimental as it is profound. He envisions the invisible and unknowable God as having assumed human form in Jesus Christ — the Lord who drank the cup of suffering in order to heal our sinful desire to reject it our wish to avoid the paradoxical nearness of good and evil. Most sin results from our refusal, like Gregory’s, to travel this troublous path, seeking easier and more obvious ways, whether as individuals or communities. Martyrdom, Chesterton suggests, is the glad and joyful willingness to die by participating in God’s own affliction.
This is no ventriloquizing of Newman at his most `dogmatic.” This is dogma plumbed to its ultimate depths. To rob Hitchens of his claim that “Jesus is Santa Claus for adults” is like stealing candy from babies. It is dangerous for Christians to have such unworthy opponents, lest a smug self-righteousness result. Even though he sometimes falters, as when he glorifies allegedly Christian warfare, Chesterton will endure because he engages not with atheistic midgets but with the equivalents of what Paul Ricoeur called the giant “masters of suspicion”: Nietzsche and Marx and Freud.