Archive for the ‘Ralph C. Wood’ Category

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Christopher Hitchens’ Dying Days With G. K. Chesterton 4 – Ralph C. Wood

January 28, 2013
Chesterton's 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.

Chesterton’s 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 Chesterton’s character 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.

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.

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Christopher Hitchens’ Dying Days With G. K. Chesterton 3 – Ralph C. Wood

January 25, 2013
The church's living tradition insures that its doctrines do not become fixed and static. For Chesterton as for Newman, Christian doctrine stays the same by changing. It remains true to itself precisely by way of its organic growth. The acorn of Christian revelation continues perpetually to ramify into the great oak tree of dogma.

The church’s living tradition insures that its doctrines do not become fixed and static. For Chesterton as for Newman, Christian doctrine stays the same by changing. It remains true to itself precisely by way of its organic growth. The acorn of Christian revelation continues perpetually to ramify into the great oak tree of dogma.

The most malignant of Hitchens’ charges is that Chesterton’s theology is at once unoriginal and triumphalist. It is true that Ker places Chesterton in a theological trajectory that begins with John Henry Newman. Yet Hitchens misses — as does Ker himself at times — the significance of this link to the great Victorian convert to Catholicism. For it makes Chesterton more of a Catholic modernist than a reactionary.

Newman revived modern Catholicism in a variety of ways, not least of all in his conviction that Christian doctrine is constantly and coherently developing. In the historical realities of Christ and his church, the utterly unknowable God definitively reveals himself. Far from being desiccated intellectual propositions, the church’s dogmas are the very source of its life.

So was Chesterton also convinced that the church’s living tradition insures that its doctrines do not become fixed and static. For Chesterton as for Newman, Christian doctrine stays the same by changing. It remains true to itself precisely by way of its organic growth. The acorn of Christian revelation continues perpetually to ramify into the great oak tree of dogma.

What is originally embryonic undergoes constant maturation, as the mind is freed, not fixed, by exploring the unfathomable depths of dogma. The church does at large, therefore, what every person does in small — it thinks dogmatically, as Chesterton declared in one of his earliest books, Heretics (1905)

Man may be defined as an animal that makes dogmas. As he piles doctrine on doctrine and conclusion on conclusion in the formation of some tremendous scheme of philosophy and religion, he is, in the only legitimate sense of which the expression is capable, becoming more and more human. When he drops one doctrine after another in a refined skepticism, when he declines to tie himself to a system, when he says that he has outgrown definitions, when he says that he disbelieves in finality, when, in his own imagination, he sits as God, holding no form of creed but contemplating them all, then he is by that very process sinking slowly backward into the vagueness of the vagrant animals and the unconsciousness of the grass. Trees have no dogmas. Turnips are singularly broad-minded.

Chesterton’s high estimate of dogma gives him a low regard for tolerance. Lest this seem to make him a troglodyte, it must be noted that he anticipates what Michael Walzer, Stephen Carter, and many others have identified as the hidden agenda underlying the chief Enlightenment ideal. Tolerance keeps an allegedly neutral peace when it is in fact an exercise of force: “The language of tolerance,” declared Carter in 1994, “is the language of power.” The tolerator grants liberty to the tolerated only when the latter behaves tolerantly, i.e., in accord with the tolerator’s notion of what is safe and appropriate and acceptable.

Virtually from the outset of his writing career in the first decade of the 20th century, Chesterton scorned this kind of tolerance, for it usually means that the tolerated is never taken seriously. Hence his tart aphorism against emptying the public square of both thought and belief. Ker curiously cites none of these, and Hitchens would surely have gagged on all of them: “Modem toleration is really a tyranny. It is a tyranny because it is a silence. To say that I must not deny my opponent’s faith is to say I must not discuss it.” Tolerance is thus “the virtue of a man without convictions.” It ignores the most basic truth of all ingestion, whether in thinking or masticating: “The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.”

“To `choose’ dogma and faith over doubt and experience,” Hitchens replied, “is to throw out the ripening vintage and to reach greedily for the Kool-Aid.”

As a lover of knight errantry, Chesterton sought entrance to what the late James Wm. McClendon called “the tournament of narratives” — i.e., an open arena where no traditions are automatically excluded but all are seriously engaged. Our story-borne convictions must persuasively confront each other, even to the point of conversion.

The Ball and the Cross, though Ker gives it short shrift, is far and away Chesterton’s finest fictional embodiment of such lively engagement, as well as a hugely amusing send-up of the tolerance that would become even more oppressive during the intervening century.

The novel features James Turnbull, an atheist journalist (Hitchens avant la lettre!), who is set in quite deadly opposition to Evan McIan, a devout Christian. For Turnbull the physicalist, the causal laws of nature can refute all miracles. For McIan the believer, by contrast, miracles are built into the very fabric of the cosmos. To demonstrate that their disagreement has huge moral no less than religious consequence, they vow to fight until someone finally wins, if only in a fatal sword-duel.

Yet the police and the press and the judiciary of hyper-tolerant England are appalled by the prospect of such a barbaric contest, and are thus bent on stopping it. Hence the riotous irony of two intellectual pugilists having to befriend each other as they flee the thought-police while seeking to have their decent debate. In the course of their contretemps, they discover the truth of Chesterton’s crisp dictum: “It is not bigotry to be certain we are right; but it is bigotry to be unable to imagine how we might possibly have gone wrong.” Having learned how dreadfully they might have gone wrong, MacIan and Trumbul at last abandon their rivalistic desire to win, whether by sword or by argument. To avoid plot spoiling, let it be said that in the end these dread enemies learn not to tolerate each other but to become the most hospitable of friends.

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Christopher Hitchens’ Dying Days With G. K. Chesterton 2 – Ralph C. Wood

January 24, 2013
Many leading literary figures of the day, from Henry James to T. S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf, acknowledged that this so-called Great War constituted a tectonic cataclysm in Western moral and religious life. It inaugurated the Age of Ashes and the Culture of Death. Both Chesterton and Hitchens unabashedly supported wars in their time (Chesterton WWI, Hitchens The Iraq War)

Many leading literary figures of the day, from Henry James to T. S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf, acknowledged that the so-called “Great War” constituted a tectonic cataclysm in Western moral and religious life. It inaugurated the Age of Ashes and the Culture of Death. Both Chesterton and Hitchens unabashedly supported wars in their time (Chesterton WWI, Hitchens The Iraq War)

Chesterton’s Politics
The allegation that Chesterton’s politics is sinister is far more worrisome. Hitchens labels Chesterton as a “reactionary” for proposing a political program called Distributism — a name he derived from Catholic teaching on distributive justice. This is ludicrous. Chesterton was in fact a radical in his economics.

Together with Hilaire Belloc and others, he worked during the 1920s to establish a drastic alternative to socialism and capitalism alike. They spurned privatistic and individualist capitalism as built on a profoundly anti-communal devotion to profit making at the neighbor’s expense. They also rejected wealth-sharing socialism as surrendering the most important personal and local endeavors — family, health, education — to the state. Hence their revolutionary idea of redistributing property — including joint ownership of factories and companies — rather than money.

Though in many respects unfeasible, Distributism is hardly a reactionary notion. On the contrary, it is being considered in contemporary China, where the government is seeking to aid illiterate and impoverished peasants, not by training them to do factory work in huge impersonal cities but urging them to remain on lands which they will now own, to use their agricultural earnings for developing better farming methods and for educating their children, and thus to lift the grinding burden of mindless work (the only virtue of which, as Marx famously declared, is to make one stoop-shouldered).

By far the most disturbing of Hitchens’ charges against Chesterton’s politics is that “his Catholicism made him morally frivolous about Hitlerism.” Hitchens rightly seizes on Chesterton’s failure to question the concordat that the future Pope Pius XII signed with Hitler in 1933. He is also correct to denounce Chesterton’s attempt to trace the rise of Hitlerism to the Protestant Reformation, specifically to Bismarckian Prussia — when of course Hitler was a lapsed Austrian Catholic who sought to suborn Protestantism and Catholicism alike to his own nefarious purposes.

It is true as well that Chesterton momentarily flirted with the Fascism of Benito Mussolini. But about Hitler himself, Chesterton never had any doubt. To make his polemical point, Hitchers ignores Ker’s clear evidence that Chesterton had nothing but scorn for the Nazis and all their pomps: the proud paganism of Aryan race-religion, the petty tribalism of modern Teutonic myth-making, and the vicious nationalism of Germany Ober alles.

Chesterton’s Fight Against Eugenics
In his selective and tendentious reading of Chesterton’s politics, Hitchens never even mentions the moral test that Chesterton most nobly met. Long before he became a Catholic, Chesterton dealt with the ghoulish peril that still threatens late-modern life: eugenics and the elimination of unwanted life.

Already in 1913, Winston Churchill and others had proposed a Mental Deficiency Bill. Churchill had been “inspired” by the example of Indiana in forcibly sterilizing its “mentally unfit.” Though he too sought such compulsory sterilizations, Churchill finally had to settle for the legal confinement of those under twenty-one.

Even so, such “unworthy sorts” would be deterred from propagating their retrograde kind. Without such measures, Churchill added, their rapid increase results in “a steady restriction among all the thrifty, energetic and superior stocks, [and thus] constitutes a national and race danger which it is impossible to exaggerate.”

Eugenics was embraced by many progressive church officials, writers, and thinkers of Chesterton’s day. Among the British advocates of the idea that the human species can be improved by selective breeding, like race horses, were G. B. Shaw, H. G. Wells, Virginia Woolf, Bertrand Russell, and Beatrice and Sidney Webb, not to mention William Inge, the Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral. American enthusiasts included Theodore Roosevelt, Alexander Graham Bell, Margaret Sanger, and, most notoriously, Oliver Wendell Holmes with his infamous protest that “three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

Though he died in 1936, Chesterton prophesied that Hitler would soon employ eugenics for his own race-cleansing regime. Once the state acquires the power to spay and geld those deemed as “inadequately” intelligent, then a holocaust can be generated for others regarded as equally “unproductive”: the congenitally defective, the incurably ill, the elderly infirm, as well as the innocent unborn, the socially recalcitrant, the gypsy vagabonds, the Jewish “parasites.”

Chesterton saw it all coming, and he named the canker at the core of our dread disease. It was not that civil rights were being violated. As Alasdair Maclntyre would make clear a half-century later, the notion of rights is an Enlightenment chimera built on a power-based contractual understanding of human relations — not on any transcendently ordered community grounded in mutual trust and obligation.

The real evil of eugenics springs, as Chesterton discerned, from our increasingly regnant belief that human life has no intrinsic worth, no inviolable divine dignity. When it is thus diminished to mere utility and function, it can also be made into the malleable clay of social experiment and human convenience. A purely physicalist pseudo-science thus becomes the religion of the omnicompetent state. Hence the immense currency of Chesterton’s prophecy from 1922, announced in Eugenics and Other Evils:

The creed that really is levying tithes and capturing schools, the creed that really is enforced by fine and imprisonment, the creed that really is proclaimed not in sermons but in statutes, and spread not only by pilgrims but by policemen – that creed is the great and disputed system of thought which…has ended in Eugenics. Materialism is really our established Church; for the Government will really help it to persecute its heretics.

This is hardly to say that Chesterton’s politics were beyond reproach. Both Hitchens and Ker fail to remark what is exceedingly troubling about his unrelenting defense of World War I as Britain’s finest hour. In recounting the details of Chesterton’s life during the years 1914-18, Ker attends mostly to minor concerns, without mentioning that many leading literary figures of the day, from Henry James to T. S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf, acknowledged that this so-called Great War constituted a tectonic cataclysm in Western moral and religious life. It inaugurated the Age of Ashes and the Culture of Death. Chesterton, by contrast, remained an unrepentant English nationalist, virtually purblind to the horrors of that most sanguinary of European-American wars: 10 million killed outright, 20 million seriously wounded, 5 million widowed, 9 million orphaned, 20 million left as refugees.

Having fought at Verdun and having nearly died of trench fever, J. R. R. Tolkien came to discern that der totale Krieg is the scourge of modem life. The Lord of the Rings is Tolkien’s epic repudiation of total war, whereas Chesterton remained content with his rather callous jest when asked why this 38-year old patriot wasn’t “out at the Front.” “If you’ll view me from the side,” he smartly replied, “you’ll see that I am indeed `out at the front.” Three years earlier he had published his rollicking celebration of the Catholic victory over the Ottoman Turks in The Battle of Lepanto. It was for him a holy war, a modern crusade that saved European Christendom from the Muslim menace.

The power of Chesterton’s poem cannot be denied. Only the most ardent pacifist can fail to be stirred by the four-beat palpitations of Chesterton’s couplets, with their alliterative anapests and thumping dactyls. Here the Holy League of the Catholic maritime states led by the Spanish knight of Austria sink the Turkish galleys and set free their enslaved Christian oarsmen:

Don John pounding from the slaughter-painted poop,
Purpling all the ocean like a bloody pirate’s sloop,
Scarlet running over on the silvers and the golds,
Breaking of the hatches up and bursting of the holds,
Thronging of the thousands up that labor under sea
White for bliss and blind for sun and stunned for liberty.
Vivat Hispania!
Domino Gloria!
Don John of Austria
Has set his people free.

Yet while Chesterton jubilantly celebrates the Catholic victory as resulting in large part from the intercession of the Virgin Mary, he at least does not have the Blessed Lady wield a weapon.

Eleven years later, in The Ballad of St. Barbara, Chesterton would celebrate the Allied victory at the Battle of the Marne by praising the patron saint of artillerymen as she blasts holes in the German palisades: “St. Barbara of the Gunners, with her hand upon the gun.” One can only wonder why Hitchens doesn’t attack Chesterton’s war-mongering. Perhaps it was that Chesterton had been an early opponent of the British incursion into South Africa during the Boer War. Perhaps Hitchens was also embarrassed to call out Chesterton on war when he himself had so vehemently supported the U.S. incursion into Iraq.

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Christopher Hitchens’ Dying Days With G. K. Chesterton 1 – Ralph C. Wood

January 23, 2013
To Hitchens' complaint that Chesterton's Christian humor is shallow, one can only wonder whether he may have had a native incapacity for plumbing the depths, an invincible ignorance about ultimate things. Or perhaps Hitchens was properly scandalized, for the most joyful paradox is also the greatest offense: the crucified and risen God-Man lightens the heaviest load of sin, and his yoke eases the worst of atheist burdens.

To Hitchens’ complaint that Chesterton’s Christian humor is shallow, one can only wonder whether he may have had a native incapacity for plumbing the depths, an invincible ignorance about ultimate things. Or perhaps Hitchens was properly scandalized, for the most joyful paradox is also the greatest offense: the crucified and risen God-Man lightens the heaviest load of sin, and his yoke eases the worst of atheist burdens.

Hitchens’ Challenge
The enfant terrible of the New Atheism, Christopher Hitchens, spent his dying days in a Houston hospital reading G. K. Chesterton — not only the 750 pages of Ian Ker’s massive recent biography, but also an equivalent amount of GKC’s own poetry and prose. The novelist Ian McEwan, who was at Hitchens’ bedside before his death in December 2011, reports that they spoke of various writers: Theodore Dreiser, Robert Browning, Thomas Mann, George Orwell, Philip Larkin.

McEwan also reports that Hitchens died nobly and without complaint at age 62, though ravaged by esophageal cancer that deprived him of his most important gift: the spoken word. Yet there was no last-minute conversion. On the contrary, Hitchins seems never to have felt the sting of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s aphorism that Chesterton often cited: “The worst moment for the atheist is when he is really thankful and has nobody to thank.” Gratitude to his wife and many friends seem to have sufficed for Hitchens.

Even so, he was reading huge chunks of Chesterton at the end. I suspect that “Hitch,” as his friends called him, was not only fulfilling his promise to write a 3000 word review of Ker’s book for the Atlantic. (Titled “The Reactionary,” the review was posthumously published in the March 2012 issue.) He was also settling scores with his bete noire. Far from granting him the generous farewell of a dying man to a worthy opponent long dead, Hitchens bid Chesterton a bitter parting word.

His review is so acerbic and dismissive that one cannot but suspect that our most celebrated public atheist may have been overcompensating — as if he had a secret wish that Chesterton might have been right. “There are days,” he wrote in God Is Not Great, “when I miss my old convictions as if they were an amputated limb.”

Any serious assessment of Ker’s huge book must come to terms with Hitchens’ damning conclusion that “when [Chesterton] was charming, he was also deeply unserious and frivolous… ; when he was serious, he was really quite sinister… ; and when he was posing as a theologian, he was doing little more than ventriloquizing John Henry Newman at his most `dogmatic.

“The whole phenomenon of “Chestertonianism,” as Hitchens calls it, “came to represent a minor but still important failure to meet a distinct moral challenge.” Each of these challenges must be met if Chesterton is to be embraced as an authentic Christian apologist, and Ker’s book offers an opportunityfor doing so. More is at risk here than Chesterton’s reputation; it is his Christian faith – and, by extension, the faith of the church itself – that remains at stake

Chesterton’s Humor
Against Hitchens’ charge that Chesterton’s celebrated humor is silly and superficial, Ker offers a solid rebuttal. He constantly stresses the link between the comic and the serious in Chesterton. It was a virtual article in Chesterton’s creed that Christianity deals with the darkest and deepest matters byway of a certain gaiety and buoyancy, overcoming the heaviness of sin with the joyfulness of the Gospel.

Satan fell by the force of his gravity, Chesterton famously observed, while the unfallen angels still fly because they take themselves so lightly. Joking is a vital form of thinking, he added. It often bursts the bounds of pedestrian thought. A transcendent leap is required to “catch” the jest. “Smiles from reason flow,” Milton observed, echoing Aristotle. “A joke can be so big,” GKC more rumbustiously remarked, “that it can break the roof of the stars.”

Far from being self-centered, a proper kind of laughter puts a stop to all serpentine seriousness about ourselves. “Hilarity,” Chesterton wrote, “involves humility.” It allows us to comport ourselves in an undignified manner, whether in laughter or play. These, he said, are “the essence of real happiness.”

Like C. S. Lewis, Chesterton despised all political utopias, chiefly because of their unhappiness: their stern propriety and grim solemnity, no matter whether their cheerlessness issues from the left or the right. Religious faith, he countered, “is much nearer to riotous happiness than it is to the detached and temperate types of happiness in which gentlemen and philosophers find their peace.” Ker supplies us with endless strings of such fine apercus: “the more serious is the discussion the more grotesque should be its terms,” for if “a thing is universal it is full of comic things…. Only man can be absurd: for only man can be dignified.” The deepest truths are the most outrageous, he insisted, and they require an artistic form befitting them – something akin to farce and mime and slapstick.

Precisely because she was so deeply Christian — indeed, Chesterton was led to the church by her devout practice of the faith — did he describe his wife Frances as having “the asceticism of cheerfulness, not the easier asceticism of melancholy.” When she accepted his proposal for marriage, he saw (as did Luther) the deep link between conjugal love and divine delight, as he wrote to tell her:

Happiness is not at all smug; it is not peaceful and contented…Happiness brings not peace but a sword: it shakes you like rattling dice: it breaks your speech and darkens your sight. Happiness is stronger than oneself and sets it palpable foot upon one’s neck.

What he meant, I suspect, is that the deepest happiness also puts one under the fiercest obligation — namely, to throw away one’s life into the bottomless abyss of gratitude, as Chesterton said of St. Francis. It also thrusts a stiletto into any bloated conviction that one deserves so great a joy. And surely it weights one with an inescapable care for those whose lives seem irreversibly unhappy.

The test case for Chesterton’s claims about joyfulness lies in the life of monastics, those who sacrifice everything for the sake of the Kingdom. Chesterton knew well that monks are not so foolhardy as to surrender felicity for misery. Their vows of celibacy and poverty and obedience bring, instead, a “terrible consolation and a lonely joy.” Chesterton cheekily suggests that monastics could be likened to a man who may go “ragged and homeless to drink brandy.”

In either case, the point about monks and nuns still holds: “They [give] up all pleasures for one pleasure of spiritual ecstasy.” To Hitchens’ complaint that Chesterton’s Christian humor is shallow, one can only wonder whether he may have had a native incapacity for plumbing the depths, an invincible ignorance about ultimate things. Or perhaps Hitchens was properly scandalized, for the most joyful paradox is also the greatest offense: the crucified and risen God-Man lightens the heaviest load of sin, and his yoke eases the worst of atheist burdens.

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