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Fr. Richard Neuhaus on G.K. Chesterton

Chesterton and the Thereness of It

I try not to read too much Chesterton, or at least not too much at one sitting. He has a way of insinuating himself into a writer’s manner, leading either to pretension or despair. To try to write like him makes one look silly, and knowing that you can’t write like him is very depressing. These thoughts are brought to mind by Joseph Pearce’s great big new biography, Wisdom and Innocence: A Life of G. K. Chesterton (Ignatius). Mr. Pearce is clearly in love with his subject, so there is nothing here aimed at deflating Chesterton’s reputation, which will no doubt disappoint bien pensant readers for whom a worthy biography must expose the unworthiness of the life examined. Biography as pathography is all the rage. The same critics might also complain that there is an inordinate amount of direct quotation of Chesterton, but I am inclined to the view that it is perfectly in order when it is Chesterton who is quoted — especially when much of the material is culled from private letters and other sources previously unpublished.

Pearce’s Chesterton is very much the Catholic Chesterton. And, as the title indicates, so is another recent biographical study by David W. Fagerberg, The Size of Chesterton’s Catholicism. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis are frequently compared as Christian apologists, and one meets people beyond numbering who were decisively influenced by these writers in their course of conversion. In the case of Chesterton, however, the conversion is, more often than not it seems, not just to Christianity but to the Catholic Church. The phrase “just to Christianity,” of course, puts one in mind of Lewis’ Mere Christianity. Alan Jacobs of Wheaton College has suggested (“The Second Coming of C. S. Lewis,” FT, November 1994) that there was a certain guile in the “mereness” of Lewis’ Christianity. Lewis combined the intellectual panache of Oxford and Cambridge with a one-size-fits-all Christianity that required no uncomfortably specific decisions about church, sacraments, and the sometimes embarrassing baggage of the Christian community through time, also known as tradition. I think there is considerable merit in Jacobs’ argument, and it has a great deal to do with why Lewis, unlike Chesterton, is so very popular with Protestants, and especially evangelical Protestants.

Chesterton exulted in the specific, the particular, the thus and soness and thereness of things. What others viewed as embarrassments of the Catholic tradition he embraced as an opportunity to demonstrate that something manifestly wrong was, upon closer examination, but the shadow side of something greatly right. From childhood on, it seems that Chesterton had a keen appreciation that almost everything could be perceived as being otherwise. That is to say, the way we perceive reality is not abstractly universal but dramatically contingent. The key thing is to see what is there. This understanding is at the heart of his Saint Thomas Aquinas: The Dumb Ox, a book that the distinguished Thomist, Etienne Gilson, called one of the greatest ever written on the Angelic Doctor. (I had long been familiar with Gilson’s praise of the book but thought it was in the nature of a courteous aside or maybe a book blurb. Pearce provides the full text of what Gilson said, and his praise of Chesterton’s treatment of Thomas obviously reflects his very considered judgment.)

To say that Chesterton’s reality was dramatically contingent is in no way to suggest that he would have any sympathy for the fashions of postmodernity in which reality is “socially constructed.” Quite the opposite is the case. For Chesterton, the “truth” was never in quotation marks. It was more like Dr. Johnson’s kicking the stone in response to Bishop Berkeley’s philosophical construction of reality. Although in Chesterton’s case it was a matter of being kicked by the stone, by the very thereness of things. From early on, he was aware of the seductive possibilities of being deceived by worlds of our own imaginative creation. Although it is not the point that Pearce is making, this is evident in a passage on Chesterton and homosexuality.

As a schoolboy, Chesterton encountered the usual homoerotic undercurrents, and was fascinated for a time by a fellow who played at being a diabolist. GKC later wrote, “I have since heard that he died; it may be said, I think, that he committed suicide; though he did it with tools of pleasure, not with tools of pain. God help him, I know the road he went; but I have never known or even dared to think what was that place at which he stopped and [so I] refrained.” We can play at being devils or the Devil’s playmates. It can even be exciting. But it is false and therefore it is deadly. Long before John Paul II and Vaclav Havel popularized the phrase, Chesterton’s was a passion to “live in the truth.” The phrase is but a riff on the words of Jesus, “You will know the truth and the truth will make you free.” The alternative to being free is to be dead. Chesterton was exuberantly free. And, he would quickly add, he was free because he was bound to be free, being bound by the truth.

The Master of Paradox
To speak of being bound to be free is to indulge a trope that, let it be admitted, Chesterton sometimes overindulged, his beloved paradox. It is no disrespect to note that frequently the Chestertonian paradox does not bear close logical examination, being more verbal sleight of hand than substance. On the other hand, a man standing on his head and waving his legs, which is Chesterton’s image for a paradox, doesn’t bear close logical examination either. The spectacle, if it means anything at all, is to point to something in the vicinity of the spectacle. But the paradoxical phrase “bound to be free” does stand up to the most rigorous examination, if it is understood that the binding is to the truth. For Chesterton, Christianity, by which he means Catholic Christianity, frees because it is, quite simply, the truth about everything.

Paradox, Chesterton insisted, does not obfuscate but illuminates. When praised for his mastery of the paradoxical trope, Chesterton responded that God, not he, is the master of paradox. His friend Maisie Ward explained it this way: “What it amounted to was roughly this: paradox must be of the nature of things because of God’s infinity and the limitations of the world and of man’s mind. To us limited human beings God can express His idea only in fragments. We can bring together apparent contradictions in those fragments whereby a greater truth is suggested. If we do this in a sudden or incongruous manner we startle the unprepared and arouse the cry of paradox. But if we will not do it we shall miss a great deal of truth.” Chesterton’s discovery was that Catholicism is large enough and various enough to accommodate all the paradoxical combinations by which the fullness of truth is revealed. The Church is, he said in a typically fetching formulation, “the trysting place of all the truths in the world.”

A trysting place is where lovers meet, and Chesterton’s was a lifelong affair with the truth that has entered into liaison with all the truths in the world. But to pull this off you have to actually live in the trysting place, which means to live in the truth, which means to live in Christ, which means to live in the Church that is the presence of Christ through time. The Church, he asserted, is ever so much larger from the inside than from the outside. To the modern mind and its notion of freedom, becoming a Catholic was to enter into an obedience that narrowed one’s horizons. Chesterton contended that precisely the opposite is the case. Obedience (from the Latin obedire) means responsive listening, and the invitation of the Church is an invitation to the high road of freedom. How could there be anything confining about listening and responding to an invitation to dance with all the truths in the world? Obedience, for Chesterton, is not a matter of closing down one’s critical faculties but of putting them in proper order. Doctrine and dogma provide a framework for intellectual inquiry that is otherwise random, impulsive, and idiosyncratic. “To become a Catholic,” he wrote, “is not to leave off thinking but to learn how to think.”

David Fagerberg treats insightfully the ways in which those who resist entering into the trysting place of Christ and his Church often seem to be fearful of a closed and confining space. One might say they are claustrophobic. Fagerberg agrees with Chesterton, however, in suggesting that the more common phenomenon is that people resist because they are agoraphobic. They are afraid of the wide-open public spaces that freedom calls home. The Catholic Church does not so much provide a refuge and resting place as it launches one into all the worlds — spiritual, mystical, intellectual, historical — that are engaged by all the truths in the world. Faith as adventure is at the heart of Chesterton’s exuberance. Chesterton surely understood that there is a wideness in God’s mercy, but his characteristic accent was on the wildness in God’s mercy. If you are living in the truth, you can with defiant, almost swashbuckling, confidence take on all comers. James Joyce, not the most orthodox of Catholics, said the Catholic Church is Here Comes Everybody. I don’t know if Chesterton ever commented on that way of putting it, but my hunch is that he would have rather liked it. A church that is not marked by paradox, that trims history and the excesses of life and thought to fit its preferences — in short, a church that is not wild — could not be the trysting place of all the truths in the world.

The Chief Idea
Even as a boy, Chesterton says, he had this intuition that any theory or attitude that deadened the experienced wildness of things must, to that extent, be false. “I had a strong inward impulse to revolt. . . . But as I was still thinking the thing out by myself, with little help from philosophy and no real help from religion, I invented a rudimentary and makeshift mystical theory of my own. It was substantially this: that even mere existence, reduced to its most primary limits, was extraordinary enough to be exciting. Anything was magnificent as compared with nothing. Even if the very daylight were a dream, it was a day-dream; it was not a nightmare.”

That was Chesterton the schoolboy. As an old man, shortly before he died in 1936, he wrote about what “I hope is not pompous to call the chief idea of my life. I will not say the doctrine I have always taught, but the doctrine I should always have liked to teach. That is the idea of taking things with gratitude, and not taking things for granted.” Perhaps it is more a sensibility than a doctrine, but anyone who has read much Chesterton knows he taught it, and continues to teach it, with powerful effect. A life lived well is a life lived in response to grace, and from gratitude flows the wildness of wonder enough for an eternity.

He was impatient with the prissy, the proper, the excessively neat. Which no doubt explains in part his affinity for Hilaire Belloc. Pearce tells the delightful story of novelist Henry James paying a visit to GKC, which is interrupted by the arrival of Hilaire Belloc, just back from tramping through Europe and in a typically raucous mood: “Henry James had a name for being subtle; but I think that situation was too subtle for him. I doubt to this day whether he, of all men, did not miss the irony of the best comedy in which he ever played a part. He left America because he loved Europe, and all that was meant by England or France; the gentry, the gallantry, the tradition of lineage and locality, the life that had been lived beneath old portraits in oak-paneled rooms. And there, on the other side of the tea-table, was Europe, was the old thing that made France and England, the posterity of the English squires and the French soldiers; ragged, unshaven, shouting for beer, shameless above all shades of poverty and wealth; sprawling, indifferent, secure. And what looked across at it was still the Puritan refinement of Boston; and the space it looked across was wider than the Atlantic.”

Chesterton and George Bernard Shaw were regular and friendly sparring partners in diverse forums, and one encounter produced this from Chesterton: “Shaw’s misunderstanding of Shakespeare arose largely from the fact that he is a Puritan, while Shakespeare was spiritually a Catholic. The former is always screwing himself up to see the truth; the latter is often content that truth is there.” Chesterton was much impressed by the thereness of things, and it had everything to do with his becoming a Catholic. Before his conversion, he wrote to an Anglican friend: “As you may possibly guess, I want to consider my position about the biggest thing of all, whether I am to be inside it or outside it. I used to think one could be an Anglo-Catholic and really inside it; but if that was (to use an excellent phrase of your own) only a Porch, I do not think I want a Porch, and certainly not a Porch standing some way from the building. A Porch looks so silly, standing all by itself in a field.”

Later, he would write his mother to explain his conversion: “I have thought about you, and all that I owe to you and my father, not only in the way of affection, but of the ideals of honor and freedom and charity and all other good things you always taught me: and I am not conscious of the smallest break or difference in those ideals; but only of a new and necessary way of fighting for them. I think . . . that the fight for the family and the free citizen and everything decent must now be waged by the one fighting form of Christianity.” Immediately after Chesterton’s reception into the Church, Belloc wrote him about his own reasons for being Catholic. The words of Belloc are, in tone and substance, surely Chestertonian: “And as to the doubt of the soul, I discover it to be false: a mood, not a conclusion. My conclusion-and that of all men who have ever once seen it — is the faith. Corporate, organized, a personality, teaching. A thing, not a theory. It.”

A Good Argument
Today such sentiments might grate against ecumenical sensibilities. As a faithful son of the Church, Chesterton, and I suppose Belloc, would have gone along with the development of doctrine at the Second Vatican Council which recognizes that, while the Catholic Church is the Church of Jesus Christ most fully and rightly ordered through time, there are many beyond its boundaries who are, whether they know it or not, “truly but imperfectly in communion” with the Catholic Church. At the same time, I expect he would be impatient with styles of ecumenism that are reduced to niceness and take the edge off “the one fighting form of Christianity.” Not that Chesterton was a quarrelsome person. On the contrary, all testify to his civility and affability in the many disputes he relished. The trouble with a quarrel, he said, is that it interrupts a good argument.

A good argument must be about truth, and ecumenism that is more about negotiating differences than about discovering the truth is not very interesting. I have no doubt that Chesterton would agree with Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, who writes that our disputing ancestors “were in reality much closer to each other when in all their disputes they still knew that they could only be servants of one truth which must be acknowledged as being as great and as pure as it has been intended for us by God.” Also, the alternatives to Catholicism that Chesterton knew were the Church of England and the Methodist chapel, anodyne forms of the faith unsuited to his spirited mind and soul. Were he an American, he might have found his fighting form of the faith in, say, the Southern Baptist Convention or Missouri Synod Lutheranism. But there the fights are about such a small and selective part of all the truths in the world. So still today it would likely be the case that Chesterton could settle for nothing less than the capacious trysting place and company of combat that is the Catholic Church.

While he said that tradition is the democracy of the dead, he did not have any use for democratic governance in the Church. The Church is about truth, and truth is necessarily hierarchical. It is a very different matter in the civil realm. There Chesterton was a great democrat, but he didn’t think much of the way democracy worked in aristocracy-ridden England. The problem, he said, is that, while the people get to vote, they don’t get to pose the questions to be voted on. If things continue as they are, “There will be less democratic value in an English election than in a Roman saturnalia of slaves. For the powerful class will choose two courses of action, both of them safe for itself, and then give the democracy the gratification of taking one course or the other. The lord will take two things so much alike that he would not mind choosing them blindfold — and then for a great jest he will allow the slaves to choose.”

As the chief voice of the Distributist League, GKC advocated, with wavering energies throughout his life, an alternative to both capitalism and socialism. He understood himself to be in line with Catholic social teaching, specifically the teaching of Leo XIII in Rerum Novarum, and tried to be definite about the kind of capitalism that must be opposed. “When I say ‘Capitalism,’ I commonly mean something that may be stated thus: ‘That economic condition in which there is a class of capitalists, roughly recognizable and relatively small, in whose possession so much of the capital is concentrated as to necessitate a very large majority of the citizens serving those capitalists for a wage.’“ He recognized that “capitalism” can mean many different things. “Lenin and Trotsky believe as much as Lloyd George and Thomas Aquinas that the economic operations of today must leave something over for the economic operations of tomorrow. And that is all that capital means in its economic sense. In that case, the word is useless. My use of it may be arbitrary, but it is not useless.”

The ideas of economic distributism were never thoroughly developed, and perhaps could not be. But he relentlessly insisted that there had to be a better way in which ordinary people could take charge of their life and property, or, in the language of contemporary Catholic social teaching, be “the artisans of their own destiny.” The impulse of distributism, one might suggest, is to work out more fully the economic implications of the doctrine of subsidiarity-or as the 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus puts it, “the subjectivity of society.” Today’s admirers of Chesterton who are also proponents of democratic capitalism tend to forgive him his economic views. In fact, those views may not be so distant as many think from what is rightly affirmed in today’s capitalism, which is notably distant from what Chesterton meant by the term.

No League of Tribes
Another and more serious obstacle to the appreciation of Chesterton is his alleged anti-Semitism. Joseph Pearce’s forthright treatment of that charge should put it to rest once and for all. Chesterton shared conventional English prejudices about Jewish influence, prejudices which today would be called anti-Semitic. This was exacerbated early on in life when a Jewish financier brought a lawsuit that entangled his family and friends in considerable unpleasantness. But, as a prominent rabbi wrote upon Chesterton’s death, “When Hitlerism came, he was one of the first to speak out with all the directness and frankness of a great and unabashed spirit. Blessing to his memory!”

Long before anyone could know the unspeakable horror to which it would lead, GKC was appalled by the barbarism of the Nazis, and particularly by their anti-Semitism. In 1933 he wrote that a measure of nationalism, understood as patriotism, can be a good thing. “But the racial spirit is a restless spirit; it does not go by frontiers but by the wandering of the blood. . . . You can have a League of Nations; but you could hardly have a League of Tribes. When the Tribe is on the march, it is apt to forget leagues — not to mention frontiers.” He was among the first to perceive the connections between racial theory, eugenics, anti-Semitism, and the tribal impulse toward Lebensraum. He did not live to see his perception confirmed by World War II and the Holocaust.

Today it is often forgotten how very respectable were eugenics and related racial theories at the beginning of the century. In 1913, Chesterton vigorously attacked the Mental Deficiency Act, which had the strong support of the Church of England. The public committee advocating its passage was headed by the archbishops of Canterbury and York. Bishop Barnes of Birmingham was a spokesman on behalf of the Christian case for eugenics, and he proposed: “Christianity seeks to create the Kingdom of God, the community of the elect. It tries to make what we may call a spiritually eugenic society. . . . When religious people realize that, in preventing the survival of the socially unfit, they are working in accordance with the plan by which God has brought humanity so far on its road, their objections to repressive action will vanish.” Chesterton recoiled with all his being from the notion of a eugenic society, spiritual or otherwise.

On these questions, too, his Catholic spirit was brought to bear. He reveled in the messiness of Catholicism. A significant difference between the Protestant and Catholic ways of being Christian, he suggested, is indicated by the fact that “the Protestant generally says, ‘I am a good Protestant,’ while the Catholic always says, ‘I am a bad Catholic.’“ Near the end of his life, he responded to a letter writer who brought a long list of charges against the Catholic Church, including its tolerance of a vast horde of criminals, prostitutes, and other disreputable types who hang on to its fringes. True enough, says Chesterton, and an interesting fact it is. “They cannot get the Church’s Sacraments or solid assurances, except by changing their whole way of life; but they do actually love the Faith that they cannot live by. . . . If you explain it by supposing that the Church, though bound to refuse them Absolution where there is not amendment, keeps in touch with them and treats their human dignity rather more sympathetically than does the world, Puritan or Pagan . . . that also probably refers to a real fact. It is one of the facts that convince me most strongly that Catholicism is what it claims to be. After two thousand years of compromises and concordats, with every sort of social system, the Catholic Church has never yet become quite respectable. He still eats and drinks with publicans and sinners.”

David Fagerberg and I were both Lutherans who later entered into full communion with the Catholic Church. Unlike Fagerberg, I was not conscious of Chesterton being a major influence in that decision, but perhaps he was by my side on the journey more than I realized. Certainly I look forward to good conversation with him in that inn at the end of the road, over a steak, a pint of ale, and a fine cigar. But, for the purposes of this preliminary reflection, let me leave it to Mr. Fagerberg: “Chesterton said saints are medicines because they are antidotes, claiming the saint restores the world to sanity by exaggerating what the world neglects. Chesterton was this author’s antidote: the one who exaggerated things which had been neglected. . . . He can feel like a walking overstatement to someone who does not need the elixir, but to someone who does, he is an exact dosage. I have not written this for the purpose that it necessarily have the same effect on anyone else, only to repay my own debt by honoring a friend.” Chesterton is a very good friend to have in the communion of sinners made saints.

2 comments

  1. I came across this article while searching for some G.K. Chesterton material. Loved reading it, and poking around in your blog just a little bit (so far.) Do I understand the title correctly, did Fr. Richard John Neuhaus write this article? If so, was if for this blog? Or did you republish it from a different source?
    Thanks in advance, and keep paying attention to the sky.


    • Yes, it is a 1999 article from First Things.



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