Posts Tagged ‘The Everlasting Man’


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.’


Reflections On The Sermon On The Mount

May 29, 2009

Here are some of my favorite commentaries on The Sermon on the Mount which is in the 5th, 6th, and 7th chapters of Matthew:

Fr. Robert Barron, From And Now I See:
The Salt of the Earth
At the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew,  Jesus tells his followers that they shall be “the salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13) Normally, we construe this saying to mean that Jesus’ disciples are to be “down to earth” or “savory,” but the image, more straightforwardly interpreted, carries a very different sense. In the ancient world, when a conquering power overran a city and wished completely to negate that city’s influence, it would eliminate the people, destroy the place, and then salt the earth so that nothing would ever grow there again.

Thus when Jesus urges his disciples to be salt for the earth, he is not trading in folksy pleasantries, rather, he is encouraging them to be forces for destruction and elimination. Filled with the power of the magna anima (the great soul of the saint), they are to be courageous and independent upsetters of the status quo, troublemakers, naysayers. They are to make sure that, in the fields of the pusilla anima (the cramped soul of the sinner), nothing more shall grow. Like Christ himself, they are to be profoundly annoying to a world constructed around sin.
Further reading selections from And Now I See are found here.

Fr. Robert Barron, From Thomas Aquinas, Spiritual Master:
“Creation Consciousness” And The Sermon Of The Mount
In our bones we feel our commonality with all things in the energy of God, and we know that this relationship is more basic and more enduring than any of the differences that separate us . It takes an enormous effort of the will and a tremendous amount of sinful cultural conditioning to knock this “creation consciousness” (that we are nothing but outflows of the divine love, nothing but ongoing gifts from our Creator) out of our hearts.

When Jesus speaks in the Sermon of the Mount of radical nonviolence, of turning the other cheek, of going the extra mile, he is not simply giving ethical suggestions. Rather…he is trying to root his listeners in a creation spirituality. I ought to offer the other cheek to my persecutor because I realize, despite the violence, a far more enduring and powerful bond between us. The turning of the cheek expresses my celebration of this commonality, and one can hope that it will shame my persecutor into a similar recognition. The “ethics” of the Sermon on the Mount is a dramatic expression of the creation mentality in and thorough provocative action; it is a playing out of the mind and heart that have risen above the corrupting influences of sin and have seen the truth of things. It is a holding up of the icon of creation to a world in forgetfulness. 

Romano Guardini, From The Lord’s Prayer
A New Order
Is this a fairy tale existence, where food is wafted to the lazy and clothing grows on trees? Or a promise that the world will lose the harshness of its realities and that it will be granted to the devout to piously put it right by their wishful thinking? … Everything hinges upon the words “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness” We are required to make the quest for the kingdom of God our first and most serious quest; to strive above all else to see that the kingdom of God comes and finds a place in our lives; to make it our first care that everything becomes as God wills it to be….if we enter into an understanding with God to care for his kingdom, then God will care in a new and creative way for us.

Life – which really, for all its vaunted rational order, cares nothing at all for man – rallies to us. Is this a miracle?…If God’s creative love is taken up by the loving solicitude and trust of the Christian, if  man’s free will is opened to it and gives it scope, then a new form of reality emerges from it. A new order originating from God comes into being, an order applied to the salvation of the new being. Life flows in his direction. He receives what he needs in the sight of God, even if it is by means of darkness and sorrow. In the measure that a person puts the quest for the kingdom of God first, “not in words but in deed and truth” will he be one with God in love. Then, by God’s Will, a new, all-embracing unity will arise.

Events will coordinate themselves around such a person (Mother Theresa), and all that happens will be from God’s love. This is the meaning of Providence….It takes hold of reality, orders it anew, and changes the world; not in fantasy, not as in a fairy tale, not by magic and witchcraft, but by the mighty operation of God’s creative love and through the hearts of those who place themselves at His disposal….

Fr. Robert Barron, The Strangest Way
Addiction And The Beatitudes
Anthony de Mello defines an attachment as anything in this world — including life itself— that we convince ourselves we cannot live without. The implication, of course, is that in Christ we can live without anything in this world, and to know that in our bones is to be detached, spiritually free. To live in the infinite power of God is to realize that we need nothing other, that we crave nothing more, that we can let go of everything else. De Mello’s attachment is very close to Augustine’s concupiscentia, or errant desire.

 For Augustine, all of us have been wired for God (“you have made us for yourself”) and therefore we are satisfied with nothing less than God (“our hearts are restless until they rest in you”). To become focused on something less than God (anything created, including our own lives) is therefore to place ourselves in spiritual danger and desperately to frustrate the will. Perhaps the best way to translate these notions of attachment and concupiscence into our contemporary jargon is by using the word “addiction.” When we attach our wills to something less than God, we automatically become addicted, and this is the case precisely because the lack of satisfaction that we necessarily experience leads to an obsessive return, a compulsive desire for more and more. If that amount of money didn’t quell my deepest desire, I must need more money; if that sexual encounter didn’t satisfy the longing of my heart, I must need another more thrilling one, etc., etc. The initial thrill — the “rush” — of money, sex, or power conduces to an obsession that finally takes away our freedom and our self-possession.

Jesus describes the overcoming of this addiction with the evocative word “blessed,” malcarios in Greek. In Luke’s version of the beatitudes, we find a pithy presentation of what the view from the center is like. First we are told “how blessed (malcarios) are you who are poor” (Luke 6:20). We notice that there is none of the softening offered by Matthew (“poor in spirit”), but a simple and straightforward statement of the blessedness of being poor. How do we interpret what seems prima facie to be a glorification of economic poverty? Let me propose the following reading: “How lucky you are if you are not addicted to material things.” One of the classic substitutes for God is material wealth, the accumulating of “things.” Like any drug, houses, cars, and property provide a “rush” when they first enter the system, but then in time, the thrill that they provide wears off, and more of the drug must be acquired. This rhythm continues inexorably and tragically until the addict is broken by it….

Luke’s beatitudes continue with “How blessed are you who weep now” (Luke 6:21). Again, we are struck by the oddness of the claim: how fortunate you are if you display the outward sign of greatest anxiety and depression. Might we translate it as follows: “How lucky you are if you are not addicted to good feelings.” We live in a culture that puts a premium on good feelings and attempts to deny or medicate depression. But feeling happy is just as much a false god as wealth or power. It is, in itself, only an emotional state, a fleeting and insubstantial psychological condition that cannot possibly satisfy the deepest yearning of the soul; yet it is sought with as much compulsive frenzy as any other drug. We feel the “rush” of pleasure and then, when the thrill fades, we try at all costs to reproduce it at a higher pitch. It is in this context that the addictive use of drugs, alcohol, and artificial stimulants, as well as the hedonistic pursuit of pleasure in sex and at the table are to be understood. The person who lives in the center, the place of detachment, escapes (fortunately enough) this trap.

Luke’s Jesus continues: “Happy are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man” (Luke 6:22). What could be stranger than this seemingly masochistic dictum? Again, some light might be shed if we translate it in terms of our hermeneutic of detachment: “How lucky you are if you are not addicted to the approval of others.” Status, attention, fame are among the most powerful and insinuating of the false gods who lure us … Jesus told his disciples: “Woe to you when all speak well of you” (Luke 6:26), and Winston Churchill said, “Never trust a man who has no enemies.” The one whom everyone loves is in spiritual distress, since the good-will of the crowd has undoubtedly become that person’s idol. As so many of the saints — and Jesus himself– witness, the path of spiritual freedom brings one almost inevitably into conflict with those who are still in chains. Those who have placed themselves in the Christ-center rest secure even as the approval of the fickle crowd waxes and wanes.

The freedom and fullness of detachment is probably no better expressed than in John of the Cross’s beautiful mantra: “To reach satisfaction in all, desire satisfaction in nothing; to come to the knowledge of all, desire the knowledge of nothing; to come to possess all, desire the possession of nothing; to arrive at being all, desire to be nothing.” This fourfold nada is not a negation but the deepest affirmation, since it is a “no” to a “no.” Desiring to possess all, desiring to be all is the nonbeing of attachment, the misery of addiction; desiring to possess nothing, desiring to be nothing is, accordingly, freedom and being. It is finally to see the world as it is, and not through the distorting lens of cupidity and egotism. It is the view from the center.

Fr. Barron makes a video presentation here:

G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man
Jesus And The Parable Of The Lilies Of The Field
For various reasons we have come nowadays to venerate children, perhaps partly because we envy children for still doing what men used to do; such as play simple games and enjoy fairy-tales. Over and above this, however, there is a great deal of real and subtle psychology in our appreciation of childhood; but if we turn it into a modern discovery, we must once more admit that the historical Jesus of Nazareth had already discovered it two thousand years too soon.

There was certainly nothing in the world around him to help him to the discovery. Here Christ was indeed human; but more human than a human being was then likely to be. Peter Pan does not belong to the world of Pan but the world of Peter. …Even in the matter of mere literary style, if we suppose ourselves thus sufficiently detached to look at it in that light, there is a curious quality to which no critic seems to have done justice. It had among other things a singular air of piling tower upon tower by the use of the a fortiori; making a pagoda of degrees like the seven heavens. I have already noted that almost inverted imaginative vision which pictured the impossible penance of the Cities of the Plain.

There is perhaps nothing so perfect in all language or literature as the use of these three degrees in the parable of the lilies of the field; in which he seems first to take one small flower in his hand and note its simplicity and even its impotence; then suddenly expands it in flamboyant colors into all the palaces and pavilions full of a great name in national legend and national glory; and then, by yet a third overturn, shrivels into nothing once more with a gesture as if flinging it away `and if God so clothes the grass that today is and tomorrow is cast into the oven– how much more’ It is like the building of a good Babel tower by white magic in a moment and in the movement of a hand; a tower heaved suddenly up to heaven on the top of which can be seen afar off, higher than we had fancied possible, the figure of man; lifted by three infinities above all other things, on a starry ladder of light logic and swift imagination.

Merely in a literary sense it would be more of a masterpiece than most of the masterpieces in the libraries; yet it seems to have been uttered almost at random while a man might pull a flower. But merely in a literary sense also, this use of the comparative in several degrees has about it a quality which seems to me to hint of much higher things than the modern suggestion of the simple teaching of pastoral or communal ethics. There is nothing that really indicates a subtle and in the true sense a superior mind so much as this power of comparing a lower thing with a higher and yet that higher with a higher still; of thinking on three planes at once. There is nothing that wants the rarest sort of wisdom so much as to see, let us say, that the citizen is higher than the slave and yet that the soul is infinitely higher than the citizen or the city.

It is not by any means a faculty that commonly belongs to these simplifiers of the Gospel; those who insist on what they call a simple morality and others call a sentimental morality. It is not at all covered by those who are content to tell everybody to remain at peace. On the contrary, there is a very striking example of it in the apparent inconsistency between Christ’s sayings about peace and about a sword. It is precisely this power which perceives that while a good peace is better than a good war, even a good war is better than a bad peace. These far-flung comparisons are nowhere so common as in the Gospels; and to me they suggest something very vast. So a thing solitary and solid, with the added dimension of depth or height, might tower over the flat creatures living only on a plane. …

This quality of something that can only be called subtle and superior, something that is capable of long views and even of double meanings, is not noted here merely as a counterblast to the commonplace exaggerations of amiability and mild idealism. It is also to be noted in connection with the more tremendous truth touched upon at the end of the last chapter. For this is the very last character that commonly goes with mere megalomania; especially such steep and staggering megalomania as might be involved in that claim.

This quality that can only be called intellectual distinction is not, of course, an evidence of divinity. But it is an evidence of a probable distaste for vulgar and vainglorious claims to divinity. A man of that sort, if he were only a man, would be the last man in the world to suffer from that intoxication by one notion from nowhere in particular, which is the mark of the self-deluding sensationalist in religion .

Nor is it even avoided by denying that Christ did make this claim. Of no such man as that, of no other prophet or philosopher of the same intellectual order, would it be even possible to pretend that he had made it. Even if the Church had mistaken his meaning, it would still be true that no other historical tradition except the Church had ever even made the same mistake. Mohammedans did not misunderstand Mahomet and suppose he was Allah. Jews did not misinterpret Moses and identify him with Jehovah. Why was this claim alone exaggerated unless this alone was made. Even if Christianity was one vast universal blunder, it is still a blunder as solitary as the Incarnation. …

If Christ was simply a human character, he really was a highly complex and contradictory human character. For he combined exactly the two things that lie at the two extremes of human variation. He was exactly what the man with a delusion never is; he was wise; he was a good judge. What he said was always unexpected; but it was always unexpectedly magnanimous and often unexpectedly moderate. Take a thing like the point of the parable of the tares and the wheat. It has the quality that unites sanity and subtlety. It has not the simplicity of a madman. It has not even the simplicity of a fanatic. It might be uttered by a philosopher a hundred years old, at the end of a century of Utopias. Nothing could be less like this quality of seeing beyond and all round obvious things, than the condition of the egomaniac with the one sensitive spot on his brain.

I really do not see how these two characters could be convincingly combined, except in the astonishing way in which the creed combines them. For until we reach the full acceptance of the fact as a fact, however marvelous, all mere approximations to it are actually further and further away from it. Divinity is great enough to be divine; it is great enough to call itself divine. But as humanity grows greater, it grows less and less likely to do so.

God is God, as the Moslems say; but a great man knows he is not God, and the greater he is the better he knows it. That is the paradox; everything that is merely approaching to that point is merely receding from it. Socrates, the wisest man, knows that he knows nothing. A lunatic may think he is omniscience, and a fool may talk as if he were omniscient. But Christ is in another sense omniscient if he not only knows, but knows that he knows.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 260 other followers