Chesterton as Theologian: Seventh and Final Part

Chapter 7 of Fr Aidan Nichols’ excellent book G.K. Chesterton: Theologian is headed “Chesterton’s Christology.” If this seems to me to be the weakest chapter, it is because where Chesterton was weakest in his meditations on Christianity. He never set out a sustained treatment of Christ, let alone a systematic one. Thus, there is little to report but a few quotes from here and there. We do not learn much of any importance until we come the Atonement. Nichols here refers to a Chesterton novel which I have never read, Four Faultless Felons. There, the son of an “exploitative industrialist” goes about leaving money and jewels in people’s pockets in order to atone for the sins of his father. Nichols says that this is Chesterton’s answer to the old question: why did God become man? In Nichols’ summary of Chesterton:

It was to expiate human evil by an act so utterly superfluous in the unnecessarily superabundant character of its overfulfilment of the demands of justice that mercy it expressed redeemed the world, righted the balance. (p.148)

If the son is meant to be like the Son, the analogy is rather poor: in the second case, it is not the Father who sinned. And I cannot see how the demands of justice are met by the act in question: although Nichols showers superlative adjectives like confetti, it seems to me what it comes down to is not so much a righting of the balance as an ignoring of the imbalance. The sacrifice of Christ has to have been a real sacrifice, a real suffering, not a distribution of gifts and gems, otherwise I cannot see the point. Something real was done in the Atonement, but there is an element of mystery in exactly how. I think that is why St John, the greatest mystic in Christian history, never attempted to even deal with this in his Gospel.

I think that Chesterton is most effective when he is being poetic: on Easter night, an old world died, and the world of Easter morning was “the first day of a new creation.” (p.156) That seems true: it is the feeling many of us have had, and in that respect, the lengthy period of Lent, with the intensity of the Week of Suffering (Holy Week) does indeed bring something of that sense of wonder and a fresh beginning in joy.

Chesterton was more successful, in my opinion, as an ethicist: chapter 8. Nichols states that Chesterton’s view was that: “Authentic culture has a moral structure, the character of which can be thought through, in the first place, by reference to human nature itself.” (p.161) Nichols states that A.R. Orage, a most underrated figure in the history of British thought, had been converted from his Nietzsche-influenced enthusiasm for Superman, by accepting Chesterton’s thesis about morals: and Orage did publish some of Chesterton’s writing. Nichols quotes Orage as having written, in Chesterton-like fashion:

Starting from a false conception of the nature of man, the mind continually sees everything in a false light. Its whole object is to become something that it really is not and can never be … with human nature undefined, nothing else is definable. (p.162)

So, what can we say about human nature? Of course, the entire conversation to which Chesterton and Orage were contributing was in the shadow of the 19th century theory of evolution and the ideas of natural and sexual selection which went with it. Nichols lays the stress not on that but on Vatican I, and the teaching that human reason can attain to a true understanding of the natural law, but that the human appetite and will have been wounded by Original Sin. (p.163) What revelation can show us, which the human mind can never reach unaided by it, is that: “all human beings, without any exception whatever, are specially made, were specially shaped and pointed like shining arrows, for the end of hitting the mark of Beatitude …” (p.164) by which Chesterton means being united with God through the Beatific Vision in heaven.

This being so, then we now know the most fundamental and important fact possible about human nature, that we are made to aim at holiness, at union with God in heaven.

Chesterton also made the important point that society had been living on its Christian heritage in the sense that its ethics and principles had been taken from Christianity, but that this could not last forever. (p.165) Even more than in Chesterton’s own day, we have seen society depart so far from its Christian moorings that it is losing its way in an anarchic sea of relativism and the dictatorship of fashionable dogmas.

This then brings us to what we should do. The answer, of course, is to practise virtue. The virtues, Chesterton, understood, are not just a collection of good ideas, but they form “a pattern, an ordered totality” (Nichols’ phrase, p.165). And that pattern has an integrity which is maintained within Christianity, but lost without it. (pp.165-166) And one virtue, removed from the others, may wreck much damage (pp.169-170), a fact we also see in the contemporary world where certain ideas, with elements of good in themselves, are pushed so far that they produce a dictatorship of non-Christian moralities. As Chesterton said, even pity can often be untruthful, if not balanced by all the other virtues. (p.170)

When he treats of the virtues, Chesterton proves to be both traditional and innovative. This is shown in his love of the past (what Nichols awkwardly calls “arcaiophilia” or “love of the past.”) This is understood as respecting the many examples of human goodness found in the past, not just individual human goodness but contemplating the way the silent masses lived. (p.172) I think there is something quite profound here: a person who has this respect for the past sees himself in a chain which includes his ancestors and the world they lived in. It anchors us, and it gives us a perspective on ourselves. It attributes value to the world we live in, but not an absolute value: it values all ages equally for the sake of the people who lived.

Fraternity, Justice, Domesticity, and love of what is one’s own were also seen as key virtues (pp.173-178). I looked for clear explanations of the last two, and wherein their value lay, but I would not say it was obvious to me why they were virtues. Nichols has done a great job in synthesising so much diverse material but especially here, he seems to be so keen to trot out all his culled quotes that he gets lost amongst them, and the more important thesis is obscured.

The last chapter, the ninth, is on “Chesterton and the Church.” Here we learn that Chesterton was worried by the “fossilisation” of modern Protestant groups, meaning that they retained the form of a Christian church community, but did not have the reality. He mentions the modernism in the Anglican Church, and the German-Christianity movement (the Deutsche Christ). (pp.195-197) The view Chesterton would take of modern Catholicism is shown by the fact that he abhorred the decision of the Anglicans to allow artificial birth control in 1930, and allowing remarriage of divorcees. (p.197) He disapproved of the changing of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. (p.198)

When one considers what Chesterton said about love of the past as a virtue, it is clear that the modern position which best corresponds to Chesterton’s is not liberalism, not even conservativism, but traditionalism.

And that is a good place to end this review.

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