G.K. Chesterton, Theologian (Pt II)

Having said something about Chesterton, in the first part of this review, it is time to turn to the book. It is arranged in nine chapters with a conclusion: first, Chesterton’s life, then his setting in the Edwardian period, then seven chapters on various theological themes. It is impressive that Nichols commands so deep an understanding of Chesterton’s thought that he can select the themes, and illustrate them with material from the entirety of Chesterton’s career, although certain chapters are, by their nature, centred on certain of his books.

I will, on the contrary, work through the book, although I do not pretend that I have referred to all the significant passages in it. So I commence with the introduction. Nichols correctly states that Chesterton is not often thought of as a theologian, and yet, he was acutely aware that, without a common theory, people will necessarily quarrel (xi). If we have any chance of understanding one another, we must have at least some shared principles. As Nichols says, one cannot reason with someone who denies the validity of reason (xii). As we will read later on, to speak of “progress” when we have no “definite creed and a cast-iron code of morals” (36).

Reason is indispensable, for it is not enough to say that the mysteries of God and creation are unknowable, for “we do not know enough about the unknown to know that it is unknowable” (xiii). We have, therefore, to use our reasons. In an absolutely critical point, which I have made use of in a forthcoming academic essay, Chesterton points out that we can believe the impossible but not the improbable. That is, the impossible deals with things we don’t understand. But the improbable deals with things we do understand, and so we can have an opinion. So, I will update the example Nichols gives: if someone told you that the bishop was introduced to the Queen, slapped him on the back, and offered her a cigar, you would not believe him – it is improbable and you know that it would not happen, although it is possible (xiii). I am sure that if you apply this to your own life you will find examples.

The introduction also comes to Chesterton’s love of England: he loved it because it was England, and he did not think he could not love other countries, but because they were different, not because they were the same (xv). Nations at least have a “coherent internal culture,” but empires destroy the roots of both the rulers and the ruled (17 – a prophetic comment in the light of English history). Chesterton also warned about those who love Christianity for its art: they set up and worship “all the arts and trophies of the Catholic Church as a rival to the Church itself” (xvii). These were Chesterton’s two great loves under God: the Church and England.

The first chapter is an overview of Chesterton’s life. I had forgotten that Chesterton had once been interested in spiritualism (evoking the spirits of the dead), but he grew out of this quickly (6 and 9). He was early, and always, against socialism. In a witty line, Chesterton wrote that socialism was not the choice of the working people, but would be foisted upon them by “decorative artists and Oxford dons, and journalists, and Countesses on the spree” (14). However, Chesterton was not an unthinking defender of the status quo: he was a clear-minded critic of capitalism, and favoured a policy called “Distributism.” The point about Distributism, as Nichols says later in the book, was to safeguard the liberty of the individual and family by making sure that there was wide private property and ownership of the means of production (177).

One of the popular movements of his time was pacifism, the belief that peace is so important one should not go to war. Chesterton was too wise to fall for this: what is the point of being enthusiastic for peace if one does not pledge to defend the peace when it is threatened? (18-19)

Early in this chapter, Nichols mentions what will be a recurring theme in Chesterton’s thought: “the wild joy of looking upon the world once more (as if) for the first time” (21). I think Chesterton overused the word “wild,” but it certainly fits in here. Nichols soon returns to this: “my first glimpse of the glorious gift of the senses; and the sensational experience of sensation …” (27). This chapter ends with a magnificent anecdote. In the front of a book he was given, there was a question: “What is the duty of man?” Next to it Chesterton wrote his answer: “To love God mystically and his neighbour as himself” (28). That is magnificent.

Chapter 2 deals with the Edwardian Cultural Crisis. Edward VII was King of England between 1901 and 1910. That was an age, said Chesterton, in which people were so tolerant, they could not discuss religion in polite society. At least in the time of the Inquisition, the orthodox could discuss religion. It had a freedom we lack now. But it is important that we be able to have conversations about religion because “the most practical and important thing about a man is still his view of the universe” (32). In a 1930 essay, he wrote: “Religion is the sense of ultimate reality, of whatever meaning a man finds in his own existence, or the existence of anything else” (32 n.87).

Because of the lack of religion in modern conversation, modern ethics lacks a satisfactory account of “how a human being reaches his full flourishing” (34), a point which is just as true now as it was then. The same is true of progress, as we have noted, but unless we have a “fixed standard, it is not possible to make a judgment as to whether value is increasing or decreasing, whether there is a progress or regress in human affairs” (36). The problem with being a “progressive” is that one keeps searching for something to change, and knockdown (42). As Nichols summarises this chapter: “Neither things nor standards are self-explanatory. They require grounding, and the name of the ground is “God.” (54)

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