G.K. Chesterton, Theologian, Pt 4 (Paradox)

The fourth chapter of Aidan Nichols’ G.K. Chesterton, Theologian is headed “The Role of Paradox.” Now, the word “paradox” comes from the Greek paradoxos, meaning “contrary to expectation, incredible.” However, in English, it came to mean “a statement that may be true but seems contradictory (especially at first hearing).” So, a paradox would be “less is more,” which although it seems contradictory, can be interpreted to mean that when something is laid on too thick it loses its appeal and value, or that a colour can be so predominant that it does not have the effect that a little bit of it would have, e.g. bright red eyes shining out of the night, are more striking than the same eyes when standing against a red curtain. G.K. Chesterton was known for his abundant use of paradoxes: he used them so often that they often lost their effect. If he was speaking about height, for example, you expected him to write something like “no one is as tall as a short man.”

Having said that, I do not think that Nichols defines “paradox” at all clearly, and his early examples of Chesterton’s paradox are not always happy ones. (87-89) However, he soon recovers from this false start, when he offers this wonderful comment on Chesterton: “Paradox has been defined as truth standing on her head to attract attention. Mr Chesterton makes truth cut her throat to attract attention.” (89) Except that this image is a metaphor, not a description, it is quite sharp (no pun intended.)

Nichols draws on a French study which makes the significant point that Our Lord Himself used paradox: e.g. when He said that the first would be last, and the last first; and that those who seek to save their lives would lose it … etc. Now, it is of course significant that Our Lord used a few of these, and they were put to great effect: we see at once that he meant that those who were proud of their position on earth would not enter the Kingdom, but the humble would; and that those who were so afraid for their lives that they denied Him and His Gospel would lose their souls, but those who gave their lives to Him would gain eternal life. (90-91) This is not Nichols’ point, and I find he loses his way.

It is right, however, to say that when Chesterton uses paradox he “aims at … what Father Brown … calls “that strange light of surprise in which we see for the first time things we have known all along”.” He has some other lines of enquiry, but I think this is truest to how Chesterton saw his work as a writer: to show us the reality and significance of what was beneath our noses the whole time, to awaken the sense of wonder which animates not only our minds but also our spirits.

Some of Chesterton’s paradoxes are quite beautiful, and illustrate this “awakening to wonder,” as when he writes that Saint Francis of Assis “not only appreciates everything but (also) the nothingness of which everything was made.” (96) That is, he was aware of the graciousness of the divine act of creation. So, too, in speaking of humanity after the Fall, he wrote: “Whatever I am, I am not myself.” (96) That is, we do actually feel that somewhere deep inside we are not as we were meant to be, as we most profoundly wish to be. As Nichols says, in a fine paradox: “The abnormal is now the norm.” (96) So too, “only the supernatural can now guard the natural,” (97) for without acknowledging the divine design of creation, the world is only what it is by chance, and there is no reason why we should not treat human nature as totally plastic, so that men can be women and vice versa, and this, as we see today, has the result that even terms like “male” and “female” start to lose their meaning.

Likewise, Charity is “pardoning unpardonable acts, or loving unlovable people.” (98) The acts are unpardonable, and the people unlovable without the miraculous assistance of grace. As with the Lord’s paradoxes, we have to take one half of the paradox as speaking of the natural, and the other half as pointing to the natural: that is, the paradox makes us seek for the higher level in order to be able to solve the riddle. When he says that man is both very little and very great (105), he is referring to our passing bodies on the one hand, and the image of God in our souls, on the other.

When Chesterton remarks that Our Lord filled the heavens, and yet appeared as a man (100), he is echoing, knowingly or not, a paradox which was the literary basis for some of the most striking poetry of St Ephrem. I shall close here not with that passage, but with the close of the first of Ephrem’s Hymns on the Nativity:

The Lord of Natures was today transformed contrary to His nature;

it is not too difficult for us also to overthrow our evil will.

Bound is the body by its nature,

for it cannot grow larger or smaller.

But powerful is the will, for it may grow to all sizes.

Today the deity imprinted itself on humanity,

so that humanity might also be cut into the seal of Deity. (97-99)

This, of course, is based on typology. God lays down a pattern, and what seems impossible is in fact feasible because we can follow that pattern. What the Lord did serves as the form of our own striving: because He walked the path, we can too, with His grace. The last two lines are echoed in the Maronite liturgy, when just before the Great Elevation, the priest says the prayer: “You have united, O Lord, your divinity.” The Syriac vocabulary of this passage, the reference to the Tb3or “seal” is found throughout the Maronite anaphoras.

And here, I think, we see the highest use of paradox: it can free us from closed categories, it can force the mind to either give up or break through to the higher truth which makes possible a vision in which contraries are reconciled. At his very best, Chesterton also used paradox to that effect. This alone, his successful use, or should I say his sometimes successful use of paradox would make him one of the more sparkling Catholic writers in the English language of the twentieth century.


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