As G.K. Chesterton was one of the greatest 20th-century apologists for Christianity, it is only natural that he should have many keen admirers in the overwhelmingly Christian United States. For Chesterton does not merely defend his faith; in an age when so many intellectuals pique themselves on being too sophisticated for religion, he makes Christianity appear that most un-Christian thing, the natural choice of a superior mind.
It may even be that some of his writings are too brilliant. To read Orthodoxy, published in 1908 and the termination point of William Oddie’s study, is to marvel at a virtuoso display of paradoxical argument. Yet while each separate page compels admiration and assent, the workaday reader may close the book with the feeling that he has been as much dazzled as enlightened.
Perhaps Chesterton is best taken in short doses. Notwithstanding his novels and the Father Brown stories, notwithstanding his talent for verse, he remained first and foremost a journalist, albeit one of the cleverest that ever lived. Much of his output was dictated to meet an imminent deadline. This astonishing gift for extemporizing also made Chesterton one of the greatest debaters of the age. He won not merely the admiration but, through his transparent goodness and fair-mindedness, the love of opponents such as Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells. Would that he were living in the television age to demonstrate the almost forgotten truism that atheists and agnostics possess no monopoly on wisdom.
Recently, the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth has provoked a long litany of solemn secular worship, loaded with assumptions about the death of God. Chesterton never denied the theory of evolution; he refused, however, to see in it the ruin of religion. “Nobody,” he declared, “can imagine how nothing could turn into something. Nobody can get an inch nearer to it by explaining that something could turn into something else. It is really far more logical to start by saying, ‘In the beginning God created heaven and earth,’ even if you only mean ‘In the beginning some unthinkable power began some unthinkable process.’”
With his flair for drawing unlikely parallels, Chesterton observed that the principles of faith might be regarded in much the same light as those of evolution. Both, he observed, are hypotheses that, once tested, become a means of perception to make sense of what had previously been obscure. Modern rationalists, however, by refusing to try faith, deprive themselves of its benefits.
Oddie has written the first systematic study of the way in which Chesterton’s religious thought evolved through his thirties. While affording a great deal more biographical fact than Chesterton vouchsafed in his wonderfully imaginative books on (among others) St. Francis of Assisi, St. Thomas Aquinas, Robert Browning, and Charles Dickens, Oddie also is essentially concerned with ideas. For those seeking a more conventional, though no less reverential, study of Chesterton’s life as a whole, there remains Maisie Ward’s biography, published in 1944.
Oddie stresses how fortunate Chesterton was in his parents and his school. His father, Edward Chesterton, a retired estate agent in Kensington, was a delightful and talented man, well qualified to inspire his two sons with enthusiasm for literature and art and eager to develop their talents. Even though Edward Chesterton was rather more a liberal humanist than a Christian, his quirky benevolence left his son with an inextinguishable sense of wonder and fostered what GKC called “the permanent anticipation of surprise.” This view of life as a glorious miracle that perpetually renews itself remained the foundation of Chesterton’s religion for the remainder of his days.
At an early age, too, the boy fell upon George MacDonald’s tale The Prince and the Goblin, a parable of faith and belief in which the evil goblins threaten every kind of harm, while none but the fairy grandmother can guarantee relief. She is accessible, however, only to those who are ready to believe in her, and can be reached only by those who follow an invisible thread.
The intuitions conferred by Chesterton’s childhood might well have been destroyed by the philistinism of a conventional 19th-century public school. He was lucky enough, however, to attend St. Paul’s during a period when, thanks to an exceptionally civilized headmaster, F.W. Walker, the cult of heartiness lagged well behind the promotion of intellect. Though Chesterton never bestirred himself in class, he carried off the poetry prize with a poem on St. Francis Xavier. “Six foot of genius,” the headmaster told Mrs. Chesterton, “cherish him, cherish him.”
At this stage, the boy’s religious instincts remained resolutely undogmatic and anti-papal. He was, however, curiously attached to stories of medieval piety, and, even more curiously, given his background, deeply attracted to the Virgin Mary. In politics, though, liberalism still reigned in his mind: he was anti-monarchical, anti-clerical, and anti-imperialist. Meanwhile, Chesterton’s talents and geniality had made him the center of an admiring circle. At St. Paul’s he founded the Junior Debating Society and its magazine, The Debater, in both of which he performed with a precocity unimaginable in the 21st century.
At first, though, Chesterton seemed bent on becoming an artist rather than a writer. At the Slade School of Art, he underwent the only psychological crisis of his life. The 1890s were the zenith of the aesthetic movement that trumpeted the philosophy of “Art for Art’s sake,” free of any moral underpinning. This was anathema to Chesterton who, with his feet very firmly on the ground, disliked even Impressionism, which seemed to him a dangerous flight from reality. It lends itself, he wrote, “to the metaphysical suggestion that things only exist as we perceive them, or that things do not exist at all.”
If he reprobated Impressionism, he recoiled in loathing from the exhibitionist immoralism of Oscar Wilde, who not only insisted that there was no place for ethics in art, but implied that the principal duty in life was self-indulgence. Amateur psychologists have speculated that the ferocity of Chesterton’s reaction suggests a man in flight from his own desires. There is, however, not the least shred of evidence to support this theory. Indeed, one of Oddie’s best passages is that in which he attacks the impertinent suggestion that Chesterton’s marriage suffered from some sexual malfunction.
Chesterton did, however, divine that the fruits of unguarded hedonism are pessimism and despair. “There are folks more tired of pleasure than you are tired of pain,” he would warn in his poem “The Aristocrat.” Life remained a lark only to those who never allowed the optimism, innocence, and wonder of childhood to die.
That implied a religion. Chesterton soon discovered, though, that self-generated creeds risk degenerating into disguised forms of selfishness. “Of all conceivable forms of enlightenment,” he wrote in Orthodoxy, “the most horrible is the worship of the god within. … That Jones should worship the god within him turns out ultimately to mean that Jones shall worship Jones.” By the age of 30, Oddie shows, Chesterton understood that the best hope of preserving joy and optimism lay in subscription to fixed and external dogma. “Catholic doctrine and discipline may be walls,” he admitted in Orthodoxy, “but they are the walls of the playground. Christianity is the only frame which has preserved the pleasure of paganism.”
Oddie, a natural communicator with an impressive mastery of the sources, relates Chesterton’s religious odyssey with fluency. Sometimes, perhaps, there is too much ease in the writing: the text contains repetitions that suggest inadequate revision. A Protestant, moreover, might be inclined to think that the story is told from too Roman a perspective. After all, Chesterton was still an Anglican when he published Orthodoxy in 1908 and remained one until 1922. Even after his conversion, while totally secure in his new faith, he seemed to harbor more reservations about it than trouble Oddie.
“It may be,” Chesterton wrote, “that I shall never again have such absolute assurance that [Catholic doctrine] is true as I had when I made my last effort to deny it.” As an Anglican he had taken communion infrequently, and he did not alter this practice after his conversion. Furthermore, he was never the kind of Catholic who believes either that the Church can do no wrong or that other sects and religions can do no right. While he regarded the Reformation as the most disastrous turning point in English history, he was also clear that the reform of medieval Christianity had been urgently required. Furthermore, Chesterton never wholly reconciled himself to the foreignness of Rome. “By every instinct of my being, by every tradition of my blood” he declared, “I should prefer English liberty to Latin discipline.” Equally, he showed no eagerness to visit Lourdes and no enthusiasm for the cult surrounding St. Thérèse de Lisieux. He also continued to admire the Anglican Book of Common Prayer—so much that he defined it as “the last Catholic book.”
To be fair, these are matters that lie largely outside the scope of Oddie’s present work. It is to be hoped he will address them in a succeeding volume. Until that time, however, it is possible to wonder whether Chesterton was not a more peculiar, complex, and—underneath the bluff confidence—conflicted figure than the one who, in Oddie’s account, makes his way so clear-sightedly towards the One True Church.
Indeed, Oddie makes Chesterton’s progress seem so inevitable that we are in danger of losing sight of the mystery of religious faith. Is the capacity to believe as innate as a talent for music or sport? Is it granted as a reward for prayer and virtue? Is it, finally, an act of will? Whatever, Chesterton clearly received the gift to a supreme degree. Most people, by contrast, experience only vague and evanescent hints of the numinous, while some, such as Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, are completely bereft of the religious instinct, rather as the tone deaf might discern merely a meaningless jangle in the “St. Matthew Passion” or the “Goldberg Variations.” The tone deaf, however, would have to be crazed with arrogance if they therefore deduced that Johann Sebastian Bach was a fraud.
With Chesterton’s religious writings so difficult to rebut intellectually, modern commentators have discovered with relief that he might be taxed with anti-Semitism. This charge was recently revived by Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker of July 7, 2008. The accusation could more justly be made against Chesterton’s younger brother Cecil or against Hilaire Belloc. Guilt, however, cannot be established purely by association. As soon as Cecil began to speak, GKC recalled, they began to argue, and thereafter they never left off. As for Belloc, Oddie shows how limited an influence he exercised over Chesterton.
Oddie also points out that many of Chesterton’s early friends were Jewish and that persecution of the Jews aroused his fury from the beginning to the end of his life. He was, in fact, an early Zionist, who referred to the Jews as “a gifted and historic race” and “a sensitive and highly civilised people.” He wrote, “the world owes God to the Jews” and “the world’s destiny would have been distorted still more fatally if monotheism had failed in the Mosaic tradition.” Though Chesterton died in 1936, he had been one of the first Englishmen to discern the danger that Hitler posed to German Jews, even suggesting that he would “probably die” in their defense. Measured against the anti-Semitic undercurrents of English society at that period, this appears an admirable record.
Yet Chesterton did loathe the corrupt rich, even when they were Jews. There can be no denying that his mind was warped by the Marconi scandal of 1912, in which the families of Samuel and Isaacs were implicated, and in the upshot of which his brother Cecil was found guilty of criminal libel. Goaded by a mix of family loyalty and disgust at plutocratic sharp practice, Gilbert Chesterton lost his sense of proportion and treated this smelly little saga of political crookery as though it were one of the turning points in English history. “It is the fashion to divide recent history into pre-War and post-War conditions,” he wrote in his Autobiography (1936). “I believe it is almost as essential to divide them into pre-Marconi and post-Marconi days.” Even that statement, though, seems rather less dotty in the light of recent banking scandals.
Chesterton’s critics also single out a passage in The New Jerusalem (1920), in which he insisted that Jews, being of foreign extraction, should resist adopting the trappings of English gentlemen. This barb, of course, was directed as much against English gentlemen as against Jews. Chesterton went on, though, to allow his whimsy too free a rein. Let Jews serve in any post in the land, he suggested, “but let there be one single clause bill [enacting] that every Jew should be dressed as an Arab.” It was not to be expected that this “quaint” image, as Chesterton described it, should escape the censure of bien pensants in this comfortable post-Holocaust era, when use of correct words has become so much more important than doing the right thing. A lifetime of benediction and brilliance, however, is not to be annulled by the occasional frivolous phrase.
Robert Gray is author of several books, including Cardinal Manning.
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