Aidan Nichols OP
Preface . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . vii Introduction . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ix 1. An Overview of Chesterton’s Life . . . . . . . . . . . 3 2. Chesterton and the Edwardian Cultural Crisis . . . . 29 3. The Discovery of Metaphysical Realism. . . . . . . . 57 4. The Role of Paradox . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 89 5. The God of Joy . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 109 6. Man in the Image of God. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 121 7. Chesterton’s Christology . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 143 8. Chesterton as Theological Ethicist . . . . . . . . . 163 9. Chesterton and the Church . . . . . . . . . . . . . 185 Bibliography . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 207 Biographical Note: Aidan Nichols, O.P. . . . . . . . . 211
Fr. Aidan Nichols, O.P., of Blackfriars, Cambridge, is a lecturer in Cambridge niversity and the most prolific writer of theology in the English language. He has published on countless topics, especially in systematic, sacramental, and ecumenical theology, and was awarded the title Sacrae Theologiae Magister by the Dominican order in 2003. His books include important studies of St. Thomas Aquinas; modern thinkers, including Hans Urs von Balthasar; and the theology of Pope Benedict XVI. He has written on the liturgical “reform of the reform” and on “re-energising the Church in Culture,” as well as on the arts and iconography. The present book is based on a series of lectures given as the John Paul II Memorial Lecturer at the University of Oxford — the first Catholic Lectureship created in the university since the Reformation.
This study has a straightforward form. The book falls, in effect, into two halves. The first opens by offering an overview of Chesterton’s life, an overview that already identifies some salient intellectual themes. Chapter 2, on the Edwardian writers who were his earliest controversial opponents, chiefly explores materials found in his first major work, Heretics. Chapter 3 centres on Orthodoxy, which Chesterton intended to be read with Heretics in one’s other hand,z though it also ranges more widely in detailing Chesterton’s “discovery of metaphysical realism,” his version of Catholic Christianity’s philosophia perennis. Chapter 4 investigates the most distinctive of Chesterton’s imaginative and argumentative strategies, the paradox.
Then in the second half of this enquiry, I consider five theological themes: Chesterton’s
argument for the existence of God, his theological anthropology, his Christology, his moral theology, and his ecclesiology
— or, more widely, his overall sense of the Catholic Church and her faith. Alison Milbank’s study of Chesterton
and Tolkien as theologians reached me too late for me to profit from it in the present study. I am delighted to
see, however, that she looks in this direction for light. I hope that, in the wake of her more ambitious work,
this small book will help to encourage theological interest in Chesterton, and indeed, the interest of Chestertonians
Aidan Nichols, O. P.
Chesterton considered this self-evident, since “people left without any common theory, or attempt at a theory, will be able to quarrel about absolutely anything whatever; including all the things on which men have hitherto agreed.”2 Modern thinkers can and do take up ultimate positions which all past theologians would have termed “anarchical and abnormal.” It is hard to dislodge these positions precisely because they are ultimate: “They are out of sight and hearing, for the purpose of anything so sociable as a quarrel. Men do not agree enough to disagree.”3 How, for example, can one reason with someone who denies the validity of reason? Or what is the point of proving unjust someone who does not believe in justice? “It is idle to offer ocular demonstration to the really consistent sceptic, who cannot believe his eyes.”4
So winning a statement should not go without its theological reward.
Chesterton’s Theological Help
That is one reason for writing this book. Moreover, Chesterton has not only praised theologians; he has helped them. In the face of an agnosticism that has set its face against Christianity, he is attractive, indeed persuasive. As he put it with characteristic winningness in his study of William Blake:
And since Chesterton was never afraid of risk-taking with his readership, he would go further:
Should we simply say, then, asks Chesterton, that Blake was mad?
In “The Curse of the Golden Cross,” Father Brown is made to declare, “I can believe the impossible, but not the improbable.” The Byronic young American Paul T. Tarrant asks, “That’s what you call a paradox, isn’t it?”
Chesterton may not have considered himself a theologian. But he knew that theology was thought applied to religion, and as Stratford Caldecott remarks, “Very few have applied thought to religion as effectively as he.”9
Chesterton and the English Contribution to Catholicity
Another reason, and a more autobiographical one for writing this book, is bound up with my own most recent excuse for returning to Chesterton. In a recent book, I selected him as one of half a dozen or so “sages” or “critics of the culture” who might help to relaunch the mission of a Christian intelligentsia in contemporary English society. In The Realm: An Unfashionable Essay on the Conversion of England, I confessed my admiration for Chesterton’s approach to apologetics: how Christianity satisfies at one and the same time our deep conviction that we are at home in the world — and yet do not really belong to it.10 I suggested that Orthodoxy remains for the English the best introduction to Gospel religion.11
Chesterton also has much to offer the wider cause of reconstructing English identity, since his prescription in the 1920s is as pertinent now as it was then: “What is wanted for the cause of England today is an Englishman with enough imagination to love his country from the outside as well as the inside.”12
Chesterton disliked homogenization. “Nations can love each other as men and women love each other, not because they are alike but because they are different.”13 He wanted a cultural-theological vindication of “the spirit of England”: “to make England attractive as a nationality, and even as a small nationality.”14 I am inclined to trust his judgments owing to his sympathy with culture both low and high, and to the assurance and congeniality with which he moved among the classics of the English literary canon. Let us add, too, in the latter connection, his generosity of spirit, as in this encomium on Thomas Hardy:
If England can make any specific contribution to catholicity, it is probably along the lines of the literary expression of humaneness. Such humaneness of spirit has its foundation in the enduring good sense of a post-lapsarian humanity that, in the formulations of Trent over against the Reformers, may be wounded, but is not for that reason a “dead duck.” There is something living here on which grace can build. Chesterton praised the “richness and humanity of the unconscious tradition” of the age into which he was born, despite the “cheapness and narrowness of its conscious formulae.” 16 He saw in that dull monarch George V, who occupied the throne for the last quarter-century of Chesterton’s adult life, someone who represented the “protection of the patient and unrecorded virtues of mankind.”17 Chesterton did not rule out the possibility “in the incalculable time before us” that:
In England today, among people of sensibility, the chief substitutes for religion are “spirituality” and aestheticism. Chesterton had long since seen through them. He isolated the religiose but fundamentally agnostic panacea that now goes by the convenient name, at once vague and benign, of “spirituality,” and which Matthew Arnold called “culture”: “the disinterested play of the mind through the sifting of the best books and authors.”19 To preserve a Church as a “vessel to contain the spiritual ideas of the age, whatever those ideas may be,”20 could be considered the work of the culture-vultures “trying to establish and endow Agnosticism.” But, declares Chesterton:
Regarding aestheticism, Chesterton also identified — in John Ruskin — the habit of mind that decides to “accept Catholic art but not Catholic ethics.”22 The phenomenally well-attended National Gallery exhibition Seeing Salvation did not, one supposes, find an ecclesial correlative in a greatly increased rate of conversion to the Catholic Church, even though that Church was the inspiration of the vast majority of the artworks involved. Again, as Chesterton remarks:
To link Chesterton so strongly to an analysis of the soul of England may not be the best way to commend this book to non-English readers. Yet Chesterton is a quintessentially English author, and, moreover, the catholicity of the Church is incomplete until all the nations have made their contribution to it. In that sense, it is Chesterton’s very Englishness that makes him of greatest interest to Catholics in America and elsewhere. And while we are still thinking of Chesterton from the viewpoint of the England — or the wider Christian world — of the early twenty-first century, I do not suppose many people will query the “prophetic” character of Chesterton’s comment — made in 1911! — to the effect that Mohammed “created a very big thing, which we have still to deal with.”24
No doubt we shall contend with this “very big thing” — if disproportionate fears
of terrorism do not prevent us — in a gentlemanly and sensible fashion. As Chesterton put it in his Autobiography, “sleepy sanity” is a typical English
trait.25 Sometimes, however, we need a wake-up call — of the kind given by the Victorian giants on
whom he wrote so well: Ruskin, Carlyle, Morris, Newman, and the rest. The remainder of this book seeks to show
that “Chesterton’s theology” is just that.
11. Orthodoxy, of course, abounds in paradoxes, and Chesterton
G. K. Chesterton was born in 1874, in west central London, between Holland Park
and Kensington Palace Gardens, the elder son of an estate agent whose family had long been established in that
business. Like many middle-class people, adequately supplied with servants, and funded by family firms that more
or less ran themselves,
Through no fault of his educators, Chesterton’s schooling was erratic. But as an
adult he believed strongly in the prolongation of childhood, and he never regretted that he had been a backward
child. He attended St Paul’s School at a time when it enjoyed undoubted academic excellence, yet he was noted for
inattention, slovenliness of personal appearance, and incompetence at sport, although because he was taller than
most other boys as well as — at this juncture — still slim, he escaped bullying. The ongoing informal education
he received from his father, who took him to museums and galleries, and explored with him the literary classics,
counted for more than his lessons. Where Chesterton came alive at school was as chairman of the St. Paul’s Junior
Debating Club and contributor to its short-lived but professionally produced magazine, The Debater, in whose pages his originality of thought and expression,
and gifts of versification — all typified by remarkable energy and exuberance — became apparent for the first time.
The mediocrity of his form reports stood in sharp contrast to the judgment given his mother by the High Master
of the school in 1894: “Six foot of genius. Cherish him, Mrs Chesterton,
Crisis and Reaction
Chesterton’s experience of the Slade is nonetheless important for his biography and also for the history of his opinions. Influenced by some of its students and, one can speculate, depressed by the loss of his buddies who were either still enrolled at school or, in due course, went up to the historic universities, he began to feel, by his own account (see his “notebooks”30 and Autobiography, for instance), a distinct attraction toward evil.31 He gravitated toward nihilism as a general philosophy of life and began to dabble in occultist spiritualism. Spiritualism was becoming fashionable, especially among the metropolitan elite, but Chesterton’s taste of it, and conversations with students whom he took, at any rate, to be diabolists, was salutary.32 His agnosticism remained, but it acquired a pro-Christian coloration. For instance, at some point in this period he jotted down about Christmas Day,
At the Slade Chesterton also acquired an extremely hostile attitude to the painterly mode called Impressionism, a hostility that not only later defined much of his attitude to art at large but was formative for the development of his realism in metaphysics. Consider his 1907 novel, The Man Who Was Thursday. As Gabriel Syme, fleeing from the agents of Sunday, dives into a patch of woodland, the play of light and shade on the leaves causes him to muse:
The identification of Impressionism as a symptom of cultural and, especially, epistemological decadence also finds expression in, for example, his 1910 study of William Blake. Seeking to express how for Blake lucidity and decisiveness of outline were the chief desiderata in draftsmanship, Chesterton risks the anachronism of writing that “the thing he hated most in art was the thing which we now call Impressionism — the substitution of atmosphere for shape, the sacrifice of form to tint, the cloudland of the mere colorist.” Incidentally, that same work ascribes the presence of occasional bizarre phrases, sometimes obsessively repeated, in Blake’s poetry to his commerce with spirits — not all of which were necessarily benign. Chesterton’s Slade experience provides the likely context for such assessments as the following:
The slogan “art for art’s sake” retained its power to elicit from Chesterton occasional expressions of impatience. Thus, in his survey book The Victorian Age in Literature he remarks near the outset:
Professional (and Confessional) Beginnings
Given his allergy to mediums and ouija boards, it was ironic that Chesterton’s first job on leaving the Slade was for a small Bloomsbury publisher specializing in spiritualism and the occult. He soon got through a backlog of manuscripts submitted, sending them back to, as he put it, “addresses, which I should imagine, must be private asylums.”38 After a few months of this he was able to get a post with a mainstream publisher, T. Fisher Unwin, later taken over by Ernest Benn. Chesterton’s courtship of his future wife, Frances Bloggs, the first dogmatico-sacramental Christian he appears to have met (she was annglo-Catholic), and the launching of his career as a reviewer in London journals began now, in 1896. By the end of 1900 he was selling articles to London papers on a regular basis.
At this stage — the closing years of the nineteenth century — Chesterton’s mind had three comparatively settled components. The first, to which he owed in part his reading of the American poet Walt Whitman, but far more to the spontaneous experience of his own childhood, was piety toward the cosmos. “I put great faith in the healing power of the great winds and the sun. ‘Nature,’ as Walt Whitman says, ‘and her primal sanities.’ ”39 The cosmic environment of human living would remain one of Chesterton’s distinctive preoccupations. (It should be added that Whitman’s intoxication with the physical universe of skies and grass also extended to human comradeship, as did that of Chesterton.)
The second component was Socialism, which later yielded to Distributism, notably under the influence of Hilaire Belloc, who was as opposed to Socialism as he was to Capitalism. In his autobiography, Chesterton explains that he became a Socialist only because it was intolerable not to be, granted the chaotic consequences of over-industrialization and the increasing penury, with the agrarian depression lasting from the mid 1870s to the mid 1890s, of the rural proletariat.
The third and last component was an increasing sympathy with Christian theism.
Such theism was as yet doctrinally unformulated. Its starting-point was what Chesterton registered as a need to
give thanks for membership in the cosmos. As he would later put it in Orthodoxy, birth itself seemed a birthday present. To whom could one give thanks if not a God? His
theism included admiration for the Jesus of the Gospels. It also sought to find a strong affinity between the teaching
of Jesus and contemporary Socialism, notably through the role in each of compassion, an assault
Thaxted and Merry England
The Chestertons’ marriage would be solemnized by the most famous Socialist Anglo-Catholic clergyman in England, Conrad Noel, the vicar of Thaxted in north Essex. Noel’s 1906 Church Socialist League, a much more radicalized version of two previous left-wing High Anglican bodies, the 1877 Guild of St. Matthew and the 1889 Christian Social Union, advocated a revolutionary overthrow of the existing political, social, and economic order in England by bringing land, heavy industry, and transport into public ownership by all available means, not excluding a general strike or armed insurrection. Noel was a “little Englander” who despised the British Empire as arrogant, parasitical, greedy, and cosmopolitan. Although he supported the First World War as a righteous struggle against German militarism, he also approved of the war-time Easter Rising in Ireland: in his church the Sinn Fein tricolor and the Red Flag were displayed alongside the Cross of St. George. His socialism acknowledged as its closest political neighbor the Marxian “Social Democratic Federation,” whose most famous supporter had been the Romantic poet and designerWilliam Morris. Like Morris, Noel wanted to combine socialist revolution with a revival of native English traditions in arts and crafts, and — especially stressed by Noel — song and dance, which in Thaxted became para-liturgical: forms of festivity following on the elaborate Sarum-rite Eucharists, Corpus Christi processions, and other ceremonies celebrated in the parish church, whose patron, the eccentricFrances Maynard, Countess of Warwick, kept at bay the strongly disapproving bishops of Chelmsford. Although Chesterton began early to have doubts about the interrelatedness of Socialism and Christianity, Noel’s influence on him can hardly be overestimated. Chesterton would follow Noel, albeit less “folkloristically,” in drawing attention to what Noel’s biographer Reg Groves calls
Both men — Noel and Chesterton — sought a unified cultural vision on religious foundations. “My own work,” remarked Noel toward the end of his life:
Noel’s synthesis of Socialism and Anglo-Catholicism would be mirrored in Chesterton’s
synthesis of Distributism and Catholicism, first Anglo- and later Roman. The common factors were, at first, the
inspiration, both social and aesthetic, of Morris, and later, the role of classical Christian doctrine and morals.
In an admiring yet also critical essay on Morris, Chesterton lauded him in these words:
That generous tribute was paid in 1902. But six years later Chesterton took his definitive leave of Socialism in an article entitled “Why I Am Not a Socialist,” published in the distinctly avant-garde journal The New Age. In the summary offered by Chesterton’s biographer Michael Ffinch, with citations from the original:
How, then, did that discovery of doctrinal Christianity come about? Like all momentous
shifts in outlook, it probably had its conditioning factors, of which the influence and example of his fiancée,
later wife, was surely chief (he would dedicate The Ballad of the White
Horse to the woman who “brought
the cross to me”), and that of Noel a good second — as the Autobiography can testify. 50 But at root his conversion was the dawning of an intellectual
conviction of which Chesterton gives a celebrated account at the opening of his 1908 masterpiece, Orthodoxy. The world-view he was developing in personal
reaction to the contemporary intelligentsia turned out to be, in key essentials, the same as the ancient faith
of the Church. Or, as he had already put it in the essay “The Doubts of Democracy”: “If
I gave each of my reasons for being a Christian, a vast number of them would be Mr. Blatchford’s reasons for not
Chesterton’s conversion to a full-blooded Christianity coincided with the journalistic enterprise which made his name in Britain, and that was his campaign against the Second Boer War, a war which pitted the British Empire for reasons commercial and strategic against the two small Afrikaaaner republics, the Transvaal and the Orange Free State, whose white population later in the twentieth century (but not at its opening) would become associated with the notorious system of social relations called “apartheid.” Opposition to the Boer War was rife on the radical wing of the Liberal Party, to which at this time Chesterton adhered, but it failed to capture the party as a whole. Indeed, many of the party members — the “Liberal Imperialists” — made common cause with the Conservatives in supporting the war, while the Liberal leader in the Commons, Henry Campbell-Bannerman, abstained at the crucial vote. Chesterton argued for nations with coherent internal cultures over against cosmopolitan empires which deracinated rulers and ruled. In What I Saw in America (1922) he would write: “The objection to spreading anything all over the world is that, among other things, you have to spread it very thin.”52 Moreover, he suspected — not without reason — the invisible hand of high finance pulling the strings of government behind the scenes. Yet uppermost in the mind of Lord Salisbury, the Conservative prime minister, was the loss to imperial prestige if British paramountcy in South Africa were successfully defied.53
Chesterton was not a pacifist, as his broadsides against the Russian novelist and popular philosopher Leo Tolstoy made plain.
He accepted the necessity of the First World War: the world had to be made safe from Prussian militarism. He did not volunteer; by 1914 his girth was already alarming. A lady on a London street who interrogated him with the words, “Why are you not out at the Front?” was met by his celebrated riposte: “Madame, if you go round to my side, you will see that I am.”
The War brought great grief to Chesterton nonetheless. The death of his brother Cecil in a fever hospital in northern France (“trench fever” was a frequent killer in the grim fighting conditions of the Western Front) robbed him of his only surviving sibling. In due course, a curious exchange of gifts took place. Gilbert took over Cecil’s journalistic enterprise as editor of what would later become G.K.’s Weekly. Cecil passed on his (Roman) Catholic faith. Not, however, quite yet.
Literary Output: the Anglican Phase
By the summer of 1922, when Chesterton was received into the Catholic Church by the priest whom he would immortalise as the fictional detective Father Brown, Chesterton was a major — if controversial — literary figure in England. In addition to some hundreds of articles in newspapers and magazines, many of which remain uncollected, he had published studies of the artists William Blake and George Frederick Watts; of the writers Robert Browning, George Bernard Shaw, and Dickens; as well as a general survey of Victorian literature — all books full of incisive, not to mention provocative, judgments. He had written a short history of England, five fantastic novels,56 the first sets of Father Brown stories, five books of poetry, and at least a dozen collections of essays, 57 as well as two works crucial for understanding his theological outlook: Heretics and Orthodoxy, to whose examination I shall be devoting the lion’s share of the next two chapters of this book. Chesterton’s studies of other creative artists can be ransacked for their insights, including theological, and are not treated as sober historical introductions to their subjects. This is as Chesterton wished. Of his study, Robert Browning, he wrote:
The tone here is deliberately self-mocking (T. S. Eliot, for example, thought Chesterton was without rival as a critic of Dicken ). In fact, the Browning book led to an invitation to become the first occupant of the Chair of English Literature at the “redbrick” University of Birmingham. Had he accepted, Chesterton would have met the young J.R.R. Tolkien. But perhaps it was as well for academe that he declined: the boundary-lines defining subject-matter were necessarily porous to one who thought that, as Chesterton put it in his study of Watts: There is no detail from buttons to kangaroos, that does not enter into the gay confusion of philosophy. There is no fact of life, from the death of a donkey to the General Post Office, which has not its place to dance and sing in, in the glorious Carnival of theology.59
One reviewer of the Browning book singled out for praise what I believe to be the heart of Chesterton’s wider imaginative achievement, namely, his success in giving the reader “the wild joy of looking upon the world once more for the first time.”60 It is hard to think of much if anything from Chesterton’s Anglican period which he needed to jettison on finding a spiritual home elsewhere. All aspects of his copious literary production in the years before 1922 are germane to his standing as a Christian thinker in the Catholic tradition. In succeeding chapters, they are liberally drawn upon in presenting the philosophical and theological themes Chesterton chose to treat — and treat so well that one could imagine some future Pope declaring him a Doctor of the Church.61
Conversion to Rome
Before looking into that imaginative achievement in the body of this book, we need to complete this overview by a retrospect on the (Roman) Catholic period of Chesterton’s life. Chesterton’s move from Anglo-Catholicism to the Church of Rome was motivated by concern for legitimate authority. After all, this had been the nub of the issue between Jesus and the Jewish leaders of his time: where and how was divine authority to be accessed in historical society? As early as 1909, when the third of Chesterton’s novelistic fantasia, The Ball and the Cross, was published, with a Highland Catholic as its quasi-hero, rumours had circulated that Chesterton was to convert to the Church of Rome. Shortly after The Ball and the Cross appeared, Chesterton discussed his spiritual concerns with two Catholic priests who struck up a conversation with him at Coventry railway station, saying, “It’s a matter that is giving me a great deal of agony of mind.”62a The likely effects of such a move on his non-Catholic wife served as a strong deterrent to Chesterton’s conversion.
In the last weeks of 1914 Chesterton had suffered a serious stress-induced illness, provoked by his gruelling schedule of evidence of corruption in public life.) It was an unhappy period, characterised by some atypically acerbic journalism and a sharpening of his remarks about the nefarious activities, real or imaginary, of Jewish financiers based on the high-level skulduggery of the “Marconi Affair” (1911-1913), of which a very full account is given in the biography of Chesterton by Alzina Stone Dale. 62b In this severe medical crisis (for a while he was thought unlikely to recover) his wife Frances was reconciled to summoning Father John O’Connor to receive Chesterton into the Catholic Church by administration of the last sacraments in the event that his condition worsened.63 In fact Chesterton recovered, and it took another eight years before he steeled himself to make the move without his wife.
Various factors were in play in the temptation to “pope.” As Adam Schwartz suggests,
Chesterton’s visit to the Holy Land in 1919-1920 as a special orrespondent for the Daily Telegraph may have “heightened his sensibility to Christianity’s historicity and the consequent importance
of tradition.”64 Again, the Anglican Communion’s 1920 Lambeth Conference struck him as flawed by a tendency
to doctrinal minimalism, and thus by an openness to accommodation with Modernism.65 By contrast, the constancy of the Roman teaching office
increasingly stood out. Here was a firm accommodation with Modernism.66 By contrast, the constancy of the Roman teaching office increasingly stood out. Here was
But above all the sacramental authority of the Catholic Church to renew baptismal rebirth by absolution from sins occupied the forefront of his mind. It meant for him spiritual resurrection. As he put it in the sestet of the sonnet he wrote on his reception into the Church:
Six months later he explained his decision in intellectually wider terms to his fellow-convert, the writer Maurice Baring, who seems to have been, one can note in passing, the original of Horne Fisher, the hero of a novel of high politics Chesterton had just published, The Man Who Knew Too Much.69 As Chesterton wrote to Baring:
He would take such thoughts further in The Catholic Church and Conversion, published following his wife’s reception into the Faith in 1926.
Literary Output: the Catholic Phase
In the remaining years of his life (he died on 14 June 1936), Chesterton himself had many things to say about some of those philosophies. He remained much in demand as a public speaker, even if his capacity to turn up at the right place at the right time was notoriously deficient — witness the celebrated telegram to his wife: “Am in Market Harborough, where ought I to be?” He made a speaking tour of the United States in 1930-1931, repeating the success he had achieved in an earlier visit in 1920, where he risked such remarks as these in Chicago: “I do not plan to go farther west than Chicago, for having seen Jerusalem and Chicago, I think I shall have touched the extremes of civilization.”71 He also spent three months in Rome, staying with his wife, Frances, and his secretary (later, literary executor) Dorothy Collins, at the celebrated Hotel Hassler, at the top of the Spanish Steps. The visit included meetings with Pope Pius XI and Mussolini. He was more impressed with the latter than he expected, though he concluded his account of modern Italy confessing that “by every instinct of my blood, I . . . prefer English liberty to Latin discipline.”72
His literary output during this post-conversion period did not diminish. From his
Catholic period, we have studies of Chaucer, the Scots novelist Robert Louis Stevenson and the early nineteenth-
century social critic William Cobbett; hagiography — his books on Francis of Assisi and Thomas Aquinas; some twenty
essay collections; an autobiography (to be posthumously published), two plays, more poems and Father Brown stories,
and the principal theological work of his life, The Everlasting Man. Again, there are hundreds of uncollected magazine articles, above all from his relaunching
of The New Witness as G. K.’s Weekly, in an effort to render viable a
paper which had languished since his brother’s death at the end of the last Western Front campaign of the First
World War. In the 1930s he gained a new audience through BBC radio, his high-pitched but beautifully modulated
voice well-suited to this medium.73
Though not all Chesterton’s biographers approve, his own Autobiography ends, in fact, with the affirmation that his reception into the Catholic Church was absolutely decisive for him: “[T]his overwhelming conviction that there is one key which can unlock all doors brings back to me my first glimpse of the glorious gift of the senses; and the sensational experience of sensation . . .”75 Chesterton had sought to recapture this “glimpse” in Orthodoxy and elsewhere, and he registers, in the book’s closing words, a curious correspondence between a figure in his father’s toy-theatre and the Peter whose vicar is the pope of Rome.
Still, other Christians, beyond the confines of the Catholic Church, can appreciate what I am calling in this book Chesterton’s theology since, as Dorothy L. Sayers, herself an Anglican, wrote of him in her preface to The Surprise:
In his copy, given him by the author, of Sir Oliver Lodge’s The Substance of Faith Allied with Science: A Catechism for Parents and Teachers, by the side of the question, “What is the duty of man?” Chesterton pencilled in his own answer: “To love God mystically and his neighbour as himself.”78 Let that, then, be his epitaph.
26. Toy theatres figured large in Chesterton’s childhood: it
32. In his 1913 play Magic he “plainly stated that calling up powers,
34. The Man Who Was Thursday (London, 1907, 1944), 131. For an
57. For an account of the variety of Chesterton’s approach
61. That assumes Chesterton could be acknowledged as an example
74. Some major articles of Chesterton on distributism from G. K.’s
78. O. Lodge, The Substance of Faith Allied with science: A Catechism for Parents and Teachers (London, 1907), 129. I thank Mr. Stratford Caldecott of the Chesterton Library in Oxford for showing me this item in the collection of Chesterton’s own holdings.
The above extract is reproduced with the kind permission of the uk publisher of this book, Darton, Longman and Todd.
Version: 16th September 2009