G. K. Chesterton’s novel The Ball and the Cross (1909) chronicles the story of an atheist and a Christian who form a relationship around a shared desire to kill each other. They spend most of the book searching for a quiet place for a deadly duel. But by the end they’re the best of friends, though both are locked in an insane asylum.
Chesterton’s point seems to be that they were the only two sane people on the planet. He often used the notion of lunacy in this kind of way. The atheist and the Christian understood the consequences of what they believed. It was the rest of the world who didn’t get it. These two men held the kind of convictions worth standing for, perhaps even dying for.
These fundamental differences weren’t a chasm too wide to be bridged by friendship, Chesterton showed. This value is a key to understanding not only this story but also many of his others—and even his philosophy of life. Duels aside, Chesterton modeled friendships separated by a ravine of ideological differences yet united in mutual care and respect.
Chesterton modeled friendships separated by a ravine of ideological differences yet united in mutual care and respect.
Though a heavy man, Chesterton carried himself lightly. He loved God. He loved people. And he showed us how to do both, not only with delight but also with a sense of self-forgetfulness, a sort of contagious mirth.
Consider his relationship with the playwright and well-known skeptic George Bernard Shaw. The two were so close they could joke about the most sensitive of topics. If banter were a sign of endearment, they expressed it well and often.
Defend Arguments, Not Yourself
Chesterton, sometimes called the Prince of Paradox, began one talk by saying, “I propose to start my rambling discourse by taking whatever has been lately said by Mr. Bernard Shaw and saying the opposite.” Such a remark is either the mark of sarcasm and disdain or the result of brotherhood and mutual respect. I contend it was the latter, in large part due to Chesterton’s mastery of what one biographer described as the soft answer:
Fellow writers, rival journalists, [and] friends furnished often enough material for a quarrel, but Chesterton would never take it up. He excelled in the soft answer—not that answer which, seeming soft, subtly provokes wrath, but the genuine article. . . . In the heart of argument, he retained a fairness of mind that saw his opponent’s case and would never turn an argument into a quarrel.
In a day when we excel in speaking past one another, we need a colossal corrective: understanding over soundbites. Chesterton is a good example of where to begin.
In a day when we excel in speaking past one another, we need a colossal corrective: understanding over soundbites.
Chesterton would defend an argument without defending himself. He would work diligently to justify an idea without trying to justify himself. On one occasion his newspaper, G. K.’s Weekly, reported on a public debate in which he’d participated. When Chesterton discovered his team truncating his opponent’s arguments to make room for his own, he ordered them to reverse the process, giving full room to his opponent and less to himself. He cared far more about making sure they presented his interlocutor’s position fairly than he did about having the final say.
Internal Funk and Infinite Charity
Imagine what difference this could make in our efforts to cultivate a winsome witness in the digital public square. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man is a response to H. G. Wells’s secular account of humanity, The Outline of Human History. The differences between the two works couldn’t be starker. And yet, when and where Chesterton could find merit in the works of another, he gladly celebrated it. Responding to one of Chesterton’s positive reviews, Wells wrote to him in a letter:
My Dear Chesterton,
You write wonderful praise and it leaves me all aquiver. My warmest thanks for it. But indeed that wonderful fairness of mind is very largely a kind of funk in me—I know the creature from the inside—funk and something worse, a kind of deep, complex cunning. Well [somehow] you take the superficial merit with infinite charity—and it has inflated me just for a time. I am an air balloon over the heads of my fellow creatures.
Meanwhile, we can easily perceive those outside the faith as enemies to be shooed away and perpetually reprimanded. We fear that if we offer the slightest agreement or praise, it will be taken as endorsement or license. But Chesterton’s generous words provoke introspection—in Wells and in ourselves. The renowned skeptic came to see his own internal “funk,” which prevented the “fairness of mind”—what he even calls “infinite charity”—that he found so appealing in Chesterton.
In adopting the language of the culture war, have we turned our plowshares into swords and our neighbors into enemies? This is not the way of the kingdom. It’s dangerous to exhibit funk in ourselves more than we inspire introspection in others. Could it be that our lack of success in sharing our faith stems, in large part, from this fundamental flaw: an inability to form meaningful friendships across difference?