If you’ve read C. S. Lewis, you’ve read G. K. Chesterton, indirectly at least. Lewis listed Chesterton among his influences, and those who are familiar with both apologists can hear the echoes of Chesterton in the work of Lewis.
Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936) was a poet, a journalist, an essayist, a literary critic, a novelist, and apologist. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, he was the first writer to refer to “Western” culture and civilization.
Chesterton was a big man (in more ways than one) who made a big splash. How did he engage his culture and why does he still matter? I offer four reasons:
1. Chesterton saw the big picture and would not compartmentalize the world.
Chesterton was a thinker who believed the purpose of education was to make sense of the world and our role in it. Thinking and education are not ends in themselves; they are about “connecting things.” Because he believed everything connects, Chesterton could speak knowledgeably on so many different subjects. He believed that Christianity, if truly all-encompassing, must speak to everything.
- Economics: Chesterton promoted Distributism, an economic ideology rooted in Catholic social teaching.
- Art: Chesterton criticized modern art and literature for “scorning the audience.” His biography of Charles Dickens led to a widespread reassessment of Dickens’ legacy and reestablished him as one of the great authors in English literature.
- Family: Chesterton defended the family as a microcosm of the world (“the home is larger inside than out,” he wrote) that must withstand constant assaults from social engineers who believe the family unit is an obstacle to progress.
- Government: Chesterton doesn’t fit the “right” or “left” paradigm of contemporary American politics, but he believed Christianity should influence government by reinforcing its responsibilities and warning of its imperialistic and overreaching tendencies.
2. Chesterton unmasked false presuppositions as he promoted a Christian worldview.
Chesterton often turned things upside down so his readers could then see them right side up. He made a winsome case for Christianity by poking holes in the assumptions of his opponents. It’s not by force of will, but force of wit that he startles you and makes you think. A few examples:
- On human depravity: “The man who denies original sin believes in the Immaculate Conception of everybody.”
- On miracles, he turns the tables to show that it’s believers, not unbelievers who are always appealing to evidence (“This is why I believe this miracle took place”). Meanwhile, it’s unbelievers, not believers who are always appealing to dogma (“Miracles can’t happen”).
- On naturalism, he flips the common picture of Christians held captive by their ancient superstitions while the “freethinkers” challenge religious dogma. Instead, he demonstrates that Christians are free to believe in an ordered nature, while the materialist can’t admit the slightest speck of spiritualism or miracle into his machine. The Christian is freer to think than the freethinker.
Chesterton loved to point out that arguments against Christianity are often contradictory. For example, Christians are accused of being too joyful in the face of evil and suffering; they are also accused of being dour prudes who want to squelch the joy of everyone else. How can both be true?
The takeaway from Chesterton’s apologetic strategy was not just his defense of the faith, but the manner in which he went about his task. He debated his ideological opponents as friends, not enemies. He intended to convert enemies, not crush them. ”The aim of argument is differing in order to agree,” he wrote. “The failure of argument is when you agree to differ.”
3. Chesterton was not swayed by arguments that appeal to progress.
C. S. Lewis coined the term “chronological snobbery,” a description of our temptation to look with disdain on previous eras as if they have little to nothing to offer our advanced society. You can trace the line from Lewis’ warning against chronological snobbery back to Chesterton’s consistent refutations of faddish ideas of “progress.”
Chesterton was always warning his readers about people who fancy themselves reformers who want to do away with social institutions without understanding their historical significance. A few quotes:
“While the truth… is outside time, the heresies are always tied up with the times.”
“The Catholic Church is the only thing that saves a man from the degrading slavery of being a child of his age.”
“Fallacies do not cease to be fallacies because they become fashions.”
For Chesterton, Christianity must not be burdened by whatever is fashionable. It is an act of dignity to defy the fads of contemporary society. The dead fish floats downstream. It’s a sign of life to resist the flow of your culture and stand against the tide.
4. Chesterton exhibited a joyful exuberance at the wonder of existence.
Chesterton was never bored or boring. “There are no uninteresting things,” he wrote. “Only uninterested people.” The emotion that infuses all of Chesterton’s writing is gratitude – a sign of joy and life, a sense of wonder at even the most mundane gifts we take for granted. ”Poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese,” he wrote, and then proceeded to rectify this egregious oversight.
According to Chesterton, one way we pay tribute to our Creator is by our endless fascination with His creation. Take, for example, the classic essay “What I Found in My Pocket,” which gives insight into the clever and creative ways Chesterton’s curiosity led him on fantastic journeys of thought.
“I will keep coming back to anyone who helps me see and be astonished at what is in front of my face – anyone who can help heal me from the disease of ‘seeing they do not see.'”
I echo the sentiment. Chesterton still matters for the model of cultural engagement he provides: a comprehensive vision of Christianity that touches all of life, challenges our modern sensibilities, and leads us back to childlike wonder at the world God has made.