Essay: Chesterton Among the Theologians
Have you ever brought up Chesterton only to be asked to describe him? I don't mean his physical appearance, either. It's not easy beyond simply saying he was a writer. I often will bring up the Father Brown mysteries because those are the ones people are most likely to have heard of. But to describe what kind of writer he was is more difficult. We know that he was a journalist, illustrator, poet, novelist, critic, political campaigner and thinker, and indeed, many assert, even a philosopher. In his very interesting book G. K. Chesterton: Thinking Backward, Looking Forward, the distinguished British philosopher Stephen R. L. Clark observed that Chesterton was a nonacademic philosopher who could also make philosophical arguments in an academic fashion. The Jesuit scholar Quentin Lauer called Chesterton a "philosopher without portfolio." Could we also describe him as a theologian?
Chesterton was not in the academic sense a theologian. He never taught theology nor did he have any academic degree. In an essay titled "Chesterton the Theologian,” the Canadian Jesuit Bernard Lonergan observed that he was “tempted to twist my terms of reference and switch to the more obvious and abundant themes of Chesterton as Metaphysician or Chesterton as Apologist." Like Blessed Newman, Chesterton always denied that he was a theologian. While he had, says Lonergan, “the profoundest respect for the technicalities in which centuries of reflection on the faith had deposited and crystallized and tabulated their findings," Chesterton “never himself became adept in these technicalities.” As Chesterton himself once observed, "supernatural truths are connected to the mystery of grace and are a matter for theologians; admittedly a rather delicate and difficult matter even for them.” Theologians were them. Lonergan quotes a Father Joseph Keating, who reviewed Orthodoxy in the British Jesuit journal The Month. Keating finished his article by remarking, “Had we the power we should banish him to Monte Cassino for a year there to work through the Summa of St. Thomas with Dante as his only relaxation. On his return, we fancy, he should astonish the world.” As it turns out, Chesterton had put on his reading list some years back Thomas's Summa; he would later write a very fine introduction to Thomas, saluted by Thomistic scholars like Jacques Maritain, Etienne Gilson, and Josef Pieper. Even without all the technical theological distinctions he did tend to astonish the world.
We might even say that it is because he left behind the theological distinctions that he was so astonishing. Lonergan observed that had Chesterton been born in the eleventh century rather than the twentieth, he might have been ranked with St. Anselm, for, says Lonergan, “Then being a theologian was a matter of a cast of mind that seizes the fitness and coherence of the faith, that penetrates to its inner order and harmony and unity. Such penetration was the soul of Chesterton.” Indeed this is very close to what Chesterton said himself of theology in The New Jerusalem: “Theology is only thought applied to religion.” For Lonergan, what made Chesterton's thought penetrating and profound was that his questions “go to the root of things'' and “the answers he demands must be right on the nail.” Alas, Lonergan, a thinker whose works are extremely long and complex, wrote only a few pages on Chesterton, so he doesn't go into many examples. He does suggest, however, that Chesterton's “deepest theological intuition” is one that gets expressed in the marvelous and mysterious Man Who Was Thursday. In that work, Chesterton “lures the unsuspecting reader face to face with God and the problem of evil.”
The late Stratford Caldecott, in an essay titled “Was G. K. Chesterton a Theologian?” does not mention Lonergan's essay, but it is clear that he would agree that a theologian is one who ultimately causes others to come face to face with God. He contends, with the support of the Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, that a true theologian is "one who perceives and helps to reveal the glory of God in Christ.” What makes Chesterton's thought on religion so arresting is that it “cannot be boring.” Caldecott quotes Chesterton's essay called “Reading the Riddle," in which Chesterton talks about the furor over a theological book called The Great Riddle Solved. The book immediately sold at a furious pace because of the misconception that it was a mystery story; it then fizzled. Chesterton is moved to ask, “Why is a work of modern theology less startling, less arresting to the soul, than a work of silly police fiction?” Why also, Chesterton asks, does old theology startle and arrest more than contemporary theology? If theology is the “most important human business," then there is something wrong when it lacks excitement.
The curmudgeon might ask, however, why does Christian theology have to be exciting? The answer is, of course, that theology is ultimately about the gospel; it is not just good, it is good news! There is something in Christianity, says Caldecott, “that can never age, that can never become old; something that is always brand new.” Christianity, Chesterton was never tired of asserting, is less the “faith of our fathers'' than it is “the faith of our children." "The Faith," said Chesterton in The Everlasting Man, “is always converting the age, not as an old religion, but as a new religion.” What Chesterton's writing did so well was to startle readers into seeing Christian faith from a different angle so that they could see what was news in it and what was good in it. That is why paradox is so essential to Chesterton's method. Paradox is not simply contradiction, but the lining up of two truths that look contradictory. When Chesterton displays a paradox it is not merely for the sake of the fun of it—though that's there, too—it is in order that one ask the deepest sorts of questions about reality. How do these truths fit together? What is the big picture? Why do these truths seem to be contradictory? And when you've asked those questions, Chesterton helps you to find the answer in Christ and his Church which, he says, is the only thing in the world bigger than paganism. The goal is conversion. Theology itself has an apologetic edge. In fact, says Caldecott, there is no bright line between apologetics and theology.
Some thinkers do not like this blurring of lines. Peter Collins, a philosopher, wrote a very long review article of G. K. Chesterton: Theologian, a book written by the Dominican theologian Aidan Nichols. While not denying outright that Chesterton could be a theologian, he repeatedly adverts to distinguishing among philosophy, apologetics, and theology proper. He judges that Chesterton's language is often that of the philosopher and the apologist. While Collins has a point about how Chesterton is more often acting the philosopher than the theologian, it is not clear that the distinction between apologetics and theology is one that we need to maintain. Lonergan himself, though he wrote only briefly on Chesterton as a theologian, wrote at length about the different branches of theological work, one of which he labeled "communicative.”
As it so happens, Lonergan and Caldecott are not alone in thinking that there are no bright lines between theology and apologetics. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the authoritative doctrinal office of the Catholic Church, released a document in 1990 titled Dorum veritatis, in English "The Gift of The Truth: On the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian.” In that document, signed by the prefect of the Congregation, Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI, we read that the role of the theologian is to seek to understand the faith in an ever deeper way. What does this do? "It thereby aids the People of God in fulfilling the Apostle's command (1 Pet. 3:15) to give an accounting for their hope to those who ask it” (6). Even the technical theology is designed to help people understand the faith and communicate it convincingly. “Theology," the document tells us, “therefore offers its contribution so that the faith might be communicated.” And indeed, it should be written so that it might communicate itself to others who do not have it. “Appealing to the understanding of those who do not yet know Christ, it helps them seek and find faith” (7). The document also states that the "theologian's task” is to “draw from the surrounding culture those elements which will allow him better to illuminate one or other aspect of the mysteries of faith. This is certainly an arduous task that has its risks, but is legitimate in itself and should be encouraged” (10).
While Collins might object that much of what Chesterton is doing in books like Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man is technically philosophy of religion, it is not clear that it cannot be considered theology under the definition of the CDF. Just because Chesterton often calls his work philosophy does not mean that it is not really a legitimate theological task. I know from having taught Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man to undergraduates that students can see that Chesterton's philosophical work, particularly in the latter book, is based on his theological understanding of creation, original sin, and the doctrine of Christ. While Collins would say Chesterton was doing strictly philosophy of religion, my students would say he was “cheating" in his own claims to be doing philosophy. I think we can say he's simply doing theology in a relaxed way. If, as he said, Orthodoxy was a kind of “slovenly autobiography,'' then we can also call it a “slovenly theology,” albeit one that is “legitimate in itself and should be encouraged," to echo the CDF. Stratford Caldecott says straight out that that theology should be done along the model of Chesterton's two masterpieces.
We have probably talked long enough about whether Chesterton is a theologian or not. For those who have not followed the discussion thus far, let me apologize and simply give you one more argument, albeit of the weakest form—that from authority. In this particular case, I am arguing from the weakest form of the weakest form—namely, the argument from the authority of the internet. If you look at the article on G. K. Chesterton on Wikipedia, you will find that Chesterton is listed as a "lay theologian.” If you click on “lay theologian," you will find out that it is a theologian who has not received formal theological training.” Chesterton is listed along with Isaac Newton, C. S. Lewis, Dorothy Sayers, Jacques Ellul, Frank Sheed, and several others. As St. Augustine did not quite say, wikipedia locuta, causa finita est.
Let us then pass on to what is so interesting about Chesterton's thinking about religion. I think there we should say some things about Chesterton's theology of theology, but also some more specific ones about his other themes.
The first aspect of Chesterton's theological thought was that it is dogmatic. I realize that dogma has often been given a bad name. When I first started graduate studies in theology at Fordham University, the philosophy and theology departments were housed on the same floor of the same building. One would climb the steps of Collins Hall, enter a large entryway, then step through a set of double doors. A sign affixed to the wall had arrows pointing left to the theology offices (a perhaps accurate direction for the department as a whole) and to the right for the philosophy offices. By the arrow pointing to philosophy were the words, “Unanswerable Questions." By the arrow to theology was written "Unquestionable Answers." While Chesterton would have enjoyed the joke, I don't think he would agree at all that this is what philosophy and theology do. Chesterton understood that all philosophy must be based on certain first principles to which we do not argue, but which we take as givens. So philosophy is just as implicated in dogmatic answers as theology is. It is true, however, that philosophy does raise up certain questions that are unanswerable by itself. One of the main themes of both Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man is that reason alone does not answer fully to the human question. In both works, Chesterton presents the Christian revelation as the key that unlocks our understanding of human existence. It is a key because it fits exactly the oddness of life. In The Everlasting Man it is presented as filling in the shadowy truths of pagan mythology and answering the unanswerable questions brought up by the narrow rationalism of the philosophers.
In both books as well as in all his other works, Chesterton makes the point that Christian (and indeed Catholic Christian) dogma does not limit thought but it frees it. Theology does not provide unquestionable answers, but answers that lead to more questions. The Christian Creed, says Chesterton, is like sex: it breeds thoughts. Only Christian orthodoxy, says Chesterton, is the "guardian of morality or order, but is also the only logical guardian of liberty, innovation and advance."
If we wish to pull down the prosperous oppressor we cannot do it with the new doctrine of human perfectibility; we can do it with the old doctrine of Original Sin. If we want to uproot inherent cruelties or lift up lost populations we cannot do it with the scientific theory that matter precedes mind; we can do it with the supernatural theory that mind precedes matter. If we wish specially to awaken people to social vigilance and tireless pursuit of practise, we cannot help it much by insisting on the Immanent God and the Inner Light; for these are at best reasons for contentment; we can help it much by insisting on the transcendent God and the flying and escaping gleam; for that means divine discontent. If we wish particularly to assert the idea of a generous balance against that of a dreadful autocracy we shall instinctively be Trinitarian rather than Unitarian. If we desire European civilization to be a raid and a rescue, we shall insist rather that souls are in real peril than that their peril is ultimately unreal. And if we wish to exalt the outcast and the crucified, we shall rather wish to think that a veritable God was crucified, rather than a mere sage or hero. Above all, if we wish to protect the poor we shall be in favour of fixed rules and clear dogmas. The RULES of a club are occasionally in favour of the poor member. The drift of a club is always in favour of the rich one. (Orthodoxy)
Dogma is, of course, a subject that presupposes authority. Who, after all, can declare the dogmatic boundary? Who gets to set the rules? Better, who identifies the rules? As Ratzinger-Benedict noted, putting the two together, “We must factor Church and dogma into the theological equation as a generative power rather than as a shackle” (The Nature and Mission of Theology, 64). Part of the reason that dogma is more generative, and generative of a thousand different ways of thinking at that, is that it is more democratic than inner lights and vague doctrines. The reason for that is that it is a public declaration of the truth accessible to both high and low, rich and poor, simple and learned. Cardinal Ratzinger-Pope Benedict commented on this aspect of theology in a way that is very Chestertonian:
One could say—somewhat carelessly—that the Creator has, as it were proceeded in a thoroughly democratic fashion. Though not all men can be professional theologians, access to the great fundamental cognitions is open to everyone. In this sense, the Magisterium has something like a democratic character when it defends the common faith, which recognizes no distinction of rank between the learned and the simple (Nature and Mission of Theology, 63).
And it is only with this authoritative, dogmatic understanding of Christianity that one can get any sort of real discussion, any real “diversity” or “pluralism.” As Adam Schwartz puts it in the context of Chesterton's acceptance of the Roman Catholic Church's teaching authority, “Chesterton believed that accepting authoritative direction in the absolutes of doctrine and ethics provided the framework and freedom necessary to make debates on probables possible and profitable” (The Third Spring, 84). He quotes Chesterton's famous line from A Miscellany of Men, that “men should agree on a principle, that they may differ on everything else.”
Chesterton does not just have a theology of theology, however. Chesterton's thinking on all manner of subjects had a theological tint to it. He thought that Catholic Christian faith would inevitably change one's thought on all subjects. Fr. Aidan Nichols, whose book I mentioned as the occasion for questioning Chesterton's status as a theologian (which is rather thin, admittedly), identifies in the book three main areas of Chesterton's theological inquiry which I want to explore briefly: Chesterton's anthropology or doctrine of man, Chesterton's doctrine of Christ, and finally his theological ethics. Finally, I'd like to briefly discuss one area identified by Fr. Ian Ker as Chesterton's indelible contribution to theology-namely, his theology of humor.
Anthropology. Fr. Ian Ker thinks that Chesterton's most Catholic works are those covering Charles Dickens and this, too, is where Fr. Nichols starts. Chesterton asked the question of whether Dickens was guilty of "vulgar optimism.” He answered that Dickens's power was based on his preaching of-what else?—a paradox.
If we are to save the oppressed, we must have two apparently antagonistic emotions in us at the same time. We must think the oppressed man intensely miserable, and at the same time intensively attractive and important. We must insist with violence on his degradation; we must insist with the same violence upon his dignity. For if we relax by one inch the one assertion, men will say he does not need saving. And we relax by one inch the other assertion, men will say he is not worth saving. The optimists will say that reform is needless. The pessimists will say that reform is hopeless. We must apply both simultaneously to the same oppressed man; we must say that he is a worm and a god; and must thus lay ourselves open to the accusation (or the compliment) of transcendentalism (Charles Dickens, 270).
What Chesterton is getting at here in different, non-technical theological terms, are the two doctrines of human creation in the image and likeness of God, as well as the degradation of the state of man under original sin. While Chesterton is famous for saying that original sin is the only doctrine that one can prove empirically, it is clear that this divine dignity of man is a revelation, not the result of an empirical study. It is on the basis of this biblical and theological doctrine, which the Enlightenment philosophers took up without bothering to justify on their own terms, that the broadly democratic and human rights movements of the last few centuries have been based. “All men are created equal" is a doctrine that is not really discovered by reason alone, but through thinking under the influence of Genesis and the gospels. It is by dropping the notion of original sin that such democracies become tyrannies, and by dropping divine dignity that such tyrannies can dehumanize others.
This paradox of human origins as divine and fallen is based, we might say, on his notion of creation as separation, a very Jewish idea we might note. God creates us as separate from himself, giving us our dignity but also allowing us to have true freedom of will that allows us both to fall and to rise again in Christ. We are further separated from the other parts of Creation in this regard. The dropping of divine dignity by modern tyrants democratic and otherwise, Chesterton believed, was aided and abetted by the doctrine of materialistic evolution which did not include any sense of separation. If humans are simply part of a flux of biological forms, it is easy to identify humans whose physical form is less developed, aged, or deformed as not owed the protection offered by “human rights” advocates. This is why Chesterton spends so much time on the difference between men and other animals in The Everlasting Man—if we are simply another species of biological life, then it is clear that the vast majority of people will not raise the dignity of animals to human level, but lower human dignity to that of the beasts.
Christology. In The Everlasting Man, Chesterton's history of the world is fixed around three hinge points where natural explanations don't really seem to suffice. The first is when something came from nothing—creation itself, the second when creation is completed as man emerges from the beasts, the third is the Incarnation when God became man. Creation, we might note, is separation, and the Incarnation is the paradoxical union of omnipotence and limited, weak creatureliness. God creates us outside of himself in order to join us to himself in a new way. Fr. Nichols notes that Chesterton's Christology is a full throated Chalcedonian orthodoxy. The Council of Chalcedon, you will remember, is the Ecumenical Council in 451 where it was affirmed that Christ's divinity and humanity were intimately linked, but the divine nature did not simply absorb the human: “We teach... one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, known in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation.” Nichols observes that Chesterton, while upholding the dogma, had the unfortunate practical judgment that the Byzantines, though affirming this orthodox understanding of Christ's two natures, were not really all that emphatic about it. Thus his claim in Christendom in Dublin that there is something, if not heretical, at least a bit off about iconography—it is really the plastic arts, statuary that is really and fully christologically correct. I think Chesterton simply wrong here, but this is one of those areas on which he and I agree on the dogmatic principle, but disagree on the application of it.
When it comes to the atonement, Chesterton's way of speaking is to emphasize the paradoxical nature of the cross, describing it as “the spectacle of a God dying.” It is in a mystery story, however, that Nichols detects one of the most profound descriptions of what the atonement is. In Four Faultless Felons, the character Alan Nadoway observes that the "whole universe was wrong" and that “respectability” would never right it. What could? “It was religion, sacrificial suffering. Somebody must be terribly good, to balance what was so bad. Somebody must be needlessly good, to weigh down the scales of that judgment.” Chesterton underscores here that suffering was needed for our salvation, but that it is not only suffering, but also “needless good.” Good that is freely done, that flows out of love. The kind of love that could only really and fully flow from a God who is love. A God who is also man.
When that needless good came, things were changed. And it is the second half of The Everlasting Man that makes this so clear. We've mentioned that Christ's advent brought to fruition the dreams of myth makers and the schemes of philosophers. What this does is unite the human being, bringing together head, heart, dreams, and thoughts—making the human broken into pieces by sin one again. It is only after the Incarnation that humanity really kicks into gear, we might say, both with its possibilities for good and evil.
Ethics. Those possibilities of human good and evil bring us to Nichols' third area-ethics. Chesterton is a good enough Thomist to respect the nature of human beings, but after Christ has come to reveal to us our true nature and the true possibilities for us, we need to think a little differently about what is demanded of us. First, it is true that we should be able to get a workable natural law understanding of what we are and how we should act, but original sin, which darkens the intellect by disordering our passions, often prevents us from seeing what we are and what we should be. But second, and more importantly, Christ has revealed to us that we have a more than natural end—a supernatural end. Unfortunately, if people operate explicitly or even implicitly without the idea of God, they will generally be unable to rise up to the highest levels of morality. Chesterton often points out that simply attempting to get at the natural while ignoring the supernatural often gets us what is instead unnatural. And even if individuals are capable of rising up to these heights, the problem is that they will not be able to communicate them to their children. Those democratic and human rights ideals, as we noted earlier, were based on a doctrine of divine image-bearing and original sin. The details of what human rights and sane human life are, Chesterton says, are largely dependent practically speaking on an understanding that is gained not simply through philosophy, but lived faith. “Here humanism cannot substitute for super-Humanism. The modern world, with its modern movements, is living on Catholic capital. It is using, and using up, the truths that remain to it out of the old treasury of Christendom, including of course many truths known to pagan antiquity but crystallized in Christendom” (The Thing). A broad rediscovery of reason's demands in the ethical realm demands a broad rediscovery of at least the rudiments of faith in God.
What the faith does is to make the virtues balanced by putting them into an order. It is only when there is a proper ordering of the virtues that the ones that seem impossible to harmonize can find a place. It is not that Christianity will guarantee a utopia of virtues, but that its order allows all the virtues to coexist. In an age that prides itself on putting away the big picture in order to make room for small virtues, Chesterton insisted that only the big picture of Catholic Christianity would provide room for the virtues to run wild without destroying us. For it was not vices but virtues unhinged, said Chesterton, that is our real problem. Ethics needs a philosophical basis theoretically speaking; to get the ethics we really want, that philosophy must have recourse to the bigger picture of reason found in the pattern of Christian dogma.
Which brings us to humor. That pattern of Christian belief includes, as we have talked about the dual nature of man as worm-like and yet worthy of all honor for the divine image he keeps. This combination is what makes us the ridiculous creatures we are. Humor is ultimately about this ridiculousness in human beings, an acknowledgment of our dual nature. But it is not simply laughing at people in derision. For Chesterton, humor had this theological purpose that it reminded us in bold colors what it is we are created to be glorious, what we are now—ludicrous, and what we are called to be again in Christ—even more glorious. Jokes about ourselves, says Chesterton, are the best kind of apologetic there is. The reason it is a superior apologetic is clearly to do with humility—about not letting ourselves forget where we are now. It is also, however, about hope—not letting us forget what glory we are called to. Everyone knows Chesterton's line about why angels can fly (they take themselves lightly), but for Chesterton we might add, this notion of humor was connected even more to the King of Angels. He took himself lightly enough to come down to earth and be raised up on a cross. Humor is part of Chesterton's Christology. Orthodoxy ends marvelously with the notion that the hiddenness of God in Christ is perhaps best thought of as something that we don't often associate with God.
I say it with reverence; there was in that shattering personality a thread that must be called shyness. There was something that He hid from all men when He went up a mountain to pray. There was something that He covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation.
There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth.
God, the one who is humblest of all, is the only one to see the joke in the end. For Chesterton, all of theology, dogma, the authority, the patterns, the paradoxes, the separations, and the reunions all come together in a joy that he identifies as mirth. Even if he didn't get the technical vocabulary and distinctions down, this large and mysterious idea of God's mirth alone would put Chesterton among the theologians. And if it doesn't, I think we can safely say that it puts him in company with the saints. For the saints, who have a little more expertise in this area even than Wikipedia, a saint is a friend of God. Chesterton, for any failures of misunderstanding, shared in the joy and the joke of his Friend.
This essay was first published in 2014. Optiv Network thanks Deavel for his permission.
David Deavel is an Assistant Professor in Catholic Studies at St. Thomas University in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Deavel also edits a journal called LOGOS: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture, co-directs The Murphy Institute for Catholic Thought, Law and Public Policy and hosts a podcast called Deep Down Things.