A Summer with G.K. Chesterton

The academic calendar affords a limited freedom not permitted other professions. It is much like the liturgical calendar in its rhythms: its intense periods of vigils, labors, and fasting; its quiet stretches of introspection and passive action. One of those elements I relish about that liminal space of summer, that visit to the borderlands between one year and the next, is the sacred space I reserve for reading.

After an invigorating walk, each morning begins in prayer, readings from the psalms, wisdom literature, and the New Testament. This regimen provides me with the poetry and dogma I need to fortify my soul and begin summer’s less urgent tasks. This summer, I walked those borderlands each day with an essay of G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936). An excellent collection entitled In Defense of Sanity, selected by luminaries Dale Ahlquest, Joseph Pearce, and Aidan Mackey, gives readers a devotional-style snippet of surprising cultural commentary.

While it was probably his Father Brown mystery novels that brought him the greatest commercial renown, Chesterton’s breadth of learning and depth of thought can be found first in his continuing arguments for traditionalism and rejection of modernist theology, Heretics, Orthodoxy, and The Everlasting Man. His surrealist novel The Man Who Was Thursday forces the reader to question the nature of good and evil and confront the consequences of his own values. His history of St. Thomas Aquinas is simple as it is expansive, and rarely is biography so philosophical. But for brevity and a moment’s amusing reflection, I think I prefer Chesterton’s essays. His language is ripe with wit, saturated with a sarcasm more biting than his intellectual successor, C.S. Lewis. But perhaps he is more whimsical, too, than Lewis, were such a thing possible. He refuses to be worn down by the world’s atheistic ambitions and the church’s un-Christian behaviors. In Chesterton is always the ardent optimist, the self-proclaimed democrat who believes men redeemable through Christ, and that the world, doomed ultimately to destruction, may be ever more transformed the more men are redeemed.

A master of paradox, Chesterton reveals what it means to have saving faith in an age that rejects what it cannot define. He smacks down modernism with an epigram, and with a sharp, passing paragraph anticipates postmodernism before it has a chance to interject. A few passages will serve to illustrate his rhetorical power and the marvel of his imagination:

Realism is simply Romanticism that has lost its reason.

The refusal of God to explain His design is itself a burning hint of His design. The riddles of God are more satisfying than the solution of man.

I wave away, with wild gestures, that merely dingy and spiteful democracy which consists in declaring that every throne is a chair. The true democracy consists in declaring that every chair is a throne.

Logic, then, is not necessarily an instrument for finding truth; on the contrary, truth is necessarily an instrument for using logic, for using it, that is, for the discovery of further truth and for the profit of humanity. Briefly, you can only find truth with logic if you have already found truth without it.

In his own day, Late-Victorian and Modern England were shedding the last of its Christian beliefs, and they were beginning even to deconstruct their Christian heritage. Faith makes little sense in such a culture, as the old philosophy is exhausted and a new generation knows not with what to replace it. Chesterton spoke loudly but humbly to remind them of eternal things, those things that had held together English culture for fifteen hundred years. He laughed at the world’s seriousness and lamented its foolishness. And though it was a futile fight, if by futile we mean that Chesterton’s arguments won the culture war, he pressed on with whimsy, rationality, and joy.

His struggle was not too unlike our own. We, too, are shedding our beliefs without any cohesive cultural values to replace them. We, too, are an unanchored people, lost in the strident conviction of our own, incorrectly, ethical rightness and objectivity and, worse, moral superiority. We, too, will be bowled over with the force of reality when it confronts our false ideas about it. Like the British Christian of the early twentieth century, that bemused stalwart standing astride the presumably unstoppable force of history, the American Christian today might be tempted to despair. But if British history has taught anything, it is that history is never predictable, nor can modern man dictate its direction. Chesterton’s is a voice reminding us that if the Kingdom of Heaven is to endure in the west, then it will likely be won in this age man by man, woman by woman, not culture by culture. History will do what God wills, and we will do naught but submit.

So by way of recommendation, I advise a summer—or other latent period of your choosing—with G.K. Chesterton. In a world unmoored by the extremes of its own values, he offers moments of tranquil chaos.

4 thoughts on “A Summer with G.K. Chesterton

  1. A very interesting piece, Josh! I have been an avid C.S. Lewis reader, and in his letters he often mentions Chesterson. Your piece on this added to my curiosity, I might pick this one up. Your morning routine also sounds like a very thought out one, I can appreciate that! Hope you’ve had a good summer!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s