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G. K. Chesterton has consistently been included—by both scholars and lay readers—among the great Christian apologists. But in Orthodoxy, defending the Faith is mostly incidental to the process of an author finding his feet in an uncertain time. Times have grown more, not less, uncertain since the book first appeared in 1908, so readers are as likely now as then to find the process instructive—and to find a personal account more compelling than a dogmatic defense. Chesterton was a prolific writer, already well known by 1908 for twelve other books. Published in a variety of genres, from journalism to fiction and poetry, he was at the time particularly noted for his biographies, criticism (an instance of which became the occasion for this work), and political writing; today he is perhaps best known for his fiction, including his Father Brown mysteries. He collaborated as an illustrator with Hilaire Belloc, and his circle of friends included George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, and other leading lights of English literature. Readers who come to Chesterton through his Orthodoxy enter in the middle, which is exactly the right place to begin. Chesterton was, above all, an apostle of the ordinary, a celebrant of the everyday. Orthodoxy is not simply apologetics and not formally autobiography; it is not a life in Chesterton’s own hand so much as a good look at him living it. The remarkable range of his work, his immense popularity, and the high regard in which scholars have held him (including many who disagree with his political or religious choices) make his “ordinary” life extraordinarily instructive.
Born in London on May 29, 1874, Gilbert Keith Chesterton grew up firmly ensconced in the Victorian middle class, in an atmosphere that was liberal in political orientation and, though nominally Anglican, Unitarian in theological outlook. Unlike many members of his class, however, he was not sent off to boarding school. As a result, there is a rare intimacy to family influences in his life. He had an older sister, Beatrice, who died when she was eight and he was three. Biographers (some of whom have criticized Chesterton for never growing up) have identified this as the only tragedy of an otherwise idyllic childhood, but it was a profound one, with a lasting effect. By Chesterton’s own account, he was not old enough at the time to remember a great deal about his sister; but they had been close, and his father, Edward, responded to the death by attempting to remove all traces of her memory. Chesterton wrote that his sister was the only subject about which his father did not talk. Two years after her death, Gilbert’s brother Cecil was born, and, shortly thereafter, the family moved from urban to suburban London. Gilbert is reported to have greeted the news of his new brother’s arrival by saying “now I shall always have an audience.” Though that seems to have been the case, Cecil proved to be a critical audience, and the experience of a lifelong argument in the context of a close relationship perhaps partly explains Gilbert’s ability to maintain friendships across seemingly impermeable political and theological boundaries. Gilbert’s father has been described as a frustrated artist. He was in charge of the family’s real-estate business, but he managed to spend as little time as possible with commerce, and as much as possible dabbling in drawing and books. He wrote a number of children’s books and illustrated at least one.
Chesterton attended St. Paul’s, which was founded in 1509 and counts John Milton among its alumni. His academic record there was decidedly undistinguished (prompting one school official to say that he belonged in the studio, not the classroom). He was, encouraged by his father and the rest of the family, an artist from an early age and (in agreement with the judgment of the St. Paul’s official) was untroubled by his lack of academic success. Among his peers at St. Paul, who went on to Cambridge and Oxford, he established a reputation as a poet, and he enrolled in the Slade School of Fine Art in London in 1892.
The first biography of Chesterton was published anonymously by his brother Cecil in 1908; it is informative that this first of many life stories was an attack on his politics. More important is the fact that it was launched by someone who had been—and remained—close to its target. Chesterton’s friendships routinely bridged political chasms, and that makes him an exemplar for the present age of deepening political divisions that shatter civility with alarming regularity. Cecil and Gilbert knew how to argue, and they were more than willing to demonstrate publicly.
Chesterton joins a list of English thinkers who are often read as having abandoned youthful radicalism for a comfortable conservatism, a secure orthodoxy. Samuel Taylor Coleridge and John Henry Cardinal Newman particularly come to mind, but one might add (with adjustments for a variety of radicalisms) William Wordsworth, F. D. Maurice, T. S. Eliot, C. S. Lewis, and others—perhaps leading all the way to Tony Blair and New Labour. Chesterton’s unorthodox Orthodoxy is a window on the complexity of this group’s trajectory. Whatever one calls the movement recorded there, it is not a retreat into comfortable stasis—and its logic, even as it leads Chesterton out of the Church of England, is quintessentially Anglican.
Chesterton’s background and training in the visual arts always influenced his writing and very likely contributed to the preponderance of image over linear argument, as many commentators have noted. But curiously, he was a theoretician at heart, and the tension between the visceral and the rational fuels much of his writing. Chesterton was never an academic and never aspired to be one, preferring always to refer to himself as a journalist. And as a journalist, he plunged into whatever topic presented itself, leading some of his contemporaries and some later critics to fear that he was spreading himself too thin. But his resistance to specialization is part of his charm and very likely helps to explain his popularity.
Chesterton referred to Orthodoxy as “a sort of slovenly autobiography,” but even a casual reader will quickly see that it is anything but slovenly. No doubt, there is always madness in Chesterton’s method, but that does not entirely obscure the method in the madness, which some commentators have described as Thomistic. That in itself is sufficiently paradoxical to sustain interest in what Chesterton is about. For many at the time Chesterton wrote (and for many now), Thomas Aquinas is the embodiment of Scholasticism, while Chesterton is its antithesis. But Aquinas and Chesterton share both a deep belief in the power of language and a conviction that when one encounters the universe one encounters not only a convincing argument for the existence of God but also a reason to give thanks. At the same time, both are convinced of the incapacity of language to contain—or explain—God, so both proceed analogically; Aquinas by constructing formal arguments and Chesterton by giving his readers a glimpse of being in the world. More important, the glimpse of being is understood as an intimation of Being. Chesterton’s affinity with Aquinas derives from a variety of mysticism they share: recall that Aquinas said all his writing was as straw when placed alongside his vision of the divine. Mystics, especially mystics trained as visual artists, are more inclined to show than to tell. Chesterton is an instance of what happens when this inclination is channeled into popular (but in no sense “slovenly”) writing. What Chesterton is about here is autobiographical in the sense that he believes he can best make the case for the Faith by giving readers a record of a particular instance of embracing it. And the instance most familiar, most ready to hand, is his own.
Given that the tradition of autobiography in the West begins with Augustine’s Confessions, Chesterton’s work is autobiographical in the classical sense: it is—as he notes—a record of his conversion, not an explanation “of whether the Christian Faith can be believed, but of how he personally has come to believe it.” But, true to form, it is an uncommon variation on a common theme. Chesterton begins with the whimsical tale of an English yachtsman “who slightly miscalculated his course and discovered England under the impression that it was a new island in the South Seas.” He is, he says, the yachtsman. So the book begins with a description of how he sets out to find a new anchor for his thought in an age of uncertainty and discovers at every step along the way that what he thought was new is exactly what the Church confesses in the Apostles’ Creed. The movement of his intellectual development is the movement of the Creed, and it is a movement that runs counter to modernity. While the motto of the modern world is “believe in yourself,” the movement of the Creed directs one’s belief outside oneself to a maker, a redeemer, and a sanctifier of heaven and earth—and to a community of believers. Chesterton notes that those “who really believe in themselves are all in lunatic asylums,” and this leads him to a remarkable exploration of madness, which he says is the absence, not of reason, but of imagination. In this, he prefigures later critiques (including, surprisingly, Herbert Marcuse’s) that see a variety of twentieth-century ills as instances of hyper-rationality. It is an explanation of Chesterton’s turn to poetry and fiction, and it leads him in the long run to rethink the Church. He reacts against a glorification of will but embraces a community he believes makes room for creativity. This is one of the many paradoxes for which Chesterton is well known. Seeking freedom, he finds the Church—but he defines the Church, via the cross, as throwing its arms open rather than drawing a circle around itself.
Though this is not “systematic,” it is not haphazard and not simply a matter of convenience. It is an assertion of a belief that is central to Chesterton and that he believes is central to Christianity: “That the things common to all men are more important than the things peculiar to any men. Ordinary things are more valuable than extraordinary things; nay, they are more extraordinary. Man is something more awful than men; something more strange. The sense of the miracle of humanity itself should be always more vivid to us than any marvels of power, intellect, art, or civilization. The mere man on two legs, as such, should be felt as something more heartbreaking than any music and more startling than any caricature.” Chesterton is convinced that ecce homo points to the common, not the heroic. And he locates himself among the common: a journalist, not a writer; a commoner, not an aristocrat. It is not surprising that some commentators have found parallels with Kierkegaard and Kafka, both of whom saw the mind-numbingly destructive capacity of abstraction. To see the human, Chesterton insists, is to see its concrete particularity; hence a life, not an argument; not a traditional life story (he did write one later), but the record of an intellectual conversion to a philosophy made by God and humanity that in turn made him.
And there is no place to enter a life other than the middle.
This is the defining paradox of Orthodoxy: we always set out to discover what we already know. We always set out to arrive where we already are. (The echo in T. S. Eliot’s “Little Gidding” is unmistakable: “We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.”) The problem as Chesterton sees it is how to “contrive to be at once astonished at the world and yet at home in it.” For Chesterton, every discovery is a sort of homecoming; and because every homecoming is a discovery, there is an element of delight and surprise in every instance of it.
In a broadly Anglican context, this is a figure of the incarnation, understood under the category of “real presence,” a flexible concept that sidesteps the theological fireworks around transubstantiation and consubstantiation. The extraordinariness of the ordinary is an affirmation of the ubiquity of God, and that affirmation is a thread that runs through the diversity and discord of theology in the English Church. Though Chesterton is fourteen years away from formally converting to Catholicism at the time of Orthodoxy, he references Cardinal Newman. But he could as easily have evoked F. D. Maurice, a founder of Christian Socialism often identified with the “broad Church” movement in Anglicanism, who was led by an equally Anglican logic to remain in the established Church. For Newman, for Maurice, for Coleridge, and for Chesterton, the competing forces are the established (Anglican) Church, dissent (particularly, for Chesterton, in its Unitarian form), and the Roman Church. Each searches for an institutional form—a body, as it were, in which to be at home. It is characteristic of Anglican thought, broadly conceived, to set out for the place from which one began and know it for the first time. The challenge is to be human and encounter God in human being.
This lies behind Chesterton’s attention in Orthodoxy to the Apostles’ Creed. Setting out to find his feet in an uncertain time, Chesterton finds himself at home in a creed he did not invent—the creed by which the Church constitutes itself. And again, for those who left as well as those who did not, finding a place in the affirmation of God’s presence is characteristically Anglican. More to the point, it is characteristically Anglican to place the emphasis on the third of the three articles of the creed (“I believe in the holy catholic Church...”). It is the subject of the third article, the Church, that assures access to the subjects of the first and second articles. God is encountered in the human—specifically in the human institution of the Church. It is good to enter Orthodoxy knowing that Chesterton, like many Anglican theologians, is startled to find God where he is seeking to be at home—the presence of God in a child, in a manger. Nothing could be more extraordinary, and yet it is the most ordinary thing on earth.
This kind of storytelling depends on what Stanley Hauerwas has called a story-formed community, a community formed around the telling and retelling of a story, and that is why Chesterton’s attention drifts to the third article. But it is also why he insists that madness—the kind of madness he confronted in his world and we confront in ours—is a failure of imagination, not reason. Chesterton is a defender of imagination, with its playfulness, its openness, its dreaming of possibility where nothing but necessity is evident. For Chesterton, a collapse in the face of the “necessary” is suicidal, though it may keep one out of the asylum and the Church. The asylum sets out to “cure” madness by reason, while the Church, Chesterton believes, nurtures the imagination that holds madness at bay. And so, for some of the same reasons that Coleridge and Maurice remained in the Church of England, Chesterton finally leaves. He leaves with a reference to the artist’s embrace of limits: without limits there is no art. Without limits there is no freedom. The institution is the body of the spirit through which human beings encounter the other two persons of the Trinity. And above all else, the institution is a conservatory of stories—the Gospel, of course, and the great performances of the Hebrew prophets, but also the “secular” variations found in fairy tales, an important source for Chesterton’s ethics.
Chesterton’s insistence on the uniqueness of Christianity sometimes leads to caricature of other traditions and institutions, particularly Buddhism and Islam. But that is another argument. The key here is the story-formed community that constructs human beings in its image. That explains Chesterton’s appeal for conservatives. But, in a typically Chestertonian paradox, the embrace of tradition and the authority of the community create a potentially revolutionary space.
As Garry Wills has said, even when Chesterton is wrong the light of his reasoning illuminates the surrounding scenery. And that might just make possible the kind of “right seeing” that Gautama—the historical Buddha—had in mind. Believing, Chesterton maintains, is seeing—the vision that comes of a space in which one may dream.
Steven Schroeder is a poet and philosopher who divides his time between Chicago and Shenzhen, China, where he teaches American philosophy, peace studies, and poetry at Shenzhen University.