Some Comments On G.K. Chesterton By Weston
I recently had the displeasure of reading some essays by the revered G.K. Chesterton, a man whom only very nice things are typically said about — which is a troublesome circumstance that I’d like to do my part in mitigating. Chesterton makes an irritating habit of writing entirely too much in defense of the truth of Christianity, while forgetting to actually address the matter of the truth in Christianity. He occasionally seems like he is going to say something related to this weighty issue, but instead prates endlessly on topics that require the affected proposition to have already been settled. The overall effect seems to be that several of his readers, maybe more, forget that he never addressed the issue of truth, and in silent befuddlement, follow Chesterton to the conclusions of his baseless chatter; rather than insist he start from the beginning like an ordinary person.
Though it would be fun to go through all of his essays that I have here and rebuke each of the nasty things he says about scientists, naturalists, people living before Christianity, Pagans, philosophers, Orientals, and well, pretty much anyone who isn’t a Christian — I’m instead going to select one essay from the bunch, by virtue of it being as bad as any other, and look at it more closely than one would ordinarily want to; which is to say, from a moderate distance.
In “The Paradoxes of Christianity” Chesterton gives a heartwarming account of how he, too, was once a dirty agnostic who read atheistic pamphlets and really, just gave the whole anti-Christianity thing his best. All was going well, torches and fuel had been collected for his first midnight church burning, and it seemed as if Night’s sordid chores would be brought unto completion; until he began to realize that everything he had read against Christianity contradicted itself: “Now I found that I was to hate Christianity not for fighting too little, but for fighting too much. Christianity, it seemed, was the mother of wars. Christianity had deluged the world with blood. I had got thoroughly angry with the Christian, because he never was angry. And now I was told to be angry with him because his anger had been the most huge and horrible thing in human history; because his anger had soaked the earth and smoked to the sun. . . . It was the fault of poor old Christianity (somehow or other) both that Edward the Confessor did not fight and that Richard Coeur de Lion did.”
I believe this was the first point in this particular essay at which I had to stop and reflect: “Hmm, this guy is supposed to be brilliant? Well, he’s certainly not that; unless he’s dishonest — well, at least maybe he’s just dishonest. I mean, the writing itself is pretty, would be a shame if its author were a dullard. Maybe he’s just dishonest.” It doesn’t seem very difficult to me to conceive of Christianity being both at once overly violent and overly meek. Actually, it seems the simplest thing to conceive of — I had a very similar experience the other day: I held one hand to a block of ice and another to a flame, and both at once I became too hot and too cold. I didn’t even pause to think about the inherent paradox in the situation; for if something is too cold and too hot at once, it must be a cozy 72 degrees Fahrenheit in total. Nope, instead, like a sensible person, I quit trying to freeze part of me while burning the other and withdrew from flame and ice alike.
Rather than concern himself with the fact that he’s not actually saying anything here, Chesterton continues by giving lots and lots of other examples which function in exactly the same manner and are thereby completely devoid of content, though very poetic. “Or again, Christianity was reproached with its naked and hungry habits; with its sackcloth and dried peas. But the next minute Christianity was being reproached with its pomp and its ritualism; its shrines of porphyry and its robes of gold.” He apparently is capable of tiring of this, and at some point moves on to find a superficial hypocrisy in the anti-Christians: “But I found that anti-Christians themselves had a contempt for woman’s intellect; for it was their great sneer at the Church on the continent that ‘only women’ went to it.” I would put it beyond even Chesterton to make the mistake of interpreting “women” literally here. I doubt that he even interpreted it wrongly at all, as he appears to. Why, assuming the term “women” isn’t being used literally, should it be a reference to someone’s lack of intelligence rather than lack of manliness? Probably it’s just another case of dishonesty on the part of our morally superior (I bet he’d agree with this illative qualifier) Christian author.
Let me offer one more solution to Chesterton’s paradoxes and then move on. Perhaps, Christianity is capable of promoting violence along side meekness and wealth with poverty because it is a stratified institution. Those couched in shrines of porphyry and robes of gold at the high echelons may repose on the broken backs of their lesser brothers; their brothers who, from this dominated position, have become servile, and who at the whim of their betters may also become fierce or feeble.
All of these contradictions cause Chesterton to withdraw some from his church burning, not give it up completely mind you, but withdraw some, to think about things: “I wished to be quite fair then, and I wish to be quite fair now; and I did not conclude that the attack on Christianity was all wrong. I only concluded that if Christianity was wrong, it was very wrong indeed.” However, as he didn’t conclude that it was very wrong indeed but very right indeed instead, he must also have concluded that there was something to these illusive contradictions. Which leads me to conclude that he is simple. No, he didn’t give in to Christianity at this point, rather he was just disturbed by the implied “odd shape of the Christian religion” by the anti-Christian attackers.
Eventually Chesterton progresses from finding Christianity oddly shaped to, unexpectedly, finding its attackers themselves contorted. Now the apparent contradictions may not be contradictions after all (never mind that they never were); perhaps those describing conflicting errors were using relative terms to describe them. Christianity wasn’t ‘rich’, those who said it was were just too poor; it wasn’t ‘poor’, those who said it was were just too rich. “The modern man found the Church too simple exactly where modern life is too complex; he found the Church too gorgeous exactly where modern life is too dingy.” It would have been interesting if he’d tried this philosophy on some of the contradictions which it was supposed to sort out. For example, is the Church found too violent exactly where modern life is too peaceful? Let’s also witness here further dishonesty by our author: he acquits the anti-Christian attacks of their contradictions through his subsequent attack on the anti-Christians themselves; however, the acquittal is only implicit, and his reader is left feeling that the anti-Christians should still be mocked for what they have been forgiven.
Interestingly, Chesterton’s next move is to disregard what he’d said about the relative language of Christianity’s attackers to, instead, embrace their contradictions in a new cast: “Paganism declared that virtue was in a balance; Christianity declared it was in a conflict: the collision of two passions apparently opposite. Of course they were not really inconsistent; but they were such that it was hard to hold simultaneously.” He starts with an earnest search for truth that leads him away from Christianity, then closer back to it when its opponents ‘contradict’ each other, then closer still when the contradictions are found to be false, and then back securely home when the contradictions are termed otherwise: “Anyone might say, ‘Niether swaggor nor grovel’; and it would have been a limit. But to say, ‘Here you can swagger and there you can grovel’ — that was an emancipation.” Now the contradictions are the mother of balance and the Church’s greatest gift.
The whole journey is incoherent, and his description of it is dishonest if he actually possessed a tithe of the brilliance credited to him. I think he probably had the means for discovering the falsity of Christianity, but he was too emotionally attached. In his careless youth, he must have impetuously decided to consider his beliefs and ended up losing them. Only through much subsequent self-delusion was he able to construct elaborate enough excuses for a return to Christianity endorsed by his repressed rational mind. This is of course fine, and expected; it is in fact the only way faith could operate. The problem I see with the whole thing is that, aside from maybe C.S. Lewis, Chesterton is supposed to make the best arguments for Christianity. Instead, he makes a profound disappointment, and his attitude toward non-Christians is anything but exemplary.