Summary: Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874 – 1936) was a leading member of the 1920s Anglo-Catholic literary revival, alongside writers and poets such as Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, and T.S. Eliot, all of whom identified with Anglo-Catholicism. Chesterton produced more than eighty books, hundreds of poems and short stories, and around 4,000 essays and newspaper articles, and is widely regarded as a great communicator of religious ideas for which he earned a huge audience beyond his own minority faith.
Orthodoxy is a series of essays in the tradition of Montaigne – attempts (the French “essai”) to explore propositions in a conversational and often controversial way. Read around the world, his admirers included Gandhi, the Irish Republican Michael Collins, the Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci, Jorge Luis Borges, and the heavy metal band Iron Maiden. In Orthodoxy Chesterton turns inward to write of his own faith, and in particular his path towards religious belief in adulthood. He sets aside the veil of fiction and writes conversationally, with immensely readable diversions.
Chesterton narrates his exploration of doubt and religious identity, his yearning for an authentic and intellectually-rigorous faith, and his astonishment when his individual quest led him ultimately to the same path he had discarded in adolescence: “I tried to be some ten minutes in advance of the truth. And I found that I was eighteen hundred years behind it.” Early on, he likens the process of finding faith through a thought experiment from a discarded novel – an explorer who becomes lost and arrives in England thinking that it is an unknown Pacific island: “What could be more delightful than to have in the same few minutes all the fascinating terrors of going abroad combined with all the humane security of coming home? How can we contrive to be at once astonished at the world and yet at home in it?”
Why this is The BEST: Chesterton remains one of the great writers and communicators of modern religion, combining a journalist’s flair, the literary credentials of a first-rate author, and a theology which although un-academic was deeply considered and has been taken seriously by generations of readers.
Chesterton’s widely-read fiction is notable above all for its emphasis on paradox, reversal, and duality. Probably his greatest work, the novel The Man Who Was Thursday, is also the least overtly Christian, exploring the different ways the ordinary can become bizarre, or the mundane fantastical, through the infiltration of a nested set of anarchist conspiracies. Father Brown, the protagonist of his detective stories, is a quiet and nondescript parish priest, who finds straightforward explanations for occurrences which seem to everyone else to be bizarre and supernatural. Chesterton was inspired by paradox – this time of an unworldly and unobtrusive priest who could solve the most flamboyant and grotesque of crimes through common sense and a clear understanding of human nature.
This sense of duality pervades Chesterton’s fiction, and in Orthodoxy he spells out its theological significance: In order for religion to be universal, it must encompass within it all the multitudinous complexity of human nature, and nevertheless speak with a clear and unambiguous voice. But how can this be possible for all people, and across all times, when “all the colours mixed together in purity ought to make a perfect white. Mixed together on any human paint-box, they make a thing like mud?” Only through an embrace of paradox, a willingness to not just live with inconsistency and contradiction but to embrace it, to celebrate “the hidden eccentricities of life.”
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks quoted Chesterton across a range of his works – in particular using his descriptions of America as “the only nation in the world founded on a creed” (Radical Then, Radical Now, 246) and “a nation with the soul of a church” as a shorthand for his own ideas of covenantal and community-focused politics. Depending on the audience, he might also refer to Chesterton’s own antisemitism (the index of a recent sympathetic biography lists twelve separate entries under the heading “antisemitism of, alleged”), and discuss how our prejudices can blind us to the full comprehension of our own insights.
Although a far more serious, and rigorous thinker than Chesterton, Rabbi Sacks enjoyed a similar position as a representative of a minority religion who could speak about faith and religious identity to a nationwide audience. His profile in the UK was cemented in 1990, a year before he became Chief Rabbi, when he delivered the BBC’s Reith Lecture series, observing that “Toleration is not, as G K Chesterton said, ‘the virtue of people who do not believe anything” (Lecture 5), and throughout the following decades he would combine widely-read books with regular newspaper columns and radio appearances.
In the final essay in his collection Celebrating Life, Rabbi Sacks revisited Chesterton’s metaphor of the lost explorer rediscovering the familiar, and turned it from a personal message to a civilizational one: “This is the fate of religion in our time. It is become so old that it is something new. It has been so neglected that we can see it for the first time” (190).
At Chesterton’s funeral – held in a packed Westminster Cathedral – he was eulogized by the priest and writer Ronald Knox (another Catholic convert from Anglicanism) who hailed the ubiquity of his influence across colleagues and students: “We do not even know when we are thinking Chesterton.” For generations of his colleagues, students, and readers, the same is true of Rabbi Sacks.
Ben Crowne lives, works, and teaches in London. He is a trustee of Limmud and the JW3 Community Centre.
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