I’ve just never liked G.K. Chesterton — which, among the conservative Christians with whom I sometimes (though, as an Episcopalian, not often) travel, is almost enough to make me a Bad Person. Yet by the time I’ve unraveled one of those Chestertonian paradoxes, not only do I have a headache, but I also don’t feel that I’ve come away with a single lasting idea. I would like to think that there was a philosopher like Chesterton who made Christianity seem sane and every modern outlook seem ridiculous. Yet I could never see how Chesterton lived up to this promise.
Lo, I finally found someone who shares my views on Chesterton (and expresses them better than I ever could)! Here is the late English historian Maurice Cowling writing about Chesterton in his cantankerous, three-volume Religion and Public Doctrine in Modern Engand:
About Chesterton’s Christian polemic, there was no despair. There was, however, contortion, and the question we have to ask is, given that he could not assume the truth of Christianity [because in Chesterton’s view one always has a free choice among equally fantastic assumptions], did not feel it appropriate to make plain statements and wished to avoid the seriousness of the High Victorians, in what ways did he justify it?
I agree completely. Chesterton fanatics sometimes talk as if his wonderfulness just can’ t be doubted. For some reason, he makes a lot of people feel that it would just be not in the right spirit to subject him to critical examination. But there’s no reason not to do so. Just because Chesterton makes you feel good doesn’t mean that he’s sound.
Orthodoxy was a record of the process by which Chesteron had become a Christian and a statement of what he took it that Christianity meant. Not all parts were equally impressive. The first four or so chapters in places were painful while the autobiography was fragmentary and unsatisfactory, and did not describe the difference between being ‘ten minutes in advance of the trust’ and being ‘eighteen hundred years behind it.’
It’s true: As a record of how Chesterton came to Christianity, Orthodoxy is completely unpersuasive. Every sentence conjures up the Chesterton persona. An actual person who doubts and discovers, and changes his thinking as a result, never emerges.
In Orthodoxy, Chesterton’s chief tactical point was that the main Christian dogmas were more liberal in their implications than the self-consciously liberal dogmas by which they were assualted. . . . This was not put very well. But it was connected with a harder idea — that of Christianity as the “slash of the sword” which would destroy natural religion, the Arnoldian compromise, and the Inner Light, and establish that the world was a good deal less “regular” than it looked. It was to a world where “life” was “unreasonable” and superstition abounding, and where “earthquakes of emotion” could be unloosed about a word that Christian vigilance was presented as the response.
In other words, Chesterton is an irrationalist. His seeks to paralyze the intellect in order to make room for awe. Admittedly, there can be no religion without awe (at least I think that’s right). Still, if Cowling is right, Chesterton opposes the traditions of natural theology and faith seeking understanding. His Christianity tries to keep reason permanently cabined.
It is difficult to be fair to Orthodoxy, or to know whether its glibness or its whimsy was the more offensive. . . . Chesterton had little talent for philosophical, theological or theoretical statement. All he had — though he had this to the point of genius — was a talent for compressing long arguments into short paradoxes which left the reader to suggest the application for himself. This talent was remarkable, and was obvious throughout his writing. It was at its best in The Thing. Its limitations were most obvious in The Everlasting Man where the attempt at a philosophy failed because it was beyond his capability. . . . [T] structure of th[at] book crack[ed] under the strain of its own weightlessness.
Ouch! This is a curmedgeonly assessment, to be sure, but it rings true. All those Chesterton lovers experience themselves as having completed a long and thrilling philosophical adventure. But it rarely seems that they can remember the itinerary. What makes Christianity in the end so much more satisfying? The answer never sounds very convincing when Chesterton himself isn’t saying it. He creates the feeling of philosophical achievement without the reality.