A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
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I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

G.K. Chesterton's "Mere Christianity"

C.S. Lewis was thrust into fame with his work that led to the publication of his book, Mere Christianity. Indeed, when many Christians hear the words "mere Christianity," Lewis is the first person who comes to mind. But G.K Chesterton published his own version of mere Christianity years before Lewis began putting his thoughts in print and on the radio. The Everlasting Man, published in 1925, is considered by many Chesterton scholars to be his finest work. While an atheist, Lewis read it, and he credited the book as a formative influence on his journey into Christianity. In reflecting later upon Everlasting Man, Lewis said that serious atheists should be careful about what they read.(1) Lewis writes,
Then I read Chesterton's Everlasting Man and for the first time saw the whole Christian outline of history set out in a form that seemed to me to make sense . . . I already thought Chesterton the most sensible man alive "apart from his Christianity." Now, I veritably believe, I thought that Christianity itself was very sensible "apart from its Christianity."(2)
In The Everlasting Man, Chesterton argues for the indispensable nature of mere Christianity, which for Chesterton, and later Lewis, consisted of the basic doctrines of the faith believed by most Christians throughout history. Such "mereness" centered around the person and work of Jesus Christ who is indeed the everlasting man.

Chesterton was unimpressed with conservative (not the same as Orthodox) and liberal (progressive) versions of Christianity and politics. He found both expressions of faith and life to be dull and uninteresting and too close to the culture to be set apart in any significant way. Chesterton famously quipped,  "The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected."(3) For G.K. the historic faith and its mere expression was what made Christianity unique and singularly significant, and in The Everlasting Man, he invites the reader to see the truth of that by stepping back and seeing the larger picture of life. Conservatives and progressives are unable to see that larger picture because they are too wrapped up in the minutiae of their context. They have little ability at critical self-examination. Chesterton also understood that one's assumptions, and not the current or past moments, were critical in the search for truth. He said, "What a man can believe depends upon his philosophy, not upon the clock or the century."(4)


One place where Chesterton demonstrates his independent thinking is in reference to evolutionary theory. Chesterton does not deny the truth of evolution. What he does in insightful fashion is to connect it to some of the great theological themes in Scripture. In so doing he does not pit science against the Bible, but attempts to make sense of both in holistic fashion. Ahlquist writes,
What do we know about early man? The one thing we really we know for sure is that he was an artist. The cave man left behind his drawings on the wall of the cave. The creature who made these drawings was truly different from all other creatures because he was a creator as well as a creature. "Art is the signature of man," says Chesterton. It is just one of many things that demonstrates that "the more we look at man as an animal, the less he will look like one." In addition to art are such artificial things as clothes and furniture and such unique reactions such as shame and laughter. And that other exclusively human thing called religion.
Religion is as old as Civilization. And civilization is as old as history. Chesterton says that when we study history, the curtain rises on a play already in progress. He argues that it was religion that advanced civilization. It was religion that dealt with the meanings of things, with the development and interpretation of symbols, which advanced communication and knowledge, or what we call the arts and the sciences.(5)
After rightly rejecting the history of religions approach to religion, Chesterton then makes his case, in the second half of the book, for the singular significance of Jesus. The Cross is a central demonstration of such significance. He writes,
All the great groups that stood about the Cross represent in one way or another the great historical truth of the time; that the world could not save itself. Man could do no more. Rome and Jerusalem and Athens and everything else…(6)
Chesterton rejects, out of hand, the modern belief that Jesus was simply a wonderful teacher. For Chesterton, this was a simplistic reading of the Gospels. The Jesus that comes to us from the pages of Scripture is too complex, and that Jesus is a multi-faceted figure who shakes up the status quo and rearranges everyone's view of the world. G.K. does not lay this criticism at the feet of secularism alone. He notes how the church has tended to emphasize the softer side of Jesus, the Jesus of comfort, while minimizing the Jesus with the hard edge.(7) It is this complex, multi-faceted Jesus that will not allow him to be used as a poster boy for various modern political and religious agendas, though many continue the attempt. (If you don't believe this, just look at all the supposedly profound pictures of Jesus posted on Facebook which try to connect him either to the Occupy Movement or the Tea Party, or as supporting a liberal or conservative political agenda.) Such attempts to conform Jesus' life and ministry are attempts to domesticate him because Jesus' call to discipleship as Jesus himself presents it is too difficult for most. The problem, says Chesterton is not that Christianity "has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried."(8) For G.K. all of human history is to be seen through the lens of Incarnation.

While Chesterton is modern in that he assumes that objectivity is possible, he is postmodern in his appeal to the significance of art and beauty and poetry as expressions of the divine source of life. In the latter he was ahead of his time in apologetical reflections. He writes,
You say grace before meals. All right. But I say grace before the concert and the opera, and grace before the play and pantomime, and grace before I open a book, and grace before sketching, painting, swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing and grace before I dip the pen in the ink.(9)
So, the next time someone speaks of "mere Christianity" while we are right to think of C.S. Lewis, let us not forget the man who made Lewis' work possible-- G.K. Chesterton
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NOTES

(1) Dale Ahlquist, "The Everlasting Man."
(2) C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 1955
(3) Illustrated London News (1924-04-19)
(4) G.K. Chesteron, Orthodoxy, 1908.
(5) Ahlquist, "The Everlasting Man."
(6) G. K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man.
(8) Chesterton, The Everlasting Man.
(9) From one of Chesterton's notebooks, (mid 1890s). See Amanda, DeWitt, "Grace."

2 comments:

Tom Bolton said...

Thanks for this! I am inspired to read The Everlasting Man now.

Allan Bevere said...

Tom,

No doubt some of G.K.'s reflections are out of date from what we now know of evolutionary theory. But having said that, he was only responding to the best evolutionary science of the day, which too has been revised.

Nevertheless, his arguments are worth reviewing and still more relevant than some of what we read today by 21st century writers.