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Chesterton and the Delight of Truth | James V.
This essay might be about the "splendor" of truth rather than
about its "delight," but John Paul II famously claimed the "splendor"
for himself Veritatis Splendor. Chesterton simply rejoices
in truth, but not just for the sake of his own rejoicing, but because
there is something to rejoice about. "I had heard that I was in the
wrong place, and my soul sang for joy" this is Chestertons
startling reaction to his discovery that man is not made only for this
earth but through it for eternal life. The "splendor" of truth,
I suppose, stresses its own luminousness, its own shining, its reality,
while "delight" indicates our proper reaction to what is, that
it is at all, to what sheds its light before us when we realize at last
that we need light, that there is light.
The Wonder of Existence
But doesnt everyone see this luminous truth? Why was Chesterton
any different? To be sure, no one lacks the power to see truth. The power
is given with what we are. But many, evidently very many, having the power
to see it, choose the word is important not to accept
it. Chesterton is different because he saw, accepted, and affirmed it.
His enthusiasm for reality, for what is, is our grace. If our lives
are disordered, however, it is likely that we do not experience any delight
in truth because we actively prevent ourselves from seeing the splendor
that is there. We can seek, like the young Augustine, all those beautiful
things, without letting ourselves aver to why they might be beautiful
in the first place. We want things before we appreciate what they are
in their fullness the exact opposite of the right order of things.
We oftentimes suspect where truth might lead us, so we cleverly refuse
to go there without ever honestly spelling out to ourselves what we are
doing. We choose to deceive ourselves. We build an apparently plausible
"counter-truth" to justify how we choose to live. We quietly
put aside in our hearts any comparison between what we do and what we
ought to do. The good, the true, and the beautiful, however, are interrelated
in ways that can hide their inner-connections from those who do not want
to see what is there. "The test of all happiness is gratitude; and
I felt grateful, though I hardly knew to whom" is Chestertons
way of expressing his realization of the truth that the good is really
good even though he did not himself create it, perhaps primarily because
he did not create it. He is grateful that he did not hide from the truth
that he saw. He wants to know, in fact, who "caused" it since
he knows he didnt, yet it is there.
Chesterton wrote Orthodoxy
in 1908. He was a young man at the time, already into his journalism
career. He had an uncanny, almost supernatural, knack for discerning in
their incipient principles what events would come about later in the twentieth
century, even to its end, because he simply "saw" things, saw
the truth in them and, more importantly, affirmed it. His Whats
Wrong with the World (1910) spells out the cause of almost every
societal aberration about which we read in our papers each day. Chesterton
indeed was one of those remarkable people who learned about truth not
from itself but from the common and fashionable errors he saw all about
him. They left him perplexed because he could see that they were not true,
in spite of their popularity.
Chesterton delighted in things because he was acutely conscious of the
fact that they need not exist at all "every man in the street
is a great might-not-have-been," as he put it. Every might-not-have-been
in the streets, including ourselves, is filled with a divinely guaranteed
dignity. We are all like the penny, he said in his Charles
Dickens, because we have the image of the king stamped on us,
the divine King. Yet every actual existence is so overwhelmingly unexpected
that everyone who exists at all seems like the result of some huge, improbable
When he realized that the world need not exist (the doctrine of Creation)
and that God did not need to create it (the doctrine of the Trinity),
Chesterton knew that he was free of all the depressing philosophies of
necessity that implied that he had no other purpose of existing but necessity
itself, that reality was merely an unraveling of what had to be. If the
world was the result of choice, however, so much the more so was he. Yet,
if a man did not need to exist, what was the "golden key," as
Chesterton called it, that could account for the wondrous fact that he
did exist without his having anything to do with it? At a minimum, every
person, who might not have been at all, is at least vaguely aware that
his own particular existence rose out of nothingness through no input
of his own.
Ideas Make the Difference
Chestertons first major book in 1905 (and remains a penetrating
read) explains just why he was not a follower of various modern intellectual
movements, most of which are still around in some form or another at the
turn of the twenty-first century. Basically, he did not follow them because
he understood them; he understood their disorder. He knew that the purpose
of a mind was to know reality, to come to a conclusion about claims to
be right or true. "I am a rationalist," he explained in Orthodoxy.
"I like to have some intellectual justification for my intuitions.
If I am treating man as a fallen being it is an intellectual convenience
to me to believe that he fell, and I find, for some odd psychological
reason, that I can deal better with a mans exercise of free will
if I believe that he has got it." Chesterton always had the deadly
capacity to see our implicit contradictions.
To meet the mind of Chesterton is to meet a mind that will not let our
intellectual errors remain hidden from ourselves, however much we might
prefer not to have them boldly spelled out. The most wide-spread contemporary
intellectual error is no doubt something known as cultural relativism.
Chesterton is always amusing when he points out the error of some such
theory that asks us to maintain its contradictions as if they did not
exist. "An imbecile habit has risen in modern controversy of saying
that such and such a creed can be held in one age but cannot be held in
another. Some dogma was credible in the twelfth century, but is not credible
in the twentieth. You might as well say that a certain philosophy can
be believed on Mondays, but cannot be believed on Tuesdays." About
the principle at issue, little further needs to be said in any age, in
Chesterton insists on putting blame where it belongs. Many, like Marx,
have blamed God for mans problems and claim that they could do better
for man by leaving God completely out of the picture. Chesterton was not
so sure. "The secularists have not wrecked divine things, but the
secularists have wrecked secular things." A human error about the
nature or reality of the divinity does not lead to a change in or threat
to the divinity, but it does, like Marxism eventually did, ironically
wreak havoc among human lives and institutions. We may not be able directly
to test the divinity, but we can test what men do because of their misunderstanding
of the divinity, or whatever they have chosen to take its place. Our culture
is wont to teach us that ideas make little difference. Chesterton thinks
that any difference there is comes from our ideas. The real issue is whether
ideas are true or not.
The provocativeness of Heretics, its charming reduction of well-known
philosophic and religious positions to humorous absurdity, annoyed someone
so much that he challenged Chesterton to write a book explaining, not
what he was against, but what he was for. This challenge energized him
even more than his enterprise of pointing out the errors of his friends
and critics in Heretics. Chesterton, incidentally, was, even in
issues of great and passionate controversy, an amazing sort of man who
never lost a friend because he pointed out the impossibility of his ideas.
This is a rare gift and speaks much of the greatness of Chesterton.
Thus, when confronted, Chesterton took up the writing of Orthodoxy,
in which he set forth what he did hold. He discovered that what he
did come to maintain, which he thought so original, was in fact what all
Christians profess in the Creed, many of whom, I might add, unlike Chesterton,
profess the Creed without seeing its wonder, its standing at the foundation
of all healthy and human things. Orthodoxy is itself one of the
best and most profound commentaries on the great Christian Creed. Chesterton
explains in his own way what it affirms and why what it affirms is directed
to the freedom and dignity of man because it is first directed to the
revelation of who God is.
Because Chesterton later wrote his own Autobiography, itself a
marvelous book, Orthodoxy is not an autobiography, though it is
completely autobiographical. Though he was not a Catholic when he wrote
it, it is nevertheless completely Catholic. Though it is written in a
completely unscholarly and familiar style, it is thoroughly scholarly
and formal in its argumentation. When everyone else found "orthodoxy"
to be a bad word, Chesterton found it to be the exact description of what
keeps us sane. "When ever we feel there is something odd in Christian
theology, we shall generally find that there is something odd in the truth."
"The Great March of Mental Destruction"
To begin to understand Chesterton, it is worth recalling the last sentences
of Heretics, as they reveal his soul perhaps as well as anything
he ever wrote not denying that Chestertons great soul clearly
shone through everything he did write, even his shortest essay. But fully
to comprehend what Chesterton concluded at the end of Heretics, we
have to be familiar with one of the great scenes in the New Testament,
with the passage that, perhaps more than any other in our literature,
has consoled ordinary folks who, while bearing constant witness to the
difficulties of belief and its living, nevertheless still believe.
The scene is of the Apostle Thomas, the famous "Doubting Thomas,"
who will not believe reports of the Risen Lord until he sees the wounds
of Christs body and hands. When the Lord appears to Thomas and fulfills
his demand to see and to touch, evidential things, Christ says to him,
with His own paradox, which Chesterton surely noticed, "Blessed are
they, Thomas, who have not seen but who have believed." We cannot
be unaware that this latter group includes the vast majority of mankind
who continue to believe.
"The great march of mental destruction will go on. Everything will
be denied," Chesterton concludes his analysis of modern thought in
an almost prophetic voice.
Everything will become a creed. It is a rational position to deny the
stones in the street; it will be a religious dogma to assert them. It
is a rational thesis that we are all in a dream; it will be mystical sanity
to say that we are all awake. Fires will be kindled to testify that two
and two make four.... We shall be left defending, not only the incredible
virtues and sanities of human life, but something more incredible still,
this huge impossible universe which stares us in the face. We shall fight
for visible prodigies as if they were invisible. We shall look on the
impossible grass and the skies with a strange courage. We shall be of
those who have seen and yet have believed.
Unlike Thomas before the Lord, who now believes because he has seen, Chesterton
is talking to those modern philosophers who see the ordinary things before
their very eyes and still do not believe in their existence, in their
existence that reaches to the order of what is. Chesterton intimated,
in fact, that in our era, we need the faith to believe in what is evident
to our senses, to our reason. The subsequent history of modern philosophy
does not in the least prove that Chesterton was wrong in his supposition.
The end of Heretics, thus, reveals Chestertons profound insight
that the ultimate result of the rejection of the evidence for belief in
modernity would end up with a doubt about the existence of the world itself.
Logically, in order to "prove" that God does not exist, we have
to maintain at some point that the world and its order the very
point at which we started do not exist. Somehow in some albeit
unexpected wisdom, to maintain the existence of natural things as they
are involves the belief in supernatural ones. Chesterton makes this observation
not as a matter of doctrine, which it isnt, but as a matter of historical
fact, of what happens in the minds of those who consistently reject belief
and its evidence and then try to explain consistently what they are doing.
It would most often be the scientists, the philosophers, and the academics
who would come to doubt their senses and any concrete extra-sensory object
they might reveal to us as existing. This observation was one reason that
Chesterton was a democrat and loved ordinary folks "the common
man" as he called him. They were, as he knew them, less susceptible
to an intellectual "proof" that the world did not exist since
they saw quite clearly that it did, no matter what the specialists might
tell them. Chestertons philosophy, as he put it, allowed him to
accept or reject miracles on the basis of evidence. But a determinist
philosopher is not free to accept or reject any mere evidence, because
his philosophy has already precluded any possibility of miracles or evidence
for them. His philosophy, in other words, has caused him to doubt his
Read Part Two
of "Chesterton and the Delight of Truth"
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