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Seeing With the Eyes of G.K. Chesterton | An Interview with Dale Ahlquist | Carl E. Olson
is the president and co-founder of the
American Chesterton Society. He is the creator and host of the Eternal Word Television
Network series, "G.K. Chesterton:
The Apostle of Common Sense" on EWTN. Dale is the author of
G.K. Chesterton: Apostle of Common Sense and the recently published
Common Sense 101: Lessons From G.K. Chesterton.
He is also the the publisher
Magazine, author of The Chesterton University Student Handbook, editor
of The Gift of Wonder: The Many Sides of G.K. Chesterton, and associate
editor of the Collected
Works of G.K. Chesterton (Ignatius). He has been called "one of the most respected Chesterton scholars in the world" and has delighted
audiences around the country with his variety of talks on the great English writer. He is a graduate of Carleton College (B.A.) in Northfield,
Minnesota, and Hamline University (M.A.) in St. Paul, Minnesota. He lives near Minneapolis
with his wife and five children.
Carl E. Olson, editor of IgnatiusInsight.com, recently spoke with Ahlquist about Chesterton, conversion, and Common Sense 101.
IgnatiusInsight.com: You first began reading Chesterton when you were an
Evangelical Protestant. How did you discover his work and what was your initial
impression of his writing and thought?
Dale Ahlquist: I had a brother-in-law who was a famous Jesus Rock
singer back in the 1970's. His name was Larry Norman. He was the one who first
recommended that I read Chesterton. He made the astonishing comment that if I
read Chesterton I wouldn't need to read C.S. Lewis, because everything in Lewis
was already in Chesterton. For an Evangelical, this was like blasphemy. But the
comment stuck with me. It would be a few more years till I finally picked up my
first Chesterton book, which was on my honeymoon! It was
The Everlasting Man (pause for laughter). My initial impression? That my entire college education
had been a fraud. Which it was, as it turns out.
IgnatiusInsight.com: What role did Chesterton play in your decision to
become Catholic? Have you found that others who have become Catholic also
credit Chesterton for helping them with the journey to the Catholic Church?
Ahlquist: I never would have thought about becoming Catholic
if I had not read Chesterton. He comes from such a different angle, a wider
angle, too! Nothing like classic apologetics, which is sort of one question at
a time. Chesterton gets you to see the big picture, and the more you read him,
you find that you start thinking like a Catholic and stop thinking like a
Protestant. And yes, I am only one of many whom Chesterton has escorted into
the Catholic Church. I've started a list. There are a lot of people on it. In
fact, you're on it. [Carl:
Indeed I am. Reading Chesterton's Orthodoxy
in 1994 was an eye-opening experience. Reading it and several more books by Chesterton
proved to be a key part of my journey to the Catholic Church.]
IgnatiusInsight.com: You've already written one introductory book about
Chesterton, The Apostle of Common Sense. How is Common Sense
101: Lessons From G.K. Chesterton different? What did you hope to accomplish with this book?
[Read an excerpt here.]
Ahlquist: The first book was specifically designed to be an
introduction to Chesterton. The second book is not supposed to be a book about
Chesterton but rather about seeing the world through Chesterton's eyes. And so
I hope to give people a new take on art, literature, education, science,
history, fads (like feminism), and many other things, to give them the
Chestertonian perspective, which is always larger and truer than the narrow and
sometimes dishonest way we usually see these things. I also take the
opportunity to show how Chesterton goes about defending the faith.
IgnatiusInsight.com: If you had to define what makes Chesterton's
writings and thought unique, how would you go about it?
Ahlquist: Chesterton is a complete thinker. Most modern
thinkers are specialists and are limited by their specialty. Chesterton really
did write about everything. It's why I've said that you're not educated until
you've read Chesterton, and reading Chesterton is almost a complete education
in itself. But it is his completeness that makes him too big to get a hold of.
People prefer their truth to come in small, manageable bits. And in water-tight
compartments. They don't like it when religion oversteps its bounds into art
and economics and daily life. Chesterton is always pointing to the same truth,
and using every available subject to point to it. As he says, "There is only
IgnatiusInsight.com: In Common Sense 101 you point out
that Chesterton's books are more timely today than when they were written. Can
you give some examples?
Ahlquist: If you consider a few lines picked from Chesterton,
you will immediately get the picture:
"The Declaration of
Independence dogmatically bases all rights on the fact that God created all men
equal; and it is right; for if they were not created equal, they were certainly
evolved unequal. There is no basis for democracy except in a dogma about
the divine origin of man."
"Men in a state of decadence
employ professionals to fight for them, professionals to dance for them, and a
professional to rule them."
"In expressing confused ideas,
the moderns have great subtlety and sympathy. It is in expressing clear
ideas that they generally find their limitations."
These Chesterton quotations are
typical of his marvelous ability to state self-contained truths. They also make
you realize pretty quickly why he is the most quotable writer of the 20th
IgnatiusInsight.com: Chesterton, like C.S. Lewis, is very popular among
Evangelicals and Catholics. What is the common ground that both groups find in
Chesterton? What do you think Chesterton might say to those non-Catholic
Christians who gaze at Rome but are reluctant to come into full communion with
the Catholic Church?
Ahlquist: For people who like both Chesterton and Lewis, the
common ground is . . . Chesterton! It turns out my ex-brother-in-law was absolutely
right. Lewis borrowed everything from Chesterton. There's nothing wrong with
that. Lots of people borrow from Chesterton. I know I do. Lewis stopped short
of becoming a Catholic, though it looks like he was headed in that direction.
Chesterton once said that if every man lived a thousand years he would either
end up as a pessimistic nihilist or a member of the Catholic Church. Those are
ultimately the only two choices. So, in C.S. Lewis' case, he simply didn't live
long enough. But what makes Chesterton's comment so amazing is that he said it
10 years before he himself became a Catholic. Chesterton's great ecumenical
appeal is because he affirms truths that every sincere Christian instantly
recognizes to be true. Catholics should be pleased by every Protestant who
likes Chesterton. They are our allies in the culture wars, especially as we
fight the Culture of Death.
IgnatiusInsight.com: One of the Chesterton's best known quotes is that
"when a man stops believing in God he doesn't believe in nothing, he
believes in anything." But you explain that there's something wrong with
that statement. What is it?
Ahlquist: Well, there's nothing wrong with it, it's just that
Chesterton never said it. I think it's great that critics accuse Chesterton of
misquoting other writers, but no one is misquoted more than Chesterton, especially
his most famous (non)quotation. What he actually said was, "It's the first
effect of not believing in God that you lose your common sense." It was in a
Father Brown story. In another Father Brown story (in fact the very next one)
he talks about the skeptic's willingness to believe anything. I also think that
no one would be more pleased at the misquotation than Chesterton himself.
IgnatiusInsight.com: What are some of the common sense lessons we can
learn today from G.K. Chesterton?
Ahlquist: Three things come to mind.
First, there is a reason to
trust tradition, and be skeptical of new things. The modern world has that one
exactly backwards: old is bad; new is good. Newer is even better. "A new
philosophy," says Chesterton, "is generally the praise of some old vice." The
irony arising from this is that it is now counter-cultural to defend morality
and faith and the ancient truths that have been handed down to us by the
Secondly, Chesterton's defense
of the family as the center of life and the home as the most important place is
a lesson badly needed today. All of our focus is on things outside the home:
careers, politics, entertainment, sports. And none of these things are nearly
as important as the caring for the souls of our children and the deepening of
the sacramental relationship between husbands and wives.
Thirdly, poems should rhyme.
IgnatiusInsight.com: Are you going to explain that last one?
Ahlquist: Nope. Everyone is going to have to read the book,
which is also a defense of poetic form, something that has been lost and needs
to be recovered along with the rest of common sense.
IgnatiusInsight.com: What are some of your projects at the American
Ahlquist: We are
preparing to do 13 new episodes for the "Apostle of Common Sense" series on
EWTN. And EWTN will also be producing a special presentation of Chesterton's
little known play "The Surprise," which is a masterpiece about free will and
the Incarnation. We're also working on a much-needed Annotated Everlasting
Man for Ignatius Press. Besides that, I'm happily busy giving talks
on my favorite writer all over the country.
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Pages:
Recovering The Lost Art of Common Sense
| Dale Ahlquist
IgnatiusInsight.com author page for G.K. Chesterton
The God in the Cave | G.K. Chesterton
"What Is America?"
| G.K. Chesterton
G.K. Chesterton: Common Sense
Apostle & Cigar Smoking Mystic | Dale Ahlquist
Hot Water and
Fresh Air: On Chesterton and His Foes | Janet E. Smith
and Saint Francis | Joseph Pearce
the Delight of Truth | James V. Schall, S.J.
The Life and Theme of G.K. Chesterton | Fr. Randall Paine
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