The cool of the dawn

They took the body down from the cross and one of the few rich men among the first Christians obtained permission to bury it in a rock tomb in his garden; the Romans setting a military guard lest there should be some riot and attempt to recover the body. There was once more a natural symbolism in these natural proceedings; it was well that the tomb should be sealed with all the secrecy of ancient near eastern sepulchre and guarded by the authority of the Caesars. For in that second cavern the whole of that great and glorious humanity which we call antiquity was gathered up and covered over; and in that place it was buried. It was the end of a very great thing called human history; the history that was merely human. The mythologies and the philosophies were buried there, the gods and the heroes and the sages. In the great Roman phrase, they had lived. But as they could only live, so they could only die; and they were dead.

On the third day the friends of Christ coming at daybreak to the place found the grave empty and the stone rolled away. In varying ways they realized the new wonder; but even they hardly realized that the world had died in the night. What they were looking at was the first day of the new creation, with a new heaven and a new earth; and in the semblance of the gardener God walked again in the garden, in the cool not of the evening but the dawn.

— G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man

Encouragement from Chesterton

As I look at the world, I worry. Earthquakes. Floods. Unrest sweeping the Middle East. “Wars and rumors of wars.” Decadence. The church, deeply influenced by surrounding culture. America so deeply in debt it seems only a matter of time before we implode entirely. Democratic ideals subordinated to increasingly centralized power.

The Proverbs 31 woman “smiles at the future.” I am one in a long line of mothers who find this is not our natural reflex, who wonder and worry about the world our children will inherit.

One of the great blessings of reading The Everlasting Man is the way G.K. Chesterton encourages us to take a step back and survey the sweep of history. There we see that civilizations have risen and fallen. Political power, cultural sophistication, ideological fashions have risen and fallen. Even Christianity has risen and fallen. But it has survived its own death time after time. The world has never yet been forsaken; God has held true to his promise to Noah.

Chesterton regards Jesus’ first miracle in the gospels, the changing of water to wine, as a metaphor for the way God always works. “You have saved the best wine for the end,” the people marvel at the wedding in Cana. In the same way God, just when we think our faith may not be equal to the times, breaks out the very best wine, the wine of resurrection and revival:

Again and again, before our time, men have grown content with a diluted doctrine. And again and again there has followed on that dilution, coming as out of the darkness in a crimson cataract, the strength of the red original wine…

This is the final fact, and it is the most extraordinary of all. The faith has not only often died but it has often died of old age. It has not only been often killed but it has often died a natural death; in the sense of coming to a natural and necessary end…

Feudalism had passed away, and the words did not pass away. The whole medieval order, in many ways so complete and almost cosmic a home for man, wore out gradually in its turn: and here at least it was thought that the words would die. They went forth across the radiant abyss of the Renaissance and in fifty years were using all its light and learning for new religious foundations, new apologetics, new saints. It was supposed to have been withered up at last in the dry light of the Age of Reason; it was supposed to have disappeared ultimately in the earthquake of the Age of Revolution. Science explained it away; and it was still there. History disinterred it in the past; and it appeared suddenly in the future. To-day it stands once more in our path; and even as we watch, it grows.

If our social relations and records retain their continuity, if men really learn to apply reason to the accumulating facts of so crushing a story, it would seem that sooner or later even its enemies will learn from their incessant and interminable disappointments not to look for so simple a thing as its death. They may continue to war with it, but it will be as they war with nature; as they war with the landscape, as they war with the skies. “Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away.”

The Everlasting Man

The Everlasting Man (1925) is G.K. Chesterton’s response to H.G. Wells’ Outline of History. Chesterton took issue with Wells’ evolutionary interpretation and his ensuing book is one of the ten C.S. Lewis credited as most influential in his intellectual life, spiritual history and vocation.

What comes to mind first is a question: what would Chesterton think of one such as I “reviewing” his book? I feel completely inadequate. His learning is immense in both breadth and depth, his wit superlative, his good nature and brilliance so far beyond me that they leave me panting in a heap beside the road. And he’s not even laboring. There is simply no one who writes like this today.

Rather than a review, I’m offering a few impressions — a mere signpost saying, “Janet was here: 3/12/11.” This marks my first encounter with a book I’m sure I’ll revisit.

The Everlasting Man is a history and apologetic. Chesterton, pointing out that most criticisms of the church are myopic, steps back and takes us on a tour of world history from the allegedly savage cave man through the early 20th century, making comparisons between civilizations, eras, philosophies and mythologies. In some ways The Everlasting Man is a fuller elaboration of the ideas in Orthodoxy, telling a universal story rather than a personal one.

Nowhere do we hear what Lewis later would term “chronological snobbery;” Chesterton has a deep respect for humanity, and part of what he argues against is the condescending interpretation of the historian who says early humans are simply uncivilized animals. “Man is not merely an evolution,” writes Chesterton, “but rather a revolution.” In Orthodoxy, Chesterton wrote that it was a commonplace that apes and men are physically similar, but their differences are much greater: “That an ape has hands is far less interesting to the philosopher than the fact that having hands he does next to nothing with them.” For Chesterton, the physical likeness is subordinate to the defining qualities of soul and universal spiritual longings that set men apart. In the terms of this book, these longings are what define “everlasting humanity.”

And it is Christ, the “everlasting man,” who fulfills them. The first half of the book is a discussion of history; the second half is a discussion of Christ and what makes him unique among all the mythic figures and philosophical teachers (defining such terms is part of Chesterton’s business here) that came before:

Right in the middle of all these things stands up an enormous exception. It is quite unlike anything else. It is a thing final like the trump of doom, though it is also a piece of good news; or news that seems too good to be true. It is nothing less than the loud assertion that this mysterious maker of the world has visited his world in person. It declares that really and even recently, or right in the middle of historic times, there did walk into the world this original invisible being; about whom the thinkers make theories and the mythologists hand down myths; the Man Who Made the World. That such a higher personality exists behind all things had indeed always been implied by all the best thinkers, as well as by all the most beautiful legends. But nothing of this sort had ever been implied in any of them…

This passage is in the conclusion, so it provides a glimpse of the ground Chesterton has covered as well as a sample of his exuberant writing. As I approached the middle of the  book, I said to myself that I liked the earlier chapters best, where the ancient civilizations we’re studying in history were lifted up and compared like tokens on a world map. But by the time I finished, I had changed my mind. It’s the way Chesterton writes about Jesus that shines. Better than anything I’ve ever read, this book catalogs the uniqueness and grandeur of Jesus on the stage of world history.

Though it’s food for the mind and soul, it takes serious work to read. In all honesty, it absolutely has to be read twice — once for the general sweep of the argument, then a second time for a fuller consideration of the details.

I read it on my Kindle, and would discourage anyone from doing likewise. The Kindle edition is filled with textual weirdnesses that somehow resulted in the transition from physical text to e-text: h’s frequently transformed into b’s, words are run together, “rn’s” changed to “m’s,” just for a few examples. Further, although you can underline and annotate, it’s a pain on the Kindle, and flipping back and forth is difficult as well. I really wish I had a paper copy instead. It’s worth the cost to get the physical text of this classic work that demands rereading, and inscribe it with the marks of your own reading journey.

G.K. Chesterton on “tired democracy”

Do we think of democracy as the pinnacle — the culmination of long striving toward a fuller expression of human ideals — the summit of human progress?

G.K. Chesterton, writing in 1925, points out that such a view may have it backwards:

If there is one fact we really can prove, from the history that we really do know, it is that despotism can be a development, often a late development and very often indeed the end of societies that have been highly democratic. A despotism may almost be defined as a tired democracy. As fatigue falls on a community, the citizens are less inclined for that eternal vigilance which has truly been called the price of liberty; and they prefer to arm only one single sentinel to watch the city while they sleep. (The Everlasting Man)

America is only a couple of centuries old, but when you consider the consolidation of power in this country, and the various ways we hand over our freedom and privacy, it appears fatigue has set in already.

Orthodoxy

I finished Chesterton’s autobiographical book Orthodoxy a few days ago. I loved it and will probably read it again.

We’ve all seen Chesterton quotes floating around here and there, and they’re always pithy and witty. I admit that at times I found his writing wearying for that very reason: it’s relentlessly epigrammatic. I learned to set the book aside when my mind clenched into a single spasm of simultaneous hard thinking and laughter, and my eyes glazed over.

Chesterton wrote this book in response to a challenge. It’s a sequel to Heretics, which I have not read, but which points out fallacies in various arguments against Christianity. Someone remarked that Chesterton would be more worth listening to on the negatives if he advanced an alternative — an affirmation of what to believe. Hence, Orthodoxy: The Romance of Faith, in which he offers not metaphysics, but rather his personal journey toward faith, and his reasons for turning to Christianity.

His perspective is truly unique. I remember someone telling me years ago that once I read Chesterton, C.S. Lewis would appear less original to me. I think that person may be right. Chesterton’s is a penetrating intellect, but one bursting at all times with something more rollicking and merry even than the witty C.S. Lewis. He is delighted to be writing, delighted to be arguing, delighted with objections and delighted to answer them. There is an almost reckless joy that permeates the atmosphere of this book and sets it apart.

Which isn’t to say it’s not profound. It is. Essentially, the book lays out Chesterton’s own spiritual longings and intuitive understanding of the world, then shows how Christianity satisfies them. The satisfaction is not at a purely cerebral level. The subtitle says it well: this book lays out the romance of faith. There are some sections of apologetics, and an attentiveness to the rules of argument; it’s not a “personal” book in the sense of implying, “These are my feelings, and they need no defense.” But the view of knowledge is more complete than a purely rationalistic book could provide; feeling and intuition come across as valid kinds of knowledge complementary to the rational.

I’ve thought of this as my first full-length Chesterton book, but I keep forgetting that I’ve read The Man Who was Thursday. I think I liked this one better. If you’ve read it, or decide to read it, I’d love to know what you think.

Chesterton’s advice to writers

Some passages just need to be shared. This one is from the chapter “The Romance of Orthodoxy” (in Orthodoxy). Chesterton is on his way to a larger point, but I have to stop and smile here for a bit:

Most of the machinery of modern language is labour-saving machinery; and it saves mental labour very much more than it ought. Scientific phrases are used like scientific wheels and piston-rods to make swifter and smoother yet the path of the comfortable. Long words go rattling by like long railway trains. We know they are carrying thousands who are too tired or too indolent to walk and think for themselves. It is a good exercise to try for once in a way to express any opinion one holds in words of one syllable. If you say “The social utility of the indeterminate sentence is recognized by all criminologists as a part of our sociological evolution towards a more humane and scientific view of punishment,” you can go on talking like that for hours with hardly a movement of the gray matter inside your skull. But if you begin “I wish Jones to go to gaol and Brown to say when Jones shall come out,” you will discover, with a thrill of horror, that you are obliged to think. The long words are not the hard words, it is the short words that are hard.

Off to a day of one-beat words…

The Man who was Thursday

I get cranky with books that are heavily allegorical. Something in me says irritably, “If you have a message this specific, just say it. Why try to hide it in a story?” J.R.R. Tolkien wrote, “I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence.” I’m not quite that committed. I like the Narnia books, after all, and even Pilgrim’s Progress. Maybe it’s not when it’s allegory, but when it goes over my head, that I get cranky…

But I digress. The point is that I’ve tried several times in the past to read Chesterton’s The Man Who was Thursday, most recently last summer, and gave up (so I thought) for the last time. But then I read reviews at Semicolon, and more recently at Hope Is the Word, and against my will felt the desire to try again.

This time, I finished it. I took a deep breath, dove in where I left off a few months ago, and churned across the finish line like an olympic swimmer.

And I’m glad I did.

It seemed to get better and better. I won’t pretend to understand it perfectly, but the shimmers and thrills of meaning that did flicker through were deeply satisfying.

Some have called this an allegorical rendition of the book of Job. Chesterton himself called it, insistently, “A Nightmare” in his subtitle and in subsequent comments about it. My version of the book included an excerpt of an article he wrote for the Illustrated London News in which he mentions this book:

It was not intended to describe the real world as it was, or as I thought it was, even when my thoughts were considerably less settled than they are now. It was intended to describe the world of wild doubt and despair which the pessimists were generally describing at that date; with just a gleam of hope in some double meaning of the doubt, which even the pessimists felt in some fitful fashion.

It is very dreamlike, and once I accepted that and could laugh at the absurdity and wit, to me it conveyed glitters and scents of truth. I loved the continual overturning of expectations. It works better if I don’t get carried away trying to analyze too much. However, here were a few things I noticed and appreciated:

  • Many pursuits: the professor pursues Syme, the secretary pursues the anarchists, everyone pursues Sunday in that wild culminating chase, and in a sense maybe Sunday pursues everyone else;
  • Complaints and accusations are given voice at the end in a hearing with plenty of symbolic and textual linking to Job; there were links to Job throughout, actually.
  • Philosophy as an inadequate attempt to “know” God. Just this morning I read a passage in Wendell Berry’s essay “Going to Work” pointing out that H2O “is a fact about water; it is not water. A person who had never seen water could not recognize it, much less recognize ice or steam, from knowing the formula… Water is water because it is the absolute sum of all the facts about itself, and it would be itself whether or not humans knew all the facts.” The same with Sunday, who calls himself “the Peace of God.” None of them can explain him, but he’s the sum of all the facts they notice about him.

It’s the kind of book that I could quote endlessly and muse over in writing, but I’d rather just “ponder it in my heart” and recommend it. In the broadest sense, to me it was about how the peace of God is not found in rational explanation, but in joyous embrace of the goodness and mystery of Creation — its more ferocious aspects included, and suffering included. As Sunday himself points out, our complaints about suffering are nothing to what God suffered in the atonement.