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Common Ground in the Uncommon Apologetic of Chesterton and Lewis

Original Article

The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried. –G. K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong with the World

Now theology is like the map… Consequently, if you do not listen to theology, that will not mean that you have no ideas about God. It will mean that you have a lot of wrong ones… –C.S. Lewis, The Joyful Christian

One of the pure delights of teaching college students is to observe 19, 20 and 21-year-olds, who have entered the university often with less than a teachable attitude and who, upon entering, cannot distinguish Christian world-view-thinking from a model "T" Ford, but who subsequently, as a result of required or recommended reading, encounter Chesterton and/or Lewis first-hand. Not infrequently these students leave the course–and the university–never quite the same; the manner in which they view reality, the cosmos, their faith and surrounding culture has been, in various degrees, transformed. Chesterton and Lewis seem to have this knack–in the words of Maisie Ward, the knack of "walking into the heart without knocking." (Happily, there seems to be a resurgence of interest in the works of Chesterton, who in his own inimitable, swashbuckling way, has managed to ramble into this paper.)

Aside from the fact that in Chesterton and Lewis we find two of the most quotable persons to have lived in this century, to what factors can we ascribe the enduring value of these two Christian apologists? What are common features in their lives, their writings and their thought-mode? Despite their obvious differences–glaring differences, such as temperament, style, work ethic, education and station in life–what do the two figures hold in common that might be worth probing? And correlatively, what might this common ground suggest to those of us living on the cusp of the Third Millennium as we seek to equip the Christian community and engage pagan culture responsibly?

To be noted ever-so-briefly in this presentation are similarities in how Chesterton and Lewis came to a place of vibrant faith, how they viewed their placement in the world, and how they communicated to those around them. A list of specific commonalities might include, though by no means be limited to, the following: (1) both possessed a vision of the "permanent things"; (2) joined to a robust intellect in both was a "baptized imagination" owing in large measure to George MacDonald; (3) both maintainin their writings a healthy realism concerning the dignity and depravity of human nature; (4) both experienced a season of spiritual and intellectual darkness, after which moral scepticism and nihilism give way to confident, vibrant–even childlike–faith; (5) both employed a wide range of literary genres; (6) both were intentional about communicating to the lay person, the "common man," and not merely the guild; (7) characteristic of both was a measure of civility with which friend and foe were engaged; and significantly, (8) both stood in the broader historic mainstream of Christian orthodoxy and resisted the sectarian temptation. In the ten or so minutes allotted to this presentation, I’ve chosen several from among these as a focus for my remarks.


The Permanent Things

One of the profound challenges facing anyone in the teaching profession is to inculcate within the student an appreciation for what T.S. Eliot called the "permanent things." The fact that a defining characteristic of the contemporary zeitgeist is to devalue tradition makes our task all the more difficult. Anyone who follows the lead of Chesterton and Lewis will be out-of-step with the times–and necessarily so. In reading the works of these two "common-sense" apologists, one is struck again and again not only by how they seem to cut to the heart of a matter but also how their way of framing an issue seems to possess abiding relevance. In the academy, the temptation to be relevant, in the sense of "with the times," can be both subtle and overpowering; this temptation, nevertheless, must be resisted. The awareness that they were stewards of intergenerational wisdom, that some things remain unchanging, allowed Chesterton and Lewis to challenge–and expose–modernity’s idolatries.

While Chesterton, more so than Lewis, exhibited interest in social-political activism, both men allow the "permanent things" to have precedence over the "non-permanent." Richard Purtill, in noting a revival of Catholicism among British intelligentsia and literati roughly contemporary to Chesterton, points out that a fading of the revival occurred when spiritual and intellectual foundations were compromised. Purtill describes this phenomenon as the "more revolutionary than thou" syndrome, which is by no means a respecter of communions. In fact, 20th-century Protestants developed this strategy to perfection, as Peter Berger, in his penetrating little volume, The Social Sources of Apostasy, has pointed out. The subtlety lies herein: Christians become enthused about their faith and wish to apply it in socially relevant ways. Often, in order to facilitate this, they ally themselves with more avante-garde secular groups who are denouncing social injustice and agitating for social change. In the end, however, the tendency is to compromise the theological distinctive for the purpose of preserving the semblance of "relevance." Chesterton, it must be stated categorically, would have none of this sort of thing. For all his interest in social reform, he resisted being coopted by any group or cause, thereby maintaining his philosophical and intellectual integrity. Chesterton had little patience with religious folk who sold their birthright for a mess of modernist porridge; he was not one to suffer fools gladly. Rather, in Chesterton one encounters a champion of tradition, that "democracy from the dead," as he was wont to describe it in Orthodoxy. Tradition, for Chesterton, "refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy" of those who happen to be inhabiting the cultural scene at the moment. For this reason, Chesterton holds Thomas Aquinas in such high esteem, devoting a full work to him: Thomas is the exponent of the philosophia perennis; he embodies the wisdom of the ages; he is the "common sense" philosopher.

Lewis not only resisted the political temptation, he cleverly marshalled wit and insight, in the ever-popular Screwtape Letters, to show how this temptation has a peculiarly seductive appeal:

[I]t will be quite impossible to remove spirituality from your patient’s life. Very well, then; we must corrupt it… Looking [at] your patient’s new friends, I find that the best point of attack would be the borderline between theology and politics. Several of his new friends are very much alive to the social implications of their religion. In the last generation we promoted the construction of…a "historical Jesus" on liberal and humanitarian lines; we are now putting forward a new "historical Jesus" on Marxian, catastrophic and revolutionary lines… The advantages of these constructions, which we intend to change every thirty years or so, are manifold. About the general connection between Christianity and politics, our position is…delicate. Certainly we do not want men to allow their Christianity to flow over into their political life… On the other hand we do want, and want very much, to make men treat Christianty as a means…, as a means to anything, even to social justice.

On whether the Christian should be conformist or non-conformist in the political process, Lewis prefers a third way: "He who converts his neighbor has performed the most practical Christian-political act of all."

Living as we do in an era that worships today and finds yesterday an embarrassment (if it does not fully loathe the past) reminds us of how utterly crucial are the "permanent things." That which constitutes reality and which stubbornly resists being deconstructed will equip us in detecting and addressing the errors and vices of our day, indeed of any day. Characterizing those who follow in the steps of Chesterton-Lewis will be what David Whalen calls a metaphysical realism. Both apologists affirm what Dorothy Sayers argued so valiantly in Creed or Chaos?: tradition and dogma liberate. From The Chronicles of Narnia and Perelandra to Mere Christianity, and from Father Brown and The Ballad of the White Horse to The Everlasting Man, the reader encounters an unmistakable order in the universe. To this philosophical anchor all of life’s assumptions are to be tethered.


George MacDonald and the "Baptized"Imagination

It is significant that both Chesterton and Lewis claimed to have come under the spell of George MacDonald, and this relatively early in their lives. This appeal, whether on display in MacDonald’s poetry, novels, children’s fantasies or literary criticism, is rooted in what Ian Boyd has called a"sacramental mysticism." Fantasy, as Colin Duriez has argued, is a power and product of the imagination, in the same way that thought is a power and product of the intellect. As thought is the reason in action, so fantasy is the imagination at work. The imagination concerns itself with grasping realities; imaginative invention has the advantage of being free from the burden of carrying didactic propositions. Nevertheless, a strong imagination vivifies every bit as much as a robust intellect.

Already as a child Chesterton had read MacDonald, and in later years he reflected on how powerfully the fantasy The Princess and the Goblin had worked on him. He concedes that the work

made a difference to my whole existence, which helped me to see things in a certain way from the start; a vision of things which even so real a revolution as a change of religious allegiance has substantially only crowned and confirmed… This is where the fairy-tale differed from many other fairy-tales; above all, this is where the philosophy differed from many other philosophies… Since I first read that story some five alternative philosophies of the universe have come to our colleges out of Germany, blowing through the world like the east wind.

It was the conviction of Chesterton that children do not grow weary of the familiar. Stories continually enliven what is true. There is then something of this "childishness" that is to be preserved in good literature.

Lewis is equally unabashed about crediting MacDonald’s influence. Profound as this influence was, it came about almost by accident. In the preface to George MacDonald: An Anthology, he writes:

It must be more than thirty years ago that I bought — almost unwillingly, for I had looked at that volume on that bookstall and rejected it on a dozen previous occasions–the Everyman edition of Phantastes. A few hours later I knew that I had crossed a great frontier… What it actually did to me was to convert, even to baptise…my imagination. I had not the faintest notion what I had let myself in for by buying Phantastes.

On the merits of his writing alone, MacDonald is deemed rather unspectacular. Lewis concedes: "The texture of his writing as a whole is undistinguished, at times fumbling. Bad pulpit traditions cling to it; there is sometimes a nonconformist verbosity." On the other hand, continues Lewis, "[w]hat he does best is fantasy–fantasy that hovers between the allegorical and the mythopoeic. And this, in my opinion, he does better than any man…MacDonald is the greatest genius of this kind whom I know."

But there is more to the mentor, in Lewis’ estimation, for in MacDonald

…it is always the voice of conscience that speaks. He addresses the will: the demand for obedience… Yet in that very voice of conscience every other faculty somehow speaks as well–intellect and imagination and humour and fancy and all the affections. I know hardly any other writer who seems to be closer…to the Spirit of Christ Himself. Nowhere else outside the New Testament have I found terror and comfort so intertwined.

The power of the imagination is described with startling honesty for the reader in Letters of C.S. Lewis:

The imaginative man in me is older, more continuously operative, and in that sense more basic than either the religious writer or the critic. It was he who made me first attempt (with little success) to be a poet. It was he who, in response to the poetry of others, made me a critic, and, in defence of that response, sometimes a critical controversialist. It was he who after my conversion led me to embody my religious belief in symbolical or mythopoeic forms, ranging from Screwtape to a kind of theological science-fiction. And it was, of course, he who has brought me, in the last few years, to write a series of Narnian stories for children; not asking what children want and then endeavouring to adapt myself (this was not needed) but because the fairy-tale was the genre best fitted for what I wanted to say.

Lewis’ tribute to MacDonald–the primary impulse in quickening the imagination–is summarized straightforwardly:

I have never concealed the fact that I regarded him as my master; indeed, I fancy that I have never written a book in which I did not quote from him. But it has not seemed to me that those who have received my books kindly take even now sufficient notice of the affiliation. Honesty drives me to emphasize it.

In the end, MacDonald helps shape a worldview that will be indispensableto two of this century’s most effective apologists.


Out of the Darkness and into the Light

Not without consequence for their later work is the fact that both Chesterton and Lewis endured a dark period of scepticism and despair before entering the realm of vital faith. The pain of this experience would doubtless sharpen them as thinkers and writers, for once through the tunnel they could critique with clarity and cogency contemporary forms of philosophical and moral nihilism.For Chesterton the dark side was manifestly present at the Slade School of Art in the early 1890s. It was there, he writes, that

I had reached that condition of moral anarchy within… I could at this point imagine the worst and wildest proportions and distortions of more normal passion [that were] overpowered and oppressed with a sort of congestion of imagination… I dug quite low enough to discover the devil… When I had been for some time in these, the darkest depths of the contemporary pessimism, I had a strong inward impulse to revolt; to dislodge this incubus or throw off this nightmare.

In Orthodoxy, published in 1908, Chesterton devotes the first two chapters–provocatively titled "The Maniac" and "The Suicide of Thought"–to a rendering of this autobiographical journey of despair in terms that are quite vivid, as only one who has been there could describe it. In fact, Aidan Mackey has suggested that reading MacDonald earlier in his life may well have preserved Chesterton from insanity and possible suicide during the dark years.

For Lewis, it was from a religious nihilism of strongly "gnostic" character that personal deliverance would ultimately come. And significantly, it was reading Chesterton–in particular, The Everlasting Man–which contributed foremost to this emergence into the light. (Parenthetically, in Surprised by Joy, one encounters this somewhat humorous concession: "In reading Chesterton, as in reading MacDonald, I did not know what I was letting myself in for. A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading. There are traps everywhere… God is, if I may say it, very unscrupulous.")

Lewis recounts along the way several primary influences from his boyhood onward that made him increasingly aware of the occult and supernatural evil. One of those was reading people like William Butler Yeats, whose life-view was steeped in pantheistic spiritualism and who had been living in Oxford, conducting meetings in his apartment. Had the right opportunity presented itself, Lewis later reflects, "I might now be a Satanist or a maniac. "One can gauge from his conversion onward a notable shift away from being preoccupied with the inner psychospiritual realm and toward an affirmation of the rational self. This shift, however, is not to be construed as a denial of the supernatural world of evil. Though a world to be avoided it was nonetheless for Lewis a world to be taken into account, as Evan Gibson has vividly demonstrated.

The personal triumph over despair doubtless helps explain why Chesterton and Lewis appear so adept at exposing the inherent flaws of moral and intellectual anarchy. They understand well the anatomy of unbelief.


On Dignity and Depravity

Because of this passage through deep and troubled waters, neither Chesterton nor Lewis is under any illusions regarding the true constitution of human nature. Both concur with Aquinas that human beings are simultaneously the crown of creation and the scum of the earth. This dual conviction surfaces in one form or another in most of their works, non-fiction and fiction. One of the most frequently cited statements of Chesterton, found in Orthodoxy, concerns the empirical evidence for original sin, that it is "the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved." Thus, the optimist and the pessimist both err–the former, blinded by the myth of "progress,"has false loyalties, while the latter has no loyalties at all. Both err in negating any transcendent allegiance and in their failure to identify sin and evil for what they are. The denial of the Creator-creature relationship and of human depravity leads to a "silent anarchy," a social phenomenon critiqued in Chesterton’s 1927 work, Eugenics and Other Evils. Ashe ponders, in All Things Considered, the possibility that modern civilization may be returning to pagan barbarism, Chesterton believes "orthodoxy" to be the only safeguard of morality and social order, in spite of the fact that in his day the word "orthodox" was increasingly being viewed as "an enormous and silent evil" itself, as Chesterton describes it in Heretics.

Chesterton’s, of course, was an era of heady progress. It was the era of Darwin, Spencer, Huxley and Freud; of Russell, Moore, Wittgenstein and Wells. The latter, a "friendly foe" with whom Chesterton would regularly spar, published in 1920 The Outline of History. Outline sets forth a progressive view of time and cosmogeny predicated on Darwinian evolutionary theory. Everlasting Man, considered by some to be Chesterton’s finest work, is intended to be a response to Wells. History, as Chesterton interprets it, is neither random nor arbitrary. Moral agency makes it impossible for humans to be merely one more animal species. Moreover, the inconvenient fact of the Incarnation bears unmistakably on the moral meaning and trajectory of human history.

Although Lewis, like Chesterton, rejects any notion of being considered a theologian, his grasp of human nature, sin and moral agency–thoroughly Augustinian–rivals that of anyone in the theological vocation, undergirding both his philosophical essays and his fiction. Lewis is the exponent, in Gilbert Meilaender’s words, of "the primeval moral platitudes." It is his musings on topics such as "The Law of Human Nature,""The Reality of the Law," "Social Morality," Sexual Morality" and "Forgiveness," for example, that make Mere Christianity "required" reading for any lay person or student. Lewis’ grasp of moral agency allows him to feel at home with a wide range of subject –whether describing "the abolition of man," explaining why he is not a pacifist, assessing "the conditions for a just war," wrestling with "the problem of pain," or critiquing "the humanitarian theory of punishment." Evan Gibson builds a powerful case to suggest that Lewis’ fiction–specifically, Perelandra–may well be Lewis’ most impressive theological statement, to the extent that it mirrors Lewis’ convictions about the Creator, the universe, angelic beings, sin, and free will.



The "permanent things," "baptized" imaginations owing to George MacDonald, an intimate acquaintance with despair, and classic Christian anthropology–while by no means the only commonalities, these contribute in Chesterton and Lewis to their understanding of faith, surrounding culture, and, most importantly, the means by which faith and culture are to be bridged.

Chesterton and Lewis are unquestionably men of their times. They are creative in their efforts to construct an apologetic for Christian truth-claims in the context of the prevailing intellectual climate. Both men engage the world not because they despise it but because God loves it; both are simultaneously warriors for the cause of Christ and artists, applying the rich brush-strokes of literary imagination to their work. Thus they commend themselves to the Christian community at the end of the twentieth century as Christian truth-claims require re-statement in new and ever-fresh ways. Their witness is expressed in the following brief verse, titled "A Hymn" and composed by Chesterton in 1915: