Wednesday, July 23, 2008

G.K. Chesterton

I am posting this mostly because I was struck by the quote below.

G.K. Chesterton was a British writer who was an older contemporary of C.S. Lewis and who converted from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism. He was quite an interesting character, and on EWTN, there is a classy, one hour show about him every Sunday night, which I enjoy. He is notorious for endless, sharp aphorisms and notable quotes. I am always reluctant to mention Chesterton to my Protestant friends because he is such a pro-Catholic bigot. Witness this zinger of an aphorism: "The Catholic Church is the only thing that saves a man from the degrading slavery of being a child of his age. " Yet, to my surprise, I see Protestants citing him enthusiastically here and there.

We all know that converts tend to have much more zeal than those born into a religion and Chesterton was no exception. The following quote is about Chesterton’s zeal in the books he wrote following his conversion.

“In these books, Chesterton becomes a Pangloss of the parish; anything Roman is right. It is hard to credit that even a convinced Catholic can feel equally strongly about St. Francis’s intuitive mysticism and St. Thomas’s pedantic religiousity, as Chesterton seems to. His writing suffers from conversion sickness. Converts tend to see the faith they were raised in as an exasperatingly makeshift and jury-rigged system: Anglican converts to Catholicism are relieved not to have to defend Henry VIII’s divorces; Jewish converts to Christianity are relieved to get out from under all those strange Levitical laws on animal hooves. The newly adapted faith, they imagine, is a shining, perfectly balanced system, an intricately worked clock where the cosmos turns to tell the time, and the cuckoo comes out singing every Sunday. An outsider sees the church as a dreamy compound of incense and impossibility, and over-glamorizing its pretensions, underrates its adaptability. A Frenchman or an Italian, even a devout one, can see the Catholic Church as a normally bureaucratic human institution, the way patriotic Americans see the post office, recognizing the frailty and even the occasional psychosis of its employees without doubting its necessity or its ability to deliver the message. Chesterton writing about the church is like someone who has just made his first trip to the post office. Look, it delivers letters for the tiny price of a stamp! You write an address on the label, and they will send it anywhere, literally anywhere you like, across a continent and an ocean, in any weather! The fact that the post office attracts time servers, or has produced an occasional gun massacre, is only proof of the mystical enthusiasm that the post office alone provides! Glorifying the postman beyond what the postman can bear is what you do only if you are new to mail.

“The books became narrower as they got bigger. The problem of how you reconcile a love of the particular with a love of universal values seemed easy; the Catholic Church was large enough to provide a universal code and ritual for life with plenty of room for variation among lives within it. The trouble is that Catholic universalism is not so convincing to those whose idea of local variation involved a variation on the Catholic ritual, or wanting some other ritual, or wanting no ritual at all. Chesterton’s vision has no room in it for tolerance, except as a likeable personal whim or an idiosyncratic national trait. (That he was personally tolerant, on this basis no one can doubt.)"

- from the column, “Critic at Large,” titled, “The Back of the World,” subtitled, “The Troubling genius of G.K. Chesterton,” by Adam Gopnik, in The New Yorker, July 7 & 14, 2008, p58, par 1.”

As someone born into a large Roman Catholic family, and not a convert, I find the people and the institution of the church to be like extended family--we all are familiar with everyone else’s personality, habits and all too-humanness, good and bad. I find the occasional paranoia about the church, on the part of some American Protestants, to be somewhere between charming and amusing. We cradle Catholic know better! We also readily welcome new members of the family, and I’m glad we occasionally get some fun and interesting enthusiasts like G.K. Chesterton.

Some G.K. Chesterton Resources: