Why The World Still Needs G. K. Chesterton
We're thankful to publish a guest post from Shawn White:
Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936) claimed for his title, occupation journalist, but he was so much more. He was an author of approximately 100 books filling the literary landscape on a wide range of topics like biography, history, literary and art criticism, apologetics (defense of his Christian faith), detective stories (Father Brown), fictional novels, plays, poetry (around 1,500 pages worth), and the like. However, as a journalist, Chesterton wrote approximately 5,000 to 6,000 essays between 1900 and 1936. That is roughly one essay every other day for his entire journalistic career. The vast majority of these essays were published in various newspapers in his native country (England) while some appeared in magazines and newspapers in the US as well. In short, his output was enormous, as the man famously was himself.
However, it is not merely the volume of words that spilled out of Chesterton that is most impressive, though that is quite remarkable. It is that Chesterton had a knack of helping those who read him to see the world as it really is. He understood that people grow familiar and complacent as they grow older, which is why Chesterton is always calling us back to the nursery; inviting us to the childlike wonder we had when the world was still new to our eyes. He does this in a variety of ways, but primarily through the use of paradox. He likes to make the familiar unfamiliar by turning the world on its head so that we are forced to see and engage the world from a new perspective. This is something necessary not just for this generation, but all generations because we all suffer from the same dullness brought on by familiarity. Here, I propose a few reasons why the world still needs Chesterton today: (1) Gratitude, (2) Humility, and (3) Wonder.
Gratitude. Chesterton reminds us always to be grateful. In the closing chapter of his Autobiography, which he finished just a few weeks before his death, Chesterton talked about the “chief idea of [his] life,” which was “the idea of taking things with gratitude, and not taking things for granted” (Autobiography, 320). Much of Chesterton’s life was in taking everything, including existence itself, with gratitude because he knew that all of it was a gift. He was grateful for all of life and even wondered what he had done to “earn the reward of looking at a dandelion” (Autobiography, 321). His gratitude even extended to times of illness and injury (see his essay “The Advantages of Having One Leg” in Tremendous Trifles as one example). Can we have such resolute gratitude?
Humility. Chesterton’s gratitude reveals his humility. Thankfulness implies dependence. If we are thankful, then it is to a person, not to a thing or to some inanimate object. We do not thank chairs when we sit upon them, but we might thank the chair maker for making such a fine and comfortable chair. Thankfulness is the recognition, implicit or explicit, that we rely on others outside of ourselves. This is not a weakness, but a strength. Pride is a weakness. Prideful people believe that they are self-sufficient and so they think they do not rely on anyone but themselves – at least that is what they tell themselves. But prideful people are too weak even to say "Thank you;" humility is a mark of strength and is a characteristic of a grateful person.
Wonder. Gratitude and humility create the capacity for wonder. Gratitude that we exist, humility that we did not cause ourselves to exist, and wonder at how and why we exist. In Orthodoxy, Chesterton provides an example of what I am getting at here: “A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door.” Chesterton recognizes that in small children there is a child-like wonder that exists. In one of his more famous essays, A Defense of Baby Worship, Chesterton opens this way:
“The most unfathomable schools and sages have never attained to the gravity which dwells in the eyes of a baby of three months old…. The fascination of children lies in this: that with each of them all things are remade, and the universe is put again upon its trial. As we walk the streets and see below us those delightful bulbous heads, three times too big for the body, which mark these human mushrooms, we ought always primarily to remember that within every one of these heads there is a new universe, as new as it was on the seventh day of creation. In each of those orbs there is a new system of stars, new grass, new cities, a new sea.”
Yet, somehow, along the way, we have lost that wonder. We have grown dull of the world because we have seen too much of it (or not enough of it). Familiarity knocks the wonder out of us, and we never see beyond the surface, and so we end up living life on the surface and never deeper. Chesterton points us, begs us, to capture our wonder and to see the world as if it were new again.
It is important to note that Chesterton did not grow up in a Christian home. His parents were Unitarian Universalists, and by the time Chesterton was in college, he was beginning to dabble with Nihilism. However, there was something in that worldview that scarred him, and he eventually found his way to Christianity. In the closing paragraph of “The Ethics of Elfland” in his book Orthodoxy, Chesterton describes the thought process on this journey:
“I felt in my bones; first, that this world does not explain itself. It may be a miracle with a supernatural explanation; it may be a conjuring trick, with a natural explanation. But the explanation of the conjuring trick, if it is to satisfy me, will have to be better than the natural explanations I have heard. The thing is magic, true or false. Second, I came to feel as if magic must have a meaning, and meaning must have some one to mean it. There was something personal in the world, as in a work of art; whatever it meant it meant violently. Third, I thought this purpose beautiful in its old design, in spite of its defects, such as dragons. Fourth, that the proper form of thanks to it is some form of humility and restraint: we should thank God for beer and Burgundy by not drinking too much of them. We owed, also, an obedience to whatever made us. And last, and strangest, there had come into my mind a vague and vast impression that in some way all good was a remnant to be stored and held sacred out of some primordial ruin. Man had saved his good as Crusoe saved his goods: he had saved them from a wreck. All this I felt and the age gave me no encouragement to feel it. And all this time I had not even thought of Christian theology.”
There’s still a lot we can learn from Chesterton. To get to know this witty, powerful, British author and apologist, check out Orthodoxy, The Everlasting Man, or the Father Brown series.
Shawn White has been interested in Christian apologetics and worldview since 2002. In 2015 Shawn completed an MA in Christian Apologetics (Biola University) and he is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Philosophy of Humanities at Faulkner University where the focus of his dissertation is G.K. Chesterton.