Chesterton and paradox

When I was a schoolboy, I read all I could find by G.K. Chesterton. I liked the boisterousness of his writing, the paradoxes in which he effortlessly unveiled the self-contradictions of modernity, and his romantic celebration of Catholicism. He made Catholics seem winners.

Later on, as is the case with one’s first musical and literary passions, my enthusiasm waned. But I was recently stimulated to reread Chesterton by James Schall’s celebration of his critique of modern thought (New Blackfriars, May 2002), and by the close reading of Chesterton by Slavoj Zizek (The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity, 2003) who sees the force of his criticism of modernity, but finds his Catholicism ultimately perverse.

Chesterton’s favourite literary device is paradox. He often uses it effectively to show how the urge to overthrow religion in the name of freedom often leads to the overthrow of freedom. The paradox also illuminates the current response to terrorism.

But Chesterton’s most interesting paradoxes are deployed against the view that at the heart of Catholicism is the oppressive force of law, routine and world-denial. He claims that what in our culture is seen as daring, rebellious, innovative and free is in reality predictable and tedious, while what seems
oppressive and prohibitive in fact is adventurous and innovative. ‘Civilization is the most sensational of departures and the most romantic of rebellions.’ In the same spirit, he argues that paganism, which presents itself as happy and carefree, is deeply melancholic. In contrast, ‘the outer ring of Christianity is a rigid guard of ethical abnegations and professional priests; but inside that inhuman guard you will find the old human life dancing like children, and drinking wine like men; for Christianity is the only frame for pagan freedom.’

The image of a dancing space surrounded by a palisade is characteristic of Chesterton’s treatment of Catholicism. ‘The creeds and the crusades, the hierarchies and the horrible persecutions were not organized, as is ignorantly said, for the suppression of reason. They were organized for the difficult defence of reason … In so far as religion is gone, reason is going.’

Chesterton’s romantic ballads retain their charm. His psychologically penetrating criticism of modernity also deserves reading. But for our contemporaries he is a seductive guide because his rhetoric offers his disciples more than it can deliver and more than they should accept. Chestertonians are tempted with an inside knowledge of the world, one that enables them to see straight what others see crookedly. They are also tempted to believe that no matter how grimly and unforgivingly they defend their faith and belabour their adversaries, their faith secretly endows them with a lightness of heart and a sprightliness in love.

Both are fraudulent. Coercive measures taken to defend reason and faith eviscerate faith and reason. Brutality shapes to grimness the spirit of those who yield to it, even for the best of reasons.

Inside knowledge, too, is of limited use when you are conversing with your fellows. It inhibits good conversation—the mixture of exploration, misunderstanding, mutual discovery, and the shifts of mind and heart that form the climate in which truth can shine. ?

Andrew Hamilton sj teaches at the United Faculty of Theology, Melbourne.



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