Chesterton and Paganism

An article published in the August-November, 1990, issue of The Chesterton Review

The sheer weight of Chesterton’s intellectual genius has tended to obscure a basic fact about his nature: he was fundamentally an artist. There has always been, of course, an abundance of evidence that he was a lover of visual imagery, ranging from boyhood doodles through a lifetime of humorous cartoons depicting the foibles of his contemporaries, to the cardboard characters which he created in later years for his toy theatre. There is also the fact that, when his friends went on to Oxford and Cambridge, he chose to attend an art school at St. John’s Wood and later the Slade School of Art. The real evidence, however, lies in the vivid metaphors and ingenious parallels produced during his career as a writer. They were drawn from a seemingly inexhaustible store of observed detail. He was a man who looked, and looked deeply, one who gradually came to understand the mysterious epiphany of meaning continuously uttered in creation. If he is more widely known as a philosopher at large, it is because the bulk of his creative output lies on the side of the printed word. “Words—alas, my trade is words!” he once said. During his lifetime, the press was the dominant medium of social communication. Chesterton was primarily concerned with the communication of Truth, and one suspects that had painting, for example, been the primary means of communication in his society, he would have thrown his weight into the development of that gift.

The philosopher and the artist are close in their loves and in their aims. Both are intimately concerned with seeing things as they are. But art divorced from philosophy becomes an exercise in narcissism. And the language of philosophy all too often becomes a dead husk when it loses its incarnational elements, namely, those forms which art can give to the invisible absolutes. Because human art is not a mimicry of nature but a reflection of the divine creativity, truth and goodness must always press forward towards an incarnation in beauty. In describing their relationship, Hans Urs von Balthasar uses the metaphor of sisterhood:

Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance. We can be sure that whoever sneers at her name as if she were an ornament of the bourgeois past, can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love. 1

 When beauty is removed from the home, from places of work, and, worst of all, from places of worship, and when every level of culture is invaded with utilitarianism, the disintegration of the human person begins in earnest. Where and how did this process begin in Western civilisation? Until the late Renaissance, the art of the Church had been a principal shaper of the Christian sense of reality, and of man’s understanding of his identity. Art had expressed the uniquely Christian vision of an integrated sense of the human and the divine: the worth of the human person was founded on the imago Dei, the image of God in which he was created (cf. Genesis 1:27). But the Renaissance began a re-examination of man’s place in the order of the cosmos. In a climate of liberal materialism, some new dignity was given to his person, yet increasingly he was to search for his sense of self apart from the identity given to him by Christianity. In the mind of Western man, the concepts of the human and the divine began to draw apart. During the ensuing centuries, a plethora of false dichotomies came from that primary rupture: Reason-Faith, Truth-Love, Law-Spirit, could henceforth be considered at odds with each other, thus generating the climate which produced first the Reformation, then the Enlightenment, and finally that climax of extremes known as the Modern Era.

One of the effects of the fragmented Christian cosmology was the degeneration of art. After the Renaissance, art survived on the dwindling capital of Christian culture. The new humanism was able to sustain art for a time by enthusiasm for new possibilities in human subject matter, and also by the challenges provided by the liberation of technique. But as subsequent history was to prove, a humanism which rejects, or simply drifts from, its foundation in absolutes eventually betrays the ideals which originally fostered the liberal revolution. The religious, intellectual, and artistic life of Europe was severed not only from its foundations but from the community necessary to authentic culture. By the nineteenth century the visual arts had declined, by and large, into theatrical effects; its emotionalism was perhaps a subconscious attempt to find, in sentiment, traces of a lost sense of the spiritual. The Pre-Raphaelites, for example, frequently explored religious themes in the style of realism, but it was a realism seen through the lens of a certain rosy form of Romanticism. This and other movements of the time were by no means lacking in genius, but essential elements of a whole vision of man were absent. The Impressionists had abandoned religious themes but had sought a revitalised sense of the sacredness of the material world through focus on the beauty of light as it played in matter. Yet they too exemplified elements of the anti-incarnational nature of the broken vision, in that their impressions of a subject were dominant over perception of its essential meaning, its being. Visually and philosophically, there was a blurring of distinctions, as all things tended to dissolve into one another. Individual being was sacrificed to a vision of the universe as one vast organism—which is really the ancient pagan worldview of monism. The cost of this error was revealed in the following generations of artists in whom the vision worked out its consequences.

The modernist movements in art were a disparate group of aesthetic philosophies related more by their spiritual sterility, their growing creative exhaustion, and their inability to address fundamental human questions, than by any technical similarities. The startling invention of the camera had recently interjected an additional component into culture. Photography called into question the role of realism in art, for if a mechanism could reproduce nature with so much more precision and efficiency than could a painting, was art perhaps now obsolete? Artists were forced to re-examine the true function of art as vision into the essential meanings in creation, and not as a mere mimicry of nature. Technology forced artists to choose to plunge deeper into the mystery of being or to turn away into a world of abstractions. A large majority drifted in the latter stream. They were convinced by theorists, and by charismatic figures in the avante garde, that the only credible choice lay along the line of rejection of figurative imagery. Not all, of course, rejected identifiable subject matter (one thinks of the Surrealists and Dadaists). The common element in the work of figurative and abstract work alike was a headlong rush in the direction of subjectivisation. Henceforth, an individual’s feelings and mental states, no matter how distorted by misreadings of experience, were considered to be the ultimate criteria of artistic good. Eventually, even the concept of a good in art came to be considered oppressive. The created order, in all its splendour and complexity, was rejected as an exhausted image-bank. The mystery of being was abandoned, and as a result, one after another human faculty of seeing, hearing, and reflection declined, and in many places closed down altogether.

The modern artist tuned away into his interior universe, and for some artists it was so totally a subjectivised world that language itself disintegrated into disconnected forms, and then into silence. In a meaningless, broken universe, it was no longer considered necessary to make oneself intelligible. Faith and Reason were jettisoned from the lives of a large number of makers of culture. They assumed that creativity would be sufficient unto itself; they had not anticipated that this would be the fast method of destroying the very thing they loved most dearly. Without philosophical reflection or a spiritual life, perception itself waned and its light came close to being extinguished in culture. Into the vortex of this colossal tragedy, G.K. Chesterton was born. Curiously, he decided to become an artist.

Perception is never more radiant than when an artist, or simply a lover of beauty, is at the same time a philosopher and a saint. Reason-Faith-Creativity are reunited in a living witness to the Incarnation. Regarding Chesterton, we must leave the title of Saint to the judgement of the Church, which would, perhaps, be forced to develop an entirely new branch of hagiography for this Leviathan. If the Lord created him for fun and sport, He also created him for grave purposes. Chesterton’s ability to generate intellectual and spiritual delight through a humorous, imaginative style was the exterior form of a relentless interior quest for the very nature of reality. Chesterton showed that Truth is the greatest adventure of all, and that any journey to the interior must not have its foundation in negations of the exterior world. He was fundamentally different in this regard from the great intellects of his time, because his quest was never a gnostic seizure of knowledge, with all the seductions to pride and power which that entails. It was a quest for Sophia, holy wisdom. That so much of his work is permeated with an extraordinary light and humility is an indication that he underwent a largely hidden growth in personal holiness. This is itself a matter for a separate study, but it begs the question: how was Chesterton formed into this most rare kind of man out of the rough and fairly common material of the stereotypical dreamy artist?

Chesterton had a good mind from the beginning, but he was not a scholar. Throughout childhood and youth, he was undisciplined at studies, and was often to be found in a semi-detached state of inner preoccupation. On occasion, he could dazzle his teachers with deep insight into the significance of the facts that he so often failed to memorise. Yet poems, epic imaginary battles, and other inner dramas kept him focused on the theatre of the imagination. This apparent weakness became one of his greatest strengths, for the mature writer later produced biographies of saints and poets which, although they were inaccurate in minor details, nevertheless penetrated to the hidden heart of the matter. Etienne Gilson, this century’s foremost Thomist, says of Chesterton’s St. Thomas Aquinas that it is the finest work ever written about the saint, a work which he, Gilson, could never have produced. The quintessential artist in Chesterton created the book. Powerful intuitive leaps bypassed the long and careful examinations which a scholastic mind would have applied to a subject. Where the scholar walked, Chesterton flew. They both arrived at the same place, Chesterton having missed a few of the details of the landscape along the way. But he was able to speak about the journey and the destination from an entirely different vantage point. He could describe vast horizons and the shape of the world.

His temperament naturally taught him that the purely academic eye was only half-seeing. As he matured, he came to understand that undisciplined genius, in its own way, was also incomplete. Only a sanctified, educated imagination could take him beyond the boundaries of the self; with the right formation, it could take him to the hidden heart of things. It was precisely this lack of formation in his youth which led him into serious trouble. “I did not very clearly distinguish between dreaming and waking,” he said of this period. The highly creative person in the embryonic state is very vulnerable. Usually he is an unquestioning lover of creation and an imbiber of the raw material of experience. He needs an exceptional clarity of mind in order to read correctly some ominous signs upon the face of creation. Chesterton did not then have the spiritual equipment to do so, for he was dominated by the intuitive faculty. This is not to say that his intellect was inactive, for it was always developing, and indeed would develop until the world’s image of him was determined by its view of him as a great thinker. But his intellect was always a servant to his intuitions. It was Faith which later liberated intellect and intuition in his life and integrated them into a powerful unified force. During his youth, however, he was not yet a Christian, though even then he had intimations about good and evil. He writes:

And my haunting instinct that somehow good was not merely a tool to be used, but a relic to be guarded, like the goods from Crusoe’s ship—even that had been a wild whisper of something originally wise, for according to Christianity we were indeed survivors of a wreck, the crew of a golden ship that had gone down before the beginning of the world. 2

But instinct alone is not enough to preserve the good, nor to defend an unformed consciousness against an entire cultural configuration growing hostile to the original good. At this point in his life, Chesterton stood an excellent chance of becoming exactly like so many creative personalities of his times, disbelieving, cynical, and eventually despairing both of natural creation and of man. Perhaps he would have become like Shaw and Wells, and formed with them a truly devastating triad. But that is speculation. What is certain is that, for a period of his youth, he was submerged in darkness, and came very close to being lost.

Chesterton describes his youth as a “period full of doubts, and morbidities, and temptations.” In his autobiography, he says that this experience fixed forever in him a certainty about the objective reality of sin. It was several years before he gave it its proper name. He learned painfully that the divine order of the cosmos was not only damaged in some abstract manner, a mere theoretical disharmony; but that it was, in fact, suffering from a deep, perhaps fatal, wound. Furthermore, his own nature, drifting and in turmoil, exhibited more than a little damage:

. . . it is true that there was a time when I had reached the condition of moral anarchy within, in which a man says, in the words of Wilde, that “Atys with the blood-stained knife were better than the thing I am.” I have never indeed felt the faintest temptation to the particular madness of Wilde; but I could at this time imagine the worst and wildest disproportions and distortions of more normal passion; the point is that the whole mood was overpowered and oppressed with a sort of congestion of the imagination. 3

During the Slade years, he filled a notebook with horrible drawings which prompted friends to ask if he was going insane. At the time, he was a skeptic, experiencing radical existential doubt, wondering if he had “projected the universe from within.” It may be that an overpowering sense of cosmic isolation goaded him into spiritual experimentation as an attempt to break through to a larger universe. He did not yet understand that the course which he chose was actually a plunge into a totally subjective universe. At this point, he was very much the undisciplined artist, idle, directionless, searching about in the irrational for the fires of experience.

This experience was his first encounter with evil as a conscious presence. He was, of course, quite familiar with the ordinary folly and immorality indulged in by humanity. But his dabbling in Spiritualism was exposure to evil of a different order, an extreme moral, intellectual, and spiritual danger. It was “a deadly poison,” he said. Of his experiences with the ouija-board, he recalled that preternatural communications occurred, but he recognised them as lies. These sessions left him with headaches and “a horrid feeling—with what I can best describe as a bad smell in the mind.” Though he had little or no familiarity with Christian discernment about the occult, his natural honesty gave him some protection. At this period of his life, it was a semi-dormant faculty just crudely awakened by the sense of danger; it had not yet matured into what Belloc called Chesterton’s appetite for Truth. His intellect was darkened and his will was weak. The world seemed to him a bleak place indeed.

Von Balthasar points out what can occur to societies and to artists who are badly formed in their love of beauty:

In a world without Beauty . . . man stands before the good and asks why it must be done and not rather its alternative, evil. For this too is a possibility, and even the more exciting one: why not investigate Satan’s depths? 4

Chesterton engaged in little or no evil other than that which can be exercised on the screen of imagination. But he was skirting the edge of an abyss, and the company he kept had gone some way into it. In a Daily News article he recalled a student with whom he had taken up at the time. Chesterton called him “the diabolist.” Spiritualism was a door into a much darker world. Chesterton had paused at the door, recognising the smell of fire, “even hell-fire.” The diabolist told him what lay beyond the door. “Shall I not find in evil a life of its own?” the student asked. “What you call evil I call good.” 5 

Chesterton was shocked most of all by the other’s fairness of mind. His companion recognised the truth of Christianity, but it made no difference to him. Chesterton had been raised in a family of vaguely theistic Unitarians, and he had a disposition to the good; but when he was confronted by someone with a disposition to evil, he found himself ill-equipped to provide an argument. In this brilliant young man, Chesterton encountered one who aspired, as did a growing number in his generation, to go “beyond good and evil.” Yet the diabolist was not so far beyond good and evil that he could not pause upon the lintel of a doorway into deeper darkness. Chesterton overheard him refuse a temptation to some unknown, ultimate outrage with the words, “If I do that, I shan’t know the difference between right and wrong.” There was something still redeemable in the diabolist. Later, however, he committed suicide.

There is a note of profound sadness in the anecdote. One can feel Chesterton’s helplessness, his lack of words to stop a man who was determined to drown in darkness. If the encounter had occurred later on in his life, those words would have taken shape spontaneously. But as yet, he himself was only just clinging to the deck of a raft that seemed a frail remnant of the great shipwreck. Recoiling in horror from the evil, he turned back towards life. His main contact with reality was the Junior Debating Club. This society of friends eventually helped to restore his equilibrium, and he was grateful for them. Their foolery, the parry and thrust of debate, and the comfort of that love which is friendship, drew him back into sanity. It would be an error to depict Chesterton at any time as an introverted isolationist, but he had survived a most painful dichotomy of being. The exterior, the social man, had gone through the motions of a more or less Bohemian existence, while the interior man had been a consciousness adrift in the cosmos. Returning from that strange dark journey he told his friends, “You should not look a gift universe in the mouth.” 6

Just how deeply into darkness he had gone will perhaps never be known, for the autobiography is vague on that point. But there is a tension to the few pages in which it is discussed. Years later, in The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare, he portrayed a character who denies and defies the good with full knowledge. In this and in other works, he testifies to the reality of extreme evil, “not because I had learned it from the millions of priests whom I had never met, but because I had learned it from myself.” 7  He had plunged in “deeper and deeper as in a blind spiritual suicide,” and emerged with a new consciousness of good and evil. There was a battle going on in the cosmos, and it raged within himself. This awareness was the beginning of a liberation that cost him a conscious effort. possibly a total effort of the will:

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 and throw off this nightmare. 8

 The encounter with evil was the generator of a remarkable search. The lifelong sense of urgency which characterised that search is an indication of how radical the encounter was for him. The urgent tone was moderated by humour and art, but it permeated practically everything that he wrote thereafter; even the jokes had points, for simply everything led either in the direction of life or of death. He was not, however, so naive as to think that the battle was a clear-cut choice between an obvious good and an evil which always revealed itself as monstrous. He knew that subtlety was the major tactic of the enemy, and that the greatest battles might be fought in twilight. Gradually he came to see that his task was to throw as much light as possible onto the arena of combat.

The publication of Heretics in 1905 was an early indication that he recognised the academic and literary sophists of his day as agents of an intellectual pall cast over what he called the “Modern Mind.” In Heretics he writes:

Suppose that a great commotion arises in the street about something, let us say a lamp-post, which many influential persons desire to pull down. A grey-clad monk, who is the spirit of the Middle Ages, is approached upon the matter, and begins to say, in the arid manner of the Schoolmen, “Let us first of all consider, my brethren, the value of Light. If Light be itself good—” At this point he is somewhat excusably knocked down. All the people make a rush for the lamp-post, the lamp-post is down in ten minutes, and they go about congratulating each other on their unmediaeval practicality. But as things go on they do not work out so easily. Some people have pulled the lamp-post down because they wanted the electric light; some because they wanted old iron; some because they wanted darkness, because their deeds were evil. Some thought it not enough of a lamp-post, some too much; some acted because they wanted to smash municipal machinery; some because they wanted to smash something. And there is a war in the night, no man knowing whom he strikes. So, gradually and inevitably, today, tomorrow, or the next day, there comes back the conviction that the monk was right after all, and that all depends on what is the philosophy of Light. Only what we might have discussed under the gas-lamp, we now must discuss in the dark. 9

The new heretics were not for the most part purveyors of bizarre sects; they were rather fugitives from a decaying Protestant liberalism. They were groping about in the dark trying to strike lights from their own minds and the effort could appear heroic. The exaltation of the agnostic rebel was really a romantic illusion. At the time, it did not appear to be a great evil in itself, but it was the breeding ground for an apostasy which would spread throughout the entire Western world. Each succeeding generation would be fed by a growing pantheon of literary lights who would make disbelief seem credible: Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, W. B. Yeats, and a large cast of like-minded artists—able and well-intentioned, each attempting in his own way to come to terms with the slow collapse of civilisation. They were also diverse in ideology and temperament, each inflating some part-truth into a cosmology (a working definition of heresy). There is a new level of intensity in Chesterton’s writings after Heretics, as if he had sharpened his sense of what lay ahead for the world. He saw that culture is a primary instrument of forming a people’s concept of reality. Western culture was in a major crisis, dominated by gifted men who were increasingly hostile to Judaeo-Christian absolutes. Chesterton spent a .good deal of effort attempting to show them that, having sloughed off religion, they were by no means freed to be objective. They merely opened themselves to new or old mythologies. When men cease to believe in God, he observed, they do not then believe in nothing; they will then begin to believe in anything.

In the 1903-1904 controversy with Robert Blatchford, Chesterton revealed that he had come to belief in the doctrines of the fall of man and the Divinity of Christ. The accusation was made that Christ was a myth which it had been necessary to invent; after all, did not every culture produce some form of mythological Christ-figure? Chesterton’s reply was brilliantly simple:

If the Christian God really made the human race, would not the human race tend to rumours and perversions of the Christian God? If the centre of our life is a certain fact, would not people far from the centre have a muddled version of that fact? If we are so made that a Son of God must deliver us, is it so odd that Patagonians should dream of a Son of God? The Blatchford position really amounts to this—that because a certain thing has impressed millions of different people as likely or necessary, therefore it cannot be true. And then this bashful being, veiling his own talents, convicts the wretched G.K.C. of paradox. l0

Against the artifice of the secular mind, Chesterton brought the art of parables and paradoxes which were so rooted in reality and good sense that they were true teachers. The use of two apparently contradictory ideas would point towards a third and hidden reality. Here was the artist and his medium. Chesterton, a master of the image, communicated Truth in piercing, incontrovertible and beautiful mental forms drawn from the truths written into all creation. His opponents, the intellectually honest ones, were often so surprised that they were disarmed. It should be noted here, as well, that Chesterton took great pains to express respect and at times affection for the personhood of his opponents, though he was merciless with their ideas.

Having already discerned the contours of the battle to come, even in the half-light of a dark century, Chesterton saw that the revolt must take the course of an attack upon the nature, the role, and the person of Christ. The revolt was only just gathering momentum then. Inroads had been made into wide circles of English society by the ideas of the occult Spiritualist, Madame Blavatsky, and her disciple, Annie Besant. Their Theosophical Society was a major instrument in providing a hot ersatz religion to fill the vacuum left by the cold rationalist gnostics of the English intelligentsia. This two-pronged assault upon a weakened post-Catholic society was most effective. In fact, the English pagan revival was to provide a model, as well as many of the leading “prophets,” of the global occult revolution now emerging in our times as the New Age Movement. Then and now it was a syncretistic blend of European individualism, ancient gnosticism, and the monistic religions of the East, principally Hinduism.

Chesterton prophesied that the last and greatest battles of civilisation would be fought against the religious doctrines of the East. 11 This was an odd prophecy, for at the time, India, for example, birthplace of both Hinduism and Buddhism, was an impoverished, subjugated colony with little prospect of influence on any level of world affairs. Yet, within a century, we find a great many educated people following the ideas of Jungian psychology. Carl Jung, more than any other figure, has been responsible for injecting Hindu mythological concepts into the mind of Western man. His cosmos is represented by the Hindu mandala, a four-sided diagram of the universe. The “Christ-myth” is true, Jung believed, but it is understandable only in the context of a divine “Quaternity”—a fourth dimension of God, the “dark side” of His face. According to Jung, this other face of God has mistakenly been called Satan or Antichrist. Jung’s fascination with the occult is consistent with such ideas. The occult movements themselves have spread similar concepts, to the point that large numbers of Britons and North Americans, for example, now believe in reincarnation and karma, and desire to communicate with the spirits of “Ascended Masters.” What was once called “necromancy” has now become “spiritual evolution.” Millions of people are being fed on the spiritual teachings of seers whose esoteric doctrines advocate the total destruction of Judaism and Christianity. The cry of the rationalist revolt, epitomised by Voltaire’s epithet against the Church— “Crush the infamous thing!” — is now the rallying cry of irrationalists. They are a large army of devotees awaiting the emergence of a “New Age Christ” who will attempt to replace Jesus Christ. These are now mainstream cultural ideas. Orthodoxy at any time would recognise them as the doctrines of an anti-Christ.

The Church is a timeless society. Membership makes it possible to step outside of the contemporary milieu, at least mentally, and to measure it against something infinitely better and ultimately more real. But this is not possible for those locked into a de-spiritualised cosmos. Rejection of the idea of evil, coupled to belief in progress and the self-perfectibility of man, blocks awareness that the worst may be happening, a blindness reinforced by the fact that every person tends naturally to experience his own times as normal. Even believers can be blinded by the psychology of denial—consider the attitude of most Christians and Jews in Germany during the 1930s. As events become more and more extreme, the temptation grows to bury oneself in escapist dreams or in the distractions of comfort. The critical faculty is lulled to sleep. “To stay awake and watch,” demands energy and the willingness to persist in a state of chronic tension. It is so much easier to be “optimistic.” Chesterton was neither an optimist nor a pessimist. He had been rudely awakened by his encounter with evil. It is uncertain whether, in the early years of his conversion, he attached apocalyptic significance to the occult revival from which he had barely been saved. But he saw a great danger looming.

He was employed for a brief period with a publisher of occult books, and there he encountered the false doctrines on the lips of disoriented matrons and eccentric gentlemen. It is to his credit that he was able to foresee the shape of the future in what was then only one of many seemingly harmless fringe groups. He saw that mysticism was on the rise, and he recognised it as an unfocused craving for spiritual experiences, one more appetite which the materialist wanted filled. After several decades of observing the progress of this undefined movement, he wrote in a 1930 controversy with C.E.M. Joad:

. . . you say that it is indeed necessary that religion should exist, but that its essence is Mysticism; and this does not need to be organised. I should answer that nothing on earth needs to be organised so much as Mysticism. You say that man tends naturally to religion; he does indeed; often in the form of human sacrifice or the temples of Sodom. Almost all extreme evil of that kind is mystical. The only way of keeping it healthy is to have some rules, some definitions of dogma and moral function. 12

 Similarly, a nation robbed of spiritual order could produce monsters. Germany, for example, had not only produced Hegel and Nietzsche; it had been formed by them. The result was what Chesterton called “Prussianism.” He recognised (along with Belloc) that the “Servile State” was everywhere in the modern world, but Germany offered a clear example of the pagan state taken to its logical consequences. Its new pantheon was more dangerous than the ancient Teutonic deities, for it was dominated by the “superman,” the apotheosis of humanism, a forerunner of the new occultic humanism which was to come. By his very nature, the superman must make war upon the “new man” in Christ. And make war he did. The life-span of such a myth might be no more than a century, but the damage that it would cause would be immeasurable in terms of human misery. Chesterton saw that the self-divinisation of man was not so much hope for a new kind of man as it was “another name for despair of man,” and man in despair becomes capable of any kind of outrage.

How did this happen in one of the most civilised Christian nations of Europe? In his memoirs, Inside the Third Reich, Hitler’s Architect and Armaments Minister, Albert Speer, recalls the mentality of the German people as Hitler rose to power. Divided by the Reformation, undermined by the new philosophies of the previous century, suffering from social chaos and artistic decadence, many Germans had come to believe in the: need for a secular messiah. Speer points out that most Germans disliked the “darker” side of National Socialism; but, in a spirit of optimism, they focused on the positive promises made to them by Hitler. They were confident that once he attained the dignity of the nation’s highest office, he would leave his more unpleasant ideas behind. It is important to note here that Protestant Germany ensured the election of Hitler, while only a small minority of Catholics voted for him.

Chesterton lived long enough to see Hitler gather about himself the magnetic darkness of a romanticised, spiritualised tyranny. It is uncertain whether or not he was sufficiently apocalyptic to identity Hitler as Antichrist, but surely he would have identified him as a type of antichrist. Apocalypse was in the air of the times. In the previous century, Cardinal Newman had written and preached powerfully about the coming of Antichrist. The appearance in 1907 of Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson’s novel, Lord of the World, had stimulated an awareness of the real possibilities for Antichrist’s rise to power. The Russian religious thinker, Vladimir Soloviev, had also published (1900 in Russian, 1915 in English) his masterpiece, Three Conversations, which included “The Antichrist,” a prophetic parable about the imminent incarnation of evil in history. All three were converts to Catholicism (although Soloviev’s conversion is still debated by the Russian Orthodox). All three were highly conscious of the dissolution of the old order of things. They said, in literary forms, what a number of Catholic saints, mystics, and apparitions had already warned: that the twentieth century would be the arena of an ultimate conflict with the powers of darkness. To this list of inspired protesters should be added the names of Gilson and Belloc, both of whom did not hesitate to say that the times were dominated by the spirit of “anti-Christ.” All were agreed that evil is the power of the lie and that it was capable of seducing even the elect. Only a virile, orthodox Christianity would have the strength to withstand the coming storm.

Until his conversion to Catholicism in 1922, Chesterton remained an Anglo-Catholic. But he saw that the Anglican Church was much weakened in doctrine and discipline. At the same time, Tyrrell and Loisy were spreading Modernism in the Catholic Church, to be only just checked by the 1907 papal encyclical, Pascendi, and by the 1910 oath required by the Church against Modernism. Chesterton saw a great apostasy brewing everywhere, one that has erupted in the present generation with a vengeance. In fact, it is Modernism which has done most to discredit reflection on the Apocalypse in any real depth. Modernism is immanentist, in that it understands God primarily as a divine principle in man, in a linear historical process, and in the plane of the material universe. It cannot grasp the Christian vision of apocalypse, which it tends to dismiss as irrational, morbid, fundamentalist, and pessimistic. Orthodoxy maintains that the eschaton, the culmination of history as a climax of sin and error, will be resolved only by the interjection of the transcendent God breaking into history in an extraordinary manner. By contrast, the new theologians attempt to “immanentise the eschaton,” as a purely historical process. In brushing aside consideration of the real meaning of the Book of Revelation, they deny that the new Jerusalem will be given by God after the devastation of the world by human folly. The New Jerusalem of neo-pagan theologians is to be created by man, here and now. This reveals an extremely optimistic view of human nature.

 Chesterton, reading the despair in much of modern optimism, frequently argued against pessimism and optimism. They bore no relationship to authentic Christian hope, which must always have the courage to see things as they really are. Christian realism is apocalyptic, for it stands ever waiting and watchful for the hour when the Bridegroom will arrive. But hope is a delicate virtue, developed by a process of maturing in faith. In an era when despair is never far below the surface, Christian apocalyptic reflection runs certain risks: on one hand, a temptation to overfocus on the darkness of apocalypse, and on the other hand, an inclination to neutralise it by calling it a myth. Both reactions reveal a thinly-veiled, largely subconscious despair. It must always be remembered that the Apocalypse will be the deliverance of the world; and, alternately, that if it displays some of the elements of myth, it is a myth which will actually come to pass. The Book of Revelation is the antithesis of mythology, a truth which Modernist demythologisers fail to understand.

Chesterton’s Orthodoxy (1908) was more than a reaction to the demythologisers and to their counterparts, the new pagan mythologisers. It was a geography of his mind’s odyssey to orthodox Christianity. In contrast to the two main branches of the new paganism, rationalistic scientism and irrational cultism, he posited, with characteristic playfulness, the “ethics of elfland.” It was his childlike way of saying that the world was charged with a real “magic” far greater than the occultic arts; and that it was infused with a sanity more vast than the mechanisms of limited human reason. He saw the modern philosophers using thought to negate thought, a form of self-destruction. He saw the parallel degeneration into cultic paganism as the desperation of a people starved for a spiritual life in a desacralised age. Without a transcendent God, the cosmos was curiously flat, and an unexpected by-product was that its citizens felt dehumanised without knowing why. Thus, spiritualities of any sort, especially those which promised (and delivered) strong visceral content and no accountability to God, looked very attractive to the Modern Mind.

The Modern Mind was not then a large portion of the populace of the Western world, but it had grasped power in Art and Politics, and its ideas were spreading everywhere. The mass of men remained imbued with some basic assumptions given them by Christianity. It was still, on the surface, a Christian society, though it was Protestantised (that is, subjectivised) and crumbling rapidly. Even atheists saw the shape of the future. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) outlined a society in which literature and religion had been neutered, humanity genetically engineered and drugged by soma, a narcotic named after a drink used in Hindu Vedic ritual. It was a world which had perfectly synthesised technology and paganism. Thirty years later, in Brave New World Revisited, Huxley warned that the world which he had foreseen was developing much more quickly than he had anticipated, and it was materialising before our very eyes as a new “non-violent totalitarianism.” He suggested that, more and more, we will be “painlessly regimented by a corps of highly trained social engineers.” 13  As Josef Pieper has pointed out, this kind of totalitarianism is the worst of all, impossible to throw off, because it never appears to be what, in fact, it is. The Roman Catholic Church was, and remains, the one body capable of resisting the dissolution; but it is precisely the body considered most objectionable to the modern mind. In the case of England’s rejection of orthodoxy, Caryll Houselander has discussed the role played by unacknowledged and unrepented guilt:

So it is with the Englishman’s fear of Catholicism. Whether he is good or bad, Catholicism is in his blood. Few if any of us are not descended from apostates. Few if any English families were not once Catholic: and Catholicism, even in the blood, is stronger and more ineradicable than drink. Our forefathers, if they were to endure going on living with themselves and with their children, had to justify their infidelity. Therefore, they built up a sinister picture of Catholicism, which has been handed down the years, and has set up a conflict between the irresistible attraction and the bogey lurking just below the surface of memory. 14

These are hard words. But it must be remembered that Catholicism is in the blood of all the Western world. Chesterton himself was forced to wrestle with that bogey in order to make the leap to Catholicism. Most men in the modern world could not make the leap, and unacknowledged guilt must be seen as part of the handicap which they faced. Their failure bred the climate which has fostered the luxuriant growth of the pagan revival. John Coates has pointed out that Edwardian society suffered from a loss of logic and clarity. The movement away from ethics towards aestheticism as a preoccupation with technique left the culture vulnerable to ideological invasion. He writes:

The moral and intellectual equipment inherited from the late nineteenth century had been faulty and was now, in important respects, disintegrating. The Victorian compromise, “a balance of whims,” having begun to lose its confidence and energy, its always latent irrationalism began to feed on increasingly sinister sources. 15

False prophets appeared everywhere, and our present generation is now reaping the harvest of their labours, the harvest of ignoring true prophets such as Chesterton. A new generation of false prophets exercises uncanny skill in creating alluring images of cosmos and history. A revived pantheism, for example, is offered in pleasing disguises as a replacement for the neglected incarnational spirituality of genuine faith. Heterodox cosmology has invaded several levels of the Christian community, ranging from many a Catholic university, parishes and centres of spirituality, to episcopal offices. Simultaneously, orthodoxy is called into question everywhere in the Western world. The “mysticism” of materialism is becoming a new “orthodoxy.” Chesterton had had all that, and he knew it to be illusion, the myth of man-made utopia, a very old idea. Authentic Christianity he found to be eternally young, eternally leaping out of the tomb, just at the moment when it seemed beyond hope:

This is the thrilling romance of orthodoxy. People have fallen into the foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy. It is sanity: and to be sane is more dramatic than to be mad. 16

 By 1922 Chesterton was standing on solid rock, and the publication of The Everlasting Man (1925) was the ensuing elucidation of his Christology. It was also his full-scale confrontation with paganism. In it, he writes:

In a word, mythology is a search; it is something that combines a recurrent desire with a recurrent doubt, mixing a most hungry sincerity in the idea of seeking for a place, with a most dark and deep and mysterious levity about all the places found. So far could the lonely imagination lead, and we must turn later to the lonely reason. Nowhere along this road did the two ever travel together. 17

The pagan is always in flux and never comes home. His reason and imagination are always at cross purposes. The attempt to meet divine reality by one or the other alone is doomed to failure. Chesterton said that “the rivers of mythology and philosophy run parallel and do not mingle until they meet in the sea of Christendom.” The sanity of the world is saved because the divinity of Christ “met the mythological search for romance by being a story, and the philosophical search for truth by being a true story.” Conversion, however, could never be a matter of paganism simply evolving into Catholicism. He maintained that it was always a break, a case of repentance. Of his own conversion, he wrote:

I think I am the sort of man who came to Christ from Pan and Dionysus and not from Luther and Laud; that the conversion I understand is that of the Pagan and not the Puritan; and upon that antique conversion is founded the whole world that we know. It is a transformation more vast and tremendous than anything that has been meant for many years past, at least in England and America, by a sectarian controversy or a doctrinal division. On the height of that ancient empire and that international experience humanity had a vision. It has not had another; but only quarrels about that one. Paganism was the largest thing in the world and Christianity was larger; and everything else has been comparatively small. 18

The Catholic Church continues to call modern man to the fullness of conversion, and to find his place in the visible and the invisible world. She maintains the delicate balance between transcendence and immanence. She is the Church of the Incarnation. The Catholic can love creation passionately because it is beautiful and good and true, a reflection of its Creator. Unlike the Puritan, he does not fear it or ignore it. Unlike the pagan, he has no need to worship it or to attempt to transcend it by negations of reality. Christianity is sanity because it finds transcendence by entering into creation so completely, with a vision of restoring it to its original unity, by loving it so well, as did its God, that His hidden face emerges through it and His likeness is restored in the human soul.

If that likeness has been badly defaced in the soul of modern man the Christian is not permitted to despise him or to despair of him. We must take hope that the image of God remains alive in him. It is true that the new pagan is a being different from the old pr-Christian classical pagan who, through his myths and philosophies, attempted to crawl out of darkness towards the distant light. The new pagan is a more lost creature, for he wishes to go back down into the abyss, dragging an entire civilisation after him. It must be remembered, however, that Chesterton himself was for a time that very man. He tells us:

I have said that my morbidities were mental as well as moral; and sounded the most appalling depths of fundamental scepticism and solipsism. And there again I found that the Church had gone before me and established her adamantine foundation; so that even madmen might hear her voice; and by a revelation in their very brain, begin to believe their eyes. l9

1.  Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord, Vol. 1 (San Francisco, 1982), p. 18.
2.  G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (San Francisco, 1986)1 p. 283.
3.  G.K. Chesterton, Autobiography (San Francisco, 1988), p. 96.
4.  Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord, Vol. 1, p. 19.
5.  Daily News article, undated, quoted in Maisie Ward’s Gilbert Keith Chesterton (London, 1945), p. 45.
6.  Letter quoted in Maisie Ward’s Gilbert Keith Chesterton, p. 48.
7.  G.K. Chesterton, Autobiography, p. 104.
8.  G.K. Chesterton, Autobiography, p. 96.
9.  G.K. Chesterton, Heretics (New York, 1919), p. 24.
10.  G.K. Chesterton, The Blatchford Controversies (San Francisco, 1986), p.347.
11.  Cf. Chapter V, “The Escape From Paganism,” in G.K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man (San Francisco, 1986), pp. 364-381, for Chesterton’s ideas about the nature of a pagan Europe which would have appeared had Christianity not prevailed in the rise of Western civilisation.
12.  Maisie Ward, Gilbert Keith Chesterton, p. 511.
13.  Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited (New York, 1958), p. 34. Huxley’s analysis of the West’s slide into totalitarianism is prescient, yet it remains flawed by monotonous repetition of his prejudices against organised religion. The historical Church is repeatedly lumped together with tyrannical systems such as Marxism and Nazism.
14.  Caryll Houselander, Guilt (London, 1952), p. 12.
15.  John Coates, Chesterton and the Edwardian Cultural Crisis (Hull, 1984), p. 29.
16.  G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (San Francisco, 1986), p. 305.
17.  G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man (London, 1926), p. 126.
18.  G.K. Chesterton, The Catholic Church and Conversion (New York, 1926), p. 90.
19.  G.K. Chesterton, Autobiography, p. 330.