The Magazine

Thursday’s Father

The cosmos in the mind of G. K. Chesterton.

Aug 30, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 47 • By DAWN EDEN
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One is reminded of the solipsistic science-fiction author Philip K. Dick who, when asked by a college student in 1972 to give a definition of reality, gave a purely negative reply: “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” By contrast, Chesterton counters both the narrow negativism of solipsism and the equally narrow perspective of what modern materialists call the “reality-based community,” as he insists “reason is itself a matter of faith.” 

Nichols explains, “Naturally, by ‘faith’ here Chesterton doesn’t mean specifically Christian faith. He is speaking of a philosophical faith grounding confidence in the fundamental reliability of the human mind and its most refined instrument, which is language.” Both materialists and solipsists share an odd collective aphasia. In their refusal to accept the Word that transcends everything men can know, they deny the means by which men can know anything.

Nichols details how Chesterton’s desire to harmonize faith and reason eventually led him to St. Thomas Aquinas. His 1933 biography of the saint “follows the movement of Thomas’s own thought as it finds in the finite being presented through the senses a way to the fontal being which pours itself out in all that is.” But Aquinas was more than a philosopher; he was also a mystic. Chesterton understood him because he shared his sense of the numinous. An analysis of Chesterton’s mystical insights would support Nichols’s assertions that his theology speaks to today’s Christians. 

Nichols, however, is by his own admission “not .  .  . a mystic,” and this limitation occasionally leads him to an un-Chestertonian closed-mindedness. For example, he omits any mention of the 1907 “Introduction to the Book of Job”—the closest Chesterton ever came to biblical exegesis. Likewise, he gives short shrift to his subject’s most profound novel, The Man Who Was Thursday, a work whose theme of theodicy built upon the points Chesterton made in his Job essay—particularly his observation that “the riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of man.” In his curt comments on Thursday, Nichols claims,

The key to that novel is that the men who represent cosmic order in society are pursued, harried, by those who suppose them to be really anarchists. In this way, the representatives of order who police the world for its health and safety are able to bear witness that they too have suffered, and this gives them a moral cachet in the eyes of all who consider themselves the victims of order.

But that is not quite true. The sufferings of the policemen in Thursday are not for the purpose of giving them cachet in the eyes of the story’s lone “real anarchist,” Lucian Gregory. Rather, they exist so that the believer might use his God-given free will to unite himself to Christ, whose victory comes through suffering, and thereby reject the lies of the original anarchist, for whom the similarly named Lucian is a mere stand-in. 

Nichols’s avoiding extended analysis of Thursday is all the more strange because the book’s true message actually affirms his grammar of Chesterton’s theology. In fact, G. K. Chesterton, Theologian is extraordinarily valuable precisely because Nichols’s grammar, applied to Thursday, not only brings the novel into fuller focus, but also reveals the prophetic quality of Chesterton’s religious understanding. For example, he rightly draws the reader’s attention to the way Chesterton marries his metaphysical realism to his appreciation of symbol as “an equally far-reaching way of displaying what is involved in the real.” In The Everlasting Man, Nichols writes, “the Incarnation of the Word makes possible precisely such a union .  .  . [linking] a universal philosophy that abstracts from concrete things in the search for general and underlying structures, on the one hand, and on the other, a mythopoetic imagination that discerns divine presence and action as the matrix of the most important concrete things.”

Such an observation adds depth to the epiphany of the Thursday protagonist Gabriel Syme, who intuits that all visible creation is sacramental—real in itself, yet symbolic of an invisible reality that is personal: 

“Listen to me,” cried Syme with extraordinary emphasis. “Shall I tell you the secret of the whole world? It is that we have only known the back of the world. We see everything from behind, and it looks brutal. That is not a tree, but the back of a tree. That is not a cloud, but the back of a cloud. Cannot you see that everything is stooping and hiding a face? If we could only get round in front—”

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