The cosmos in the mind of G. K. Chesterton.
Aug 30, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 47 • By DAWN EDEN
G.K. Chesterton, ca. 1920
by Aidan Nichols
It is said that the study of metaphysics is dying because people no longer want to study things that cannot be changed. One sees this in the popularity of the Serenity Prayer, in which the thing most feared is not, as with the Lord’s Prayer, the temptation to sin, but rather the inability to control one’s circumstances: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.”
Had G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936) lived to read the Serenity Prayer (it emerged shortly after his death), he would have found it ironic that the orison earned fame as the mantra of the recovery movement. Coming of age in an era when preening poets went Wilde wearing carnations the color of the bilious liquor they imbibed, Chesterton recognized early on that the true subversion was sanity. “Revolt in the abstract is—revolting,” says his protagonist Gabriel Syme in The Man Who Was Thursday (1907). “It’s mere vomiting. . . . The most poetical thing in the world is not being sick.”
Such an appreciation of the artfulness of “things going right” characterizes the brand of metaphysical realism that Aidan Nichols, the English Dominican priest and prolific author, identifies as central to Chesterton’s worldview. In G. K. Chesterton, Theologian, he traces the origins of that realism back to the literary giant’s personal background and his reactions to the leading cultural figures of his time. Nichols’s Thomistic talent for systematizing leads him to find connections between Chesterton’s use of paradox, his demonstration of God’s existence (the “argument from joy”), his understanding of man as imago dei, and his Christology.
While his subject has been called The Apostle of Common Sense, Nichols stresses that “metaphysical realism is not merely the upshot of a commonsense epistemology.” It is also “the fruit of the doctrine of creation, which declares things to be intelligibly planned by the divine mind who called them ‘good.’” As Chesterton wrote in a 1910 essay,
From this core philosophy, Chesterton, in his 1908 classic Orthodoxy, was able to critique the “madness” of his “thoroughly worldly” contemporaries. Their errors stemmed not from irrationality but rather from the narrowness of the data they admitted into the realm of reason, as Nichols observes:
In modern terms, he saw the prominent scientific rationalists of his day, as well as modernist Christians (“new theologians [who] dispute original sin”), as conspiracy theorists—the intelligentsia’s equivalent of the black-helicopter/tinfoil-hat crowd. While his arrows were aimed at contemporaries such as George Bernard Shaw and Ernst Haeckel, one does not have to look far to find modern-day examples of the blinkered mindset he describes: Witness Richard Dawkins saying that he would cling to his nonbelief in God even if it meant having to posit that an outer-space alien designed human life. Chesterton is seen by many as an answer to such New Atheists because, in Nichols’s words, “metaphysical realism, as an account of cosmic order hospitable to the Christian doctrine of creation, can improve on the materialist account: Whereas Christians are free to believe that there are large areas of ‘settled order and inevitable development’ in the universe, materialists, Chesterton points out, cannot allow the slightest incursion of spirit or miracle.”
Still, despite the New Atheists’ media stardom, the most popular modern heresy, at least in terms of book sales, is not materialism but solipsism—the Me-centered philosophy of Oprah, Chopra, The Secret, etc. While New Atheists see the New Age movement as merely a subset of religious superstition, Chesterton saw the solipsism of his day—and the Kantian subjective turn that provided it with its pseudo-philosophical ground—as the flipside of materialism. The two “have something in common,” Nichols writes, quoting from Orthodoxy: “The man who cannot believe his senses, and the man who cannot believe anything else, are both insane, but their insanity is proved not by any error in their argument, but by the manifest mistake of their whole lives.”
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