Mark 9:24

Chesterton and Lewis show a crossroad

In Pursue Truth on January 31, 2012 at 4:19 am

In reading more and more of Chesterton, and having finished my first time through the bare-bones central corpus of Lewis some time ago, I sometimes come to places where I see apparently inherent contradictions between them. Shallow skeptics of YouTube comment threads would delight in this if they noticed. Alas, it’s left for us to contemplate two truths and their contradiction.

It is not the goal of Christianity to stand for a moment. Rather, our goal to stand forever.

For example, Chesterton wrote:

There are an infinity of angles at which one falls; only one at which one stands.

… while Lewis wrote:

How monotonously alike all the great tyrants and conquerors have been; how gloriously different are the saints.

These men aren’t at all opposed, of course, but if we approach the two men as the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible approaches Holy Writ we will gleefully gape at their nakedness though in fact they are perfectly clothed. After all, our former quote is central to Chesterton’s best, most popular apologetic, titled Orthodoxy, just as our latter quote is central to Lewis’ best, most popular apologetic. In fact, Mere Christianity is probably the most popular apologetic among any works we’d recognize as strictly apologetic. How do we reconcile these giants?

Our two observations are as the Old and New Testaments, which is to say as sentences in a paragraph. In his, Chesterton is primarily concerned in that worth with defending Christianity and her tradition, that “democracy of the dead.”  In his, Lewis is primarily concerned with explaining the Christian view of things and the sticker points of morality. They are not the same thing, but they are very closely related. With these particular thoughts we have something more astounding than distinct ideas — we have steps placed in a particular order in a reasonable process, both toward the same, logical end. We have two arrows pointing at the same reality, as the Five Ways are five programmatic pointers to God. I don’t mean to overstate my case, either: Mere Christianity probably included something like Chesterton’s observation and vice versa, but neither counterpart became a bon mot.

Though Chesterton may enjoy such a combination for seeming paradoxical, remember that his fondness for paradox is from paradox being so often the vehicle for truth. Chesterton never revels in mere contradiction, only contradictions which are true. If he finds two truths and a contradiction between them, he will take all three, but it is against his character to do so when faced with a truth, a lie and a contradiction.

However we arrive at the conclusion, we see that after putting together Chesterton and Lewis we see the familiar Christian claim that only by losing ourselves do we find ourselves. By losing the vain want to find our own angle to stand, we stand more fully and uniquely than we might ever teeter. By accepting the moral rule that we once anyway believed, rather than rebelling against it, we can go on to the better business of living our life. We do not have to constantly reinvent the ruler, or for that matter who is the ruler, and we are no longer looking at ourselves. We accept first things and so can enjoy second things.

In relating the two books, and especially the two men — fool’s errand that it is — it seems Chesterton is primarily concerned with skewering the unspoken assumptions of modernism and left Lewis to offer Christianity, even if from the earliest pages of Orthodoxy it is clear that Chesterton means to present the case for Christianity. Lewis breezily bypasses Chesterton’s modus with his argument from quarreling, firmly establishing our common belief in immutable moral standards and, from there, moving on to second things.

Between Chesterton and Lewis I see a truer version of the Gospel than we’d hear from a megachurch, or at least both sides of that famous maxim attributed to Dorothy Day — ingenious Chesterton afflicts the comfortable, and genuine Lewis comforts those so afflicted. This is not to say that Chesterton plays the bad cop — he’s too cheerful, too honest to be a bully. This is not to say Lewis is the good cop — he’s too somber, too sly, and he has no cant. Standing between them I see two men who have resolved to stand.

Lest the skeptic denounce believers as being sheep cast in the same mold, subsuming individuality and having only a group identity, consider: These two men are still very different.

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