This book, which Chesterton, an English journalist, novelist and all around early twentieth century public intellectual, is described by him as a “slovenly autobiography.” While he engages much with competing views of the world prominent in Western culture of his time (and still ours), he is not writing apologetics per se though he is arguing for the truth of Christianity. Religion, like politics, is something deeply personal and intuitive. I enjoy rational argument, but I also enjoy his deeply personal touch which keeps it real.
Chesterton is more of a mystic than a rationalist. He observes that insanity is often induced from seeing too much causality in everything. A determinist, who sees only material causation has a worldview that doesn’t really encompass our world. It can give the impression of explaining everything, but on second thought it also seems to miss everything. A man who thinks that only material causes exist is like the man who believes that everyone is conspiring against him. The facts gathered from the senses are interpreted to support this narrow conclusion. Every one who glances at him is secretly plotting his demise, everyone who accidentally touches him are planting tracking devices, etc. While both the determinist and this insane man both have explanations that coherently explain everything around them, both also leave out so much. Such minds need to see more possibilities, to have the windows and fans in their minds opened and turned on. They need fresh air.
After this rejection of materialism/determinism, Chesterton moves to the reasons why he gravitated towards Christianity. He states that he made these observations before he even considered Christian theology. It is fascinating that he connects Christianity with democracy and practical politics so extensively. The Christian’s respect for tradition is very democratic at heart because it extends the principle that we should listen to all people no matter where they are in life by accident of birth, to the notion that we should listen to all people despite the accident of death. “It is the democracy of the dead,” Chesterton said. The unpopular doctrine of original is also democratic at heart. Evil is not caused primarily by men’s environment, nor is it an illusion or hopelessly triumphant. Evil is in the heart of humanity, something that is in each one of us. The one who sees a good God in heaven is philosophically free to turn and see a bad president in Washington. In contrast, most other philosophies are either unconsciously or explicitly complacent in the fact of oppression. It is difficult to justify a rebellion if you are a monist Hindu living out the life of an ‘untouchable’ due to sins you’ve committed in previous lives. The giant monuments to the ancient states of Egypt and Babylon show us that when these various deeply pessimistic philosophies and religions are dominant, state power over the individual becomes absolute.
Another flaw of materialism is that it rests on a false assumption. If the universe was really personal wouldn’t we see more variation in terms of biological laws and physical laws? Isn’t that more theistic? Reminding me of Hume, Chesterton notes that really these observations are probabilistic, there is nothing really law-like about them. Three and two must always make five but it is not the same with the color of grass or the rising of the sun. We know that monotony is something that only the young can truly enjoy. The child often says: “Do it again,” to the adult. Maybe because we have sinned and grown old, our Father is younger than we are. Maybe he says to the sun: “Do it again,” every morning. Chesterton is wise to point out all of this and more.
This book is a gold mine of wisdom and insight that hits home much more than any apologetic text ever has for me. Like Chesterton, I believe in Christianity on the basis of evidence, though I also agree with him that all of life can be mentioned as evidence. As C.S. Lewis said, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” Christianity is an answer to a riddle. Like every answer though, one has to first discover what the riddle is. Just as in our day, far too many have forgotten the riddle. In short, this riddle is, how are we to live in a sinful world?
Chesterton’s answer to this won’t convince everyone but to those who see the same things in the world as he does and wants the same things in his heart, will agree with him or at least empathize with him. To give a full description and defense of his answer would take too long and be a complete rehashing of this entire book which is beyond the scope of this review. In closing, I will affirm though that Chesterton’s answer is also my answer.