Published in Gilbert Magazine, 8 (October/November, 2004), 11-12.


Schall on Chesterton                                                                                                                                  James V. Schall, S. J.




                  In 1911, Chesterton spoke to a club in Cambridge calling themselves “The Heretics,” whether after the title of Chesterton’s 1905 book of the same title, I am not sure.  Chesterton actually came mildly to chastize these students for this title, which at first seems so haughtily  rebellious.  In a letter from Beaconsfield in 1912, he told them that ”here were many sorts of questions I should like to have asked the Heretics, if they had not asked so many questions of me. But, first and last, I should like to ask them why they are so weak-minded (if you will forgive the phrase)as to admit that they are Heretics.  You never really think your own opinion right until you can call it Orthodox.”  In the midst of 21st Century relativism that is a refreshing phrase, “to think our own opinions right.”

                  Chesterton’s talk was given in the Cambridge Guild Hall in response to a lecture the previous year by George Bernard Shaw on “The Future of Religion.”  These remarks of Chesterton were summarized in the Cambridge Magazine on January 12, 1912 and reprinted in The Chesterton Review for August of 1986.  The article consists in a summary of Chesterton’s talk and a record of a question and answer session with students and faculty.  Chesterton is always at his most amusing best in these situations.

                  Recalling 18th Century religion, Chesterton remarks that “in France, Louis XVI, who happened to be a sincerer Catholic, almost pleaded with is Ministers and advisers that he might be excused from appointing an atheist to the archbishopric of Paris” (288).  What sort of an atheist might we have who would accept such an appointment!  And this brings Chesterton to Dr. Samuel Johnson perplexed the same age for almost the opposite reason.  “In England in the eighteenth century Dr. Johnson was largely considered a portent, an extraordinary being, because he went to Church and had brains.”  As I think of this remark, I realize that is the best definition of Catholicism I can think of  – someone who goes to Mass and has brains.  

                  As to the debate itself, Chesterton addressed Shaw’s idea of “heretics.”  Evidently, Shaw said that “heretics were people who found a machine, such as a motor-car, and by tinkering at it turned it into something else.”  They would be heretics, I take it, because the prevailing idea is that we cannot change a motor-car into anything but a motor-car.  Chesterton, to laughter, said of this position of Shaw, that “he knew it sounded funny, but it was down in the lecture.”  This is what the man said.  What did it mean?  This puzzled Chesterton who did not mind “if anybody could find a sewing machine lying about and turn it into an old high bicycle ...but he strongly objected to their finding a bicycle and turning it into a sewing machine, and then trying to ride the sewing machine.” (290).  In logic, the “heretical” position had the drawback of being reduced to silliness on its own premises.  However romantic heresy might be, orthodoxy, as he told the students, has the advantage of the firm opinion that we cannot ride a sewing machine.

                  Shaw seems to have had the idea that God is somehow trying to come into existence but hasn’t quite yet made it.  God, Chesterton thought on the contrary, must already be.  “There must be first a fixed ideal.”  Shaw’s ideal is precisely “unfixed.”  “What was the good of a God which was gradually trying to exist?”  Not merely what was the “good” of such a god, but what was the sense of it?  “There was no such thing as trying to exist.  They had to exist before they tried” (291).  Being is before becoming.  A god who is “not yet” cannot at the end of a process turn around, look at himself, and say that “this is what I intended to become” unless he already intended to become what which he intended.  That would make him a “fixed point,” however.

                  When it came to summing up the essentials of the “old Christian theory,” Chesterton said, again to applause, that there were two main points: “The first idea was that if God set humanity free He could not keep them bound; the second was that the idea of setting the people free as so inspiring a conception that it would excuse man, or God, or any other being, in facing all the risks and troubles of the world.  That was the Christian religion.” (294). If God made free beings, He could not in the same act turn around and bind them so that their freedom was not a part of their very relation to God.  Once we recognize that there are free beings in the universe, including God’s freedom in making rather than not making it, what follows is the drama, the “risks and troubles of the world.”  It is not a defect in God that there are free beings, nor that these free beings, using their own creative powers, can also reject God..  This is how Chesterton put same point later in the question period:

The doctrine of Liberty was that the Creator made something which could also create in its turn.  That was ordinary logic.  If they said that God could at the same time keep men bound and prevent their going wrong they were mystic, they were confusing terms, and were not using Reason.  If they admitted the Liberty was desirable and that Reason constrained things, then they had the Christian doctrine of Free Will (297).

God could create beings who could act freely.  Their guidance was also a self-guidance according to reason.

                  In the question and answer period, Chesterton is asked about Pascal and the Jesuits.  “Pascal denied that Reason could lead one to God and that Liberty was possible.  It was because the Catholic Church was on the side of Reason and Liberty that it suppressed Pascal and the Jansenists.”  Chesterton then wanted to know, ”did anyone in the room know what Pascal was arguing with the Jesuits about?”   Here is Chesterton’s explication of the argument.  “The Jesuits said that God really wanted every man to be good, to escape hell, and to save his soul.  Pascal said that God deliberately damned some people, that he deliberately meant that some people should not have the grace to enable them to overcome their temptations” (295).  Chesterton then looks at the audience to ask, wryly, “On which side were his hearers?”

                  A final encounter, a “passage-at-arms,” also caused considerable amusement and insight.  This is the old epistemological question revisited.  A questioner said that “Mr. Chesterton could not say he knew a thing unless he had scientific proof of it.”  The questioner thus maintained that he would never say “I know,” but only that “I have an intuition,” Chesterton then asked him, “You know you exist?”  The man denied it, protesting that he could not use the phrase “I know.”  He preferred to say “I have an intuition that I exist.” 

                  Chesterton replied that it was too bad, but that he, Chesterton, could himself say, “I know, I am absolutely certain, that I exist.”  Moreover, Chesterton said that the gentleman knew “that he existed.”  It is foolish to say that we could not be certain of anything about which we do not have scientific proof.  The questioner replies that it is merely a question of “definition.”  The gentleman says that he uses the word “know” in a different sense.  He tries to save himself by affirming: “I say it is perfectly true that I have an intuition that I exist.”  To this Chesterton merely quips, “Cherish it.”  There follows “laughter and applause.”  Existence is safe. 

                  And this “cherishing” brings us back to the very point of a “fixed point.”  It is the same thing to say that “I know I exist” and to say, with some convolutedness, “it is perfect true that I have an intuition that I exist.”  God exists. He does not try to exist.  Nothing is clearer than that cherished affirmation that “I exist.” 

                  “The Jesuits said that God really wanted every man to be good, to escape hell, and to save his soul.” “You never really think your own opinion right until you call it orthodox.”  Atheists should be excused from the archbishopric of Paris.  A man can “go to Church and have brains.”  A man who turns a bicycle into a sewing machine may be a “heretic,” but the man who understands that he cannot ride a sewing machine remains “orthodox,” because he still sees things as they are.