by Joseph Pearce
April 26, 2017
Editor’s Note: The following essay is an interview with The Imaginative Conservative‘s Senior Contributor Joseph Pearce with Agustín de Beitia, for the Argentinean newspaper La Prensa.
1) In a recent interview, you agreed with the idea that we are in the middle of a Chesterton revival. I apologize for asking you about this subject again, but I find it fascinating. What are the evidences of this revival and why do you think it’s happening?
We are indeed in the midst of a Chesterton revival. The practical evidence for this can be seen in the number of Chesterton books that are currently in print, compared with, say, twenty years ago, as well as the evident growth in the size and number of Chesterton Societies around the world. The reasons for this are manifold but much is due to Chesterton’s enduring relevance. Chesterton analyzed the problems that plague modernity with a wit and wisdom which is charming and disarming, using the power of paradox and combining clarity with charity in a way that is difficult to resist. His greatest strength, me judice, is the way in which he always insists on the inextricable marriage of faith and reason and uses this marriage to counter the errors of modernism. After reading Chesterton we are inoculated from the poison of modernism and will never again confuse the Heilige Geist with the Zeitgeist, the Holy Spirit with the Spirit of the Age.
2) In the modern world, we can see an individual detachment from faith, while an intolerant laicism grows among society. Do you find any similarities with the time when Chesterton lived and worked? Would you say he was a visionary?
It is said that the more things change, the more they remain the same. The fact is that secularism is always at war with the Faith and that laicism is always at war with the Church. We can see this in the persecution of the early Christians by the Roman Empire, which established a pattern that has been prevalent in human history ever since, from the Machiavellianism of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I in England, to the French Revolution and its Great Terror, and on into the twentieth century with the secular fundamentalism of the Russian Revolution, the Mexican Revolution, the Third Reich, the Spanish Civil War, etcetera, ad nauseam. Chesterton was a visionary insofar as he recognized this all too often forgotten reality, stressing that Christendom is always the cultural and political expression of the Church Militant, the Church at war with the forces of secularism: Pro Ecclesia contra Mundum!
3) One can—at least—be surprised by the natural way in which Chesterton includes faith and reason in his thoughts, up to an extent in which they seem familiar. Was faith such a politically incorrect issue as it is today? Why do you think it appears to be so easy for Chesterton to address this subject?
At the forefront of Chesterton’s engagement with the errors of his day, which were essentially the same errors that are so prevalent today, is his realism, in the philosophical sense of the word. He is always at war with nominalism and relativism, and always a defendant of the rational essence of reality. It is his absolute insistence, at all times, on the inextricable bond that exists between fides et ratio which makes him such a powerful force for good.
4) Why does reading Chesterton’s work lead oneself to the joy of being a Christian? Is it because of the discovery of faith omnipresence? What reflexion can be made at present time, when faith has been erased from public debate?
At the heart of Chesterton’s joy at being a Christian, a joy which is contagious to anyone who spends time with him in his writings, is the connection between humour and humility which we see in his work, a connection that is encapsulated in the wonderful lines in Orthodoxy about angels flying because they take themselves lightly (humility) whereas the Devil falls through the law of gravity because he takes himself too seriously (pride). It is this animus between levitas and gravitas which animates Chesterton’s work.
5) Chesterton dazzles with his eruditeness and his mastery of the paradox and irony to ridicule his opponent’s ideas. How can you explain such a genius, who was at the same time a novelist, an essayist, a poet, an apologist, and a successful polemicist at a wide range of subjects?
Chesterton astonishes us with his wisdom because he sees with Christ-like eyes. Paradoxically, he sees with the wisdom of Christ because he sees with the innocent wonder of a child. This is the paradox of all perception. As Thomas Aquinas teaches, humility opens the eyes to wonder, and wonder opens the eyes and the heart to the splendor of truth and the glories of God’s omnipresence in His Creation. It is this humble and wonder-filled openness (dilatatio) to reality which enables Chesterton to see with such clarity and charity. This is why he always leads us to God whether we are reading one of his novels or poems, or one of his essays or biographies. Chesterton can start with a piece of chalk and lead us to God. He can be running after his hat and find that he is running after God. He can discuss Dickens and find God, or write history as though it’s His Story. He is a writer and an apologist for whom everything is charged with the grandeur of God.
6) Chesterton occupied an important place during the English catholic resurgence of the early past century after the initiator: Cardinal Newman. There are some people who believe that even those familiarized with Chesterton don’t appreciate the importance of his writing. Is he comparable to Newman in any way?
Chesterton is very much comparable to Newman. Just as Newman could be seen as the initiator or instigator of the Catholic Revival, through his conversion in 1845 and his powerful works of apologetics thereafter, Chesterton can be seen as the main momentum and catalyst for the second phase of the Revival, his own conversion and powerful works proving to be significant contributors to the conversion of thousands of people in his own lifetime and thousands more since. We might call the first phase of the Catholic Revival the Newman Period, from Newman’s conversion in 1845 till his death in 1890, but the second phase should be called the Chesterton Period, from Chesterton’s first being published in 1900 till his death in 1936. If Newman blazed the trail, Chesterton fanned the flames of faith that Newman had set alight. They are partners in evangelism!
7) Would you say he was less acknowledged as a man of letters and a poet than as an apologist?
Part of the genius of Chesterton is that he defies categorization. He was a poet, a novelist, an essayist, a biographer, a popular and populist historian, an apologist, a wit, a controversialist—and some would say a saint! He might not be larger than life, because no man is larger than life, but he is certainly larger than any of the boxes in which we try to squeeze him!
8) We have talked about a time when the two lines of confrontation in the cultural war were balanced, while at the present time we assist to a complete disproportion of forces (in human terms, of course). A time, also, when those lines were still clear –Chesterton had to deal with anarchism, socialism—while now confusion and ambiguity reign, up to the point that even the Church seems to oppose to itself. Is it possible to conclude that such threats were then barely in the beginning? And what do you think that Chesterton would have done today?
I think we are in danger of accepting the “progressive” presumption that there is an inexorable “progress/regress,” i.e. that things are going to continue getting better or worse in a linear sense. The culture of death is seemingly in the ascendant at the moment but it contains within itself the seeds of its own decay and death. What we are witnessing is not the triumph of secular “progress” but its dissolution, disintegration and ultimate suicide. What secular “progressives” see as recent political triumphs are in fact the acceleration of their own demise. We need to remember, as Chesterton never forgot, that evil is its own worst enemy. If Chesterton were alive today he’d be doing exactly what he did in his own time. He’d be exposing the lies of relativism, secularism and the culture of death and showing our generation, as he showed his, that Christian orthodoxy is the only solution to the world’s dissolution.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This essay was originally published in La Prensa (2016) and is republished with gracious permission from the author. The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
Joseph Pearce is a Senior Contributor at The Imaginative Conservative. He is writer in residence and director of the Center for Faith and Culture at Aquinas College in Nashville, Tennessee. His works include: G.K. Chesterton: Wisdom and Innocence, Literary Converts, Tolkien: Man and Myth, Solzhenitsyn: A Soul in Exile, The Quest for Shakespeare and Old Thunder: A Life of Hilaire Belloc. He is the series editor of the Ignatius Critical Editions, and editor of the St. Austin Review. Mr. Pearce has hosted two television series for EWTN on Shakespeare’s Catholicism.