The White Light of Wonder 14 July, 2008

Read the World Youth Day blog.

“Life is not just a succession of events or experiences, helpful though many of them are. It is a search for the true, the good and the beautiful. It is to this end that we make our choices; it is for this that we exercise our freedom; it is in this – in truth, in goodness, and in beauty – that we find happiness and joy. Do not be fooled by those who see you as just another consumer in a market of undifferentiated possibilities, where choice itself becomes the good, novelty usurps beauty, and subjective experience displaces truth.” – Pope Benedict on arrival in Sydney.

But on another matter…

The New Yorker magazine recently lent its prestige to the 100th anniversary of G.K. Chesterton’s popular introduction to Christianity, Orthodoxy, by publishing a major article by Adam Gopnik called ‘The Back of the World’ (7 and 14 July 2008). The article is appreciative of GKC’s genius, although the author’s bias is clear from his description of Chesterton’s most strenuous advocates as ‘conservative pre-Vatican II types who are indignant about his neglect without stopping to reflect how much their own uncritical enthusiasm may have contributed to it.’ It would be fairer, I think, these days to describe GKC’s main advocates as ‘post-Vatican II radicals’.

Gopnik describes Chesterton, rightly, as a ‘hearty mystic’ who saw all things in what he once called the ‘white light of wonder’; and as the ‘grandfather of Slow Food, of local eating, of real ale, the first strong mind that saw something evil in the levelling of little pleasures’. He locates Chesterton’s masterpiece (or the nearest he came to one) not in Christian apologetics such as Orthodoxy but in a novel, The Man Who Was Thursday, written with ‘nightmarish intensity’ on a theme that has recently become all too relevant – Chesterton’s ‘anarchists’ are today’s ‘terrorists’. The novel has a profundity that stands the test of time. Insightfully, Gopnik goes from there to Chesterton’s Catholic conversion in 1922: ‘If you want a solution, at once authoritarian and poetic, to the threat of moral anarchism, then Catholicism, which built Chartres and inspired Dante, looks a lot better than Scotland Yard. If you want stability allied to imagination, Catholicism has everything else beat.’

Yet the article is leading up to a serious accusation – the mild anti-semitism even Chesterton’s admirers must recognize in him (and which was commonplace in England before the Second World War) not only became an ‘ugly and obsessive’ hatred after 1918, but ‘is not incidental’ and in fact arises from ‘the logic of his poetic position’ – his love of the local. That simply does not wash, for locality does not imply homogeneity in Chesterton’s vision, but rather variety. If as Gopnik claims he viewed all Jews as in some sense ‘aliens’, and even English Jews (including his own friends) as essentially ‘foreigners’, it came from taking seriously the image of a Chosen People temporarily deprived of a Promised Land, and from mixing up religious with ethnic identity. I would not want to defend all of Chesterton’s opinions on the Jews, but it is a slur to say he hated them, and indeed his Jewish friendships and even his writings point in quite another direction. Gopnik himself admits that Chesterton was no fascist, spoke out against the persecution in Germany, and was emphatically opposed to any kind of genocide.

Gopnik does not understand Chesterton’s Catholicism, or the ‘conversion sickness’ which made him see his newly adopted faith as ‘a shining, perfectly balanced system, an intricately worked clock where the cosmos turns to tell the time and the cuckoo comes out singing every Sunday’. It is true, I suppose, as Gopnik argues, that English writing changed after 1918, leaving Chesterton’s accounts of Christianity looking a bit too boisterous and blustery to be taken seriously. Perhaps today we need a more nuanced apologetic – even, at times, a more apologetic apologetics. But not all change is for the best, and sometimes Chesterton’s apparent crudity marks a deeper subtlety, as Aidan Nichols recently argued in a series of lectures at Oxford.

Gopnik refuses to dismiss Chesterton, even though he thinks his beliefs (localism, Catholicism) would eventually lead most people to intolerance and authoritarianism. Chesterton’s personality was too genial, his love of life too infectious, his mystical appreciation of reality too profound, his aphorisms too funny. But those of us who have come to share Chesterton’s ‘conversion sickness’, and who can admire without idolizing him, need to demonstrate both by words and by deeds that faith is more than a mood, and that it leads in a direction even the sceptics of the New Yorker need have no reason to fear.

Which brings us back to World Youth Day. Read the Pope’s wonderful addresses to young people here.