An introduction to G. K. Chesterton by Dale Ahlquist: A Synopsis

A genius and a giant in literature, G. K. Chesterton is almost entirely neglected today. He is rarely quoted or studied, yet his works are monuments to logical, everyday common sense. A convert from atheism to the thinking and beliefs of the Catholic faith, he did not actually become a Catholic until after he had written his major works on Catholicism. In his book “Surprised by Joy,” C. S. Lewis, himself a formidable Christian writer, attributes his conversion from atheism to Christianity to the works of Chesterton, especially the book “Everlasting Man.”

Ahlquist is an obvious admirer of Chesterton. He has a remarkable gift of condensing Chesterton’s thought into a few tantalizing paragraphs, leaving the reader with a desire to read the original. As Chesterton is a genius, Ahlquist is gifted in his ability to summarize and synthesize Chesterton’s thought.

Ahlquist writes that Chesterton’s publications number in the thousands, including novels, detective stories, poems, essays, reviews and on and on. Chesterton’s interests were eclectic. He was not just an advocate of common sense, he was also an avid seeker of the truth. And he found the truth in the Catholic faith. Even during his years when he was not a Catholic, he was a major defender of the teachings and doctrines of the Church. His intense conviction of the truths taught by the Church underlay all his predictions of what could happen if these truths were violated.

Was Chesterton a prophet or was he simply examining the current facts and speculating where they would eventually lead? Chesterton himself would say he was merely envisaging future events based upon a commonsense examination of current events. For example, he accurately predicted the beginning of World War II, and the use to which Hitler would put the theory of Eugenics popular in the 30s.  Chesterton died in 1936, yet he was able to anticipate the explosion of sexual promiscuity and the concomitant result of millions of abortions. Chesterton would merely say he was putting two and two together to make four. Ahlquist says he was a genius.

Chesterton spent a lifetime arguing about something. Generally, he wrote out his arguments. Some of the people he was arguing with are well known today (George Bernard Shaw) and others have been forgotten — but he addressed his arguments to them. The argument may have arisen in a private conversation, a public speech or a published piece. Readers are not always told which.

Chesterton had no trouble calling his debate opponents names. Generally, he accused them of lacking common sense. Sometimes he would compile all the arguments of his opponents on some issue, then demonstrate how they contradicted each other. He asks how they could all be right.

In “Heretics,” Chesterton says that a heresy is a distortion of the truth. For Chesterton, truth is consistent, unchanging, distinctive, complete (or whole) and good.  A heresy can be either a deliberate distortion of biblical passages to suit the desired theology or, when only one doctrine, out of all the doctrines, is held up as the supreme teaching, out of all proportion to the others. Other heresies simply ignore some of the doctrines taught in Christianity. To appreciate Christianity, one must accept all the doctrines Jesus taught. Anything else is a heresy. Heresies are either incomplete or illogical. A heresy simply does not stand the test of common sense.

 Chesterton read the Bible in the original Greek and found many mis-translations of the Bible underlying some denominational beliefs.

 “Orthodoxy is Chesterton’s confession of faith. In it he outlines how he came to the conclusion that Christianity was the only faith that explained the existence of God to his satisfaction. For Chesterton, the teachings of Christianity are logical. He did not stop there, however. Out of the myriad denominational and sectarian choices available in Christianity, he found Catholicism to be the most complete. He found that Catholicism was logical, contained all the doctrines taught by all the other Christian denominations and sects and made sense. His defense of Catholicism was made years before he became a Catholic. He did not convert from atheism easily.

The Thing is an unusual book title. The “thing” Chesterton is referring to is the Catholic Church. The subtitle is “Why I am a Catholic.” His continuing complaint was that he kept bumping up against the Catholic Church everywhere he turned. He simply could not avoid the Church in his search for the truth.

Chesterton was a great believer in a logical progression of ideas from a central core. For Chesterton, the central core of Christianity is the Incarnation. He examined all the existing arguments both for and against this doctrine and found the arguments against were flawed in some critical way. He spent years trying to argue against the Incarnation only to find his own arguments were also flawed. He eventually gave in, having convinced himself that Christianity was the true faith and that Catholicism was the fullness of that faith.

Today, Chesterton is probably best known for his Father Brown detective stories. He loved to read mysteries but was irritated with authors who sprang the conclusion on the reader without forewarning or any clues. Father Brown solves his little puzzles by an examination of the facts leaving the reader to ask: “How did I miss that?” The BBC has recently introduced a Father Brown television series.

Ahlquist is to be commended for his insightful and masterful introduction to Chesterton. For those who have access to the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN), Ahlquist had a regular weekly program on Chesterton. This television series is available on CD from the EWTN bookstore. The American Chesterton Society also provides further information on his works. Some will find this book satisfies their need to know who Chesterton was and what he wrote. Others will find it only a taste of, and an introduction to, a brilliant author.

Ignatius Press offers 39 volumes of the Collected Works of G. K Chesterton. The books Ahlquist summarizes and reviews are referenced by the volume number of these Collected Works (CW): “The Thing” (CW1), “Orthodoxy” (CW 1), “Heretics” (CW 1), “The Everlasting Man” (CW 2), “St. Francis of Assisi” (CW 2), “St. Thomas Aquinas (CW 2), “Why I am a Catholic” (CW 3), “The Catholic Church and Conversion” (CW 3), “The Well and the Shadows” (CW 3), “The Superstition of Divorce” (CW 4), “Eugenics and Other Evils” (CW 4), “What’s Wrong with the World” (CW 4), and “The Outline of Sanity” (CW 5). The “Collected Father Brown” is available from Penguin, 1981. For anyone wishing to dip into individual Chesterton volumes, they are available online and in bookstores, including a biography written by Maisie Ward (“Gilbert Keith Chesterton,” Sheed and Ward, 1942) and a collected volume of poetry (Dodd, Mead 1949).