G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936)

NOTE: G.K. Chesterton was not a universalist. He is included on this page to show some of his quotes that many may not be aware of.

".Then I read Chesterton's Everlasting Man and for the first time saw the whole Christian outline of history set out in a form that seemed to me to make sense . . . I already thought Chesterton the most sensible man alive "apart from his Christianity." Now, I veritably believe, I thought that Christianity itself was very sensible "apart from its Christianity." --C.S. Lewis, on reading Chesterton as an atheist in 1925

Gilbert Keith Chesterton was an English writer of the early 20th century. Chesterton was known as the "prince of paradox" because he communicated his conservative, often countercultural, ideas in an off-hand, whimsical prose studded with startling formulations. For example: "Thieves respect property. They merely wish the property to become their property that they may more perfectly respect it." Many of Chesterton's works remain in print, including collections of his Father Brown detective stories, and Ignatius Press is presently undertaking the monumental task of publishing his complete works.

Born in Campden Hill, Kensington, London, Chesterton was educated at St. Paul's School, and later went to the Slade School of Art in order to become an illustrator. In 1900, Chesterton was asked to write a few magazine articles on art criticism, which sparked his interest in writing. He went on to become one of the most prolific writers of all time. Chesterton's writings displayed a wit and sense of humour that is unusual even today, while often making extremely serious comments on the world, government, politics, economics, philosophy, theology and many other topics.

Chesterton wrote around 80 books, several hundred poems, 200 short stories, 4000 essays and a few plays. He was a columnist for the Daily News, Illustrated London News, and his own paper, G.K's Weekly. In the United States, his writings on distributism were popularized through The American Review, published by Seward Collins in New York. He was a literary and social critic, historian, playwright, novelist, Catholic Christian theologian and apologist, debater, and mystery writer. His most well-known character is the priest-detective Father Brown, who appeared only in short stories, while The Man Who Was Thursday is arguably his best-known novel. He converted to Roman Catholicism in 1922. Christian themes and symbolism appear in much of his writing, and he often presented himself in the role of the Church's champion.

The British writer Hilaire Belloc is often associated with his friend Chesterton. Although very different men, they had in common their Catholic faith and a critical attitude to both capitalism and socialism. Both are figures likely to outlast many of their more celebrated literary contemporaries.

Chesterton was a large man, standing 6 feet 4 inches (1.93 m) and weighing around 21 stones (134 kg). Chesterton had a unique look, usually wearing a cape and a crumpled hat, with a swordstick in hand, and usually a cigar hanging out of his mouth. Chesterton rarely remembered where he was supposed to be going and would even miss the train that was supposed to take him there. It was not uncommon for Chesterton to send a telegram to his wife, Frances Blogg, whom he married in 1901, from some distant (and incorrect) location writing such things as, "Am at Market Harborough. Where ought I to be?" to which she would reply, "Home."

Chesterton loved to debate, often publicly debating with friends such as George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, Bertrand Russell, and Clarence Darrow. Chesterton was usually considered the winner. According to his autobiography, he and George Bernard Shaw played cowboys in a silent movie that, alas, was never released.

Other Facts

Chesterton's The Everlasting Man contributed to a young atheist named C. S. Lewis being converted to Christianity.

Chesterton's biography of Charles Dickens was largely responsible for creating a popular revival for Dickens' work as well as a serious reconsideration of Dickens by scholars. Considered by T.S. Eliot, Peter Ackroyd, and others, to be the best book on Dickens ever written.

Chesterton's Orthodoxy has become a religious classic.

An essay that Chesterton wrote for the Illustrated London News inspired Mohandas Gandhi to lead the movement to end British colonial rule in India.

Chesterton's novel The Napoleon of Notting Hill inspired Michael Collins to lead a movement for Irish independence. The same book inspired George Orwell for writing his Nineteen Eighty-Four.

--From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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Chesterton and Universalism

by Edward T. Babinski

I enjoy Chesterton, for his lightness and wit. His statement that "Satan fell by force of gravity, by taking himself too gravely," still resonates with me, along with his statement about how "the test of a good religion is whether or not it can laugh at itself." Chesterton's lightness and bright wit is not normally seen in Christian apologetics, and ORTHODOXY is I think his lightest most witty religious work, written soon after his debate with Blatchford over religion in the press. G.K.'s relationships with "heretics" (as in his book of the same title), were also very congenial, even brotherly.

Besides Blatchford, G.K.’s first sparring partner (whom G.K. graciously praised), he also sparred over metaphysical subjects with George Bernard Shaw many times in public, and there's a book about their long friendship titled GBS AND GKC: THE METAPHYSICAL JESTERS. Shaw was a friend of both Chesterton and his wife, and loaned G.K. money and even urged G.K. to try playwriting, which wound up earning G.K. more money than many of his literary works. Likewise, G.K.'s friendship with H.G. Wells was also quite close. At one time H.G, G.K. and Shaw and some others even made a short farcical film together.

Did G.K. buy into the notion of salvation for all? He wrote in ORTHODOXY: "To hope for all souls is imperative, and it is quite tenable that their salvation is inevitable." Though he adds that such a view "is not specially favorable to activity or progress. . .In Christian morals, in short, it is wicked to call a man 'damned': but it is strictly religious and philosophic to call him damnable."

Concerning George Bernard Shaw, Chesterton stated, "In a sweeter and more solid civilization he would have been a great saint."

And when H.G. Wells was seriously ill, he wrote Chesterton and said, "If after all my Atheology turns out wrong and your Theology right I feel I shall always be able to pass into Heaven (if I want to) as a friend of G.K.C.'s. Bless you."

To this Chesterton replied, "If I turn out to be right, you will triumph, not by being a friend of mine, but by being a friend of Man, by having done a thousand things for men like me in every way from imagination to criticism. The thought of the vast variety of that work, and how it ranges from towering visions to tiny pricks of humor, overwhelmed me suddenly in retrospect; and I felt we have none of us ever said enough. . .Yours always, G. K. Chesterton." [Dec. 10, 1933, letter from H.G. Wells to G.K. Chesterton. Undated reply from G.K. Chesterton to H.G. Wells. Letters quoted in full in Maise Ward, Gilbert Keith Chesterton (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1943), pp. 604-605.]

Note that Chesterton said an atheist would get into heaven (i.e., "triumph") simply by "being a friend of Man."

I think Chesterton wanted to "lessen the impact" of his "tenability of universalism" in the face of church dogmas on damnation. So he combined the view that it was "quite tenable that their salvation is inevitable" with a practical view of damnation as a motivator.

What Chesterton didn't realize or fess up to was that the threat of damnation is primarily a motivator for a person to join a particular Christian denomination and accept a particular soteriology (salvation theology), rather than a universal motivator to do good.

I think people are motivated in a more universal fashion to do good by virtue of the fact that joys shared are doubled, while sorrows shared are halved. We are beings who have the same physical and psychological needs, fears, and pleasures. Few people enjoy having physical or psychological pains inflicted on them in word or deed; while the vast majority enjoy similar physical and psychological pleasures. Fear of damnation as I said seems to create more sects and divisions, each of which insist in the full acceptance of their soteriological beliefs as the only way to avoid damnation.

G.K. wanted to see more people become Christians, probably witty exuberant Christians like himself, "Chestertonianity," I'd call it. G.K. felt that Christianity (as he understood it,) made more sense and was more practical than other beliefs. However part of his belief was that he found universal salvation "quite tenable." Just read THE BALL AND THE CROSS sometime, in which a Christian and an atheist (modeled on the likes of himself and George Bernard Shaw) find more in common in the midst of their duel to the death than either of them had in common with the blank stares of the world around them. Both the Christian and the Atheist also receive visions in that novel that reveal the worst aspects of each of their faiths to each of them. Their debate and love of their fellow man made their friendship all the more close. That is a truly Chestertonian point. --E.T.B.

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