How George MacDonald Has Affected Our Lives by Teresa Churcher

There are few moments in life which we remember with acute clarity.  There are even fewer moments in our life where we experience a frozen moment of time.  Some moments like this are pivotal for obvious reasons such as holding a new born baby or a first kiss.  When you are a child these moments can be anything from a loving embrace to a surprise A on a school paper.  For me, I only remember one as a child.  I was at the school library and I saw a book with an intriguing title that caught my attention: The Princess and The Goblin.   I was eight years old and I loved fairy tales but hadn’t yet attempted to read a volume as large as this.  Still I remembered the moment of reaching for the volume, taking it down from the shelf and feeling a sense of awe for THIS looked like a book really worth reading!  I borrowed the book (needless to say) and took it home and read it.  I don’t remember how long it took me to read it but I remember two things clearly.  I remember beginning the book and loving the illustration of Princess Irene in her starry bedroom and I remember the moment I finished it because I did something I had never done before or since.  Immediately after finishing the last page in the book, I turned back to the first page to begin reading it again.  I remember after that looking in my basement for a secret door which would lead me to a secret staircase but I never found it although I had dreams that I did.

Two years later at the same school library, I came across The Princess and Curdie.  I never found any other books by GM until I was in my early twenties and came across two paperback books with interesting covers at a book store.  I didn’t realize who the author was until I was sitting on the train on my way back home looking at my purchases and discovered it was the same author I had loved as a child.  So I then read Phantastes and Lillith.

Years later, I discovered more books by GM through a catalogue I received.  After that, when I had the internet, I decided to do a search on George MacDonald.  I found two websites (yup, only two then), one of them mentioned an email list to join to discuss his works.  I joined the community and gained so much more knowledge and insight into GM and his faith.  I eventually began corresponding with one of the other email subscribers.  One day, he told me of a dream he had where we were in a dark cave along with a bunch of children searching for Princess Irene’s ring.  He found it first and then tossed it to me.  Three years later I had moved from the US to the UK and married him.  Together we visited GM’s birthplace in Huntley.

Last year, I read George MacDonald’s Unspoken Sermons and felt as if I have really come home to my faith.  I read all three volumes slowly and took notes and felt my spirit soar to new heights.  His views on God resonated and added new depths to my faith.  I consider George MacDonald to be a 19th century Christian mystic with a huge heart and a wonderfully wild imagination.

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In the Service of Freedom: Postmodernism in the Writing of George MacDonald (3 of 3)

MacDonald draws his understanding of biography as story into much of his fiction. Anodos in Phantastes, Wilfrid in Wilfrid Cumbermede, Duncan in The Portent, and Belorba Day in The Flight of the Shadow are all autobiographers who tell his or her personal story of change.  It has often been noted by critics that MacDonald’s fiction retains strength because of this autobiographical nature; in fact, a number of different stories—Alec Forbes of Howglen and Robert Falconer, to name two—contain characters or settings that are autobiographical of MacDonald’s own life.  This method of writing is consistent with MacDonald’s view of the purpose of biography as a narrative that provides the reader with a method of understanding God, life, and meaning—even if the biographical narrative is fictionalized (similar to the parables of Jesus). In Rebecca Ankeny’s, The Story, The Teller, and the Audience in George MacDonald’s Fiction, she articulates this characteristic of MacDonald’s writing: “[H]e maintains a skepticism about all attempts to state truth unambiguously: we are hampered by point of view, by vocabulary, by intellectual ability, by limited experience, and by being finite human beings in our attempt to know and be known.”

To MacDonald, a person could only be completely known by the one who created him/her, and a biography is only one way of understanding the spirit and purpose of a person.  Macdonald was skeptical of the modern biography that focused on the didactic retelling of empirical facts and claims, believing instead, that our finite minds could not grasp infinite truths.  His skepticism even extended to the written foundation of Christianity itself: the Bible.  Although he treasured the Bible and treated it as God’s inspired Word, he refused to believe that it was the only Word of God: “By the Word of God, I do not understand The Bible.  The Bible is a Word of God, the chief of his written words, because it tells us of the Word, the Christ: but everything God has done and given man to know is a word of his, a will of his.” MacDonald’s belief in the role of the Bible actively portrays a belief that humanity also plays a role in the cosmic story of God, and thus history is a chronicle of selected lives whose stories are capable of leading people to an ultimate purpose in Christ. This is not to say that MacDonald believed that the truth of the Bible is relative, but that the stories in the Bible transcend the factual in order to reveal the divine.

In one of his most popular and symbolic fairy tales, The History of Photogen and Nycteris, MacDonald writes of a witch named Watho who has a wolf inside of her mind that desires to know everything.  Photogen, a master in the light, and Nycteris, a beauty of the night, overcome their captor, Watho, and grow in courage to face a world which they do not know.  In the end, they both grew to love the foreign world best because it represented their love: “Nycteris had come to love the day best, because it was the clothing and crown of Photogen, and she saw that the day was greater than the night, and the sun more lordly than the moon; and Photogen had come to love the night best, because it was the mother and home of Nycteris.”

This fairy tale may be one of the most autobiographical George MacDonald’s views of life.  As with Photogen and Nycteris, MacDonald’s seemingly opposing influences of Christianity and German Romanticism form a relationship which allows each to reveal meaning in the other. His understanding of love, grace, and Christ influenced his view of narrative and his understanding of the purpose of an individual life.  Through the writings of Coleridge and Novalis, MacDonald’s rigid Calvinistic upbringing gave way to a belief that rested on the understanding that all life is a fiction from the hand of God; the spirit of the law becoming more important than the letter.  And from MacDonald’s pen flowed forms of autobiographical narrative embedded with symbols that mimicked a created Nature.

In an age where history meant finding facts and extracting truth from what was known, George MacDonald wrote fiction about what was unknown—and it was true.  MacDonald’s history meant story, and the truth of the story came from the relationship between the author and the reader. Truth was synonymous with Spirit, and the meaning of a historical event depended both on how the story was told and how it was understood.  MacDonald’s combination of Christianity and Romanticism foreshadowed a type of postmodernism, but it differs from the current rendering of postmodernism because he allowed his readers to decipher his symbols with an intention that they would use the meaning to grow in a greater understanding of the divine. He relied on symbolic metaphors—which were open to interpretive truth—in order to direct his readers gaze to the Ultimate Truth—that of Jesus Christ. Here, MacDonald and the postmodern mind must part ways. For while the postmodern might say that truth cannot be found, or that truth is a personal freedom, MacDonald’s employment of this freedom is used in the service of something greater than himself or his readers. Thus, we may decipher the individual meanings in our personal spheres of understanding, but MacDonald calls his readers to look outside those spheres of human inventions (such as empirical facts and creeds) to see the transcendent. He implores them to understand that truth is interpretive not because truth isn’t solid, but because we are not—not because truth is finite, but because we are. And as MacDonald explains, our finite natures seek truth in a quantity when in fact we should be seeking it as an entity. “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities–his eternal power and divine nature–have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse” (Romans 1:20).

In the Service of Freedom: Postmodernism in the Writing of George MacDonald (2 of 3)

The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (1818) Hamburger Kunsthalle

George MacDonald was greatly influenced by German Romanticism, and in particularly through the Idealism and creative imagination of Novalis. Novalis attempted to change his readers’ understanding of truth from looking at an object to expel truth to looking at the subject to understand the truth. MacDonald often paraphrased Novalis in his personal letters by writing, “The Realist is an Idealist who knows nothing of himself. Realism is crude Idealism at first hand.” MacDonald also related more closely to Novalis than Coleridge because of the willingness in German Romanticism to explore the spiritual.  MacDonald found life in the Spirit of the Christian faith through Romanticism, and his fiction testifies to a form of Christianity which is largely non-doctrinal.

With this understanding of MacDonald’s view of freedom, it is easy to see how his faith and idea of truth mingles with his fiction. In his fiction, MacDonald relies heavily upon his desire to lead readers into a genuine understanding of God, and his characters and stories are the vehicles through which he “preaches.” The effectiveness of MacDonald’s writing is due in part to his ability to encompass the entire spirit of a message through metaphor instead of simply communicating a didactic, static message. It is this metaphorical message—a truth received and realized within the reader—that MacDonald is primarily concerned with. One example of this metaphorical message is in the story The Princess and Curdie. Curdie is a young man sent out by the wise great, great grandmother on a special task that will test his spirit. Before Curdie can begin his task, he must first thrust his hands into the magical fiery roses in the hearth in order to burn off his calluses and impurities. Pulling his hands from the fire, Curdie realizes that he has the special ability to see a person’s character by shaking his/her hand. Curdie is then advised that people are not always what they seem—a piece of advice that MacDonald is careful to develop. The grandmother tells Curdie that beneath outward appearances of good and evil there is a more important distinction found in people’s ability to trust:

“One of the latter sort comes at length to know at once whether a thing is true the moment it comes before him; one of the former class grows more and more afraid of being taken in, so afraid to believe in nothing but his dinner: to be sure of a thing with him is to have it between his teeth.”

For MacDonald, this image of understanding a person’s character suggests that life comes from an intuitive experience beyond the planes of rationalism. Instead of allowing rationalism to shake his belief in God because he could not explain the unseen, he accepted the unseen not as untrue but as another cosmic metaphor which needs to be explored but can never be fully understood. This is Coleridge’s Idealism. The lack of understanding comes from deficient human reasoning not from divine impotence. In fact, MacDonald even went as far as to say that “’The bringing forth into sight of the things that are invisible [is] the end of all Art and every art’.”  MacDonald’s fiction thrives on the symbolic because he believed that his writing mirrored the creativity of God. MacDonald goes on to say in the same essay that “hidden meanings are all around us” and that nature itself is a representative of God’s character.  “The meanings are in those forms already,” he writes as he explains that mystery and metaphor are a “divine utterance.”

This mystery for MacDonald was intentionally embedded into his fiction and was a focal point for MacDonald’s belief that meaning can be relative. In his Scottish Writers series, David S. Robb explains how MacDonald’s view of meaning plays out in his fiction as he explains MacDonald as an author “who believes that literature ought to have as much conscious meaning crammed into it as possible and that, furthermore, any worthwhile piece of literature must have within it much more meaning still, far beyond what the author was conscious of devising.” The recurring symbol of sanctification is in the picture of fiery roses and appears in both the Princess and the Goblin and The Princess and Curdie. The roses are only handled by the wise and righteous grandmother, and only those whom she deems ready can be partakers of the purging and healing power of the roses.

The symbolic embedded into nature also extends beyond the fictional world for MacDonald.  In A Dish of Orts, MacDonald quotes extensively from an essay titled “Essays on some of the Forms of Literature,” written by T.T. Lynch. In MacDonald’s essay—given the same title as the Lynch essay—MacDonald draws comparisons between Biography and Fiction.  MacDonald writes, “Deep in the relationship between the life shadowed forth in a biography, and the life in a man’s brain which he shadows forth in a fiction—when that fiction is of the highest order, and written in love, is beheld even by the writer himself with reverences.” MacDonald continues to expound on the similarities when he calls biography “God’s fiction,” and explains that fiction is often a more dramatic telling of the often inward struggle told within human life—biography.  In other words, fiction is man’s exploration and retelling of God’s more cosmic story and a wrestling with the mysteries yearning to “arrive at something greater than what now [we] can project and behold.” MacDonald rejects the notion that a well-written biography is one which only contains the facts and dates of a person’s life; instead, just like fiction, biography is a genre which should be treated with reverence because of the successes and failures of a human life which are invisible to the reader. In essence, MacDonald accepts that a biography, like fiction, must also bear the burden of representing the symbolic. Further on in the “Forms of Literature” eassy, MacDonald quotes Lynch’s poetic explanation of those unrepresented in biography: “One biography may help conjecture or satisfy reason concerning the story of a thousand unrecorded lives… the milky luster that runs through mid heaven is composed of a million million lights, which are not the less separate because seen indistinguishably.”  MacDonald praises Lynch for his observation that a biography is a story about an individual and a story about how that individual connects in spirit with other individuals.

In the Service of Freedom: Postmodernism in the Writing of George MacDonald (1 of 3)

The Victorian Age meant progress to much of the Western world.  With a burgeoning industry in much of Europe and the Western world, and flourishing developments in health, science, and religion, the Victorian Age was the precursor to a Modern belief in truth and empirical evidence.  This shift made way for a more progressive and educated aristocracy which redefined the historical scope of the modern world.  “Lady” and “Gentleman” were labels bestowed on the educated—the people who would continue the progress of the Western world.  Building on the philosophies of men such as Hobbes, Locke, and Hume, the Victorian Age placed increasing value on the empirical, and from this came a greater divide of the people who were allowed to write, create, and speak into “history.”  It was at this time, when science and empirical reasoning ruled both the present and the interpretations of the past, that the Scottish author, George MacDonald, penned volumes of fiction, fantasy, and fairy tales which were built upon an alternative epistemological understanding.  This unconventional historical understanding came from the tension between MacDonald’s Calvinistic upbringing and his youthful engrossment with the Romantics. These two polarities were neither completely accepted or rejected by MacDonald, and led to his robust belief that meaning originates in metaphor.  In her book, The Story, The Teller, and the Audience in George MacDonald’s Fiction, Rebecca Thomas Ankeny explains how these two dichotomies met:  “George MacDonald incorporates into his fiction his thinking that language and literature and the interdependent roles of author, reader, and text.  These ideas…derive from the twin sources of Christianity and Romanticism and are essentially an investigation into symbolism.  The logical basis for a symbolic view of language, artistic expression, or the universe is theistic, and, for MacDonald, Christocentric.” MacDonald’s view of history is one which more closely adheres to a postmodern narrative, which was influenced by his Christian faith, than the empirical views of reason in the Victorian Age.  This view of history is seen by examining MacDonald’s faith, his literary influences, and ultimately his use of the symbolic in his stories.

MacDonald’s Christian faith grew from his Scottish Calvinist roots, and though he ultimately rejected some aspects of this tradition, MacDonald’s early faith was foundational to his religious beliefs and shaped much of his later writing.  As C.S. Lewis once said of MacDonald’s theological background, “all his life he continued to love the rock which he had been hewn.” Even G.K. Chesterton, who was critical of Scottish Calvinism, conceded that MacDonald’s writing contained “a sort of optimist Calvinism.” From these Calvinistic roots, MacDonald drew an emphasis on personal holiness and the evangelization of non-Christians; he also accepted the church’s teaching on the sovereignty of God.  This teaching, an understanding of the total power of God, formed a foundation for other Calvinistic teachings such as Predestination and Election.  These tenets were repeatedly taught to him from an early age from the pages of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, which was a religious methodology of sortsMacDonald’s later reaction to this methodology revealed a great distaste for the arrogance and piety that often came with “uncovering” all of the great mysteries of the Christian faith.  MacDonald was dissatisfied with the belief that God, powerful and sovereign, could be contained in a creed or list of beliefs.  For MacDonald, truth and faith were an intricate fabric woven together with reason and imagination. To unravel all the knots would destroy the entire tapestry.

During the latter years of his secondary education at King’s College, MacDonald was confronted with numerous theological dilemmas, and he struggled most sincerely with the doctrine of everlasting punishment and other prominent Calvinistic doctrines.  It was during this time that he stumbled upon great clarity through reading Romantics such as Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Novalis.  From that point, MacDonald began forming an unusual syncretic union between the tenets of Romanticism and Christianity.  It is from this union that MacDonald identifies history as a subjective understanding of symbols and metaphors for the use of personal growth in faith and righteousness.

MacDonald’s Christianity and writing were greatly influenced by Romanticism and carried on into modern fiction.  In her introduction to the book George MacDonald Treasury, Madeleine L’Engle writes, “Surely George MacDonald is the grandfather of us all—all of us who struggle to come to terms with truth through imagination.”  L’Engle attributes her imaginative success to MacDonald’s own struggles with truth and imagination.  Much of the imagination that L’Engle admires came from MacDonald’s reading of the philosophy of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and early German Romantic author Georg Philipp Friedrich Freiherr von Hardenberg (more commonly known by his pen name Novalis).  Both of these men directly affected how MacDonald saw what was true.  Coleridge’s philosophy of Idealism was paramount in shaping MacDonald’s fiction and understanding of truth.  This Idealism—“the assertion that objects of perception consist of ideas”—created a more organic and free flowing understanding of truth than did MacDonald’s reading of the Shorter Catechism years earlier.  This new system of ideas worked within a universal polarity that continually oscillated between understanding visible life and the invisible portions that sustain life—the flower that is seen and the unseen seed which brings the flower to life. An excerpt from Paul Faber, Surgeon, one of MacDonald’s adult fictions, shows a clear picture of this mingling of truth that MacDonald found so appealing.  MacDonald explains that magic possess the truth of “the relation of sounds and of intervals” and of its relation to the creativity of its producer.  Not only this, but it suggests that “the something it gives birth to in the human mind is also a true thing.”

A Place Outside This World G.K. Chesterton’s religious identity as revealed in Orthodoxy (3 of 3)

“Orthodoxy is not only (as is often urged) the only safe guardian of morality or order, but it is also the only logical guardian of liberty, innovation and advance” (O, 133), Chesterton writes.  He concludes the final two chapters of his book as a way for his readers to see the necessity, progress, and joy of orthodoxy. He writes that, “People have fallen into the foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or exciting as orthodoxy” (O, 100).  To illustrate his point, Chesterton writes of a story where a group of children are playing on a hillside next to a steep cliff. The children are running, laughing, and playing without notice or care of the plummeting precipice. Chesterton points out that the reason the children are able to play with such complete abandon is because there is a fence surrounding the entire yard. The children are free to play as close as they want to the fence because they are in no danger of toppling off the hillside. Chesterton then continues with the same setting instead this time the fence has been removed. The children are no longer roaming freely in the yard; instead, they are huddled together, closely in the middle of the yard, afraid to come close the hillside’s edge. Chesterton compares this image with his understanding of orthodoxy. Within well-established boundaries people are allowed to maneuver safely in their thinking without the fear of a misstep leading to death.  Reversely, the liberal mind that promotes removing all boundaries for the sake of freedom is as Chesterton might suggest, intentionally misleading or exceedingly naïve to the reality of human thought. Chesterton’s understanding of this paradox leads him to a robust understanding of orthodoxy as a way to sustain a sense of intellectual wonder and discovery without worrying about falling off the epistemological cliff side.

If the Apostle’s Creed sufficed Chesterton as the guideline for Christian orthodoxy, he surely turned to the person of Jesus Christ to illustrate the perfect example of paradox, progress, and orthodoxy. In nearly every argument against the Materialist that Chesterton brings forth in Orthodoxy, he maintains the tension between a fallen humanity and a transcendent God. His eyes are firmly focused on the matter of humanities inability to fully understand transcendence, yet our innate desire to evolve to something, to someone, greater than ourselves. Materialists argue that if the human mind cannot uncover the mystery than the mystery must be an illusion—they are confined to the center of a gigantic hillside—for humanity is all that truly exists. Yet, Chesterton believes that if the human mind does not understand than it is the mind, not the mystery, which is the difficulty.  George Steiner supports Chesterton’s argument when he writes, “The final paradox which defines our humanity prevails: there is always, there always will be, a sense in which we do not know what it is we are experiencing and talking about when we experience and talk about that which is. There is a sense in which no human discourse, however analytic, can make final sense of sense itself” (Steiner, 215). For Steiner, this is the real presence of a transcendent God. For Chesterton, that real presence—the ultimate paradox in which there are no words—became flesh in the God/man Jesus Christ and spoke the words “I AM.”  “No other philosophy makes God actually rejoice in the separation of the universe into living souls,” Chesterton writes, “But according to orthodox Christianity this separation between God and man is sacred, because this is eternal” (O, 124). Chesterton describes Jesus as both a rebel and a King—“the only religion in which God seemed for an instant to be an atheist” (O, 130).  For Chesterton, this belief began in the understanding that man does not reside in the heavens as God, yet it finishes with God residing with man on the earth. “Insisting that God is inside man, man is always inside himself,” Chesterton points out, “By insisting that God transcends man, man has transcended himself” (O, 126). Dale Ahlquist succinctly explains Chesterton thoughts when he writes that, “He [Chesterton] discovered that paradox is the key to truth, and that the ultimate paradox is the key to the ultimate truth. And that the ultimate paradox is Jesus Christ: fully God and fully man” (Ahlquist, 30).

G.K. Chesterton was a man defined by who he wasn’t. He believed in the transcendent, so he wasn’t a Materialist. He believed in God, so he wasn’t an Atheist. He believed in revolution, so he wasn’t an Anarchist. But above all, he believed that deconstructing all beliefs for the sake of liberal thinking was a lie. Orthodoxy, according to Chesterton, is not only romantic and adventurous, but also true. In an age that discouraged belief in anything that was not physical, Chesterton nailed his transcendent dogmas to the church door. It was here that he found Christianity:

One can find no meaning in a jungle of skepticism; but the man will find more and more meaning who walks through a forest of doctrine and design. Everything has a story tied to its tail, like the tools or pictures in my father’s house; for it is my father’s house. I end where I began—at the right end.  I have entered at last the gate of all good philosophy. I have come into my second childhood (O, 150).

In Chesterton’s final words in the essay “Authority and the Adventurer,” he ceases his transcendent/materialist debate to remind his readers that they have not only read an apologetic defense of Christianity, but they have be part of the re-telling of Chesterton’s own faith narrative.  “My reason for accepting the religion,” Chesterton writes, “[is] because the things has not merely told this truth or that truth, but has revealed itself as a truth-telling thing.  All philosophies say the things that plainly seem to be true; only this philosophy has again and again said the thing that does not seem to be true, but is true” (O, 149).  Chesterton’s perceptive ability to see and live within paradox enabled him to thrive within Christian orthodoxy and provided keen insight into the great Christian mysteries of sin and salvation. His opponents criticized his dogmas, yet nevertheless praised his courage; and it was Chesterton’s greatest criticism of his opponents that they would not admit that they too were dogmatic. Chesterton allows his readers to follow the same path that he walked down in becoming a Christian, and the trust that is created from the honesty of Orthodoxy allows his readers to believe Chesterton when he writes that,  “Joy…is the gigantic secret of the Christian” (O, 152).

A Place Outside This World: G.K. Chesterton’s religious identity in Orthodoxy (2 of 3)

In his introduction of Orthodoxy, Chesterton writes that he examined all of the questions of Christianity and believed that he was alone in his discovery—he then realized that he was “in the ridiculous position of being backed up by all of Christendom” in which he found his fancied modern ideas to be “1800 years old” (O, 4).  In fact, Chesterton finds that Christian theology is “the best root of energy and sound ethics” (O, 5) and that orthodoxy is not mere tradition but universal truth which solidifies through the ages.  It is Chesterton’s belief that Christian orthodoxy holds the key to true reform because it is situated on a solid ground with eyes focused on a God that transcends man.  In all of his searching for great human progress, Chesterton finds the answers in orthodoxy.  Chesterton propounds that “orthodoxy is not only (as is often urged) the only safe guardian of morality or order, but is also the only logical guardian of liberty, innovation and advance” (O, 133).  For Chesterton, orthodoxy is progress.  “We need not rebel against antiquity,” Chesterton writes, “we have to rebel against novelty” (O, 107). It is the “gate of all good philosophy” (O, 150).

Chesterton does not frame himself as a theologian; instead religion informs his thoughts as “theology is only thought applied to religion” (The New Jerusalem). Chesterton vigorously wrote on virtually every topic, yet he writes that “you cannot evade the issue of God, whether you talk about pigs or the binomial theory, you are still talking about Him” (Daily News, December 12, 1903). The Physicalists of the day, such as H.G. Wells and Rudyard Kipling, balked at the notion that Religion should ever been discussed among sensible people, but Chesterton disagreed. “Take away the supernatural,” Chesterton writes, “and what remains is the unnatural” (Heretics, 88). Chesterton continued to write about Religion, as it had to do with his relationship with God, and Politics, as it had to do with his relationship with his neighbor. He concerned himself instead with writing stories about the natural person who operates within the natural law of Christian orthodoxy. Chesterton uses the traditions of Christian thought to form a certain re-creation of his life in the modern world. Kearney employs Aristotle’s Poetics to describe this re-creation as a type of mimesis: “the disclosure of the inherent ‘universals’ of existence that make up human truth” (Kearney, 131).  Kearney continues by writing that “mimesis re-enacts the real world of action by magnifying its essential traits” (Kearney, 131).  For Chesterton, these essential yet mysterious traits are critical to everyday discussion because of the theological implications embedded within daily conversation.  Joseph Schwartz discusses the role of narrative in Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man as he compares Chesterton to St. Augustine in Chesterton’s use of theology as a way to shed light on the “philosophical enterprise” of life.  Schwartz  writes, “The actor in the drama is, of course, man as he reveals himself in his activities and experience—moral, religious, political, social—and in art—his signature” (Schwartz, 58). The Everlasting Man is an articulate response to H.G. Well’s Outline of History, yet Chesterton identifies himself in the same way as he does in Orthodoxy—through the tradition of Christianity. It this self-labeled “dogmatic” belief that gives the readers of Orthodoxy such a lucid view into the human mind.

Chesterton’s dogmatic beliefs were formed because of his understanding of the mind’s yearning for conclusions. In the final chapter of Heretics, entitled “Concluding remarks on the Importance of Orthodoxy,” Chesterton remarks on the human mind and the modern notion of progress, and combats the belief that the human mind improves with the deconstruction of dogmas.  “The vice of the modern notion of mental progress is that it is always concerned with the breaking of bonds, the effacing of boundaries, the casting away of dogmas. But if there is such as a thing as mental growth, it must mean the growth into more and more definite convictions, into more and more dogmas. The human brain is a machine for coming to conclusions; if it cannot come to conclusions it is rusty” (Heretics, 151). Chesterton compares the mind that is too clever to believe to a nail that is too good to hold down a carpet or a bolt that is too strong to keep a door shut. “Man can be defined,” he writes, “as an animal that makes dogmas” (O, 151). For Chesterton, it makes logical, and in many senses of the word “natural,” sense for the human mind to search out the mysteries of humanity—not as a direct attempt to understand how the humanity works; rather, as an attempt to understand how humanity doesn’t work. Chesterton removed each false assumption of humanity as one might discard books from a shelf until only one book remains. For Chesterton, this book was the Bible—his dogma, Christian orthodoxy. “Truths turn into dogmas,” Chesterton writes, “the instant that they are disputed.  Thus every man who utters a doubt refines a religion” (O, 160). Chesterton welcomed the skepticism of his day because he saw it as an opportunity to examine the beliefs he held, which is likely the reason why Chesterton was able to maintain such close relationships with some of his most ardent critics.  And as Chesterton explores the arguments from his critics, his narrative of universal humanity expressed in Heretics transforms into a richer narrative of personal identity in Orthodoxy.

A Place Outside This World: G.K. Chesterton’s religious identity in Orthodoxy (1 of 3)

In the Western tradition of spiritual autobiography from writers such as St. Augustine and Thomas Merton, G.K. Chesterton compiles his views of religion in his most popular work Orthodoxy.  Written as a response to his views from his earlier book Heretics, Chesterton writes Orthodoxy as both an apologetic and as testimony of his personal conversion to the Christian faith.  It is not an explanation “of whether the Christian Faith can be believed, but of how he personally has come to believe it” (Orthodoxy, x).  Chesterton allows his readers to engage in his “sort of slovenly autobiography” by addressing some of the thoughts of the Victorian Era such as the rise of Modernism and Science. Although his writing is autobiographical in nature, Chesterton boldly asserts his opinion in the areas of politics, science, and religion.

His book of essays delineates on a variety of topics in relation to Religion and ultimately concludes that Christian orthodoxy is the foundation by which Chesterton understanding humanity. Chesterton is able to join the seemingly opposite corners of these topics because of his meta-narrative of faith and, as he describes, his personal odyssey from agnosticism to Christianity: “I will not call it my philosophy; for I did not make it.  God and humanity made it; and it made me” (O, 1).  Chesterton chooses to assert his narrative voice within the context of Christianity; thus creating an autobiography not dictated by his chronological experiences of life, but rather his chronological revelations to his faith.  Chesterton utilizes both intellectual and “common sense” arguments to articulate a coherent view of life and humanity.

Richard Kearney writes that stories are used to “create narrative identities” as a force against confusion (Kearney, 4).  “Every human existence is a life in search of narrative” as the writer “strives to discover a pattern to cope with the experience of chaos and confusion” (Kearney, 129). This force against confusion manifests in multiple genres depending on the form that best communicates the writer’s identity.  For Chesterton, this identity begins in the mind and is cultivated in his arguments in Orthodoxy.  Chesterton uses his narrative voice as a Christian apologist, but more importantly, as a professing Christian writing of his understanding of the universe.  “If one goal of an autobiography is to show the individual’s personal creative response to difficult psychological, and intellectual conditions, then Orthodoxy deserves to be called a classic of the genre.”  Indeed, Orthodoxy is an autobiography of the highest spiritual order as it is a defense of both Christianity and of Chesterton himself.  It is through his explanation of humanity and a transcendent God that allows Chesterton’s readers to understand how he situated himself in the mystery of this world.

An Inspiration for C.S. Lewis’ Great Divorce

Picture by Jason Pensa


The Great Divorce, written by C.S. Lewis, is a response to William Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell.  Lewis believed that Blake’s understanding of heaven and hell was dangerous, as can be seen when he writes that, “…some way of embracing both alternatives can always be found; that mere development of adjustment or refinement will somehow turn evil into good without our being called on for a final and total rejection of anything we should like to retain. This belief I take to be a disastrous error.”  Lewis refutes Blake’s idea that all roads lead to God by telling a story of a man who is ushered into heaven on a bus that he chooses to board.  This man, the narrator of the story, is met by George MacDonald and is led through a series of revelations on the nature of heaven and hell.  MacDonald’s voice comes through Lewis clearly, and many of the themes that MacDonald felt passionate about—namely death and the need for spiritual sanctification—are also present in Lewis’ story.

Although Lewis is a much different writer than MacDonald, Lewis maintains the same goal of MacDonald as he explores deep theological truths in the form of a fantasy story.  MacDonald often debated the way that heaven and hell were described with such great finality; and so it appears that Lewis too takes up the mantle, though be it a little more orthodox, to explain heaven and hell. Through the use of the grey planet and the bus, Lewis is portraying an afterlife where people are still able to choose between heaven and hell. Lewis is able to communicate this tension through the numerous stories of people who arrive in heaven and choose to return to hell. The “phantoms” that exit the bus are met by the “solid people” who try to guide them in maturity and ultimately into the joy of heaven. The narrator and MacDonald watch as a number of phantoms reject his/her guide on different grounds, and ultimately abandon the quest for heaven. After viewing a number of phantoms reject heaven, the narrator concludes that, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in Hell choose it.” In the end, the narrator chooses to follow George MacDonald into the heavenly city.

The Great Divorce strives to explore a world that cannot be fully explained. In the forward, Lewis reminds his readers that he is not trying to portray an accurate view of what he thinks heaven is like; instead, he is trying to deconstruct Blake’s view of heaven and hell that was being so widely accepted. Like MacDonald, I believe that Lewis is trying to help his readers have a less dogmatic opinion of a realm that is not and cannot be thoroughly explained by the living.