Chesterton Critiques Modernism and Defends Christianity Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Responding to secular biological, anthropological, economic, and historical explanations for human existence and behavior, G. K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man reaffirmed arguments for humanity’s sacred, nontemporal origins. Divided into two parts, the book featured the sudden appearance of humanity on earth and the equally sudden birth of Christ as unique events outside the normal or predictable progression of time.

Summary of Event

The Everlasting Man (1925) was G. K. Chesterton’s attempt to refute the cultural authority of modernist thought. He criticized the modernist conception of humanity, which saw humans as creatures beholden to animal instincts that would always be determined by natural forces beyond understanding or control. Chesterton was especially aware of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection: Or, The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (1859) On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (Darwin) and The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871), Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, The (Darwin) books about evolution that had an enormous impact on the modernist understanding of humanity’s animal origins. [kw]Chesterton Critiques Modernism and Defends Christianity (Sept. 30, 1925) [kw]Modernism and Defends Christianity, Chesterton Critiques (Sept. 30, 1925) [kw]Christianity, Chesterton Critiques Modernism and Defends (Sept. 30, 1925) Everlasting Man, The (Chesterton) [g]England;Sept. 30, 1925: Chesterton Critiques Modernism and Defends Christianity[06510] [c]Religion, theology, and ethics;Sept. 30, 1925: Chesterton Critiques Modernism and Defends Christianity[06510] [c]Philosophy;Sept. 30, 1925: Chesterton Critiques Modernism and Defends Christianity[06510] [c]Publishing and journalism;Sept. 30, 1925: Chesterton Critiques Modernism and Defends Christianity[06510] Chesterton, G. K. Darwin, Charles Freud, Sigmund Spencer, Herbert Frazer, Sir James George Wells, H. G.

G. K. Chesterton.

(Library of Congress)

Chesterton also knew that modernist thought endorsed Sigmund Freud’s challenge to human dignity and his studies of human will, which theorized the existence of unconscious influences that governed individual actions. In addition, Chesterton did not ignore Herbert Spencer’s evolution-based explanation of the most advanced social developments in human civilization (including the formation of organized churches) or the findings of Sir James George Frazer. Frazer’s The Golden Bough (1890, 1911-1915) Golden Bough, The (Frazer) undercut the cultural status of Christianity and other religions by positioning Christianity’s foundations in ancient social or religious myths.

In The Everlasting Man, Chesterton referred to these findings, particularly in relation to H. G. Wells’s best-selling The Outline of History: Being a Plain History of Life and Mankind (1920), Outline of History, The (Wells) which Chesterton targeted as a compendium of mistaken modernist concepts. In Wells’s thoroughly secular version of history, people were fundamentally defined and limited by their biological makeup. Moreover, according to Wells, in the course of humanity’s messy but steady advancement, progress toward higher modes of self-understanding and social organization was hampered by various political and religious powers. Human salvation, Wells contended, would be possible only after an intellectual liberation from these detrimental authorities, which would allow for the creation of a paradise on earth rather than an imaginary heaven outside of time.

Chesterton wanted to counter this modernist rejection of Christianity’s authority, but first he had to contest Wells’s materialist definition of humanity as an organism limited to its biology. He reminded Wells and other modernists that their fashionable emphasis on scientific rationalism misrepresented the full range of human experience, and that the modernist point of view particularly ignored the long history of humanity’s mystical perception. Modernists, Chesterton insisted, had lost touch with their innate sense of wonder. This intuitive sense, stirred by creation’s fundamentally mysterious nature, could not be satisfied by exclusively scientific or fact-based explanations of life because these explanations failed to dispel the sense that humans were less the kin of animals than strangers from somewhere other than earth.

Chesterton highlighted the appearance of the human race and the birth of Christ as two especially inexplicable events. These two occasions were not, as modernists asserted, merely logical historical developments; humanity did not evolve from animals, Chesterton continued, and Christianity did not evolve from pagan myths. On the contrary, the creation of humanity and the birth of Christ were amazing interruptions of history. As unique events, Chesterton contended, they revealed a sacred history more plausible than modernist versions of secular history.

To argue his case, Chesterton pointed to art and laughter as exclusively human characteristics that demonstrated an extraordinary difference between humans and animals. Since art and laughter were without animal precedent but had been present since the beginning of the human race, these faculties could not be the result of evolution. Their lack of evolutionary antecedent, then, suggested that humanity could not have derived from animals. Instead, Chesterton argued, the ability to laugh and appreciate art implied that human existence stemmed from a source outside the material world.

Chesterton valued art as a sign of humanity’s exceptional distinction from the rest of nature, and much of his argument in The Everlasting Man was advanced through the art of rhetoric. His favorite rhetorical device was the analogy, and his were effortlessly constructed, humorous, and based in common sense. For example, in response to the modernist claim that economic pressures explain the emergence of moral standards, Chesterton replied that such a notion was akin to saying that because we walk on two legs, we walk only for the purpose of purchasing shoes.

In addition to his pointed analogies, Chesterton employed clever rhetorical inversions of modernist contentions. He observed, for instance, that the modernists’ trust in their own rational objectivity was undercut by their philosophical conviction that personal points of view determined individual beliefs. Given this conviction about the relativity of perspective, Chesterton argued, the materialist accounts of humanity cannot be understood as anything other than a subjective interpretation.

Modernists were half right about human subjectivity, Chesterton maintained, but they needed to appreciate and value the emotions informing subjectivity. He continued, saying that humans’ deepest emotions—such as a sense of wonder—surpass reason’s way of knowing; emotional truths trump rational thought as a source for understanding the history of the sacred. Chesterton pointed to the appeal of myth and fiction, which can paradoxically be truer than materialist histories like Wells’s, and he also discussed art, which he saw as a unique and mysterious creation that further demonstrated the modernists’ error in relying on objective material facts to explain human existence.

Chesterton extended his investigation of art by asserting that its appeal to the imagination pointed to the superiority of imagination over reason as a tool for understanding being: Only imagination could be capable of intuiting an explanation for such unlikely events as the origin of humanity and the birth of Christ. Chesterton compared this intuitive knowing to a child’s way of seeing, an idea inherited from nineteenth century Romantics. This idea proposed that children know more than they can say and feel more of the subtle texture of being than they can understand; in short, they have a keener sense of the sacred and magical. Chesterton urged the recovery of this intuitive sense of wonder as an antidote to the modernists’ dehumanizing scientific rationalism.

This sense of wonder was a crucial part of Chesterton’s argument in the second half of The Everlasting Man. There he spoke of Christ’s birth as a true story that read like a myth. The coming of Christ into the world seemed strange, Chesterton acknowledged, because it involved a paradox beyond reason’s historical understanding: Christ was not merely a physical man but a paradoxical union of the divine and the human. By reversing the implications of materialist interpretations of Christ that required him to be either a historical or imaginary figure, Chesterton avoided taking a stand on Christ’s divine nature. Instead, he was able to argue that the sheer plentitude of modern interpretations of Christ resulted from the wonder and profound mystery that this figure engendered. Christ’s miraculous birth was as extraordinary and unique as humanity’s own peculiar appearance on Earth, and the church founded on Christ’s teachings, Chesterton insisted, did not evolve from the decay of the Roman Empire any more than humanity descended from animals.

Significance

Like Wells’s Outline of History, The Everlasting Man affected readers across the social spectrum. Some readers considered it Chesterton’s masterpiece, whereas others saw it as second to Orthodoxy (1908), Orthodoxy (Chesterton) Chesterton’s autobiographical account of his conversion to Christianity. If The Everlasting Man was less influential than Orthodoxy, its alternative version of history—particularly of the rise of Christianity—had a significant impact on many people. Detective-fiction writer Dorothy L. Sayers, Sayers, Dorothy L. for example, thought The Everlasting Man was an act of Christian liberation, and C. S. Lewis, Lewis, C. S. author of the seven popular novels comprising The Chronicles of Narnia (1950-1956), converted to Christianity after reading Chesterton’s book.

For those not predisposed to Chesterton’s point of view, his argument seemed more a matter of style than of substance. They found his commonsense humor and rhetorical artistry to be entertaining but finally unconvincing compared to the methods used by modernist science and history. Some critics complained that Chesterton needed to know more about what he was critiquing. In marked contrast to Orthodoxy, The Everlasting Man received more bad reviews than good ones, and it sold poorly. Even so, the book has remained in print, and Chesterton devotees continue to celebrate it as a cogent reply to agnostic and materialist interpretations of human existence. Everlasting Man, The (Chesterton)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Corrin, Jay P. G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc: The Battle Against Modernity. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1981. Considers The Everlasting Man only briefly but is a useful guide to modernist issues addressed by Chesterton throughout his career.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dale, Alzina Stone. The Outline of Sanity: A Life of G. K. Chesterton. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William F. Eerdmans, 1982. A sympathetic biography with part of a chapter devoted to The Everlasting Man.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sheed, Wilford. “On Chesterton.” In G. K. Chesterton: A Half Century of Views, edited by D. J. Conlon. 1958. Reprint. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1987. Provides an insightful, succinct review of Chesterton’s strengths and weakness as a critic of modernism.

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