One of the hallmarks of civilization is the prevalence of civil disagreement. This tendency certainly characterized England in the early twentieth century. It was a time marked partly by the debates that took place between the great men of thought and letters before an intelligent public. It was a time before Facebook and Twitter, before the internet, when essays and books were the ground upon which intellectual duels were fought.
Among these great intellectual contests were the historical debates between Catholic historian and essayist Hilaire Belloc and science writer H. G. Wells, between Belloc and historian G. G. Coulton, between G. K. Chesterton and the great playwright George Bernard Shaw, as well as Chesterton and Wells, and Chesterton and Coulton. Blood was occasionally drawn (when Belloc was through with his enemies, they at least knew they had been in a fight, and sometimes wore the mental marks of it), but they were never fights to the death. Particularly in Chesterton’s case, his enemies liked him as much as his friends.
In one such battle, Chesterton was pitted against the newspaper editor Robert Blatchford. Blatchford was the editor of the British newspaper The Clarion, and had written a book called God and My Neighbour, a book arguing for atheism and against Christianity which enjoyed a brief popularity among its British audience.
Blatchford challenged the readers of his newspaper to respond to his arguments, the responses to which he promised to run in the daily editions of The Clarion. The challenge was joined by a number of prominent writers and thinkers. Chesterton was—and wasn’t—one of them. He was a writer and thinker, and he did respond, but, being only a twenty-nine year old relatively unknown journalist at the time, with one book and a handful of articles to his name, he could not have boasted much in the way of prominence.
But whatever obscurity in which Chesterton might at that point in time have languished was dispelled by the time the debate was over.
The controversy spilled out of the pages of The Clarion and into other periodicals of the time, and Chesterton’s four essays were later published in a small booklet titled The Religious Doubts of Democracy. They remain among the most stirring of his many defenses of Christianity.
In one of these exchanges, Chesterton prosecuted a line of argument that became a theme in much of his later writing: the idea that the similarity of the Christian story to that of many pagan myths was not evidence that Christianity was a myth, but rather another proof of its truth.
Blatchford had claimed that the many similarities between various elements of pagan mythologies and Christianity—virgin births, resurrections, etc.—were proof that Christianity was just another warmed-over myth. “Mr. Blatchford and his school,” said Chesterton, “point out that there are many myths parallel to the Christian story; that there were Pagan Christs, and Red Indian Incarnations, and Patagonian Crucifixions, for all I know or care.”
But to Chesterton, the conclusion these facts supported was precisely the opposite of that to which Blatchford had arrived: They were not evidence against the historicity of the Gospels, but evidence for it.
“If I gave each of my reasons for being a Christian, a vast number of them would be Mr. Blatchford’s reasons for not being one.” Blatchford, in fact, was blind to the implications of his own evidence, mistaking something that confirmed Christianity for something that contradicted it.
The Blatchfordian position really amounts to this—that because a certain thing has impressed millions of different people as likely or necessary, therefore it cannot be true …. [Blatchford] points to humanity crying out for a thing, and pointing to it from immemorial ages, as proof that it cannot be there.
Of course there are elements in Christianity that are found in pagan mythology. But, if Christianity is really true, then isn’t that exactly what we should expect?
Thus, in this first instance, when learned sceptics come to me and say, “Are you aware that the Kaffirs have a sort of Incarnation?” I should reply: “Speaking as an unlearned person, I don’t know. But speaking as a Christian, I should be very much astonished if they hadn’t.”
In other words, if Christianity were, in fact, true, would we not expect to see foreshadowings of it? If there was a creature destined to find his ultimate satisfaction in the story of One, born of a virgin, Who would come back from the dead, would we not expect that that creature would yearn for the thing for which he was built—for redemption and fulfillment—and shape this longing into story?
If so, then what sense does it make to use these stories as evidence against the truth of such events?
The story of a Christ is very common in legend and literature. So is the story of two lovers parted by Fate. So is the story of two friends killing each other for a woman. But will it seriously be maintained that, because these two stories are common as legends, therefore no two friends were ever separated by love or no two lovers by circumstances? It is tolerably plain, surely, that these two stories are common because the situation is an intensely probable and human one, because our nature is so built as to make them almost inevitable.
In fact, so powerful is this implication that later thinkers like C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien—both of whom were greatly influenced by Chesterton—would take it up in their own thought and writing. Tolkien would later argue in his great essay on fairy tales that the Christian story was the Great Fairy Tale, the Story of Stories, the myth that transcended all other myths by actually happening in history. In this occurrence, said Tolkien, “history and legend have met—and fused.”
Lewis’ own Christian conversion was facilitated by his acceptance of Tolkien’s account, articulated to him by Tolkien himself during their walks together along the River Cherwell at Cambridge. In many ways a rationalist, Lewis came to the faith, not primarily through reason, but through a myth—one which also happened to be true.
One thought on “G.K. Chesterton and the Historical Defense of Christianity”
I just wanted to let you know I found the scavenger hunt inconsistency in this article. I have visited the River Cherwell, but it isn’t in Cambridge. Tolkien and Lewis walked and talked in the meadow behind Magdalen College Oxford University. The place is amazing in May AND October. I’d love to share with you about my trip with my daughter, 16 years old at the time, about the Christian heritage there, and how we were prepared for that trip because of the Memoria materials we’d used for homeschooling over the last 12 years. Some day maybe I’ll get to the River Cam in that other university town, but for now I relish my adventures to Oxfordshire. Thank you for making me think about these authors and reminding me of the resources nearby my suburban Chicago home in the Wade Center, Wheaton College Illinois.