Institute Carries on G.K. Chesterton's Work

Father Ian Boyd on Continuing the Writer's Legacy

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SOUTH ORANGE, New Jersey, MAY 3, 2005 (Zenit.org).- An institute dedicated to continuing the work of Gilbert Keith Chesterton is celebrating the 30th anniversary of its journal and its mission of cultural evangelization.



Basilian Father Boyd is president of the G.K. Chesterton Institute for Faith and Culture at Seton Hall University. He shared with ZENIT how at the heart of Chesterton -- and at the heart of the institute's work -- is a sense that the imagination must be cleansed and evangelized.

Q: What is the nature of the work done at the G.K. Chesterton Institute?

Father Boyd: The Chesterton Institute was founded in order to continue in our day that work that Chesterton began in his. This work consists chiefly in what might be called cultural evangelization.

Chesterton believed that the toxic consumerist culture of the Western world has a power to undermine faith and a decent way of life that is even greater than that of the totalitarian systems which have attacked Christianity in the past.

Our work is largely the educational work of a think tank, consisting of publications, conferences and the preparation of position papers on urgent contemporary problems, as well as such events as the restaging of Chesterton's debates with friend George Bernard Shaw.

Q: Additionally, you are the editor of a well-respected journal, The Chesterton Review. However, the journal covers lots of topics besides Chesterton. Why is this so? Is this in keeping with the spirit of the man himself?

Father Boyd: Yes; it is appropriate that a journal bearing Chesterton's name should be concerned with the luminous sacramental tradition to which Chesterton belonged rather than with a cult of Chesterton himself.

That is why The Chesterton Review has devoted special issues to Christopher Dawson, Cardinal Manning, Georges Bernanos, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, George Macdonald and others -- they all possessed a sacramental imagination, a sense of the incarnate God present to us in history, culture and human community.

For the same reason, we have published on Ireland and the future of its Christian culture; fantasy and children's literature, Christian mysticism and the so-called New Age movement; ethics and economics in post-Communist Europe; and even Japanese Christian writers.

At the heart of Chesterton -- certainly at the heart of our work -- is a sense that the imagination must be cleansed and evangelized.

Q: Why are G.K. Chesterton's words important for our time?

Father Boyd: Chesterton wrote beautifully about beautiful things: faith, family, the extraordinary gift of creation itself. In everything he wrote he expressed a kind of joyful gratitude for God's abundant generosity to us.

He was also a prophet whose prophesies have been fulfilled -- another good reason for taking him seriously. His predictions must have seemed improbable to the readers of his own day but we who have lived in an age which has seen them come true now find that his words speak directly to us.

Think of one or two of such prophesies. At the beginning of the 20th century, a time of almost universal peace, he predicted that "before the liberal idea is dead or triumphant we shall see wars and persecutions the like of which the world had never seen."

On another occasion, he wrote that "the next great heresy is going to be simply an attack on morality, and especially on sexual morality," a threat to Christianity which he believed was even more serious than that of Communism.

"The madness of tomorrow," he wrote, "is not in Moscow, but much more in Manhattan." In view of the very welcome collapse of the Soviet Union and the very unwelcome triumph of the sexual revolution, one can only nod one's head in agreement.

Q: Why is it that so many different writers and public figures -- from Gandhi to Jorge Luis Borges -- have been influenced by this man? What gives Chesterton's writings an almost universal appeal?

Father Boyd: There are two reasons for this.

In the first place, he was a remarkable thinker. Étienne Gilson, the distinguished medieval historian, called him "one of the deepest thinkers who ever lived" and his book on St. Thomas Aquinas "without possible comparison" the best book about the saint ever written.

Because Chesterton was a philosopher, there is a Chestertonian view that illumines every subject, whether political, or economic or social. As he once explained, a true philosophy has something to say about everything "from an angel to an octopus."

Secondly, Chesterton was a poet whose writings form a kind of wisdom literature. His deepest insights are expressed in such memorable sayings that he is one of the most frequently quoted authors in English literature.

Moreover, all his writings are suffused with a spirit of joy. Franz Kafka knew very little about Chesterton, but, after reading one of his novels, Kafka said, "He is so happy! I can almost believe he has found God." With Chesterton, laughter keeps breaking through. It's a sure sign of his sanity.

Q: Why is Chesterton's popularity exploding in the United States while almost underground in his native England?

Father Boyd: This is strange but understandable.

Part of it may be that, as Scripture teaches, a prophet is without honor in his own country -- although, to be fair, in Britain many people still recognize Chesterton a great national writer.

His fame in America can be explained, I think, by the religious character of the American people. A year or so ago, during President Bush's visit to China, he quoted Chesterton's saying that "America is a nation with the soul of a church." This is certainly true.

America is a country where moral issues still have political resonance -- abortion, same-sex marriage and the like. I'm not so sure that this is the case in many parts of Western Europe.

Q: Why was it that Chesterton could have an opinion about everything, as well as be a fearsome debater, but was also universally loved by his opponents?

Father Boyd: As a philosopher, Chesterton possessed a quality which he attributed to St. Thomas, something he called "a fury for life." He was keenly interested in every aspect of ordinary life.

He said that the one thing the modern world needs above all is to be startled -- we have to be taught the nature of wonder. As he explained, the modern world needs a new kind of priest. In an earlier and happier age people needed to be reminded that they would one day die. In our age people needed to be reminded that they were not dead yet.

As you say, his friendships with his intellectual enemies were an extraordinary thing. He said that he never met a person whom he disliked, perhaps because he believed that people become lovable by being loved.

Q: Is there a cause under way to canonize Chesterton?

Father Boyd: A group in Argentina -- where the Chesterton Institute will be holding a major conference this September -- are interested in forwarding his cause. They have been in touch with the archbishop of Buenos Aires and with the archbishop of Westminster; before his recent death, they received
encouragement from Cardinal Carter, the former archbishop of Toronto and the honorary president of the Chesterton Institute.

My own view is that Chesterton is a great spokesman for Catholic truth, who deserves the title Pius XI gave him: "gifted defender of the faith." But he is also a writer much loved by Protestant Christians, who revere him as the mentor of C.S. Lewis. Naming him "Saint Gilbert" might disturb this important ecumenical role.

In Russia, where he was read in "samizdat" editions, they had a wonderful name for him; they called him "the teacher of hope."

Another title he deserves is one he gave to George Macdonald, a Congregationalist minister and the author of children's stories, and a thinker who had a decisive influence on Chesterton's own religious thinking.

Because Macdonald was a writer who appealed to readers of every Christian faith, Chesterton called him "a morning star of the reunion." That is also a rather good description of Chesterton himself. As an elderly priest once said to me, those who read Chesterton are not far from the Kingdom of God.

Q: What works of Chesterton, or his commentators, would you suggest our readers start with if they want an introduction to the writings of this great man?

Father Boyd: "Orthodoxy" and "The Everlasting Man" are his most important books of apologetics, but his well-known Father Brown detective stories are also a good introduction to his writing.

For a flavor of his journalism, it might be worthwhile to read our journal, The Chesterton Review; every issue includes examples of his uncollected writing.

At the moment, our 30th-anniversary issue is at the press. Its theme is “Chesterton at Thirty,” a look at the world in which Chesterton wrote a hundred years ago, when he, like our journal, was also 30 years old.

Everything that Chesterton wrote then might have been written today as a comment on the contemporary world.

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The Chesterton Review can be ordered at chestertoninstitute@shu.edu.