How A 300-Pound English Journalist Saved My Faith

In almost all of my posts up to now, I’ve addressed some particular question that always bothered me as a Protestant and why I’ve found the Catholic answer to my question so compelling and satisfying.  In this post, I’m going to shift gears and talk about something—actually, someone—who impacted my journey across-the-board and affected how I thought about my faith in all respects:  the early-20th century English journalist G.K. Chesterton.

If you’re not familiar with Chesterton, I’ll give a little background.[1]  Gilbert Keith Chesterton was born in England in 1874 into a not-very-devout Unitarian family.  He never went to college.  Instead, he went to art school.  He didn’t become a professional artist, though.  Rather, he made his living as a writer.  As he grew into adulthood, Chesterton became a member of the Church of England and came to accept the truth of the doctrines set forth in the Apostles’ Creed.  By 1908, when he wrote Orthodoxy, which set forth the “philosophy in which he had come to believe,” Chesterton was convinced that the Catholic Church was what it claimed to be–the Church Christ Himself founded when He was on earth.  Chesterton did not, however, become a Catholic until 1922 because his wife, Frances, was opposed to it.  But by that time, G.K. could hold out no longer and so was received into the Church.  Frances was received in two years later.  In 1936, Chesterton died.

Between 1874 and 1936, Chesterton churned out page after page of poetry and prose.  His prose covers almost every genre imaginable:  op-eds, literary criticism, history, biography, economics, theology, philosophy, detective mysteries, surreal fiction, Christian apologetics, etc.  Pick up anything he wrote, and you’re almost certain to find it’s as fresh and germane today as it was when he wrote it almost 100 years ago.  You’re also likely to be almost spooked by how well he predicted, at the beginning of the 20th century, what would happen in the rest of the century and up to our own time as a result of the various non-Christian philosophies gaining ground in his day.[2] 

As I indicated in my first post, I first learned of Chesterton from the Protestant apologist Ravi Zacharias when I was in undergrad.  I didn’t pick up any of Chesterton’s writings, though, until law school, when I first read Orthodoxy.  By then, I was already struggling with some of the questions that I’ve addressed in previous posts, and my mind was filled with doubts of all kinds—doubts about the reliability of the Bible, doubts about the reliability of language, even doubts about the reliability of human thought and sensory perception.  If left unchecked, I’m quite convinced these doubts eventually would have destroyed my faith, resulting in misery I don’t even want to try to imagine.  Sensing this, I was desperately reading apologetics to try to bolster my faith.  To this end, I tried to read C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity more times than I can count, but I could never get through it.  And I couldn’t figure out why—I just figured there must be something wrong with me because I knew so many people who had been brought to the faith or had had their faith bolstered by Lewis.

I didn’t expect Chesterton’s Orthodoxy to be any different.  Man, was I wrong—the book blew me away.  On every page, I read of a faith similar to mine in that it was based upon the belief that Jesus Christ was the Son of God and had actually lived on this earth, died, and rose again.  At the same time, though, Chesterton’s faith seemed completely unlike mine—it was passionate in a way mine was not.  I never could have described my acceptance of Christian “orthodoxy” the way Chesterton did:

This is the thrilling romance of Orthodoxy.  People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe.  There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy.  It was sanity:  and to be sane is more dramatic than to be mad.  It was the equilibrium of a man behind madly rushing horses, seeming to stoop this way and to sway that, yet in every attitude having the grace of statuary and the accuracy of arithmetic.  The Church in its early days went fierce and fast with any warhorse; yet it is utterly unhistoric to say that she merely went mad along one idea, like a vulgar fanaticism.  She swerved to left and right, so exactly as to avoid enormous obstacles. . . .  The orthodox Church never took the tame course or accepted the conventions; the orthodox Church was never respectable. . . .  To have fallen into any of [the] open traps of error and exaggeration which fashion after fashion and sect after sect set along the historic path of Christendom–that would indeed have been simple.  It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands.  To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame.  But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect.

I spent the better part of the next ten+ years in my faith life trying to figure out why Chesterton felt this way about his faith and why I didn’t.  Ultimately, I came to the conclusion that the primary difference between Chesterton and me was that Chesterton took “orthodoxy” as a given—for purposes of his book, he defined it as the set of doctrines set forth in the Apostles’ Creed, which is something Chesterton cannot in any way be accused of having created.  I, on the other hand, as a Protestant, rejected “creeds.”  Beyond that, I rejected the idea that there was any visible institution with the authority to define what was and wasn’t Christian orthodoxy.  So, in my system, there were no givens.[3]

I am now convinced that the acceptance of orthodoxy as a “given,” rather than as something over which individual believers have some measure of control, directly relates to why Chesterton could feel so passionately about his faith.  It’s possible to be passionately in love with something or someone outside yourself.  Romantic love (unsurprisingly) is the best example of this.  As Chesterton himself put it:

If souls are separate love is possible.  If souls are united love is obviously impossible.  A man may be said loosely to love himself, but he can hardly fall in love with himself, or, if he does, it must be a monotonous courtship.

Because “orthodoxy” (i.e., Christian Truth) is ultimately best summed up in the very Person of Jesus (Who said that He Himself is the Way, the Truth, and the Life), placing the locus of authority to define the doctrinal content of the faith outside oneself makes it possible to truly fall in love with Jesus.  Otherwise, as Nikki has put it, you’re in grave danger of only having “your own personal Jesus.”  And, at least in my experience, that’s a hard Jesus to really love.

G.K. Chesterton opened me up to the possibility that Christ and His Church were truly independent of me and that they were wild and free living things–not domesticated, abstract concepts written on the walls of my own mind.  My life has never been the same. 

[1]               If you want to learn more about Chesterton, visit the website of the American Chesterton Society.  Also, get your hands on one of his books and just starting reading.  I recommend beginning with Orthodoxy, which I think sets forth most explicitly the basic themes of his thought.  The Everlasting Man is also a good starting point.

[2]               In this vein, Chesterton saw the evils that would result from “eugenics”–the theory that human evolution should be helped along by selective breeding of “better” people–long before the Nazis opened their first death camp and long before there was any concern about legal abortion-on-demand.  He also foresaw with uncanny accuracy what would result from the will-to-power philosophies of folks like Friedrich Nietzsche and George Bernard Shaw–again, before the totalitarian regimes that were premised on those philosophies (in places like Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia) came to be.

[3]               This, I’ve concluded, is also why Mere Christianity never made a big impact on me.  For all of the good things Lewis has to say about the reasonableness of accepting certain basic Christian doctrines, he can only claim to speak for himself in articulating exactly what those basic doctrines are.  In other words, his version of “mere Christianity” is only that—his version and the version of those who happen to agree with him.  On top of that, when I picked up Mere Christianity, I was already a Christian so I wasn’t looking for “mere” Christianity–I was looking for “more Christianity” (which happens to be the title an Anglican minister who converted to Catholicism chose for his book about his journey to the Catholic Church).

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13 Responses to How A 300-Pound English Journalist Saved My Faith

  1. Thomas says:

    Ian Ker, whose recent biography of Chesterton is well worth reading, has also edited a selection of Chesterton’s writings:

    Note that some of the works included are abridged; nevertheless, I think it the best single-volume introduction to Chesterton’s writings.

  2. Thank you. I think this is one of the posts I have been waiting for. 🙂

  3. russ says:

    great story! God bless you!!!!

  4. Ron says:

    Great stuff. That 300 pound Englishman was also instrumental in my coming into the Catholic Church as well. I love his comment that in the spirit of medieval chivalry he once gave up his seat to two women. Hilarious.

    • Jason says:

      Thanks, Ron! I love that quote, too. On our fridge, we have a magnet that has a picture of Chesterton receiving an honorary degree and looking very solemn, along with this quote from him: “Without education, we are in a horrible and deadly danger of taking educated people seriously.” Pure genuis!!

    • Jason says:

      Thank you for the encouragement, and thanks for the link! We got a Chesterton prayer card at the 2010 American Chesterton Society conference and are happy to see that there are more!!

  5. Pingback: If You Want a “Christian Worldview,” Read Chesterton and Become a Catholic | The Roman Road

  6. Phil says:

    I have found your blog very fascinating, enlightening, and informative. I am a former Protestant turned Catholic as well. I do not perceive that we share same of the same thoughts concerning Protestantism as a whole; there is much of Prostestantism that does what you sometimes claim it does not or does not do what you claim it does much like many people misrepresent Catholicism (sadly, many are Catholic or “former” Catholics) but that is really beside the point (for example there are Protestant Churches that still recite the Creed and use it as the basis of their faith). As a Protestant turned Catholic I have found a few blogs in the past few weeks that I have thoroughly enjoyed (Crossing the Tiber is another).

    My personal transition from Protestantism to Catholicism was influenced very strongly by Thomas Aquinas. I love his style of writing and argumentation and his extremely in depth exposition of Theology and the fact that he has an answer for almost any question one could possibly have as relating to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. I was amazed at how many things he and I agreed upon and how he gave such wonderful and in depth explanations for what we disagreed on. Yes, there are some things I do not necessarily agree with him on but that is quite beside the point.

    I would suggest to not sell C. S. Lewis short on Mere Christianity either. Much of what Mere Christianity is about explaining very basic Christian Doctrines. It is not a protrayal of “his personal thoughts” as much as you might think. Mere Christianity is not simply about wanting to follow just some Mere Christianity either so much as that the tennants of Christian faith are really quite simple and that we, as people, like to over complicate things WAY too much. Lewis is, for whatever reason, quite accepting of many Catholic doctrines that the Anglican Church did not share, I might add.

    I love your blog. I plan to start one myself soon but, with all the Catholic Apologists on these Blogs I see no need to do that personally myself. I am aiming more in the direction of some very in depth exposition of Scripural truths very much in the style and format of most Catechisms (would you believe I actually found an “Evangelical Catechism”…? What is that?).

    • Jason says:

      Thanks for the comment and kind words, Phil!

      I recognize that I’m blogging from the perspective of a “free-church” Protestant tradition and that there are Protestant traditions out there that are more “high church” (in that they still recite the creed, etc.) so that what I’m writing might resound more in the free-church context than in others. And I’m very sensitive to your suggestion that there are ways in which I’ve misrepresented Protestantism, so if you could tell me what specifically caught your eye in that way, I’d appreciate it so I can be more careful in the future. That said, I thought early on about using the word “Protestant” and decided there really wasn’t any way around it, even though the word is difficult to define with precision. My operating definition of a Protestant is the one I set out in one of my first posts: a person who “would purport to subscribe to the doctrinal positions articulated in the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds but who: (1) claim that the Bible is the ‘sole’ ultimate authority for Christians today; and (2) rejects the Catholic Church’s claim to be the visible Church Christ founded.” I think that captures all of the various Protestant denominations. I also think what binds the highest-church Anglican with the lowest-church Baptist and, consequently, what separates both of them from the Catholic faith, is far more fundamental than anything that separates them from each other. In a sense, free-church Protestantism is simply the working out of the logic of high-church Protestantism over time.

      With respect to Lewis, I definitely understand where you’re coming from, and I certainly recognize that many have been touched by his writing in helpful ways. Personally, I have enjoyed and profited from the portions of Screwtape that I’ve read. But Mere Christianity never did anything for me, and I do think it was because I was coming to that text as someone who already believed Jesus was Who He said He was and that He really rose from the dead. Also, in Mere Christianity, Lewis completely dodges the question of which church Christians should belong to, saying they’re all just rooms off a hall. So, in that sense, I think he’s making things overly simplistic. I appreciate what he’s doing and his reasons for doing so, but I think it’s ultimately unsatisfying to take that approach to the faith. And, at least when I read Mere Christianity, I was looking for help with those kinds of frustrations.

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