I first encountered G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936) in the Father Brown mystery stories and The Man Who Was Thursday. There my acquaintance stayed for a while, until I was browsing a used book store and found his critical study of Charles Dickens. And then his biographies of Thomas Aquinas and Francis of Assisi. And then Orthodoxy, Heretics and The Napoleon of Notting Hill. And there’s more.
Chesterton wrote fiction, poetry, plays, philosophy, biography, literary and art criticism, fantasy, apologetics, and journalism, among a lot of other things. His writing output was legendary. He had a brilliant mind, and he used it in his writing and speeches.
He was known as the “prince of paradox,” and no more so than in his friends. He could (and did) argue with George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells loudly and publicly, but he formed lasting friendships with both men. He could puncture the balloon of pomposity faster than anyone, but was also the master of self-deprecating humor.
I thought of Chesterton while reading the chapter in C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity entitled “The Rival Conceptions of God.”
“If you are a Christian," Lewis says, "you do not have to believe that all other religions are simply wrong all through. If you are an atheist you do have to believe that the main point in all the religions of the whole world is simply one huge mistake. If you are a Christian, you are free to think that all those religions, even the queerest ones, contain at least some hint of the truth.”
Chesterton could have written that. It is full of the paradox that Chesterton was so famous for.
What Lewis is saying here is that it takes more faith to be an atheist than to be a Christian, that Christians – supposedly those horribly “exclusionary” and “non-pluralistic” people – can actually have a more liberal view toward other religions than atheists can have. And that’s because they can see elements of Christian truth in those religions (note: it doesn’t work the other way).
The paradox: it’s the atheists who are so doctrinaire and narrow-minded (or at least this is the conclusion Lewis would lead us to).
Lewis knows of what he speaks here. He’d been an atheist; his argument against God was that “the universe seemed so cruel and unjust.” But then he wondered where he got the idea of “cruel and unjust” from, because “ a man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line.” His atheism turned out to be “too simple.”
Chesterton could have said that, too.
I can’t recall if Lewis and Chesterton ever actually met or knew one another, but whether they did or not, the two men had much the same to say about Christianity, atheism and faith. And they both knew a good paradox when they saw one.
This post is part of an online discussion about Mere Christianity, hosted by Jason Stasyszen and Sarah Salter. To see more posts in the discussion, please visit Jason's blog, Connecting to Impact.