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Monthly Archives: August 2013

Religious Exemptions and Same-Sex Marriage

Religious Exemptions and Same-Sex Marriage

This is one of the better stories I’ve seen in the mainstream media that summarizes the debate amongst scholars, lawyers, and other players concerning maintaining religious liberty in light of the legalization of same-sex marriage in different states.  Lots of viewpoints are represented and the author does a good job of articulating the premises that motivate each side.


ESPN’s Effect on College Football

ESPN’s Effect on College Football

The New York Times has a fascinating series on the influence of ESPN on the upcoming college football season and how the relationship between the network and the major football conferences has developed over the past two decades. 

ESPN’s strong relationship with the SEC, investment in the Longhorn Network, and ability to help smaller programs become more notorious (aka Boise State) makes the rumors about a new Division 4, or super-conference, even more interesting.  Is it possible that any other future exists for college football?

College Football Predictions

The start of the college football season is a mere 3 days away and it’s time for me to make my picks for the upcoming season:


BCS Championship Game: Alabama v. Stanford

Top 15

1. Alabama: The Process overwhelms anything in its path.  This team is loaded.

2. Stanford: The Cardinal gets the nod at No. 2 due to a favorable schedule (Oregon and Notre Dame at home).

3. Ohio State: Braxton Miller and company run the table until they meet Michigan on the road and relish the opportunity to ruin a season.

4. Georgia: The Bulldogs have the unfortunate reality of having to face Alabama in the SEC title game, which has become the BCS play-in game.

5. Oregon: Stanford will have the Ducks’ number again but big O could run the table.

6. Clemson: If they run the table, they could meet Alabama.  When was the last time an ACC team did that?


                                       Notre Dame Stadium – South Bend, Indiana

7. Louisville: A very good team in a very bad conference.

8. South Carolina: Spurrier’s squad has top 5 talent but an SEC schedule with tough road games to deal with.

9. LSU: Ditto, South Carolina.

10. Florida: Ditto, South Carolina and LSU.  Plus, their offense still worries Gator fans.

11. Notre Dame: If Golson returned, ND might be heading to the title game again.  With Rees, a BCS game is still in sight given the tough Irish D.

12. Texas: Mack Brown has the Hook ’em Horns on the rise again and they could be a sleeper.

13. Michigan: The Wolverines could win the Big Ten, but tests against ND and at Penn State present stumbling blocks.

14. Oklahoma State: The Cowboys might be the Big 12’s finest in a down year.

15. Texas A & M: Too much noise surrounding Manziel will take a toll on this team’s title hopes, especially after the Tide roll into College Station.

New Elements of America’s Civil Religion?

Robert Bellah’s Civil Religion in America essay from nearly fifty years ago was a groundbreaking work that described how the American experience has fostered a religion within the political sphere that is not formally state-sponsored or enshrined in law, at least directly.  Bellah traced this [civil] religion throughout American history, beginning with the Promised Land themes that prevailed at the time of the American Founding, to the sacrifice and rebirth that Lincoln eloquently described at Gettysburg during the Civil War.  Bellah frames the essay by reflecting on how JFK, the country’s first and only Catholic president, referenced God in his inauguration address.  He wanted to know why the president did this, and what it meant to Americans.

This short essay caused me to reflect on whether any new elements have been added to the civil religion that Bellah describes.  The article appeared in 1966, which was the midpoint of the civil rights movement that captured the nation’s attention.  Certainly, Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Dream Speech,” which occurred fifty years ago this month, added to the catechism of this religion.  Dr. King’s message revived Promised Land themes at a time of national crisis, but expanded those themes to include the power of personal conscience and Christ’s call to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”


Tomb of the Unknown Revolutionary War Soldier, Washington Square Park, Philadelphia

Have any other elements been added after the civil rights movement?  That movement sets the bar high for becoming part of the canon, especially when one considers the most visible aspects of the civil rights movement happened over the course of two decades, if not longer.  Arguably, one could make the case that faith in technological advancement, science, and human ingenuity, ranging from the mapping of the human genome to the personal computer (or handheld device), now holds a special place as part of the religion.  The Internet is now accepted as the prime way to express freedom and autonomy and to self-define and mold the world as one sees fit; if faith in the Internet is not a core element of the civil religion, it may be, at the very least, a temple in which to practice it.

Another possible modification is the definition of God that prevails in today’s civil religion.  The “God” of the Founders was a judge, the locus of absolute authority, and actively involved in world affairs.  The Founders also believed that God’s providence looked favorably on America’s plans.  This definition paralleled many of the institutional religions in existence at the time, even if the “God” of the civil religion did not belong to any one of them specifically.  Notably, the decline in institutional affiliation amongst Americans who self-define as religious is one of the major trends of the 21st century and is unlike any other period of America’s religious history.  Some scholars have suggested that “God” no longer resembles the figure that was present in the traditional religions at the time of the Founding.  Perhaps this is why it seems like fewer Americans tolerate references to “God” in public affairs, because if “God” is not involved in the nation’s affairs, and only relates to individuals on a private level, then it would seem to follow that the same “God” does not need to be included in any sort of national conversation.

In hindsight, Bellah’s essay was perceptive, and he even acknowledges that he could not understand why the subject had not received more attention amongst scholars.  Perhaps it is time to study how the civil religion has changed in the past fifty years.

The First Amendment Jurisprudence of Fr. John Courtney Murray, S.J.

Over the weekend, I had the opportunity to revisit the work of Fr. John Courtney Murray, S.J., specifically a chapter in We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition.  After reading the chapter, I realized that I had unconsciously expected to conclude that Murray’s work, while prescient at its time and undoubtedly a significant contribution to Catholic legal theory, was outdated by this point.  Instead, I marveled at Murray’s words about the meaning of the First Amendment and what it means for American culture.

In “Civil Unity and Religious Integrity: The Articles of Peace,” Fr. Murray reflects on the inherently paradoxical “American Consensus” given America’s religious pluralism from the beginning of its history.  The American genius was the prioritization of peace through freedom, rather than attempted single-mindedness or conformity to a particular political orthodoxy known at the time.  Instead, the American orthodoxy, if you will, leaves room for the unorthodox to operate separate from the state.  This results in unity conceived in freedom, an idea that the Founders sought to practice in the unique constitutional system they created.

For Murray, civil unity can co-exist with religious pluralism when the traditional distinction between the realms of religion and the state is maintained.  Acknowledging the jurisdictional line that separates both fields is the theory that underlies religious freedom in the United States, and that finds its legal form in the First Amendment.  In other words, religious freedom means freedom of religion, and sometimes, in effect, for religion.  With ample religious actors in society, this presumption for freedom breeds civil unity because all traditions are respected rather than sterilized.  The First Amendment, as good law oriented toward the common good by pursuing social harmony, promotes this objective.

Murray contrasts this approach with different “Theologies of the First Amendment.”  Writing in the mid-20th century, he reflects on how the historical influence of Protestantism on American law caused some to believe that the First Amendment enshrined Protestant orthodoxies (see e.g., debates about public and private school funding in the late 19th century).  For proponents of this view, the Religion Clauses were “Articles of Faith.”  This could not be true according to Fr. Murray because it would actually result in an establishment, which of course the First Amendment prohibited.

The opposite end of the spectrum, consisting of the most fervent secular liberals, held that the First Amendment actually meant, in substance, the metaphor everyone has come to know as the “wall of separation.”  For this crew, positivist norms prevailed, such as strict majoritarianism and the notion that civil rights are the end all, be all.  The consequence of this viewpoint was that religion, and more colloquially churches, are within the state and owe their continued existence to the positive law that confers civil rights.  For Murray, this view also failed because it ultimately resulted in the subordination of church and state rather than its supposed objective, namely separation (which Murray supports for reasons discussed below).  It also established a secular orthodoxy that was in effect hostile to religion.

Most notably, however, are Fr. Murray’s comments directed at those who hold “freedom of religion” as a religion itself.  Standard talking points for many politicians and lawyers contain references to support for “the separation of church and state.”  Murray thought this was too dogmatic and out of touch with the actual spirit of the First Amendment, which was more pragmatic than doctrinal and recognized the positive role that religion plays in society, specifically between the government and citizens.  The notion of “freedom of religion” was not supposed to be a religion itself; the strict separation of church and state is a dogma that is not rooted in history or reality.

Murray’s alternative to the three common mistakes above is to place the First Amendment within the context of Western, Christian legal tradition that prioritizes the common good and to recognize the social realities at the time of the Founding.  The common good is not what many now consider it, namely pure social welfare considered in material terms.  Rather, the common good touched more directly on the conditions necessary for human flourishing, one of which was social peace and harmony.  Fr. Murray believes this is precisely what the Founders did when crafting the Religion Clauses, even if their intentions were not entirely clear at the time.  Their aim was simple: making good law for the preservation of the public peace in a fragile, religiously pluralistic society.  As such, they crafted “Articles of Peace.”  For Murray, this goal was noble because social peace is an “integrating element of the common good.”  Peace binds people together in civil unity while allowing ample room for religious integrity born from religious freedom.

What does Murray use to support his interpretation of the First Amendment?  He points to the social necessities at the time of creation of the Amendment.  First, any law had to account for those who did not believe or have a faith and instill the value that those who do believe deserve respect.  Second, the social reality of multiple denominations required a novel solution.  Third, the American solution satisfied the American desire for removing discrimination from business and economics.  In other words, religious discrimination was bad for business.

These on-the-ground concerns led to the adoption of the Religion Clauses as pragmatic measures with an eye toward the common good.  The First Amendment, then, removes religion from the province of the state.  This reaffirms the ancient notion of distinct orders for church and state; denying this distinction either results in a loss of civil liberty (in the case of religion subsuming the state) or religious liberty (in the case of the state overtaking religion).  Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance says nearly as much.

Yet even more interesting are Murray’s comments about Founding beliefs toward strict secularism.  He holds that the Founders, by crafting the Amendment as they did, rejected strict separation and de facto hostility because in reality strict separate was tantamount to theocracy: it resulted in a unification of church and state by making everything political and secular and the state omni-juridical.  In other words, Murray manages to defend religious liberty by holding that deprivations of religious liberty will actually result in long-term denials of other civil liberties.  Once freedom for religion is lost, the dominoes fall into place for other similar actions by the state.

For Fr. Murray, the American experience (experiment) with religious liberty is evidence of its genius.  Our history indicates that political unity and stability are possible without uniformity of religious belief and practice and without government restrictions on religion, unless the religious practices violate the public peace (and therefore disintegrate the conditions necessary for the common good).  When the government chooses to recuse itself from the market of religious differences, rather than attempting to create a public space that only allows certain convictions or actions, the common good is strengthened because freedom is more prevalent.

Why might these views be considered prophetic?  Because the American Consensus that Fr. Murray lauds earlier in his book–an appreciation for the idea of one nation under God, the natural law and natural rights tradition, the principle of consent, the role of virtue, and this understanding of the First Amendment–appear under attack.  Many doubt whether the idea that God is the author of pre-civil rights still prevails among a majority of the nation, if it is even on the collective radar at all.  Positive law, with its emphasis on quantity, science, and efficiency, seems to have replaced any consideration of the natural law in public policy debates (think of politicians saying, tautologically, “I’m interested in what works.”).  Most strikingly, talk of virtue-both communal and individual-is rare, and social organizations outside of government are declining.  The prevailing definitions of freedom resemble personal preference rather than the pursuit of objective goods.  The idea that the Christian tradition has contributed to the legitimacy of natural rights is mostly forgotten.  And finally, the notion that the realm of religion is beyond the purview of the state for all matters except those involving the “public peace” is arguably being challenged by both the left and right.

Writing at the time that many doubted whether they could vote for a Catholic candidate for president, Fr. Murray’s book was an attempt to synchronize Catholic teaching with the core components of the American creed.  Concluding that the Catholic conscience was amenable to the American Consensus, Fr. Murray proceeded to address other modern political issues such as aid to private schools and nuclear disarmament.  But perhaps the most prescient of Fr. Murray’s observations comes at the end of the first chapter, titled “E Pluribus Unum: The American Consensus.”  After describing the components of the historical and social consensus (mentioned above) in detail, Murray concludes by noting the irony of the position of the Catholic Church with respect to the Consensus.  According to Murray, Catholics, considered half-citizens by many who were skeptical of their loyalty to the Pope, may one day have to defend the original American creed against other ideas put forth by citizens as society continued to develop toward an expansive state model.  While many have characterized the Church’s response to the HHS mandate as overblown hysterics, it is undeniable that the Church is attempting to answer what it perceives to be its call, namely defending the idea of religious freedom that was formalized in the good law of the First Amendment.

Comparing and Contrasting Presidential Action

The WSJ has an interesting op-ed this morning discussing the responses of President Lincoln and President Obama to critics about alleged usurpation of executive authority.  Regardless of which side of the debate one finds his or herself, this discussion is fascinating.  With that said, the two situations appear somewhat different, as one involves adherence to a constitutional law (the habeas clause) whereas the other involves a legislatively enacted law.  Additionally, the backdrop of the Civil War arguably magnified the necessity of Lincoln’s decision to suspend habeas and the intensity he showed when trying to defend his action (which for some, indicates why Lincoln looks even better than the current president).  As many authors have suggested, it is in the quietest times that executive authority expands because very few are truly paying attention.

Baseball Greatness

As someone who had to witness the infamous Steroid Era cripple baseball for the past decade and a half, it remains refreshing to see amazing feats during the season.  This year, two players–Miguel Cabrera and Chris Davis–have managed to have incredible offensive seasons.  For Cabrera, this is becoming routine.  For Davis, his flirtation with Roger Maris’ home run total (61 in ’61) has captivated many, especially earlier in the season.  For more, check out Jonah Keri and William Cohen’s interesting story on Cabrera over on Grantland today.  

Benedict’s Decision, Revisited


Back in February, I shared my thoughts on how then Pope Benedict’s decision to leave the Papacy would reflect what I labeled Petrine genius in hindsight:

Truth be told, is it possible that Benedict’s greatest contribution to the new evangelization, one of the main objectives of his tenure, will be his decision to personally withdraw from evangelizing by recognizing that the good of the Church requires a new leader?  Is it possible that he has returned the story of the Papacy to the simple, yet magnificent and incredible story of the tarnished St. Peter, who as a fisherman who followed the fisher of men is someone we can all relate to in his failings and also his hope?

Nearly six months after the election of Francis, I can’t help but feel like the new Pope has met the hopes of so many, including the expectations written in the last question.  If there is one common thread in the commentary surrounding the new Pope, it is that he has wowed the world with his focus on humility and service as the truest aspects of the Church’s mission.  Although his inspiration may come from his namesake, he has managed to express the power of humility.

G.K. Chesterton’s Gospel of Wonder

G.K. Chesterton is widely known as the master of paradox, amongst other things.  The “Apostle of Common Sense,” who spent his first years as a journalist cataloguing the social ills plaguing England and debating ardent scientific materialists such as H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw, ultimately converted to Catholicism and proudly proclaimed that all roads lead to Rome.[1]  Christian apologetics–with a specifically Catholic bent–dominated the projects of his later years.  Chesterton’s formal conversion, which did not occur until after he had formulated the most basic elements of his philosophy, including wonder, limitation, and common sense, amplified those primary principles as he sought to justify his intellectual fervor for the Church’s teaching.

The rotund Englishman’s fascination with wonder–itself expressing the principle–was at its core a robust appreciation for the magnificence inherent in the sheer fact of existence.  Only when human beings meditate on the precise nature of existence itself, including their own existence as a cosmological miracle, can they fully appreciate and make sense of the uniqueness of the human story.  For Chesterton, this human wonder made sense of Christ’s words in the Gospel to the apostles: “Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children,you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.  Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”[2]  For Chesterton, wonder is childlike; in this sense, it contributes to humility, the prime virtue of Christianity in his eyes.


Chesterton’s explication of the philosophy of wonder was a lifelong project that existed at the time he began his career as a journalist.  His inclination to expound the idea–while not initially inspired by Christianity–naturally led him to the road of conversion.  Tracing the development of this idea is essential to understanding Chesterton’s apologetics.

Chesterton admitted in his Autobiography that his principle of wonder was his first foray onto the road toward conversion.  As a young journalist, he realized that “mere existence…was exciting.  Anything was magnificent compared with nothing.”  In his poem “The Babe Unborn,” Chesterton illustrates the unborn child crying out for existence and thirsting to experience life.  Chesterton’s fervor and passion for the ordinary aspects of existence, or what the moderns would classify as such, comports with this sentiment.  These realizations led to sort of gratitude, a type of thankfulness for which Chesterton could not fully comprehend in his early days as a writer.  But he had started his long journey home, because gratitude implied thanking someone.

His philosophy of wonder was personal rather than purely abstract.  He constantly relates it to human experience, reminding his readers that wonder is a motif, conscious or not:

One of the profound philosophical truths which are almost confined to infants is this love of things, not for their use or origin, but for their own inherent characteristics, the child’s love of the toughness of wood, the wetness of water, the magnificent soapiness of soap.[3]

Like children, adults need to view the world through the prism of the unlikelihood of existence.  Unfortunately they become bored by focusing, ironically, on less simple things.[4]  But grasping the basic reality of things results in right relation to the world and decentralizes one’s initial feelings that the world revolves around oneself.[5]  And this leads to an incredible sense of appreciation for existence:

To the humble man, and to humble man alone, the sun is really a sun…the sea is really a sea.  When he looks at all the faces in the street, he does not only realize that men are alive, he realizes with a dramatic pleasure that they are not dead.[6]

This realization that life is a romance beyond our control (containing limitations created by Another)–a story if you will–forms the foundation for the first part of Chesterton’s masterpiece, The Everlasting Man.[7]


Interestingly, several years before Chesterton formally committed to the Catholic creed, he authored one of his most well-known works: Orthodoxy.  The task at hand was solving the riddles that pervades human experience.  Chesterton’s answer: Christian theology.

Christianity responds to the human need for the ordinary and extraordinary in everyday living.  We all want romance in our lives; the light of faith provides it.[8]  Adventure, poetry, imagination, and picturesque living stem from the natural human curiosity for “the combination of something that is strange with something that is secure.”[9]  As Ian Ker concludes in his masterful biography of Chesterton, “Chesterton’s starting point is the need for wonder at the world with which we are familiar.”[10]  And in Chesterton’s words himself: “We need to be happy in this wonderland without once being comfortable.”[11]

Chesterton continues his reflection by contrasting this approach with that of materialism, which favors the simplistic and therefore impliedly manages to “leav[e] everything out.”  The materialist and determinist leave no room for liberty, or more theologically, free will, whereas theology classifies paradoxes like free will as one of many sacred mysteries.[12]

The seeds of Chesterton’s belief in orthodox Christianity were already present as the faith’s accounting of paradox met his natural curiosity and wonder, all while offering something stable:

[T]he cross, though it has at its heart a collision and a contradiction, can extend its four arms for ever without altering its shape.  Because it has a paradox in its centre it can grow without changing….  The cross opens its arms to the four winds; it is a signpost for free travellers.[13]

But theological reflection is not the only source of wonder for Chesterton.  Fairy tales showed that the world was wild too, and the magical world implied a magician, or a person.  Or as foreshadowing to The Everlasting Man, a story implies a storyteller:

Christianity was ‘the answer to the riddle.’  It taught that God in ‘making’ the world ‘set it free.  God had written not so much a poem, but rather a play; a play he had planned as perfect, but which had necessarily been left to human actors and stage-managers, who had since made a great mess out of it.’  The ‘riddle’ was how could one ‘somehow find a way of loving the world without trusting it.’  The answer was the ‘dogmatic insistence that God was personal, and had made a world separate from him.’  Christian optimism was ‘based on the fact that we do not fit in to the world’ and ‘dwelt on the unnaturalness of everything in the light of the supernatural.’  Having understood that he was ‘in the wrong place,’ Chesterton’s ‘soul sang for joy, like a bird in spring.’[14]

For Chesterton, wonder indicates magic, magic indicates meaning, meaning implies purpose, purpose leads to the intentions of a person, a person behind it all requires gratitude, and gratitude begets humility.[15]


Catholics that have been excited about the beginning of Pope Francis’ papacy, especially his emphasis on humility and the poor, would do well to read Chesterton’s thoughts on the Pope’s namesake.  Contemporaries of Chesterton lauded his biography, Saint Francis of Assisi; themselves biographers of the man, many considered the book to be the best work on the saint.  Best, not due to historical accuracy, but rather due to Chesterton’s magnificent storytelling ability to explain Francis’ life in common sense.  In other words, he brought the saint to life in an age when God was supposedly dead.

Saint Francis’ life was full of praise for existing things (creation).  Popularly known as a friend of animals, Chesterton is quick to point out that the friar from Assisi was not a nature-worshipper.  Rather, it was Saint Francis’ gratitude for existence that motivated every aspect of his life.  Francis, recognizing his absolute contingency on the mercy of God, personifies the paradox that “the man who really knows he cannot pay his debt will be for ever paying it.”[16]  And so, romance reigned in his life.[17]  Yet Saint Francis’ romantic personality remained tempered by reason, thereby fitting perfectly into Chesterton’s “apologetic” synthesis of the story and philosophy in the person of Christ.[18]  As Ker writes, the saint “always hung on to reason,” and a form of reason cognizant of humor, which for Chesterton, is only additional evidence of humility.[19]

Saint Francis also transformed his deep gratitude for existence into love of others.  As such, the saint exemplifies the transformation of wonder-inspired humility into transcendent love.  As Chesterton writes, Saint Francis’ relationship to Christianity was a “love-affair.”  This attachment was beyond feeling and motivated all of his relationships:

What gave him his extraordinary personal power was this; that from the Pope to the beggar, from the sultan of Syria in his pavilion to the ragged robbers crawling out of the wood, there was never a man who looked into those brown burning eyes without being certain that Francis Bernadone was really interested in him: in his own inner individual life from the cradle to the grave; that he himself was being valued and taken seriously, and not merely added to the spoils of some social policy or the names in some clerical document.[20]

Yet Chesterton’s fascination with Saint Francis bookends his commitment to Saint Thomas Aquinas, who by devoting his life to the abstract knowledge of all things, managed to evince the type of wonder that Chesterton sympathized with since his younger days.  Aquinas, later known as the Angelic Doctor, “recognised a real quality in things; and afterwards resisted all the disintegrating doubts arising from the nature of those things.”[21]  In other words, he did not let the childlike nature of his wonder interfere with his understanding as an adult.[22]


 We’ve arrived at what this author considers Chesterton’s greatest work: The Everlasting Man.  The book communicates Chestertonian philosophy at its finest, emphasizing his unique apologetic method of “invok[ing]…the imagination that can see what is there.”  In response to the religious skeptics of his day, Chesterton sought “to recover the candor and wonder of the child; the unspoilt realism and objectivity of the innocence.”  The project is simple:

To help the reader to see Christendom from the outside in the sense of seeing it as a whole, against the background of other historic things; just as I desire him to see humanity as a whole against the background of natural things.[23]

As Ker points out, this vantage point ultimately leads Chesterton to the conclusion that Christianity and humanity are themselves, supernatural things.[24]

The Everlasting Man comes in two parts.  First, Chesterton discusses the history of man, with an emphasis on the “story.”  His first observation is all too obvious yet consistently forgotten in the age of scientific obsession: that man “is a very strange being in the sense of being a stranger on earth.”[25]  Perhaps sensing this, most men eventually realize that something is quite wrong with the species.  And hence, for Chesterton, arrives the truth of original sin.  From the Fall came misunderstanding and mistaken perceptions regarding the divine and reality.  Corrupted monotheism led to paganism, which amplified the imaginative aspects of religion at the expense of the rational.  In short, religion (mythology) and reason (philosophy) were on separate tracks.  The romantic part of the soul was divided against the rational part: “they certainly did not work together; if anything the philosopher was a rival of the priest.”[26]

What bridges this divide?  Chesterton attempts to show the bare core of Christianity, pointing to Christ as the synthesis in his person.  Jesus is simultaneously the storyteller (God) and the philosopher.  As the Gospel of John states, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”[27]  And as Jesus himself stated, it was the law that he came to “fulfill.”[28]  Christ is simultaneously the author and the truth.

How does this relate to Chesterton’s Gospel of Wonder?  It correlates perfectly to the strangeness that characterizes human existence.  First, it responds to the “human instinct for heaven,” the eternal hope for something better, and the need for romance “pursued by all poets and pagans making myths.”  Second, it offers a comprehensive philosophy through the teachings of Christ, especially when fused with the best of human knowledge.  Lastly, Christ, because he is simultaneously God and a person, challenges every soul.

The last point deserves some elaboration.  Think of the expression on someone’s face when they are in awe.  That emotion probably rivals what many felt as Christ said and did the things that appear in the Gospels.  According to Chesterton, the modern, dare-we-say Jeffersonian, attachment to Jesus as a “great moral teacher” is only part of the story, and a very small one at that.  Even churches have fallen subject to this masking of the real Jesus:

The figure in the Gospels does indeed utter in words of almost heart-breaking beauty his pity for our broken hearts.  But they are very far from being the only sort of words that he utters….  The popular imagery is inspired by a perfectly sound popular instinct….  In any case there is something appalling, something that makes the blood run cold, in the idea of having a statue of Christ in wrath.[29]

Aside from the merciful Jesus, the Gospels also contain the enigmatic Christ, “full of sudden gestures” and “outbreaks of wrath.”  The Christ of the Gospels is “strange.”  It is the Church that injects the rational accessibility for the everyday person.

But who is Christ to Chesterton?  He is precisely who he said he was: “Before Abraham was, I am.”[30]  Christ’s strangeness, announced throughout the Gospels as he self-proclaimed his divinity, meets eternal truth.  And so philosophy and mysticism come together.  Pilate, representing the most successful empire in the history of the world at that point, could only ask, “What is truth?”[31]

Thus, Chesterton concludes that Christianity is the truth because it synthesizes natural human curiosity, expressed through wonder, and common sense philosophy.  The Christian creed reconciles philosophy and romance by being neither entirely; rather, it “is the philosophy of stories,” namely History.  Every individual’s Christian path contains a narrative, ample adventure due to the persistent frustrations of original sin throughout life, and significant room for the liberty that all of us cherish and that is a prerequisite for true love.  Christianity fuses the rational with romance, because the story of Christ “met the mythological search for romance by being a story and the philosophical search for truth by being a true story,” in which “the ideal figure” became the “historical figure.”[32]

One of Chesterton’s finest metaphors came when he compared the Christian creed to a key, especially when one considers Christ’s words to Saint Peter.[33]  First, all keys, and specifically the Christian key, has a shape.  Unlike malleable modern philosophies, it is not characterized by shapelessness and does not change its shape based on the popular mood.  Second, keys either fit or they do not.  Finally, the key is unique and only opens one door.  For Chesterton, the inherent complexity in a key mirrors Christian theology, which seeks to account for the variety in human experience and the wonderful magnificence of all of existence.  Christianity answers the riddle of human experience.  As Ker writes: “The [Christian] creed was complicated because the problem with the world was ‘a complicated problem.’  Although it did seem ‘complex’ like the key, there was ‘one thing about it that was simple.  It opened the door.’”[34]

[1] Orthodoxy, 286-87.

[2] The Gospel of Matthew, 18:3.

[3] Twelve Types, 191.

[4] Chesterton writes: “A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life.  They always say, ‘Do it again’; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead.  For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony.  But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony.  It is possible that God says every morning, ‘Do it again’ to the sun; and every evening, ‘Do it again’ to the moon…The repetition in Nature may not be a mere recurrence; it may be a theatrical encore.”  Orthodoxy, 108.

[5] For Chesterton, “the ultimate psychological truth, the foundation of Christianity, is that no man is a hero to himself.”  Heretics, 54.

[6] Heretics, 127-28.

[7] “The thing which keeps life romantic…is the existence of these great plain limitations which force all of us to meet the things we do not like or expect.”  Birth is to be “born into uncongenial surroundings, hence to be born into a romance,” because “in order that life should be a story or romance to us, it is necessary that a great part of it, any rate, should be settled for us without our permission.”  Heretics, 141-45.

[8] Interestingly, Pope Francis expresses a similar point in his recent encyclical, Lumen Fidei.

[9] Orthodoxy, 16.

[10] Ian Ker, G.K. Chesterton: A Biography, 214.

[11] Orthodoxy, 212-13.

[12] For Chesterton, radical materialism “makes the theory of causation quite clear.”  Unfortunately, it leaves its proponents unable to rationally say “please pass the mustard” to the “determined” friend at dinner.

[13] Orthodoxy, 217-31.

[14] Ker, 219, quoting Orthodoxy 270-83.

[15] Chesterton, like C.S. Lewis, believed that pride is the worst sin because it “is the falsification of fact, by introduction of self.”  Ker, 697.

[16] Saint Francis of Assisi, 65.

[17] “[T]he whole point of a friar was that he did not know where he would get his supper.  There was always the possibility that he might get no supper.  There was an element of what would be called romance, as of the gipsy or adventurer.”  Saint Francis of Assisi, 89-97.

[18] Chesterton elaborates on this idea, i.e. the universality of the Church, when he discusses how the Church finds room for both Thomas Aquinas and Francis of Assisi.  While on the surface they appear strikingly different, “both reaffirmed the Incarnation, by bringing God back to earth.”  Saint Thomas Aquinas, 8.

[19] Ker, 505.

[20] Saint Francis of Assisi, 80.

[21] Saint Thomas Aquinas, 115.

[22] Aquinas was “unmistakably thinking about things and not being misled by the indirect influence of words.”  Ker, 688.  Aquinas did not become bogged down by the modern metaphysical project that doubts the possibility of correspondence between reality and the senses and mind: “For Thomas did not ‘deal at all with what many now think the main metaphysical question; whether we can prove that the primary act of recognition of any reality is real.’  And that was because he ‘recognised instantly…that a man must either answer that question in the affirmative, or else never answer any question, never ask any question, never even exist intellectually, to answer or to ask.’”  Ker, 688 (citing Chesterton’s Saint Thomas Aquinas).

[23] The Everlasting Man, 12.

[24] Ker, 517.

[25] Chesterton writes: “[H]e has much more of the external appearance of one bringing alien habits from another land than of a mere growth of this one.  He has an unfair advantage and an unfair disadvantage.  He cannot sleep in his own skin; he cannot trust his own instincts.  He is at once a creator moving miraculous hands and fingers and a kind of cripple.  He is wrapped in artificial bandages called clothes; he is propped on artificial crutches called furniture.”  The Everlasting Man, 14.

[26] The Everlasting Man, 126.

[27] The Gospel of John, 1:1.

[28] The Gospel of Matthew, 5:17.

[29] The Everlasting Man, 126.

[30] The Gospel of John, 8:58.

[31] The Gospel of John, 18:38.

[32] The Everlasting Man, 243-48.  Chesterton adds that the reason Christianity will not go away is because it is the only system that can properly be called “news.”

[33] “‘And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church,and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.  I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven.  Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.’” The Gospel of Matthew, 16:18-19.

[34] Ker, 526 (emphasis added).

The Message of Mercy

Fr. James Martin, S.J., has an insightful op-ed on what he perceives to be the major theme of Francis’ pontificate: mercy.  Fr. Martin expounds on the pastoral nature of Francis’ most recent statements and actions.