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G.K. Chesterton’s Gospel of Wonder

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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).


1 Comment

  1. […] time last year I posted on what I call G.K. Chesterton’s “Gospel of Wonder.”  At the moment, I’m reading some of Chesterton’s fiction, namely the Father […]

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