Friday, July 11, 2008

Why Theologians Should Study Lewis and Chesterton

In yesterday's blog post, I addressed some reasons why theologians don't typically study Lewis and Chesterton. But I think there's also a more positive case to be made about why they should. A way of getting at what I mean is to ask the question, "Should an existentialist philosopher study the works of Samuel Beckett and Albert Camus?" These writers aren't folk philosophers, and their contributions to the disciplines of philosophy are in no sense ancillary. It would be better to say that they are the culmination of (a particular strand of) philosophy. Sartre's Being and Nothingness can tell us what an existentialist believes, but only L'Etranger can tell us what it feels like to believe it.

In the same way, I think it's difficult to dismiss – or hail – Lewis and Chesterton as simply "folk theologians". A better adjective would be "classical." They aren't specialists, but neither are their writings "dumbed down", or apart from a few specific books, even particularly simplified. They refused to accept as irremediable the hyper-specialization that afflicts modern critical theology. They're what theology looks like in motion: they show us how a thinking Christian should think, how a sensible Christian should feel, what the world looks like through thoroughly converted eyes. If a thing is meant to do something – as Christianity most certainly was – how else can you understand it except to see it in action? What they did was not systematic theology, for it was not terribly systematic, but neither was it apologetics as commonly understood. It's closer to Irenaeus' ανακεφαλαιωσις, "anakephalaiosis", a summing up, a gathering of all the world under the headship of Christ. For what both Chesterton and Lewis did, in their own ways, was to bring theology into living contact with the entire Western cultural tradition.

To take the lesser known of the two, Chesterton's fundamental insight is well expressed in Orthodoxy: "Our attitude towards life can be better expressed in terms of a kind of military loyalty than in terms of criticism and approval. My acceptance of the universe is not optimism, it is more like patriotism." This perspective is as far from the thin and brittle optimism of 19th century liberal theology as it is from the grand and noble worldly pessimism of 20th century neo-orthodoxy, and it represents as distinct a set of theological alternatives as either. And in no other writer since Aquinas has such a distinctive theology informed such a vast and intimidating array of work. I know of no author besides Chesterton who could have written authoritatively on St. Francis, Aquinas, Chaucer, Blake, Browning, Dickens and Shaw – while producing fiction and poetry that rivaled theirs. Who else could have written a convincing and distinctly Christian overview of the whole of history? Or written the last of the great English epic poems? Or edited his own newspaper for 20 years? Or started his own political party? (A party whose direct descendants were rioting in downtown Seattle a few years ago, I might add.) In short, Chesterton brought a convincing (and entertaining) Christian perspective to such diverse matters as ethics, philosophy, politics, poetry, science fiction and fantasy, detective stories, war and economics. Were not each of the individual works so tremendously thought-provoking and original, it would be easy to dismiss him as a dabbler; but many of his diverse writings are classics in their field. (Etienne Gilson thought Chesterton's biography of Aquinas was the best introduction to the Angelic Doctor ever written; numerous other Thomists have agreed.) The astonishing profusion of Chesterton's work is a fairly clear indication that he did not primarily conceive of himself as a theologian. Yet his highly individual and highly orthodox take on Christianity was the foundation and the touchstone for everything he did. In bringing the light of Christian doctrine to liberal studies, he managed to shine at least as much light back on Christianity itself, for in his writings it becomes clear what Christianity is capable of. If this isn't a "significant contribution" to the disciplines of theology, it must surely instead be those disciplines' summa.

Lewis was, of course, by far the more academic of the two. (Chesterton dropped out of art school in his youth, and was afterwards entirely self-educated.) Lewis' works can be roughly divided into his professional literary studies, theology and apologetics, and fantastic fiction, with a smattering of surprisingly good poetry here and there. His most important insight – he had many – is probably best expressed in The Abolition of Man:

"The regenerate science I have in mind would not do even to minerals and vegetables what modern science threatens to do to man himself. When it explained it would not explain away. When it spoke of the parts it would remember the whole. While studying the It it would not lose what Martin Buber calls the Thou-situation. The analogy between the Tao of Man and the instincts of animal species would mean for it new light cast on the unknown thing, Instinct, by the inly known reality of conscience and not a reduction of conscience to the category of Instinct. Its followers would not be free with the words only and merely. In a word, it would conquer Nature without being at the same time conquered by her and buy knowledge at a lower cost than that of life."

Explicitly in The Abolition of Man, That Hideous Strength and a few other essays, and implicitly in nearly everything he wrote, Lewis makes the case for a humane, liberal and deeply Christian project to understand the world around us. Like Chesterton, he saw the world through thoroughly converted eyes, and Christian theology was the touchstone for everything he wrote. This "Christian humanism", as he termed it, was a substantial and intentional effort to understand science, culture and philosophy from a Christian perspective.

It's this specifically Christian perspective on such a broad range of topics that makes Lewis and Chesterton worthwhile reading for theologians. And not just reading, of course: theologians should do all the things that they normally do with important figures in Christian history. They should interact with their works, quote them in papers and books, assess their historical significance, argue about where they're wrong, and suggest where their thoughts and writings could be improved.

And if mainstream, professional theologians begin to do this, I think their work will be improved in a variety of ways. To pick a few examples at random:

  1. It will improve theologians' writing. Time spent with Lewis and Chesterton will absolutely improve your ability to craft sentences and to express yourself clearly, without a lot of jargon.
  2. It will help connect theology to the Church. Much theology that gets written these days gets read only by professional theologians (even most pastors don't read it), and it rarely makes its way into the pew. Theology that engages with Lewis and Chesterton, and better yet, which learns from them with regard to both style and content, will be much more accessible to intelligent laypeople, and much more interesting to them as well.
  3. It will provide a model for connecting theology to other disciplines. Lewis' technical works (The Allegory of Love, An Experiment in Criticism, A Preface to Paradise Lost, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama, Medieval and Renaissance Literature, etc.) show how a specifically Christian mind can interact with a purely secular discipline, to the immense profit of both.
  4. It will teach them a thing or two. Precisely because Lewis and Chesterton weren't a part of the mainstream of academic theology, but were nevertheless possessed of immense intellects and great learning, their take on basic questions in theology and philosophy is likely to be highly enlightening for those who have focused their studies on what Barth said about Bultmann, and what Moltmann said about Barth.

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