Today — Sunday 14 June — is G.K. Chesterton’s anniversary of death. It is an excellent occasion to start blogging again, with a new found dedication to the controversial questions of our time.
Chesterton is often called a ‘master of paradox’ and ‘apostle of common sense,’ but what most attracts me to him is his unfailing charity in the midst of controversy. Chesterton never sought to defeat his opponent. He sought only to defeat their arguments. I would go so far as to say Chesterton never employed personal criticism at all, but that’s not quite true:
During a public debate between G.K. Chesterton and George Bernard Shaw, Chesterton observed, “I see there has been famine in the land.”
Shaw replied, “And I see the cause of it.” He continued: “If I was as fat as you, I’d hang myself.”
Chesterton didn’t hesitate: “If I were to hang myself, I’d use you as the rope!”
The fact is, Shaw and Chesterton were close friends, and Shaw was deeply grieved by Chesterton’s death 79 years ago today. Chesterton endeared himself to very many people, friends and foes alike.
Philip Yancey evokes an appealing image of Chesterton on a rope bridge:
We could use another Chesterton today, I think. In a time when culture and faith have drifted even further part, we could use his brilliance, his entertaining style, and above all his generous and joyful spirit. When society becomes polarised, as ours has, it as if the two sides stand across a great divide and shout at each other. Occasionally, a prophet like Martin Luther King Jr arises with power and eloquence enough to address both sides at once. Chesterton had another approach: he walked to the centre of a swinging bridge, roared a challenge to any single-combat warriors, and then made both sides laugh aloud.
I don’t have Chesterton’s wit, much less his intellectual talent, but I’ve tired of staying on the sidelines of controversy, seeking common ground. The times call for more controversialists I think, who foster thoughtful and passionate debate, rather than polite agreement.