Friday, July 23, 2021

Of Man and Christ


This book needs a preliminary note that its scope be not misunderstood. The view suggested is historical rather than theological…

The Everlasting Man, G.K. Chesterton (ebook)

…this study is not specially concerned with the differences between a Catholic and a Protestant.

Which should work well for my purposes….

Much of it is devoted to many sorts of Pagans rather than any sort of Christians; and its thesis is that those who say that Christ stands side by side with similar myths, and his religion side by side with similar religions, are only repeating a very stale formula contradicted by a very striking fact.

Chesterton will examine two main topics: first, the creature called man; second, the man called Christ.  He will examine how, in each case, the entity being examined (man, Christ) is not merely another of a type (animal, religious figure), but something wholly different.

He suggests that the best critic of Christianity is not someone who was born into it and rejected it, or born into a culture shaped by it but personally never accepted the faith; a follower of Confucius would be a better critic, as he would be somewhat more impartial.  Instead, the now non-Christian critic of Christianity…

…will suddenly turn round and revile the Church for not having prevented the War, which they themselves did not want to prevent…

The problem of evil, often brought as a criticism of Christianity, is no less a problem outside of Christianity.  In fact, much of what we label “evil” today is only so labeled because Christianity made it so.  What was considered virtuous ethical behavior in Greece or Rome would be looked at today by all but the most vile as a hell on earth.

When the world goes wrong, it proves rather that the Church is right. The Church is justified, not because her children do not sin, but because they do.

This speaks to a criticism often uttered by Jordan Peterson, and I will paraphrase because I don’t want to look for anything precise: Christians don’t act as though they believe it.  To which I have thought…wait a minute.  Christians say we are fallen, and when we prove it, you say that this demonstrates that we aren’t Christian.  When one finds that the object being measured falls short, only a fool would place the fault on the yardstick.

They cannot be Christians and they cannot leave off being Anti-Christians. …They still live in the shadow of the faith and have lost the light of the faith.

This reminds me of a statement by Tom Holland and something similar from Rene Girard: they criticize Christianity by referring to Christianity.  They have no other basis by which to criticize – certainly not in the western traditions.

The worst judge [of Christianity] of all is the man now most ready with his judgments; the ill-educated Christian turning gradually into the ill-tempered agnostic, entangled in the end of a feud of which he never understood the beginning, blighted with a sort of hereditary boredom with he knows not what, and already weary of hearing what he has never heard.

The modern atheists tangle with the most stereotypical and fundamentalist Christian ideas, ignoring or ignorant of the work of two-thousand years – from Ignatius of Antioch (said to be a disciple of John the Apostle) to C.S. Lewis, and hundreds of brilliant theologians and philosophers in between.

Which leads Chesterton to the point of this work:

I mean that just as the Church seems to grow more remarkable when it is fairly compared with the common religious life of mankind, so mankind itself seems to grow more remarkable when we compare it with the common life of nature.

The Christian Church is as different from other religions as man is from the rest of creation.  The critics of Christianity don’t see this because they are not detached from Christianity.  Like the iconoclast, the critic – the scientific-evolutionist or the comparative religions professor – is not impartial. 

…I should be ashamed to talk such nonsense about the Lama of Thibet as they do about the Pope of Rome, or to have as little sympathy with Julian the Apostate as they have with the Society of Jesus.

Well, many of the former critics love the current pope of Rome, so that’s something that has changed.  As to the Jesuits…those better steeped in Catholic Church history might do better than I can at explaining what has happened to the Jesuits since Chesterton wrote these words.

Just FYI: the following passage is in the ebook, but not my version of the hardcopy.

I am convinced that if we could tell the supernatural story of Christ word for word as of a Chinese hero, call him the Son of Heaven instead of the Son of God, and trace his rayed nimbus in the gold thread of Chinese embroideries or the gold lacquer of Chinese pottery instead of in the gold leaf of our own old Catholic paintings, there would be a unanimous testimony to the spiritual purity of the story.

When viewed from a distance, not having any meaningful impact on their lives, the critics can embrace such a story.

We should hear nothing then of the injustice of substitution or the illogicality of atonement, of the superstitious exaggeration of the burden of sin or the impossible insolence of an invasion of the laws of nature.

Because “sin” would not be taken personally, as a shortcoming, as missing the mark, as my failure to live to a standard.

We should admire the chivalry of the Chinese conception of a god who fell from the sky to fight the dragons and save the wicked from being devoured by their own fault and folly.

Iron Man in Endgame.  Who doesn’t tear up when he snapped his fingers?

We should admire the Chinese esoteric and superior wisdom, which said there are higher cosmic laws than the laws we know….

Yes.  But don’t say the words “natural law” to describe these.

Returning to the text that is both in the book and the ebook….

Any one who chooses to indulge in mere imagination can imagine that other things might have happened or other entities evolved. Any one thinking of what might have happened may conceive a sort of evolutionary equality; but any one facing what did happen must face an exception and a prodigy.

Perhaps it could have been elephants who built magnificent towers and turrets, cities beyond compare and measure. 

But if we are considering what did happen, we shall certainly decide that man has distanced everything else with a distance like that of the astronomical spaces and a speed like that of the still thunderbolt of the light.

God breathed into man, and only man.  Man is often compared to the ape, but in the one thing that makes man a man – the single most important factor by far – there is no comparison.


And in the same fashion, while we can if we choose see the Church amid a mob of Mithraic or Manichean superstitions squabbling and killing each other at the end of the Empire, while we can if we choose imagine the Church killed in the struggle and some other chance cult taking its place, we shall be the more surprised (and possibly puzzled) if we meet it two thousand years afterwards rushing through the ages as the winged thunderbolt of thought and everlasting enthusiasm; a thing without rival or resemblance; and still as new as it is old.

The most stunning reality: Jesus – reviled by both the Roman government and the Jewish religious leaders – founded a movement that grew in the soil of the most violent persecution and eventually defeated the persecutors.

Who would have believed such a thing in the Roman world of Jesus’s time?  The Romans?  The Jews?  Every measure was taken to snuff out the early Christians – beginning with Christ.

This is the story Chesterton will examine.


  1. "The most stunning reality: Jesus – reviled by both the Roman government and the Jewish religious leaders – founded a movement that grew in the soil of the most violent persecution and eventually defeated the persecutors.

    Who would have believed such a thing in the Roman world of Jesus’s time?"

    Who would believe such a thing in our time? The way things which we once took for granted are breaking down and the chaotic manner they are being rearranged does not bode well for our future, especially as Christians. Yet, there is this.

    "I will build My Church and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it." -- Jesus Christ (Matthew 16:18)

    I daresay GK understood this and took it to heart, as we should.

    1. Christians have suffered much worse, yet Christ's truth has survived and even thrived.

      We are and will be living through a trial by fire. Those Christians who pass through this trial will be a smaller yet more powerful group of believers.

      A good foundation on which to build...again.