Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Seeing with the Eyes of G.K. Chesterton

by Carl E. Olson

Dale Ahlquist is the president and co-founder of the American Chesterton Society. He is the creator and host of the Eternal Word Television Network series, "G.K. Chesterton: The Apostle of Common Sense" on EWTN. Dale is the author of G.K. Chesterton: Apostle of Common Sense and the recently published Common Sense 101: Lessons From G.K. Chesterton.

He is also the the publisher of Gilbert! Magazine, author of The Chesterton University Student Handbook, editor of The Gift of Wonder: The Many Sides of G.K. Chesterton, and associate editor of the Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton (Ignatius). He has been called "one of the most respected Chesterton scholars in the world" and has delighted audiences around the country with his variety of talks on the great English writer. He is a graduate of Carleton College (B.A.) in Northfield, Minnesota, and Hamline University (M.A.) in St. Paul, Minnesota. He lives near Minneapolis with his wife and five children.

Carl E. Olson, editor of, recently spoke with Ahlquist about Chesterton, conversion, and Common Sense 101. You first began reading Chesterton when you were an Evangelical Protestant. How did you discover his work and what was your initial impression of his writing and thought?

Dale Ahlquist: I had a brother-in-law who was a famous Jesus Rock singer back in the 1970's. His name was Larry Norman. He was the one who first recommended that I read Chesterton. He made the astonishing comment that if I read Chesterton I wouldn't need to read C.S. Lewis, because everything in Lewis was already in Chesterton. For an Evangelical, this was like blasphemy. But the comment stuck with me. It would be a few more years till I finally picked up my first Chesterton book, which was on my honeymoon! It was The Everlasting Man (pause for laughter). My initial impression? That my entire college education had been a fraud. Which it was, as it turns out. What role did Chesterton play in your decision to become Catholic? Have you found that others who have become Catholic also credit Chesterton for helping them with the journey to the Catholic Church?

Ahlquist: I never would have thought about becoming Catholic if I had not read Chesterton. He comes from such a different angle, a wider angle, too! Nothing like classic apologetics, which is sort of one question at a time. Chesterton gets you to see the big picture, and the more you read him, you find that you start thinking like a Catholic and stop thinking like a Protestant. And yes, I am only one of many whom Chesterton has escorted into the Catholic Church. I've started a list. There are a lot of people on it. In fact, you're on it. [Carl: Indeed I am. Reading Chesterton's Orthodoxy in 1994 was an eye-opening experience. Reading it and several more books by Chesterton proved to be a key part of my journey to the Catholic Church.] You've already written one introductory book about Chesterton, The Apostle of Common Sense. How is Common Sense 101: Lessons From G.K. Chesterton different? What did you hope to accomplish with this book? [Read an excerpt here.]

Ahlquist: The first book was specifically designed to be an introduction to Chesterton. The second book is not supposed to be a book about Chesterton but rather about seeing the world through Chesterton's eyes. And so I hope to give people a new take on art, literature, education, science, history, fads (like feminism), and many other things, to give them the Chestertonian perspective, which is always larger and truer than the narrow and sometimes dishonest way we usually see these things. I also take the opportunity to show how Chesterton goes about defending the faith. If you had to define what makes Chesterton's writings and thought unique, how would you go about it?

Ahlquist: Chesterton is a complete thinker. Most modern thinkers are specialists and are limited by their specialty. Chesterton really did write about everything. It's why I've said that you're not educated until you've read Chesterton, and reading Chesterton is almost a complete education in itself. But it is his completeness that makes him too big to get a hold of. People prefer their truth to come in small, manageable bits. And in water-tight compartments. They don't like it when religion oversteps its bounds into art and economics and daily life. Chesterton is always pointing to the same truth, and using every available subject to point to it. As he says, "There is only one subject." In Common Sense 101 you point out that Chesterton's books are more timely today than when they were written. Can you give some examples?

Ahlquist: If you consider a few lines picked from Chesterton, you will immediately get the picture:

"The Declaration of Independence dogmatically bases all rights on the fact that God created all men equal; and it is right; for if they were not created equal, they were certainly evolved unequal. There is no basis for democracy except in a dogma about the divine origin of man."

"Men in a state of decadence employ professionals to fight for them, professionals to dance for them, and a professional to rule them."

"In expressing confused ideas, the moderns have great subtlety and sympathy. It is in expressing clear ideas that they generally find their limitations."

These Chesterton quotations are typical of his marvelous ability to state self-contained truths. They also make you realize pretty quickly why he is the most quotable writer of the 20th century. Chesterton, like C.S. Lewis, is very popular among Evangelicals and Catholics. What is the common ground that both groups find in Chesterton? What do you think Chesterton might say to those non-Catholic Christians who gaze at Rome but are reluctant to come into full communion with the Catholic Church?

Ahlquist: For people who like both Chesterton and Lewis, the common ground is . . . Chesterton! It turns out my ex-brother-in-law was absolutely right. Lewis borrowed everything from Chesterton. There's nothing wrong with that. Lots of people borrow from Chesterton. I know I do. Lewis stopped short of becoming a Catholic, though it looks like he was headed in that direction. Chesterton once said that if every man lived a thousand years he would either end up as a pessimistic nihilist or a member of the Catholic Church. Those are ultimately the only two choices. So, in C.S. Lewis' case, he simply didn't live long enough. But what makes Chesterton's comment so amazing is that he said it 10 years before he himself became a Catholic. Chesterton's great ecumenical appeal is because he affirms truths that every sincere Christian instantly recognizes to be true. Catholics should be pleased by every Protestant who likes Chesterton. They are our allies in the culture wars, especially as we fight the Culture of Death. One of the Chesterton's best known quotes is that "when a man stops believing in God he doesn't believe in nothing, he believes in anything." But you explain that there's something wrong with that statement. What is it?

Ahlquist: Well, there's nothing wrong with it, it's just that Chesterton never said it. I think it's great that critics accuse Chesterton of misquoting other writers, but no one is misquoted more than Chesterton, especially his most famous (non)quotation. What he actually said was, "It's the first effect of not believing in God that you lose your common sense." It was in a Father Brown story. In another Father Brown story (in fact the very next one) he talks about the skeptic's willingness to believe anything. I also think that no one would be more pleased at the misquotation than Chesterton himself. What are some of the common sense lessons we can learn today from G.K. Chesterton?

Ahlquist: Three things come to mind.

First, there is a reason to trust tradition, and be skeptical of new things. The modern world has that one exactly backwards: old is bad; new is good. Newer is even better. "A new philosophy," says Chesterton, "is generally the praise of some old vice." The irony arising from this is that it is now counter-cultural to defend morality and faith and the ancient truths that have been handed down to us by the Church.

Secondly, Chesterton's defense of the family as the center of life and the home as the most important place is a lesson badly needed today. All of our focus is on things outside the home: careers, politics, entertainment, sports. And none of these things are nearly as important as the caring for the souls of our children and the deepening of the sacramental relationship between husbands and wives.

Thirdly, poems should rhyme. Are you going to explain that last one?

Ahlquist: Nope. Everyone is going to have to read the book, which is also a defense of poetic form, something that has been lost and needs to be recovered along with the rest of common sense. What are some of your projects at the American Chesterton Society?

Ahlquist: We are preparing to do 13 new episodes for the "Apostle of Common Sense" series on EWTN. And EWTN will also be producing a special presentation of Chesterton's little known play "The Surprise," which is a masterpiece about free will and the Incarnation. We're also working on a much-needed Annotated Everlasting Man for Ignatius Press. Besides that, I'm happily busy giving talks on my favorite writer all over the country.

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