Monday, December 03, 2007

A Tale of Emptied Hells: Natural Theology in Chesterton's Thursday

As my last few posts indicate, I've been swimming in GKC lately. As I work up to my thesis defense in March, this doesn't look to be letting up any time soon. Perhaps for awhile I should say that this blog is about "thinking Chestertianity". Pretty lame joke.

Anyway, I am presenting what is called a "colloquium" to my school's faculty and students this Friday. This is basically an opportunity to present a scholarly paper and get feedback on it. It is pretty long and detailed, so I don't think I'll post it here. However, I did a related seminar in class a ways back that is roughly the same theme only slightly shorter. Here it is, for anyone who is interested.

I should add a spoiler alert though. The Man Who Was Thursday is definitely worth reading on its own first, so don't read on if you can see it in your future to get a hold of this novel and give it a go. You'll be glad you did. Then come back and read what I have to say about it!


This is a tale of those old fears, even of those emptied hells,
And none but you shall understand the true thing that it tells . . . .
The doubts that drove us through the night as we two talked amain,
And day had broken on the streets e’er it broke upon the brain.
Between us by the peace of God, such truth can now be told;
Yea, there is strength in striking root, and good in growing old.
We have found common things at last, and marriage and a creed,
And I may safely write it now, and you may safely read.
(Chesterton 1999, 28-30)

There can be little doubt that the dedicatory poem at the beginning of The Man Who Was Thursday indicates an autobiographical element to this fantastic tale. The place of this novel in Chesterton’s own life and literary career is also quite suggestive: It was published in the same year as Orthodoxy, after Heretics and the ensuing challenge from his opponents to articulate his own view instead of merely tearing apart the views of others. Thursday does read startlingly like a companion piece to Orthodoxy. As such it this metaphysical thriller might double as a personal testimony and defense of the faith.

Such a thing would not be out of character for Chesterton. Believing that most people came to faith from "one book, one battle, one landscape, and one old friend" (Chesterton 1996, 212), his stated intent in Orthodoxy was not "to turn this book into one of ordinary Christian apologetics" (Chesterton 1996, 211). If that was his spiritual autobiography, how wildly might he paint his faith within the landscape of Thursday?

As is made fairly clear in the dedication, Chesterton seems to have the darkest days of his adolescence in mind as he composes this novel. Later in his life he expressed his annoyance that people seemed to miss the significance of the story’s subtitle: A Nightmare (Buechner 2001, 96). Given what we know of Chesterton’s childhood, it should not be surprising if he should choose the literary form of a detective story/mythical fairy tale to relate his own spiritual journey through the darkness into the light. Early in his life Chesterton’s writings were apparently more exploratory and reactionary and when he reflected on this later we’re told that he "destroyed many early [manuscripts] and left ‘an absolute command' that his solipsistic juvenelia never be published" (Herbold 1967, 552).

When he finally wrote Thursday at the age of 33, Cecil Chesterton said his brother Gilbert "took great pains with this tale" (Wills 2001, 55). It may have been as much a personal catharsis as it was a fascinating story. Even then, Chesterton seemed to think only his childhood friend would understand the significance of what he was saying. However, one should not sell short the power of testimony, even veiled in fantastic language, to speak to the common experience of humanity.

Such an approach to this novel is not out of line with what Chesterton himself might have done in our position. In a discussion of the works of Charles Dickens he said that the purpose of literary criticism is to deal with "the subconscious part of the author's mind which only the critic can express, and not with the conscious part of the author's mind, which the author himself can express. . . . [It] means saying about an author the very things that would have made him jump out of his boots" (Chestertion 1989, 272).

At the same time, as one of his biographers noted, Chesterton "would have had little patience with [any author’s] egotistical tendency to say that the only subject for fiction was their own consciousness and its sensations" (Dale 1982, 116). Indeed, in The Man Who Was Thursday it would seem that the author is purposely veiling himself in order to point to Something Else. This he does not with Bible verses, but with story—a story where we do not see God until the end of a high speed pursuit of Nature.

If theology plays a part in Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday and in the personal journey that lay behind it, one could argue that it is not through biblical revelation but through some form of natural theology. Natural theology is defined as the attempt to discern "truths about God that can be learned from created things (nature, man, world) by reason alone" (Van Engen 2001, 815). Although it would be fiercely denied within Christian circles that natural theology could bring one to a saving knowledge of God, Chesterton’s approach to orthodoxy betrays a belief that reflection upon reason and mystery can take one at least to the feet of Christ, even if one requires God’s self-revelation and divine mercy to be able to look up and recognize Him. In Orthodoxy Chesterton claims that by reason he discovered the key-hole to the mysteries of life and then when he turned to Christianity he found the key. He explains:

"I am the man who with the utmost daring discovered what had been discovered before. . . . [This book] recounts my elephantine adventures in pursuit of the obvious. . . . I freely confess all the idiotic ambitions of the end of the nineteenth century. I did, like all other solemn little boys, try to be in advance of the age. Like them I tried to be some ten minutes in advance of the truth. And I found that I was eighteen hundred years behind it. . . . I did try to found a heresy of my own; and when I had put the last touches to it, I discovered that it was orthodoxy" (Chesterton 1996, 5-6).

This exactly the kind of odyssey that seems to be written all over the pages of The Man Who Was Thursday. In it a secret council of seven terrorists (named for each day of the week) is infiltrated by an undercover policeman who starts out investigating a murderous scheme and ends up unraveling some of the deepest mysteries of life. This is all typified particularly in the detectives’ pursuit of the enigmatic figure of Sunday. In this pursuit Dr. Bull observes that they are "six men going to ask one man what he means" (Chesterton 1999, 222), and Syme says it is even "queerer than that . . . I think it is six men going to ask one man what they mean (Chesterton 1999, 223, emphasis mine). Indeed, once they are taken in by Sunday is pummeled they pummel him with questions. To the question of his identity he answers, "I am the Sabbath . . . . I am the peace of God" (Chesterton 1999, 260).

True to form, in his intellectual honesty Chesterton’s characters are thrown by this statement into a tailspin of theodicy. If so, why all the darkness and suffering? The Professor says: "I do not understand. You let me stray a little too near to hell" (Chesterton 1999, 260), and Gogol wonders aloud: "I wish I knew why I was hurt so much" (Chesterton 1999, 260). To these questions Syme can find no answer, and he cries out at Sunday with the agony of Job: "Have you ever suffered" (Chesterton 1999, 263). The answer that comes back from the exloding blackness is the only Scripture reference in the whole story, Mark 10:38 (NIV): "Can you drink the cup I drink?"

It is a declaration of the suffering of Christ in solidarity with nature and it is suggestive of the call to martyrdom which first came from the lips of Sunday in the darkened room where Syme was called to serve. As the nightmare closes and drifts into the pleasant wakefulness of the book’s closing pages we are left with the alluring prospect that perhaps one must come to the end of oneself in order that one may live. Without but one word of Scripture the reader has been brought to this place in ways far more subtle and fantastic (and therefore more compelling) than I myself have just described.

Like a Kafka novel Thursday takes its readers on a journey through the perplexing absurdities of existence, but unlike a Kafka novel it leads us further into wonder and thanks. After reading Chesterton himself, the usually dark Kafka himself quipped that "one might almost believe he had found God" (Dale 1982, 113). Right down to the last line of the story the riddles pile on top of each other, exploding in the brain and touching the heart instead. Only there, in the last words of the nightmare, is Nature unveiled as the Sabbath and the last obstacle to faith—the reality of human suffering—addressed in the echoing refrain of Jesus Christ.

The really astounding thing about all of this is that Chesterton is not proposing anything explicitly about natural theology, per se, but is describing this as his journey. Having grown up somewhat acquainted with the Unitarian church, caught between a Universalist father and an agnostic mother, Chesterton had little comprehension of the fuller Christian creed and by all accounts barely survived an almost full embrace of nihilism. He would later describe his conversion to Christianity as something like "a mind surviving a hundred moods" (Chesterton 1985, 169). In most of his writing his intent is clearly to reach out to those who are where he once was and to offer them a safer way through the nightmare. A year after Chesterton’s death, one writer observed:

"[He was] more concerned with those who do not share his faith than with those who share it. He looks after the stray sheep. He does not spare his trouble, and will teach children to read in the hope that they might one day read their prayers. Chesterton never starts his argument from Revelation, he leads to it. He begins by spelling patiently the agnostic's alphabet" (Cammaerts 1937, 54).

This is the heart of the man who had dug himself deep into those "emptied hells", but somehow or other struck root, stumbled across the creed like a treasure hidden in a field, and then wrote about it from the other side (Chesterton 1999, 28-30).

Using imaginative narrative rather than systematics, and natural theology almost entirely in lieu of Scripture references, Chesterton reaches out to his world. Through the detectives in The Man Who Was Thursday he probes questions of existence—and as the standard dilemmas (between order and anarchy, optimism and pessimism) unravel before the investigators’ eyes they confront something wild, wonderful, and wholly other.

Considering the climate of our times, there might be something to be said for this approach. Today’s interest in spirituality is countered by its distrust of religious institutions and its search for answers is tempered by a distrust in statements of truth. This is a problem for Christianity, which depends greatly on divine revelation for knowledge and salvation. There is little doubt that Christianity declares people incapable of reaching God and salvation through their good works or their intellect, but calls them to receive the free gift of God by grace through faith. In that sense the Christian faith is dependent upon the Special Revelation of God spoken of in Christ. But how much can be learned in reflection upon that more General Revelation of God in creation? If the saving God is the same God as the creating God one can expect to find great continuity between General and Special revelation. Perhaps the path from one to the other is seamless and, to some degree, even overlapping.


Buechner, Frederick. 2001. Speak What We Feel (Not What We Ought To Say): Reflections on Literature and Faith: Four Who Wrote In Blood. San Francisco, CA: Harper Collins Publishers.

Cammaerts, Emile. 1937. The Laughing Prophet: The Seven Virtues and G.K. Chesterton. 2d ed. London, UK: Methuen & Co.

Chesterton, GK. 1999. The Man Who Was Thursday. Annoted by Martin Gardner. San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press.
________. 1996. Orthodoxy. Hodder & Stoughton.
________. 1989. "The Old Curiosity Shop: Appreciations and Criticisms of the Works of Charles Dickens." The Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton Vol XV: Chesterton on Dickens. Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press.

________. 1985. "The Thing: Why I Am Catholic." As I Was Saying. Edited by Robert Knille. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
Dale, Alzina Stone. 1982. The Outline of Sanity: A Life of G.K. Chesterton. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
Herbold, A. 1967. "Chesterton, Gilbert Keith." New Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol III. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
Van Engen, J. 2001. "Natural Theology." Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. 2d ed. Edited by Walter A. Elwell. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academics.
Wills, Garry. 2001. Chesterton. New York, NY: Doubleday.

1 comment:

Colin Toffelmire said...

Very good stuff. Any chance I could get a copy of the full colloquium paper? It would be interesting to see these thoughts argued in full.