This is the text of a talk I gave to the Blessed John Paul II Theological Society in St. Patrick's College, Maynooth, yesterday evening. I left out a handful of passages on the day because I was worried it was running on too long.
The audio is available here, on the blog of the G.K. Chesterton Society of Ireland, thanks to the computer whizzery of my wife Michelle.
Good evening, everybody. I’d like to thank Eamon for inviting me here and to thank all of you for showing up. It’s a real privilege to be here.
My subject is Catholic apologetics today, especially in the light of Pope Francis’s recent document Evangelii Gaudium, which I prefer to call by its English title, The Joy of the Gospel. Since I am such a devotee of G.K. Chesterton, and considering that Chesterton is still the towering figure of Catholic apologetics, I will be mentioning him quite a lot.
The Joy of the Gospel, as you know, is an apostolic exhortation, rather than an encylical. It is not infallible or binding upon the faithful, as has been pointed out frequently by many Catholics who disagree with some of its contents. Its purpose is to encourage all Catholics to focus upon the work of evangelization, and it calls for the Church to make all of its activities “mission-oriented”, as the Pope puts it. It urges us to focus upon the essentials of the Christian message, rather than specific and controversial doctrines, and also to preserve a proper sense of proportion when we proclaim the Gospel. It also calls for a respectful dialogue with non-Catholics and non-Christians. Although the document is not about apologetics per se, it obviously has important implications for that subject. I’m not going to synopsize the exhortation any further, but I will quote from it as I go along.
Apologetics—whether Catholic, Christian, or merely theistic—is a subject of absorbing interest to me. I spent about a year as a voracious consumer of apologetics, before I came to finally accept the truth of the Christian revelation. Since then, I’ve leapt into apologetics myself, through my blog The Irish Papist and also through articles in Catholic publications. And, like so many other Catholics, I often find myself engaged in a kind of impromptu everyday apologetics, as I am so often challenged about my faith in every kind of setting, and from every conceivable angle.
I began to practice my faith less than four years ago. Before that, I don’t know how I would have classified myself in religious terms. I was certainly sympathetic to Christianity, and to Catholicism in particular, but I only ever entered a church for funerals and memorial Masses. I do remember declaring myself an atheist on a handful of occasions, and I can remember once challenging a colleague to explain what the word ‘spirituality’ actually meant. This was more in the spirit of frustration than of belligerence. I was never anti-religious, but I simply couldn’t see what grounds there were to accept the claims of any religion.
At other times I was closer to the outlook of Alexander Pope, in his Universal Prayer:
Father of all! In every age,
In every clime adored,
By saint, by savage, and by sage,
Jehovah, Jove, or Lord!
I think this latter attitude is a fairly common one. I actually suspect that there are thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of Mass-going Catholics in Ireland who believe, not in the Trinity and the Resurrection and the Incarnation, but in some ineffable Force behind our reality, one that might as well be worshipped using the stories and rituals of Catholicism as in any other manner. For this reason I think our evangelization and our apologetics should be addressed, not only to declared unebelievers, but to the people in the pews as well.
So through most of my twenties, I didn’t spend a great deal of time thinking about the meaning of life, or the nature of reality, or any of those things. I had other things to think about.
Then I started to write intensively. I had written poetry for years, plotting to spearhead a revival of traditional poetry that rhymed and scanned, and to smash the free verse establishment to smithereens. I’m still working on this plan, incidentally. But in my late twenties, I began to write fiction. I wrote a fantasy novel, followed by a children’s fantasy novel, followed by a horror novel, and finally a collection of horror short stories. They all remain unpublished, a status I don’t see changing.
I wrote non-stop, at a rattling pace. I spent my holidays and my weekends and my free-time and my tea-breaks at work writing. My imagination had been stirred by reading about Isaac Asimov, the science-fiction writer who wrote over five hundred books, and who famously said: “I think through my fingers”. I flung myself into a similar routine. And this turned out to be my undoing, the hook that God used to reel me in.
Story-telling is a quest. From the earliest times, stories were the means that mankind used to make sense of the universe and his place in it. Stories show us, not just a flux of random events, but something happening under the surface of events. More than that, stories are a quest for meaning. Stories tell us that life matters. They convince us that life is not a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing, as Macbeth claimed, but a wonderful adventure, a long homecoming.
I spent months and months, writing my stories, feeling I was probing deeper and deeper into the mystery of existence. Until suddenly, I felt I had come to a dead end, a brick wall, an endless abyss. On the very day I finished writing a collection of a hundred horror stories—I had a little bottle of Bailey’s Irish cream ready, to celebrate—I found myself sliding into the deepest depression of my life.
I found myself asking: After the catharsis and the purple prose of the final page, after the hero finally reaches home, after the heroine discovers who she really is—what then? What makes the final embrace of the star-crossed lovers any more consequential than the buzzing of a fly in the air above them? What makes the noble sacrifice of the last scene any better than the murder in the first scene? Stories were a search for meaning, but what meaning was there for them to find?
I saw with horrible clarity that nothing had meaning unless everything had meaning, that free will and intelligence and purpose and beauty were no more than phantoms unless they had a source in something transcendental, something that was not only relatively free or intelligent or beautiful or meaningful, but absolutely so. And this is, as Aquinas says, is what everyone calls God.
Thus began my delving into apologetics—books, websites, youtube videos. Choosing to believe was not an option for me. I had no interest in a leap of faith, or in Pascal’s wager, or in some kind of mystical apprehension or auto-suggestion. This was the most important question there could possibly be—ultimately, the only important question—and it was my reason that required satisfaction, not my emotions. A universe without God seemed to leave room for nothing but despair. And yet this very consideration, far from inclining me to give theistic arguments an easy ride, made me relentlessly critical of them. I saw every objection to them with a kind of ghastly clarity. I honestly believe that I journeyed deeper into doubt and scepticism, at this time, than almost any atheist ever does. At least, I rarely today encounter any atheist argument without thinking, “I could put the case even stronger than that.”
I became more and more frustrated with the arguments of apologists. I was tired of reading about the limits of science and of empirical measurement, tired of desperate appeals to half-understood quantum physics, tired of the question-begging quotation that, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamed of in your philosophy”. Who said that there were? Again and again, I was told that science could only answer the “how” and “what” questions, that it left the “why” questions, and what were often referred to as the Big Questions, unanswered. I saw no reason that there should be a “why” answer. I certainly felt an intuition that there must be a “why”. But intuition wasn’t good enough. People believed all kinds of crazy things on the basis of intuition.
Some arguments of apologists just seemed daft to me. For instance, there was the fairly common argument that it was not illogical to believe in God despite having no way to prove His existence, since everybody believed in the existence of other peoples’ minds, and we have no conclusive way to know that other people have minds. I thought one might as well argue that the characters in children’s picture books dance around the page when the covers are closed. Christian apologists were continually pointing to the blood-soaked record of atheistic communism, as well they might. But they seemed to ignore the fact that Scandinavia, the most secularized part of Western civilization, has a very high standard of living and strong social bonds. Sometimes it was claimed that scientists had faith just as surely as religious believers did, since they expected the laws of physics to continue operating into the future, and no experiment could prove that this would actually happen. But wasn’t this really stretching the definition of “faith” to breaking point?
I became absorbed in this debate, which of course stretches back as far as human civilization, just at the time that the New Atheists—Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens and company—were having their heyday. It was not only Christianity or organized religion or even religion itself that was under attack, but the very notion that there was anything supernatural at all. I discovered that the Amazing James Randi, the American magician and sceptic, had offered a million dollar prize for anyone who could provide evidence of the paranormal, under test conditions. Nobody had ever collected the prize. Various other sceptical societies offered similar prizes, and none had ever been collected. Similarly, experiments that studied the efficacy of petitionary prayer had found very little evidence in its favour.
Today it seems to me rather presumptious to assume that God should perform under laboratory conditions, but this seemed like a devastating, almost knock-down disproof at the time. It was true that many of the miracles associated with Catholicism—like the miracle of the sun at Fatima, the stigmata and bilocations of Padre Pio, the healings at Lourdes, and the uncanny properties of the Turin Shroud—were compelling and difficult to dismiss. But this seemed like a very slender thread on which to build such enormous faith.
That said, the more I became wrapped up in the debate, the more I came to respect the Catholic Church. I even began to feel that it was a two-horse race between atheism and Catholicism. Incidentally, Chesterton once expressed the same belief, in a book about William Blake: “If every human being lived a thousand years”, he said, “every human being would end up either in utter pessimistic scepticism or in the Catholic creed.” I agree.
My respect for the Catholic Church was based upon the fact that it was so willing to lay its cards upon the table, to make definite truth claims—and not only about events in the distant past. It declared various miracles and Marian apparitions, some of them modern, to be worthy of belief. It stood over two thousand years of doctrine and dogma. It insisted upon the historicity of the Gospels and the Resurrection of Christ.
Best of all, it not only rejected fideism—that is, the claim that belief in God is entirely based upon faith, and not at all upon reason—it actually declared it a heresy. Pope Pius X’s Anti-Modernist oath declared: “God, the origin and end of all things, can be known with certainty by the natural light of reason from the created world.” A religion that didn’t insist upon that from the very first didn’t seem worth the time of day to me.
I decided that, if the Church was a liar, it was an amazingly consistent liar. If it was a fraud, it was a brilliant fraud. And, since I was an ardent social and cultural conservative, the culturally unfashionable teachings of the Catholic Church—on abortion, contraception, Papal authority, and so forth-- that were such a stumbling block to so many other potential converts, were a positive attraction to me. In fact, when I was finally convinced by the truth of Catholicism, I found myself having to trim the sails of my rather pugnacious conservatism more than a little.
But I was a long way from that at this time. In fact, I was beginning to despair. Philosophical materialism seemed to have won the day. I had been through all the arguments, over and over—the Argument from Design, the Argument from Morality, the Argument from Reason, the so-called fine-tuning of the universe, and many, many more—and nothing seemed like a winning argument to me. I may not, for instance, have understood or even been able to imagine how human consciousness could be something physical. But weren’t philosophers and scientists already talking about machines that could think? Why should the limits of my understanding be the limits of possibility?
I was in this sorry state—and it is no exaggeration to say that, at times, it amounted to a kind of mental and spiritual torture—when I read G.K. Chesterton’s little book Orthodoxy, first published in 1908. Chesterton, as you all doubtless know, was a journalist, novelist, poet, wit and Christian apologists. Later in life, he converted from Anglicanism to Catholicism. But Orthodoxy was more or less his debut as a self-confessed Christian, even though he had been a prominent polemicist for several years.
Pope Francis, in the only explicit mention of apologetics in The Joy of the Gospel, has called for a “creative apologetics”, and you could hardly get more creative than Orthodoxy. Chesterton, only thirty-four when he wrote it, makes an utterly original case for the truth of the Christian creed. It’s a virtuoso performance. I read it in one day, and by the time I put it down, I had all but accepted the truth of Christianity.
Amazingly, Chesterton opens by describing the very windowless cell of materialism that I had been trapped inside. He wrote:
“As an explanation of the world, materialism has a sort of insane simplicity. It has just the quality of the madman's argument; we have at once the sense of it covering everything and the sense of it leaving everything out. Contemplate some able and sincere materialist, as, for instance, Mr. McCabe, and you will have exactly this unique sensation. He understands everything, and everything does not seem worth understanding. His cosmos may be complete in every rivet and cog-wheel, but still his cosmos is smaller than our world. The earth is so very large, and the cosmos is so very small. The cosmos is about the smallest hole that a man can hide his head in.
It must be understood [Chesterton goes on] that I am not now discussing the relation of these creeds to truth; but, for the present, solely their relation to health. Later in the argument I hope to attack the question of objective verity; here I speak only of a phenomenon of psychology.” End of quotation.
And later on in the argument, Chesterton does indeed attack the question of objective verity, but from the most extraordinary angles of attack. A chapter about fairy tales become a critique of the supposed necessity of the laws of nature. Chesterton argues that the regularities, the causes and effects, that we witness in the natural world are no less magical or less surprising than a mouse turning into a horse. Whimsical as it is, it is also the most rigorous philosophy. Chesterton is undermining the assumptions of the scientific fatalism of his day.
As the book goes on, his arguments become even more acrobatic and inspired. The chapter The Suicide of Thought contrasts the self-contradiction of various modish philosophies with the lucidity of Christianity, which—crazy as it seemed to his contemporaries—at least made internal sense. The chapter The Paradoxes of Christianity asks why Christianity has been attacked on so many grounds through the centuries; many of them starkly contradictory grounds. He concludes that Christianity must be at least be a most extraordinary thing, having been at different times attacked for being too dark and too bright, too timid and too warlike, too sensual and too otherworldy.
Finally, and triumphantly, Chesterton identifies this combination of opposites as being the very thing that makes Christianity unique, and that gives the Faith its uncanny knack of comprehending reality in all its irregularities and messiness.
“This”, he writes, “is what I have called guessing the hidden eccentricities of life. This is knowing that a man's heart is to the left and not in the middle. This is knowing not only that the earth is round, but knowing exactly where it is flat. Christian doctrine detected the oddities of life. It not only discovered the law, but it foresaw the exceptions. Those underrate Christianity who say that it discovered mercy; any one might discover mercy. In fact every one did. But to discover a plan for being merciful and also severe -- that was to anticipate a strange need of human nature. For no one wants to be forgiven for a big sin as if it were a little one. Any one might say that we should be neither quite miserable nor quite happy. But to find out how far one may be quite miserable without making it impossible to be quite happy -- that was a discovery in psychology. Any one might say, "Neither swagger nor grovel"; and it would have been a limit. But to say, "Here you can swagger and there you can grovel" -- that was an emancipation.”
I have described Orthodoxy at what might seem excessive length in order to make a point, and what I think is a very important point. The point is that the book, though an intellectual tour-de-force, is not purely intellectual. Nor is it purely poetical. Nor is it purely historical, or purely philosophical, or purely anything else. It is, in fact, a marriage of many different types of evidence. It also stunningly original. Chesterton, in looking into his own soul and describing his own reasons for belief, had come up with a genuinely new contribution to this most ancient of arguments. And this I consider truly creative apologetics. I believe it is this that made the apologetics of Chesterton, and later of C.S. Lewis, so influential.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not arguing against the use of pure reason in the defence of religious belief and of Christianity, nor am I arguing against the use of pure science or pure history or pure philosophy. The fact that I had been left unsatisfied by such arguments until I read Orthodoxy did not mean that they would not play a part in the later solidification of my belief. A book by the Catholic physicist, Stephen M. Barr, Modern Physics and Ancient Faith, finally convinced me—where several similar books had failed—that there was no conflict between modern science and Christianity. The Last Superstition, a polemic against the New Atheism by the American Thomist philosopher Edward Feser, showed me that my understanding of Aquinas’s arguments for the existence of God had been shallow indeed. It also convinced me that at least one of the arguments, the Argument from Contingency, was irrefutable. Feser’s blog also deepened my appreciation for the intellectual case for religious belief, and the philosphical poverty of materialism and naturalism. Finally, the debates I watched on Youtube between the Evangelical Christian philosopher William Lane Craig and many of the most famous atheists deeply impressed me. Craig relied upon purely academic arguments, and even atheists often conceded that he won the debates. His book The Son Rises, despite the awful title, is a very powerful defence of the Resurrection, on purely historical grounds.
So I do, in fact, think that pure reason is an indispensable weapon in the armoury of Christian apologetics. But I firmly believe that the most important form of Christian apologetics, the one that will win most minds and hopefully also most souls, is one that seeks to defend Christianity from as many different angles as possible, while using as many different strategies as possible.
I think that both Chesterton and Lewis were masters of this approach, and that this goes a long way towards explaining their continuing popularity, which eclipses that of any living Christian apologist. Chesterton was a writer whose output and whose diversity of subject matter was legendary. Collections of his essays have been given titles such as The Uses of Diversity, Generally Speaking and All I Survey. He wrote on every imaginable subject—some of his more noted essays were on the subject of chalk, on lying in bed, and on the case of a woman keeping a pig as a pet. But everything he wrote, articles and detective stories and novels and poems, was pervaded by his Christian and later Catholic viewpoint. Or as George Orwell put it, more disparagingly:
"Chesterton was a writer of considerable talent who chose to suppress both his sensibilities and his intellectual honesty in the cause of Roman Catholic propaganda. During the last twenty years or so of his life, his entire output was in reality an endless repetition of the same thing, under its laboured cleverness as simple and boring as ‘Great is Diana of the Ephesians.’ Every book that he wrote, every scrap of dialogue, had to demonstrate beyond the possibility of mistake the superiority of the Catholic over the Protestant or the pagan." End of quotation. Well, that’s one way of putting it, I suppose.
Lewis, on the other hand, expounded the Christian worldview not only in his apologetics but also in his Narnia books, his science fiction novels and his literary criticism. The chapter on Lucifer in his critical introduction to Paradise Lost is perhaps the most profound analysis of sin that I have ever read.
One reason I believe that this broad-ranging or holistic form of apologetics is so important is because it satisfies a certain demand in the human soul. Human beings, consciously or unconsciously, will seldom be content with a philosophy of life that doesn’t seem to take into account how complicated, wild, many-sided and inexhaustible the world is. An argument that satisfies the intellect but does not satisfy the soul is unlikely to be accepted for long. If Christ is truly the light of the world, rather than the fridge light that only comes on when we are looking inside it, then Christianity should illuminate the entirety of human existence. As Chesterton wrote: “Nothing can be irrelevant to the proposition that Christianity is true.” Or as he also wrote: “A man is not really convinced of a philosophic theory when he finds that something proves it. He is only really convinced when he finds that everything proves it.” The best apologists are those who can convince their audiences, through appeals to the imagination and the intuition as well as to reason, that Christianity is big enough to contain their whole world. The best apologists demonstrate the truth of Pope Benedict’s moving words:”If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. No! Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. Only in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed. Only in this friendship do we experience beauty and liberation.”
Another reason I believe that apologists should strive for this broad, creative, wide-ranging approach is because it is so easy to get locked into a kind of table-tennis game, or perhaps a kind of trench warfare, with our opponents. The argument becomes stereotyped, stalemated, caught on a permanent roundabout. You know the kind of thing I’m talking about. Ping. The Church needs to move with the times and adapt to the modern world. Pong. No, the truths that the Church teaches are timeless, and it can’t meddle with them to please the fashions of the age. Ping. Oh really? Well, what about Limbo and fish on Friday? Pong. Limbo was never a defined doctrine and fish on Fridays was only ever a discipline. And on and on its goes, back and forth, tit for tat. Everybody knows what the next response is going to be, and it must be rare indeed that anybody changes their mind because of these exchanges.
Mind you, I’m not saying that we should simply retreat from this trench warfare, leaving the battlefield to the other side. That would be irresponsible. But without disengaging, we should always be seeking to open new fronts—or perhaps to dig tunnels into enemy territory, or to parachute in from the skies. We need to come upon those who have ranged such elaborate defences against the Christian gospel from unexpected directions.
One person who I think is very good at doing this is John Waters. Perhaps I should specify that I mean John Waters the Irish writer and journalist, and not John Waters the maker of deliberately offensive movies. John Waters, in his books Lapsed Agnostic and Beyond Consolation, and in innumerable articles in The Irish Catholic and The Irish Times, has written exhaustively of modern Ireland’s almost frantic effort to push away any reference to the transcendental or the spiritual, to limit reality to what can be measured and observed and categorized. He did this so much, and for so long, that I was beginning to get irritated with him. Similarly, I was getting fed up with his constantly repeated references to Pope Benedict’s metaphor of the bunker, the self-made reality that modern man has imprisoned himself inside. Waters used this metaphor again and again. And again and again. And then some more. I wondered how long he was going to labour this point, and when he was going to get round to actually talking about Jesus and about Christianity, which he so seldom seemed to do.
But I’ve come to believe that he was taking the right approach after all. Modern Ireland, or at least those parts of it that Waters is trying to reach, has indeed become so hostile to anything smacking of the spiritual that simply getting such people to recognize the artificiality and littleness of their own mental universe is enough of a labour for all of one man’s efforts. Just to render the bunker visible, as Waters puts it, is indeed a titanic and necessary work.
And I think Pope Francis would agree with this, too. In article 24 of The Joy of the Gospel, he writes: “An evangelizing community is also supportive, standing by people at every step of the way, no matter how difficult or lengthy this may prove to be. It is familiar with patient expectation and apostolic endurance. Evangelization consists mostly of patience and disregard for constraints of time. It celebrates every small victory, every step forward in the work of evangelization.” In article 225, he says: “evangelization…calls for attention to the bigger picture, openness to suitable processes and concern for the long run.”
It’s true that Pope Francis is talking about evangelization rather than apologetics here. But I don’t think evangelization and apologetics can be separated. How can we proclaim the gospel without being ready to answer objections? And what better opportunity is there to proclaim the gospel than when we find ourselves facing critics of Christianity or of the Catholic Church? Since I’m a shy person, I find the idea of approaching a stranger, or even a friend, and initiating a conversation about my faith extremely difficult. I am in awe of street evangelists. But I rarely find it difficult to speak up when I hear somebody taking issue with Catholicism or the Church. I think apologetics is a necessary form of evangelization.
While I’m on the subject of contemporary apologetics, I want to remark on some modern examples. I’m going to take a Goldilocks trio of examples; one that I think is all wrong in one direction, another that I think is all wrong in another direction, and a third that I think is just right.
The first is a TV series that was broadcast on TV3 recently, and hosted by Vincent Browne. The title was Challenging God, and the format was a panel discussion between believers and non-believers on the subject of God and religion. It’s a wonderful concept for a show, but it turned out to be a huge let-down. And I’m sorry to say that it was the Catholic and Christian guests who were mostly at fault.
I won’t give the names of the guests on the couple of episodes I saw. Most of them were theologians and priests that I had never heard of before. Perhaps it was simply a weak selection on the part of the producers. Perhaps it was even a deliberately weak selection. But one way or another, the contributors who were there to speak for the Christian and Catholic creed, and indeed one Jewish contributor, seemed to have only one tactic; retreat, retreat, retreat. When they were challenged as to certain parts of Scripture, they immediately complained about “literalism” on the part of their opponents, and ended up giving the impression that the Bible was nothing but a kind of extended poem. When they were challenged about our knowledge of God, they retreated perpetually behind God’s unknowability, as though we could know nothing at all about God—which is not the Christian belief, and which doesn’t leave us with much of a working relationship to the Deity. And when they were challenged on the subject of Christian history, they outdid the atheists in their eagerness to denounce it. This is a common motif in the sort of Christian apologetics that is all-too-apologetic in the conventional sense of that word—the idea that the history of Christianity, and even the history of Catholicism, has been one long lamentable betrayal of the message of Jesus. Always the implication is that millions upon millions of Christians through twenty centuries, with maybe a few exceptions like St. Francis, made a complete hash of the Christian life, but that the speaker is not about to fall into the same trap. And the sort of person who expounds this view is usually one who would castigate previous generations of Christians for their lack of humility.
Against this tendency, I cherish the words of Pope Francis in article thirteen of The Joy of the Gospel: “Nor should we see the newness of this mission as entailing a kind of displacement or forgetfulness of the living history which surrounds us and carries us forward. Memory is a dimension of our faith which we might call “deuteronomic”, not unlike the memory of Israel itself. Jesus leaves us the Eucharist as the Church’s daily remembrance of, and deeper sharing in, the event of his Passover (cf. Lk 22:19). The joy of evangelizing always arises from grateful remembrance: it is a grace which we constantly need to implore. The apostles never forgot the moment when Jesus touched their hearts: “It was about four o’clock in the afternoon” (Jn 1:39). Together with Jesus, this remembrance makes present to us “a great cloud of witnesses” (Heb 12:1), some of whom, as believers, we recall with great joy: “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God” (Heb 13:7). Some of them were ordinary people who were close to us and introduced us to the life of faith: “I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice” (2 Tim 1:5). The believer is essentially “one who remembers”. End of quotation.
I think that one of the challenges of the Catholic apologist is to convey to the unbeliever, or to the non-Catholic Christian, that the history of Catholicism is not—to paraphrase Joyce—a nightmare from which we are trying to awake. It’s very difficult to do this, because in our era we imbibe with our mother’s milk the idea that tradition is a burden and revolution is the ideal, that scrapping everything that went before and starting from scratch is the way to go. To get past simply defending Catholic history, and to try to communicate the wild swashbuckling romance of it all—to explain that a Catholic who enters a Catholic church is not simply lifting his mind from time to eternity, but is seeing eternity refracted through time, as in the scene of the Annunciation—this, I think, is a mighty and necessary labour.
I turn to the other extreme, which is the American Michael Voris and his Church Militant internet TV station. I don’t want to make heavy weather of Voris, if only because every time I mention him I seem to draw the unwelcome attentions of his fanbase. Basically, as many of you doubtless know, Michael Voris is a kind of twenty-first century self-appointed Grand Inquisitor. His internet videos focus overwhelmingly upon the crisis that he sees afflicting today’s Catholic Church; communion in the hand, guitar masses, liberal priests, a lack of focus on the Four Last Things, and the triumph of what he likes to call The Church of Nice. It sometimes seems he wants to replace the Church of Nice with the Church of Nasty.
Many of Voris’s criticisms of the modern Catholic Church are undoubtedly justified, but he seems the prime example of what Pope Francis calls an inward-looking Church. The attitude of apologists like Voris seems to be that, if only we could get the liturgy right, and get catechesis right, and present the world with a supremely self-confident Catholicism purged of liberalism and abuses, the world would flock to our pews. There’s something to be said for that, but I think it’s deeply naïve at the same time. Like the cosmos of Chesterton’s materialist, the entirely self-referential cosmos that apologists like Voris inhabit seems like the smallest hole a man can hide his head in. Apparently uninterested in engaging with modern currents of thought with anything but hostility and derision, he has nothing to offer non-Catholics and non-believers except the magnetism of his steely, intransigent certainty. That will always attract some people, but its appeal is limited. And that’s enough about Voris.
After all that, it’s a pleasure to turn to my Goldilocks. I don’t think too many people here will disagree if I claim that Father Robert Barron, another American, is the greatest apologist of our day. He seems to be the very embodiment of Pope Francis’s ideal. He radiates joy and enthusiasm, not in a cheesy way, but in a very sincere way. He is eager to use modern methods to spread the Gospel, as witnessed by his Word on Fire website and his short, meaty Youtube videos. He comments on popular cinema releases and social trends. He tries to find some common ground with the critics of Catholicism, since a conversation or even a debate is not going to go anywhere until there is something both sides can agree on. Like Chesterton and Lewis, to whom he often refers, he isn’t content with answering the stock accusations with stock responses, but strives to come up with new and creative angles. He is eager to convey, not only the truth of Catholicism, but its beauty and sublimity and intellectual depth. And he is always polite and respectful. I honestly believe that, in order to see what a twenty-first century Catholic apologist should be, we could do no better than look at Fr. Barron.
It might be wondered what the great Catholic and Christian apologists of recent times would make of the The Joy of the Gospel. Do Pope Francis’s calls for a more joyful, respectful, open, humble approach to evangelization hobble the efforts of Catholic apologists? Who will be drawn to the Faith if he we do not boldly proclaim that our Chuch is the One True Church, if we are not unflinching in our exposure of heresy, if we do not confront the dictatorship of relativism and the wishy-washiness of post-modernism with the certainties of our own Creed? Wasn’t the exodus from the priesthood, the religious life, and the pews after Vatican II a result of just such rhetoric as Pope Francis uses in The Joy of Gospel—rhetoric like this, for instance: “In some places we see an ostentatious preoccupation for the liturgy, for doctrine and for the Church’s prestige, but without any concern that the Gospel have a real impact on God’s faithful people and the concrete needs of the present time?” Or rhetoric like this: “"Differing currents of thought in philosophy, theology and pastoral practice, if open to being reconciled by the Spirit in respect and love, can enable the Church to grow, since all of them help to express more clearly the immense riches of God’s word. For those who long for a monolithic body of doctrine guarded by all and leaving no room for nuance, this might appear as undesirable and leading to confusion.” What encouragement can there be for apologetics in a document that only uses the word “apologetics” once, but that uses the word “dialogue” fifty times? Doesn’t this kind of rhetoric, in fact, bring to mind those words from first Corinthians, “If the trumpet gives an uncertain sound, who shall gird himself for battle?” When the Pope writes that an evangelizer must not look like someone who has just come from a funeral, isn’t it hard not to picture a photograph of Hilaire Belloc with his black clothes and his trademark scowl? Are we all meant to start being happy-clappy now?
Well, it’s hard for me to comment on Belloc. I have always found his work rather tough going. He famously wrote the lines:
Heretics all, whoever you may be,
In Tarbes or Nimes, or over the sea,
You never shall have good words from me.
And judging from these, we may decide that he wouldn’t have been a big fan of the kind of respectful dialogue with other religions and with the surrounding culture for which Pope Francis is calling. But I imagine Belloc was mostly joking in those lines.
It is tempting to say that Belloc was an apologist for a particular moment in English history, a moment when it was necessary to punch with two fists against the prejudices instilled in the English people by four centuries of anti-Catholic propaganda and false history, that Old Thunder has done his work now and can safely be retired. However, this would be to underestimate his continuing popularity. A Hilaire Belloc Society was formed in Ireland only this year. I went along to the first meeting and was surprised by the turnout, the enthusiasm of the attendees, and the number of young people there. So we cannot conclude that Belloc is an exhausted volcano.
From my knowledge of his work, and granted that I might be wrong, I do get the impression that his pugnacious style of apologetics might not be exactly in harmony with The Joy of the Gospel, a document that Pope Francis tells us has “a programmatic significance and important consequences.”
Still, perhaps I am simply doing Belloc an injustice. Even if his manner and his tone could be rather severe, and if he was suspicious of ostentatious emotion, he was equally capable of expressing The Joy of the Gospel in his own restrained style. One of my favourite quotations about Catholicism comes from his essay, An Open Letter to Dean Inge: “One thing in this world is different from all others. It has a personality and a force. It is recognized and (when recognized) most violently hated or loved. It is the Catholic Church. Within that household the human spirit has roof and hearth. Outside it is the night.” So much for Belloc. I apologize to any Belloc fans who are listening and scandalized at my ignorance.
When we turn to another figures famous for his spirited apologetics, the Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen, we might believe we have another figure who may have been less than happy with the tone of the Pope’s apostolic exhortation. The picture he presented on the his television show Life is Worth Living, clad in all the splendour of his episcopal robes, declaiming rather than speaking, and using a blackboard to illustrate his points as though he was a schoolmaster, seems a long way from the idea of “dialogue”. And yet I think Archbishop Sheen’s apologetics were much more in the style of The Joy of the Gospel than might be supposed, particularly in his ecumenical attitude. Life Is Worth Living drew in ten million viewers at its height. It is unlikely to have been such a hit by appealing only to Catholics. In fact, an ultra-traditionalist Catholic website called Tradition in Action devotes an entire article to complaining about Archbishop Sheen’s wishy-washy statements, especially his generous atttitude towards othe religions. They are appalled by quotations like this one: “the fullness of truth is like a complete circle of 360 degrees. Every religion in the world has a segment of that truth.” Or “Christ is hidden in all world religions, though as yet His face is veiled as it was to Moses, who asked to see it.” Or his boast that, on his television show, “never once was there an attempt at what might be called proselytizing.” As well as this, his pioneering work in religious broadcasting and his frequent strategy of beginning a programme, not by launching into a discussion of religion straight away, but by taking a point of departure from the cultural world of his viewers, seems entirely consistent with the spirit of Pope Francis’s document, and indeed with the spirit of the New Evangelization in general.
And so I come to Chesterton. At this point, my listeners might not be surprised to hear that I think Chesterton would have been fully on board with the programme of the Pope as outlined in The Joy of the Gospel, and not only because of his well-documented reverence towards the successors of St. Peter. In fact, I think it’s not too much of a stretch to say that Chesterton might have written this document—although, if Chesterton had written it, there would have been rather more jokes.
Those who know little about Chesterton sometimes encounter his epigrams, and see his photograph, or read his war ballad “Lepanto”, and imagine that he was a harrumphing, crusty old curmudgeon who went about waving his fist at the modern world and launching into the most triumphalist, take-no-prisoners form of Catholic apologetics. But nothing could be more mistaken.
In an introduction to an anthology of Chesterton’s Catholic writings, James J. Thompson describes Chesterton the apologist as he really was:
“A controversialist can easily sink into bitterness, especially when the creed they champion, as with Catholicism in England, is despised and mistrusted. In defence of a good cause, a good man can be transmogrified into a crotchety, dyspeptic misanthrope. Chesterton never succumbed to this temptation. He refused to relinquish his boyish high spirits and sanguine temperament; to him, contending for the Faith was immense fun. He exemplified the laughing apologist, chortling merrily as he pricked pomposities, exposed illogic, and smashed ramshackle arguments. Although he took the Faith seriously, he never made the mistake of assuming that one Gilbert Keith Chesteton should be treated with a grave demeanour.
Chesterton usually liked his adversaries as persons, and they generally responded to him in a kindred spirit. For over three decades he conducted a running dispute with Bernard Shaw; had they ever exhausted their substantive disagreements, they probably would have intitiated a round of fierce polemics over the weather. Yet the two remained fast friends, each recognizing in the other qualities that transcended intellectual difficulties. H.G. Wells, another of Chesterton’s regular sparring partners, represented, in Chesterton’s eyes, a prime example of a man inebriated with modern progressivism. The two men pounced upon one another with gusto, yet Chesterton lauded Wells as a jewel in England’s literary crown.” End of quotation.
But it wasn’t just Chesterton’s good humour and affability that was remarkable, when it came to his clashes with the enemies of Christianity. It was his willingness to see things from the other side, to enter sympathetically into a different mentality, to appreciate and acknowledge the element of truth in every half-truth that had been set in opposition to the fullness of truth. In other words, he was committed to dialogue, not simply to debate.
The similarities between The Joy of the Gospel and Chesterton’s philosophy are startling.
Pope Frances devotes a fairly long passage to the theme of city life, and the importance of discovering a spirituality of the city. Chesterton, a Londoner through and through, was always trying to discover the magical and the mystical in an urban setting. He wrote: “The suburbs ought to be either glorified by romance and religion or else destroyed by fire from heaven.” His novel The Napoleon of Notting Hill is one attempt to do the first.
Pope Frances devotes a whole thirty pages of The Joy of the Gospel to the question of the poor, and the preferential option for the poor, insisting “They have much to teach us”. Chesterton never stopped writing about the poor, who he did not see as charity cases but the members of society who were most likely to preserve healthy instincts and traditions. He wrote: “We are always wondering what we shall do with the poor. If we were democrats, we should be wondering what the poor will do with us”. Nothing infuriated him more than condescending philantropy towards the poor.
Both men are concerned with the need for a philosophy of life to have a proportion, a fitting synthesis. The Pope writes: “The challenge of an inculturated preaching consists in proclaiming a synthesis, not ideas or detached values. Where your synthesis is, there lies your heart.” Chesterton wrote: “What is to prevent one Humanist wanting chastity without humility, and another humility without chastity, and another truth or beauty without either? The problem of an enduring ethic and culture consists in finding an arrangement of the pieces by which they remain related, as do the stones arranged in an arch. And I know only one scheme that has thus proved its solidity, bestriding lands and ages with its gigantic arches, and carrying everywhere the high river of baptism upon an aqueduct of Rome.”
The Pope insists upon the importance of concentrating upon the most important aspects of the Gospel when we evangelize. He writes: “When we adopt a pastoral goal and a missionary style which would actually reach everyone without exception or exclusion, the message has to concentrate on the essentials, on what is most beautiful, most grand, most appealing and at the same time most necessary.”
This was always Chesterton’s modus operandi. He was not unwilling to engage in controversy about the smallest points of doctrine, but he always strove to emphasize the essence of Christianity, rather than the details.
Take these wonderful words from his sermon against pride, which I think are a good example of the kind of bold and creative evangelization the Pope is calling for:
"I should begin my sermon by telling people not to enjoy themselves. I should tell them to enjoy dances and theatres and joy-rides and champagne and oysters; to enjoy jazz and cocktails and night-clubs if they can enjoy nothing better; to enjoy bigamy and burglary and any crime in the calendar, in preference to this other alternative; but never to learn to enjoy themselves. Human beings are happy so long as they retain the receptive power and the power of reaction in surprise and gratitude to something outside. So long as they have this they have as the greatest minds have always declared, a something that is present in childhood and which can still preserve and invigorate manhood. The moment the self within is consciously felt as something superior to any of the gifts that can be brought to it, or any of the adventures that it may enjoy, there has appeared a sort of self-devouring fastidiousness and a disenchantment in advance, which fulfils all the Tartarean emblems of thirst and of despair." End of quotation.
Finally, and most importantly of all, the Pope and Chesterton resemble each other in the great emphasis that they put upon joy. The Pope’s document is entitled The Joy of the Gospel and the first words are: “The joy of the Gospel fills the heart and lives of all who encounter Jesus.” A few lines later, he writes: “I wish to encourage the Christian faithful to embark upon a new chapter of evangelization marked by this joy,”
Chesterton was ahead of him by a century or so. Joy and gratitude are the great Chestertonian themes, and the word “joy” resounds throughout all his writings.
Take this passage from a discussion of Edward Fitzgerald’s translation of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayam, a poem full of the praises of wine and of seizing the pleasure of each moment, but which is laden with religious scepticism and pessimism:
Neither nature nor wine nor anything else can be enjoyed if we have the wrong attitude towards happiness, and Omar (or Fitzgerald) did have the wrong attitude towards happiness. He and those he has influenced do not see that if we are to be truly gay, we must believe that there is some eternal gaiety in the nature of things. We cannot enjoy thoroughly even a pas-de-quatre at a subscription dance unless we believe that the stars are dancing to the same tune. No one can be really hilarious but the serious man. “Wine,” says the Scripture, “maketh glad the heart of man,” but only of the man who has a heart. The thing called high spirits is possible only to the spiritual. Ultimately a man cannot rejoice in anything except the nature of things. Ultimately a man can enjoy nothing except religion. Once in the world’s history men did believe that the stars were dancing to the tune of their temples, and they danced as men have never danced since. With this old pagan eudaemonism the sage of the Rubaiyat has quite as little to do as he has with any Christian variety. He is no more a Bacchanal than he is a saint. Dionysus and his church was grounded on a serious joie-de-vivre like that of Walt Whitman. Dionysus made wine, not a medicine, but a sacrament. Jesus Christ also made wine, not a medicine, but a sacrament. But Omar makes it, not a sacrament, but a medicine. He feasts because life is not joyful; he revels because he is not glad. “Drink,” he says, “for you know not whence you come nor why. Drink, for you know not when you go nor where. Drink, because the stars are cruel and the world as idle as a humming-top. Drink, because there is nothing worth trusting, nothing worth fighting for. Drink, because all things are lapsed in a base equality and an evil peace.” So he stands offering us the cup in his hand. And at the high altar of Christianity stands another figure, in whose hand also is the cup of the vine. “Drink” he says “for the whole world is as red as this wine, with the crimson of the love and wrath of God. Drink, for the trumpets are blowing for battle and this is the stirrup-cup. Drink, for this my blood of the new testament that is shed for you. Drink, for I know of whence you come and why. Drink, for I know of when you go and where.” End of quotation.
Or take his most famous rhapsody on the joy of the Christian, once again from Orthodoxy:
Man is more himself, man is more manlike, when joy is the fundamental thing in him, and grief the superficial. Melancholy should be an innocent interlude, a tender and fugitive frame of mind; praise should be the permanent pulsation of the soul. Pessimism is at best an emotional half-holiday; joy is the uproarious labour by which all things live. Yet, according to the apparent estate of man as seen by the pagan or the agnostic, this primary need of human nature can never be fulfilled. Joy ought to be expansive; but for the agnostic it must be contracted, it must cling to one corner of the world. Grief ought to be a concentration; but for the agnostic its desolation is spread through an unthinkable eternity. This is what I call being born upside down. The sceptic may truly be said to be topsy-turvy; for his feet are dancing upwards in idle ecstacies, while his brain is in the abyss. To the modern man the heavens are actually below the earth. The explanation is simple; he is standing on his head; which is a very weak pedestal to stand on. But when he has found his feet again he knows it. Christianity satisfies suddenly and perfectly man's ancestral instinct for being the right way up; satisfies it supremely in this; that by its creed joy becomes something gigantic and sadness something special and small. The vault above us is not deaf because the universe is an idiot; the silence is not the heartless silence of an endless and aimless world. Rather the silence around us is a small and pitiful stillness like the prompt stillness in a sick-room. We are perhaps permitted tragedy as a sort of merciful comedy: because the frantic energy of divine things would knock us down like a drunken farce. We can take our own tears more lightly than we could take the tremendous levities of the angels. So we sit perhaps in a starry chamber of silence, while the laughter of the heavens is too loud for us to hear. End of quotation.
Do I think a Chestertonian apologetics is possible in the light of The Joy of the Gospel? Absolutely. A thousand times yes. If the recently opened cause for Chesterton’s sainthood succeeds, the Church might do worse than to declare him the patron saint of what we might call the New Apologetics, to go along with the New Evangelization. I think Chesterton showed, many decades ago, that a true and confident orthodoxy is not at all imperilled by a respectful and open-minded dialogue with different currents of thought, or with the use of new and bold forms of expression, or with a concentration upon the essentials rather than the doctrinal details of the Gospel.
I would only have this caution. We can emulate Chesterton, not by copying him or by quoting him to the point of tedium, but by seeking our own creative ways in which to proclaim and to defend the Gospel, the beauty ever ancient and ever new. The Catholic freesheet Alive!, which I think is a good newspaper in many ways, has a regular feature which goes by the name Dumbag Writes. In this feature, a master devil writes to an apprentice devil, advising him in his struggle to win human souls from God. In other words, the column is a blatant imitation of C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, which were a wonderfully fresh and original vehicle of apologetics at the time. Simply rehashing such ideas, in my view, can only give our readers and listeners that Christianity is no longer a living, vibrant force.
I also suspect that there is no need for such derivativeness. God called each of us by name, after all. I suspect that every one of us, as evangelists and apologists, have our own unique story to tell, our own unique insights to offer, our own unique glimpse into the deep things of God, and that with prayer and discernment and fidelity to the teaching of the Church we can bring it forth. As Pope Francis says: “I encourage everyone to apply the guidelines found in this document generously and courageously, without inhibitions or fear.” And if the trumpet gives such a resounding blast, who will fail to gird himself for battle?