Let’s begin by reviewing two main points. First, Chesterton wrote an enormous amount of stuff covering almost any topic that you could name. Second, Chesterton’s goal was to help the reader see what was unseen, not because it was hidden, but rather because it was obvious. That leads us to the next question: what, exactly, did Chesterton want us to see?
We note in passing that Chesterton’s writing is stupendously entertaining. Sometimes it’s funny, other times flashy, other times dramatic, or romantic, or intriguing–he could do it all. But while he was always entertaining, he was never merely entertaining. Everything that he wrote had a purpose. Even the more farcical stories and poems always contained a bit of meaning carefully hidden in a corner somewhere. In the lingo that we teach kids in language arts classes, every Chesterton work has a theme. To be perfectly precise, most of his works have a plethora of themes, but all have at least one. Chesterton was a man of strong beliefs who wrote to convince other people.
Chesterton’s strongest belief was Christianity. He was a self-described orthodox Christian and most people associate him with the Catholic Church, though he was actually a member of the Church of England for most of his life before converting to Catholicism in 1922. One cannot talk sensibly about Chesterton without talking about his religion.
There are now and always have been a lot of silly explanations offered for religious beliefs by the enemies of Christianity, as for instance that Christians are mentally ill, or seek an imaginary God as a substitute father figure, or are victims of childhood indoctrination, or so forth. Chesteron serves as a one-man rebuttal to all of these. Anyone reading his work can see that he was clearly in robust mental health and he had a fine father figure in the form of his father. Most significantly he was not raised to be a strong Christian. In his teenage years he experimented with the occult and wrestled with violence, depression, and suicidal thoughts. Only in adulthood did he come to understand and accept the tenets of Christianity. His most famous book, Orthodoxy, charts this remarkable transformation.
Because of how he arrived at it, Chesterton had an extrordinarily broad and deep understanding of what Christianity meant. His massive intellect allowed him to swat aside the simpler objections with ease. For instance, responding to Marxist claims that religion is the opiate of the masses, Chesterton compared the Irish to English. The Irish were obviously poorer and more religious, yet obviously not dull or drugged. If either nation met that description it would be the English. Chesterton offered up countless rebuttals of this kind to mealy-mouthed skeptical arguments. His faith was a rational faith. He studied history, science, literature, arts, scripture, psychology, and every other relevant field in great depth, and perceived that no matter where he looked, the facts were pointing him towards Christianity. As he explained it:
The first answer is simply to say that I am a rationalist. I like to have some intellectual justification for my intuitions. If I am treating man as a fallen being it is an intellectual convenience to me to believe that he fell; and I find, for some odd psychological reason, that I can deal better with a man’s exercise of freewill if I believe that he has got it. But I am in this matter yet more definitely a rationalist. I do not propose to turn this book into one of ordinary Christian apologetics; I should be glad to meet at any other time the enemies of Christianity in that more obvious arena. Here I am only giving an account of my own growth in spiritual certainty. But I may pause to remark that the more I saw of the merely abstract arguments against the Christian cosmology the less I thought of them. I mean that having found the moral atmosphere of the Incarnation to be common sense, I then looked at the established intellectual arguments against the Incarnation and found them to be common nonsense.
That being true, Chesterton’s faith was based on more than a large collection of factoids, even if it was a very large collection. He saw orthodox Christianity as a unified system that accounted for all aspects of human experience: moral, ethical, aesthetic, and historical. To him the system’s unity proved its truth, along with the fact that it offered him abundant life and possibilities for growth. As he explained in his best known and most quoted paragraph:
I have another far more solid and central ground for submitting to it as a faith, instead of merely picking up hints from it as a scheme. And that is this: that the Christian Church in its practical relation to my soul is a living teacher, not a dead one. It not only certainly taught me yesterday, but will almost certainly teach me tomorrow. Once I saw suddenly the meaning of the shape of the cross; some day I may see suddenly the meaning of the shape of the mitre. One free morning I saw why windows were pointed; some fine morning I may see why priests were shaven. Plato has told you a truth; but Plato is dead. Shakespeare has startled you with an image; but Shakespeare will not startle you with any more. But imagine what it would be to live with such men still living, to know that Plato might break out with an original lecture to-morrow, or that at any moment Shakespeare might shatter everything with a single song. The man who lives in contact with what he believes to be a living Church is a man always expecting to meet Plato and Shakespeare to-morrow at breakfast. He is always expecting to see some truth that he has never seen before. There is one only other parallel to this position; and that is the parallel of the life in which we all began. When your father told you, walking about the garden, that bees stung or that roses smelt sweet, you did not talk of taking the best out of his philosophy. When the bees stung you, you did not call it an entertaining coincidence. When the rose smelt sweet you did not say “My father is a rude, barbaric symbol, enshrining (perhaps unconsciously) the deep delicate truths that flowers smell.” No: you believed your father, because you had found him to be a living fountain of facts, a thing that really knew more than you; a thing that would tell you truth to-morrow, as well as to-day. And if this was true of your father, it was even truer of your mother; at least it was true of mine, to whom this book is dedicated.
That explains Chesterton’s Christianity with crystal clarity. Christianity offered him exactly what scripture says it offers: a new life, a second birth, a chance to experience anew the joys and childhood without giving up on the joys of adulthood. These things convinced Chesterton to become a committed, lifelong Christian. As we’ll see, Chesterton wrote on a great many other topics and was equally passionate about those others, but nothing that he wrote can be separated from his religion. It was the trunk from which all the other branches grew.