By Dr Muhammad Maroof Shah
16 Nov 2017
He disarms popular critiques of religion from all kinds of modern Western critics.
Chesterton is arguably amongst the most brilliant spokespersons and stylists of Tradition-centric worldview. If we want to see how every view that scoffs at God and religion is an abuse of intelligence, or misreading of their object, or failure hardly worth our consideration, read G.K Chesterton. Chesterton (along with C.S Lewis and Peter Kreeft whom he influenced) disarms popular critiques of religion from all kinds of modern Western critics. While recognizing the antidolatrous function of certain insightful critiques in modern readings of religion, one may also read Shaykh Abdul Wahid Yahya, Shaykh Isa and Huston Smith to puncture the balloon of secularist critique and dismissal of world religions on scientific or philosophical grounds.
Chesterton’s Orthodoxy is arguably the most forceful, lucid and articulate expression of a host of beliefs mostly shared by major world religions and disputed in the modern secular West. Read along with Shaykh Isa’s “Orthodoxy and Intellectuality” one appreciates how the question of right doctrines in religion and theology is a question of serious thinking or intellectuality (Chesterton put it as “theology is only thought applied to religion”). Chesterton “never used a useless word and avoided what was trite" and summoned the best witnesses from the dead and the living to defend the case of an aspect of Tradition (not his case). You are with the millennial intuitions of prophets and discoveries of sages (as represented by Chesterton) or against them. Our task is to understand him and not to agree or disagree with his key statements that embody the Tradition.
Here is Chesterton on the need to believe in God or better Absolute, the Alpha and Omega of man’s destiny: “When men choose not to believe in God, they do not thereafter believe in nothing, they then become capable of believing in anything.” Atheists in this view should be taken to task – we can’t agree more – if they could be accused of abusing intelligence or failure to keep first things first or properly caring for their “ultimate concern.” Those who have vainly talked about presuppositionless philosophy and unreasonableness of belief in the absence of sufficient evidence Chestrton thus chastises: “Reason is itself a matter of faith. It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all.” “The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.” For certain relativists miscalled liberals there is nothing solid. Why Tradition can’t be ignored or circumvented? Chesterton explains: “Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to that arrogant oligarchy who merely happen to be walking around.”
What Chesterton most brilliantly batted for include such irritating and “superstitious” things for antitraditional moderns as learning to wonder and living with a sense of mystery, miracles, myths, fables, fairy tales, magic, metaphysical and spiritual significance of poetry and play. “We should always endeavor to wonder at the permanent thing, not at the mere exception. We should be startled by the sun, and not by the eclipse. We should wonder less at the earthquake, and wonder more at the earth.” “Fable is more historical than fact, because fact tells us about one man and fable tells us about a million men.” “The most incredible thing about miracles is that they happen.” “Nothing is poetical if plain daylight is not poetical; and no monster should amaze us if the normal man does not amaze.” “If I can put one touch of rosy sunset into the life of any man or woman, I shall feel that I have worked with God.”“There are no uninteresting things, only uninterested people.” Reading Chesterton one sees how religion reveals usually concealed garden of love, laughter, mystery, play and joy – a blooming life of mind and spirit.
The most fundamental attitude of religion Chasterton identifies as gratitude to the author of life and ground of mystery recalls the Quranic approach of characterizing faith and disbelief in terms of reverence/gratitude and irreverence/ingratitude towards the gift and mystery of life and its bounties. “When it comes to life the critical thing is whether you take things for granted or take them with gratitude.” And “I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought; and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.” “The aim of life is appreciation; there is no sense in not appreciating things.” We know that the first demand of God in the first chapter of the Quran is for hamd or praise (that follows appreciation).
Chesterton wrote: “The true object of all human life is play. Earth is a task garden; heaven is a playground.” He would have laughed away his friend GBS’s remark that “Cricket is a game played by 22 fools and watched by 22,000 fools” by pointing out how play is worship, a ritual, a play of the Spirit. Spiritual significance of play may be recalled by considering a reading by Dreyfus and Kelley of David Foster Wallace’s view of sports in the backdrop of quest for transcendence in the secular age. Few of us know that play invokes and evokes the Sacred. Fewer know why we play and why children are so close to God by virtue of their passion for play. “Happy is he who still loves something he loved in the nursery: He has not been broken in two by time; he is not two men, but one, and he has saved not only his soul but his life.”
As fresh air and clean water are to healthy body, right views/beliefs bequeathed by Tradition are to healthy mind and soul. Although ultimately “the right view is no view,” this is learnt by taking seriously right views/aqa’id in the first place.