I want you to have in mind an enormously fat man wearing a black cloak and a rather large, wide-brimmed hat, with pince-nez secured to his nose, and prevented from destruction by a large, black, long ribbon fastened around his neck, who speaks—as fat men do—with a certain luxurious voice rather like Charles Laughton, only with a slightly grieved tone in everything he says. What I would call a humorously grieved tone. And this is G. K. Chesterton: a person whom—I discover—has had an enormous influence on my life. Because when I was a late adolescent—and when I was, for a while, a priest in the episcopal church—I read this man’s works very carefully and I have, by osmosis, imbibed an enormous amount of wisdom from him. The funny thing is: not so much in terms of specific ideas as in basic attitude to life. Because this is a man who, above all virtues, had—I think—what is one of the very greatest virtues, which we don’t usually find catalogued in lists of virtues: he had a sense of wonder.
He knew a truth that was once enunciated by a kind of guru-type who was a friend of mine many years ago, who said that
And what you will wish for in that final, ultimate push-button world will be a button labeled Surprise! You won’t know what’s going to come when you dial that one. And Chesterton’s fundamental attitude as a poet, as a theologian, was that even God needs a surprise and, of course, for that very reason endowed angels and men with the mystery of free will: so that they would do things that would be surprising and that could not be foretold.
This is why Calvinists are so dreary: that they believe that everything is predestined. And that’s why, of course, the Episcopal church is always more interesting than the Presbyterian church, in that they’re not Calvinists. There’s something always rather depressing about Calvinists, although there are many interesting things about them that I won’t go into.
But Chesterton’s idea was that the universe is so arranged that it is, basically, the Lord’s own way of surprising himself. Because that’s what you would do if you were God, if you really think it through. A lot of people never think this through. They think about… I remember a story about a conversation at a dinner party where all—it was in England—and all the people were discussing what they thought was going to happen after death. Whether they would simply be extinguished, or whether they’d be reincarnated, or whatever kind of thing. And present at the dinner there was a very respectable country squire who was on the vestry of the local church. Very pious. And finally the hostess said to him,
So, you see, people just don’t think it through. It’s very fascinating to ask people, deeply, about their theological ideas: what they really do think God is, and what heaven would be like. And not only what it would be like as based on the symbolism of the Bible, but what sort of a heaven they would really want to go to. I mean, do you want to be stuck with the rest of your family forever? The saying:
Supposing, for example, you had the privilege—the power—to dream any dream you wanted every night and have it real vivid. And, of course, you would be able to dream any amount of clock-time in one night that you desired. You would be able to, say, have a hundred years of experience in one night. And when you think that through, what dreams would you dream? It’s almost like the question: if you were going to have half an hour’s interview with God, and you had the privilege of asking one question, what question would you ask? And you’ve got a little while to think that one over, see, before you go in for the interview. So, then, the same thing is: what would you dream?
You would dream, of course—at first, I suppose—all possible fulfillments of wishes. Whatever your wishes were, whatever your desires were, you would fulfill them all. And when you’ve done that for about a month of nights—of a hundred years long, each night of dreams—you would say,
Now, in this—when you fully realize that to be surprised at everything is high wisdom you get a new point of view towards the world which gives you almost what could be called a child’s vision of life. When Jesus said that unless you be converted and become as a child you cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven. This is the thing that Chesterton understood in a very profound way because, to a child, the world is entirely new and, therefore, all of it is extraordinary. And I hope most of you can remember how you saw things when you were about two years old: as the whole world being quite weird. And when you get used to things… you see a tree and you say,
So there is a most extraordinary passage which occurs in one of the rarer books of Chesterton, called The Coloured Lands, where he makes this extraordinary remark:
It is one thing to describe an interview with a gorgon or a griffin, a creature who does not exist. It is another thing to discover that the rhinoceros does exist, and then take pleasure in the fact that he looks as if he doesn’t.
And this is the key to this man’s wisdom: that he could see all kinds of everyday things and events as if they were completely improbable and magical, and that he could describe the world as an extremely improbable object. This great globe of rock floating in space around a vast fire, covered with green hair that ordinary people call grass, and containing all the extraordinarily odd objects on it. And when he thought about this he realized two things that are not ordinarily realized by religious people. And the two things are this.
He realized that the world created by God is a form of nonsense and that one of the most important features of the divine mind is humor. In one of his essays he says,
When I was a boy I was brought up in the church of England. I went to school at The King’s School, Canterbury. And, of course, we attended innumerable services in that great cathedral. And one of the cardinal sins which one could commit was to laugh in church. And that is, of course, because—the same reason judges don’t like laughter in court: that laughter is threatening to tyrants. And if you can see God in the image of a tyrant, a monarch, who rules by violence—whatever kind of violence it may be; military violence, moral violence, any kind of violence—all tyrants are afraid. And they sit in courtrooms with their backs to the wall, surrounded by either side by their guards. And everybody who comes in, of course, has to fall flat on their faces because in that position it’s more difficult to attack. And so, when a marine sergeant on parade salutes the flag he has a very serious expression in his eyes. That’s not a time for laughter.
And therefore, we have associated the word ‘solemn’—as when we celebrate, in the catholic church, solemn high mass—solemn… solemn means ‘serious.’ And one of the great things—one of the fundamental insights that is underlying all Chesterton’s work—is that the attitude of heaven is not serious. There’s a famous passage in his book Orthodoxy where he says:
Things like stones are subject to gravity. They are heavy, they are grave, they are serious. But in all things spiritual there is lightness and, therefore, a kind of frivolity. The angels fly because they take themselves lightly. And if that must be true of the angels, how much more true of the Lord of the angels?
I have said in my funny way that there are four fundamental philosophical questions that human beings have argued about as far back as we can remember. The first question is:
In the Book of Job—which is the most profound book in the Bible so far as I’m concerned—there is raised the problem of the sufferings experienced by those who are just and righteous. And Chesterton has written a great deal on the Book of Job, and without quoting him directly I’m going to summarize what I’ve learned from him about this book because this is really very important about this whole theme.
The prelude to the Book of Job is in heaven and a conversation ensues between God and one of the angels called Satan, otherwise known as Samael. The word ‘-el’ on the end of a name of an angel—like Gabriel, Rafael, Uriel, and so on—means ‘divine being,’ ‘angel,’ ‘attendant of the court of heaven.’ And the role of Satan in the Old Testament is different from the role of Satan in Christianity. The role of Satan in the Old Testament is: he’s the district attorney of heaven; he’s the prosecutor. And, as you will see in a court today, it is arranged that the prosecution is always on the left of the judge and the defense is on the right. So at the left hand of God—a situation which is not mentioned in the Creed—there is, of course, the prosecutor. At the right hand of God—for he sitteth at the right hand of the Father—is our only mediator and advocate, Jesus Christ, because he’s the council for the defense. And he happens to be the boss’ son; puts him in a rather strong position. Because, in the course of time, when you read reports of cases in court and you get very familiar with court procedures, you always start having sympathy with the accused. And, therefore, antipathy towards the prosecution because the prosecution’s always putting people down, who are saying nasty things about people. And the defense is always trying to say nice things about people. So, therefore, there’s popular enthusiasm for the defense and popular displeasure for the prosecution. And it was for this reason that the particular angel called Samael, or Satan, was in due course of time turned into the devil; the enemy of all things good. Whereas, actually, the devil in the Book of Job is a loyal servant of the court of heaven. It’s just his job to do the prosecution. So he proposes that God try Job. He said,
This is the reasoning of the Book of Deuteronomy: that if you obey the law of God you will prosper. And the Hebrews were eternally puzzled as to why this didn’t work out. So the Book of Job highlights this question. And all the advisors of Job—the three men who have this discussion with him while he’s covered with sores, and sitting around in some wretched pad with all his property lost and his family in trouble, and so on. And he cannot see any sense in their arguments. And finally, God appears at the end; in the 28—what is it?—28th chapter. And he comes in a whirlwind. And he refutes the advice of all these three friends.
So a series of questions are delivered to Job, none of which have any answer. And the effect of these questions on Job is to solve his problem. And ordinary interpreters of the Book of Job always say that this isn’t really the answer. They say the Book of Job raises the question and doesn’t answer the question—it does answer the question! It answers the question by asking the questions, all of which seem to reflect that, in some curious way, the universe doesn’t make sense. Why do you send rain on the desert where no man is?
Now, what about that? See, our trouble is that, where we really get into difficulty in life is that we expect everything to make sense. And then we get disappointed. We expect, for example, that time is going to solve our problems, that there’s going to come a day in the future when we will be finally satisfied. And so things make sense—we say of something
And so, when you talk sense your words refer to something else. In other words, if I talk about tables and chairs, these sounds that I’m making—‘tables,’ ‘chairs’—refer to something in the physical world. The sound ‘table’ is not the table, but it refers to this [Alan knocks on a nearby table]. But then, when we ask
Now, in ordinary way of talking in the West we would say that’s terrible! Something that has no meaning is awful! A meaningless life, you see? We say that about the most dreadful kind of life. But Chesterton is trying to say that the meaningless universe, the nonsense universe, is just great just because it doesn’t mean anything. It is because God himself is dancing. He’s playing. He has a poem of God as a child and he’s playing with a windmill, and the fans of the windmill are the four great winds of heaven. And the balls with which he’s playing are the sun and moon. And the whole idea, therefore, then, is that existence itself is a magical play, and it’s therefore nonsense in the sense—the special sense of nonsense—that it is something going on which does not refer to anything except itself. When we say ‘nonsense’ we are saying it for the delight of the words and not for anything that they mean.
’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Or better, from Edward Lear, who said of himself—he really drew the portrait of Chesterton:
His body is perfectly spherical,
There was an old man of Spithead,
Plumpskin, buffskin, pelican, gee!
You see? Now, he says that—in this kind of marvelous playing with the voice, and with words—you have something nearer to the nature of reality than you do with statements that make formal sense. Even though this man, Chesterton, was a great believer in reason. And, you know, in the Father Brown stories there is an occasion when Father Brown espies the criminal masquerading as a priest because the man says,
Now, this is an enormously important thing to understand. What is the difference, shall we say, between inspired nonsense and mere bosh? And this is what he’s trying to point out. There is a kind of nonsense which we could call ‘magical nonsense,’ and there’s a kind of nonsense, on the other hand, which we should call just ‘trivial rubbish.’ So it is the nonsense—divine nonsense has this extraordinary humor with it, which he tries to evoke in saying that it is a great thing to look at a rhinoceros or a hippopotamus, creatures who do exist and look as if they don’t. A poem in which he brings this out is called The Fish.
Dark the sea was: but I saw him,
So he sees in a goldfish—you know, those kind of Disney goldfishes which have all sorts of tails and fins and complications, with their big goggle eyes&mdsah;what on Earth are they doing? You ever thought about that, you know? What is this, going on? I mean, does it have a purpose? Goldfish, you know, they eat and they absorb things in, and make more goldfish, and they go on making goldfish, and more goldfish, and we don’t even eat them! Maybe something does that we, finally, eat. But fundamentally, what’s the point of a goldfish?
A goldfish is a solemn thing which keeps on going ’round, (you know?)
Isn’t going anywhere at all! It’s just going as children like to go
The point of it is itself! It has no point beyond itself. It’s there. It’s arrived. It’s in a complete present, it is here and now. And that’s what it’s all about. We say to
You see, Sunday is a very interesting institution. It’s a kind of modification of the Jewish idea that, after the six days of creation when God was working, he took a day off. Holy day. That was, as it were, the culmination of the six days of work. In Christianity, of course, the Sunday is the first day of the week and not the seventh day, the Sabbath. But the same idea is involved: that once in every six pulses there is a seventh pulse which is a little space of time to take off. Now, six days of your life&mdsah;say you’re working, and you’re being responsible, and you’re earning a living, and you’re being serious. If you do that all the time you’re going to go quite mad. You’re going to be like a bridge—a steel bridge—which is so rigid that it has no swing in it and, therefore, it will fall apart in a storm. For in order to be sane, every human being must allow himself a little time in life to be insane, to let go, to stop trying to control everything, to stop trying to be God and just go
So when you go, the whole idea of church is that this is the place where we can get back to the fundamental sanity of nonsense, and sing Alleluia with the angels around the center of the universe. Which is, actually, manifesting these stars, these galaxies. For what? It’s a firework display. It’s a celebration. You say,
I used to be a chaplain in a university and I used to say,
He taught them laws and watchwords,
Because that’s the sense of the thing, fundamentally. That everything that’s going on is a sort of jazz. A