In his book, The Everlasting Man, G.K. Chesterton gives an alternative view of man and history informed by the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. By doing this he shows the utter necessity of the Incarnation within a history seen through the lenses of man as a worshiping creature and how the Incarnation satisfies our deepest longings by combining both reason and religion through revelation. He does this by breaking up the book into two parts. The first part covers the history of man before the Incarnation and the second part describes the significance of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ and his effect on life after his resurrection through His church. G.K. Chesterton helps us to identify the false narratives still purported today that distort our understanding of what the nature of man and history is, while also showing how the Incarnation is the right key to opening the true lock of human history we are actually a part of.
As a Catholic writer, he places great emphasis on the Incarnation and the Roman Catholic Church as the one true body of Christ and the continuation of Jesus’ Incarnation on earth. As Protestants, we don’t believe the Roman Catholic Church is the one true body of Christ as an institution, but we do believe in the Catholic Church as the universal body of believers who hold to the orthodox teachings found in the ecumenical councils of the early church. Yet, we can learn a lot from writers like Chesterton because he thought through and defended Christian orthodoxy with precision, imagination, and wit while evangelicals have largely ignored their heritage and have forgotten what it historically means to be a Christian based on its creedal definitions in the early church councils.
In part one of the book, Chesterton humorously addresses the prevailing view of the origins of man that were taught in his day from a naturalistic worldview. Naturalism believes that there is no transcendent reality and that time, matter, and chance are all that exist. From this viewpoint, the origin of life comes from chance and time acting on matter. As a result, all life came from one seed and developed into the various branches of the animal kingdom through natural selection which is by nature, “random”. This means that every living creature is not different in kind but is different only in degree, including man. Man is simply a higher functioning animal. Chesterton addresses this view by taking the popular image of the “cave-man” taught in most schools as a prehistoric brute and a beast with a bloody club and looks at what evidence we really have of this man in the cave. He says, “people have been interested in everything about the cave-man except what he did in the cave” (28). The only evidence we have of what this man did in the cave was from the drawings on the cave walls. There’s no club just a wall of drawings that could have amused this man in the cave or brought delight and enjoyment.
Looking at what little evidence we have from the cave, we can only surmise that man is an artist; “a creator as well as a creature” (35). This distinguishes him in kind and not simply in degree. Chesterton proves this by creating a situation in which a boy enters a cave and sees these cave drawings of reindeer and wonders if he went further down in the cave he would find a drawing of a man by a reindeer. This would obviously be absurd because there is no evidence that any animal has ever attempted or desired to draw anything of their own volition. It’s not as if a bird drew a bad picture of a reindeer and the reindeer improved upon the picture by drawing a picture of a man and man improved upon that drawing by drawing the most accurate portrait of a reindeer. The evidence shows that man is different in kind and not degree by what he has the desire and ability to do. Man has a mind like a mirror because he has a mind of reflection (35). It is able to take in what is set in front of it and is able to reflect back a shadow of what is there. “man is the image of God” and “art is his signature” (34-35).
For the remainder of part one, Chesterton both corrects our view of history informed by materialism and shows history from a viewpoint commonly ignored today. We typically see secularism winning out over all other religions and then impose such a view from our modern outlook on all of history. When we study ancient people and their civilizations, we interpret their ways of life from a materialistic point of view thinking that ancient peoples were only concerned with what sustained life for survival in war and daily living with all their cultic practices merely as products of an unenlightened approach to life instead of an integral part of what it means to be human. But Chesterton shows that what they were actually preoccupied with in their cultic practices, daily activities, and wars, were alternate views of the world and a search for the meaning of life. To say that all of history can be boiled down to economics “is like saying that because a man can only walk about on two legs, therefore he never walks about except to buy shoes and stockings” (137). Mankind has always been preoccupied with higher concerns, namely, religious and psychological concerns.
Today, when we compare religions, we typically set them side-by-side as if they all had the same thread holding them together like good morals or human ways of getting to God but simply through different means. Yet, when we look at Buddhism there are good morals but not theology. There is simply a philosophy of how the world works and ways of relieving suffering. Confucianism is similar as well. It is more akin to a philosophy than a religion. So, our comparisons of world religions are far too reductionistic because each religion and its founder are distinct and very different from one another in their aims and offices. So, Chesterton in seeking to show another side to history proposes new categories to place each approach to life and religion before and even after the Incarnation in Islam. These categories are God, the gods, the demons, and the philosophers. Each of these categories portrays the religious and psychological concerns of man that caused him to live the way he lived with material wealth as simply an instrument of fulfilling those concerns.
A naturalistic view of religion would hold that man began with tribal deities from mythology as a means of survival and then religion progressed into monotheism as man’s mental capacities became more developed and his consciousness became divinized in his own mind. But, according to Chesterton, the reverse is the case. Man was a monotheist and regressed into a polytheist after the Fall. Chesterton gives an example of a missionary who was preaching to a tribe of Australian aborigines who were polytheists. They told the missionary about all their myths and the missionary told them about the one good God who judges everyone by spiritual standards and “there was a sudden buzz of excitement among these stolid barbarians, as at somebody who was letting out a secret, and they cried to each other ‘Atahocan! He is speaking of Atahocan!’” (88). Chesterton gives more examples like these from the various mythologies in antiquity and surmises that “they all testify to the unmistakable psychology of a thing taken for granted, as distinct from a thing talked about” (88). And he states, “that is exactly the attitude of paganism towards God. He is something assumed and forgotten and remembered by accident” (89). This disproves the notion that the one God is the product of developed mythologies and shows that this God actually preceded them because He is treated as an old truism or tradition kept secret (89).
Once man regressed into polytheism we see that mythology was his religion. He “daydreamed” about the gods as he personified the forces of nature because they held immediate concern. To them, God was too broad of a subject to grapple with. This is similar to how we tend to ignore the sky because it’s so grand and sweeping. We simply settle for looking at the clouds that are more imminent in our line of vision. The Pagans settled for what was right in front of them and sought to fill the looming absence of God through the gods they personified in nature. According to Chesterton, “mythology, then, sought God through the imagination: or sought truth by means of beauty” (111). This echoes Romans 1:25 that says, “They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator–who is forever praised. Amen.” (NIV) But, mythology told through the perspective of one’s imagination captured by beauty, had its own laws that were not grounded in reality but espoused in ignorance. The pagan person daydreamed by creating stories and then created idols to worship that fit those stories out of rock or mud and exclaimed “my dreams have come true” (111).
Though mythology triumphed over monotheism for a time, Chesterton shows that what is common to both approaches is that “man found it natural to worship”. Even though mythology caused people, who found it natural to worship, to worship unnatural things they were freer when they worshiped. “The posture of the idol might be stiff and strange; but the gesture of the worshipper was generous and beautiful” (112). So anything that took away that gesture of worship “would stunt and even maim him forever”. “If he cannot pray he is gagged; if he cannot kneel he is in irons” (112). Secularism, for Chesterton, is more detrimental to who we are as human beings than Paganism because it seeks to take away the core of what makes us human.
As Paganism progressed, there came to be a darker side to its practices which Chesterton identifies as the demons. “If we have called the first sort of mythology the day-dream, we might very well call the second sort of mythology the nightmare” (116). Both the gods and demons in mythology contained superstition. Superstition rests on agnosticism that gives rise to two principles: “first that we do not really know the laws of the universe; and second that they may be very different to all we call reason” (117). Both types of mythology understood that there is likely a larger reality that acts on this world that is beyond our understanding and beyond our reasoning. Chesterton states that mythology in its day-dreaming was impractical because they didn’t know if they did summon the spirits when they performed their rituals. But, for the day-dreamers, it didn’t really matter because it was more about the beauty and emotions of worship more than the practical side of summoning spirits to perform an action. What distinguishes the superstition of demons and the superstition of the gods is that it was a realistic superstition in that it looked for results. “The question of whether spirits do answer or do appear becomes much more serious” (117).
Today, we have fun with not stepping on a crack or not walking under a ladder which is very irrational and impractical yet in our imaginations what if a larger reality were really summoned by these actions and our mother’s back was really broken by stepping on a crack? The worship of demons in mythology took this question much more seriously than we do. “The gods of mythology had a great deal of nonsense about them. But the man consulting a demon felt as many a man has felt in consulting a detective, especially a private detective; that it was dirty work but the work would really be done” (118). Such dirty work can be seen in human sacrifice and cannibalism that summoned the evil spirits themselves and enthroned them in the ancient civilizations hoping to receive some sort of power or aid. Their idols were ugly on purpose to attract the power of evil to get things done, whereas the idols of Greece were made to be beautiful to show the goodness of nature. We see an example of demon worship in the worship of Molech and the sacrifice of children in the Old Testament that according to Chesterton enraged both the monotheistic God of the Jews and the Romans who were both seeking to save the world.
The philosophers hold the last category of the various approaches to life that sought to satisfy the soul of man. They never sought to clash with the myths of antiquity but quietly remained to the side and sought the nature of reality. Unlike the pagans who worshiped the gods of mythology to find truth through imagination, the philosophers used their imaginations to find the truth. This approach to life found its way into many of the eastern religions such as Buddhism and Confucianism which really weren’t religions but philosophies of life. Chesterton notes towards the end of the chapter that each philosophy sought to reduce life down to a diagram such as a snake eating its own tale to communicate reincarnation and the Buddhist view that time is a circle instead of a linear progression. The philosophers might have drawn a black circle to show themselves a pessimist, a white circle to show that life is optimistic, or a black and white circle to show that life is dualistic (136). But the pagan day-dreamers with their idols and drawings protested these diagrams because what they sought was not a “pattern but a picture” or image (136). Chesterton ends part one by saying that both the pagan and the philosopher together with the original artist in the cave found “the suggestion of a new purpose in what looked like a wildly crooked pattern; he seemed only to be distorting his diagram, when he began for the first time in all the ages to trace the lines of a form—and of a Face” (136).
This Face that the philosophers wanted in a diagram, the mythologies wanted in a picture, and the cave-man drew on the walls was found in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. He is the one good God, the old truism, and the old tradition kept secret, forgotten about, yet assumed. The Incarnation of Christ satisfied the pagans search for truth through imagination, by giving them a captivating story of omnipotence become impotent in a baby and the strong becoming weak and a series of many paradoxes that turned the world upside-down and gave the pagans someone worthy of their worship instead of their lifeless idols. While at the same time the Incarnation gave the philosophers a true story that was true to life instead of speculation into the nature of things summarized by a diagram of life. It was a true story through revelation that was to be defended at all costs. The demons fled after the cross and have been hiding ever since wherever Christendom is not found. In Christianity, the streams of irrational worship and rational speculation converge and deepen in the Incarnation because you get the rational worship of the God-man through revelation protected by orthodoxy.
The death of Christ “was the end of a very great thing called human history; the history that was merely human. The mythologies and the philosophies were buried there, the gods and the heroes and the sages. In the great Roman phrase, they had lived. But as they could only live, so they could only die; and they were dead” (213). And when the disciples saw the empty tomb “what they were looking at was the first day of a new creation, with a new heaven and a new earth; and in a semblance of the gardener God walked again in the garden, in the cool not of the evening but the dawn” (213).
G.K. Chesterton, in his book Everlasting Man, gives us a sweeping view of man and history from the perspective of the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Too often we are subtly taught a history and view of man that makes Christianity seem implausible or unimportant. Yet, if we look at the religious and psychological preoccupations of man throughout history, the Incarnation satisfies these preoccupations. Chesterton, using Matthew 16:18, recounts Christ telling Peter that he would build His church on Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ and give him the keys to the kingdom. Chesterton remarks that the illustration of a key is an apt illustration for the Christian’s orthodox confession of faith in Christ. A key is a thing that is entirely dependent on keeping its shape and is an enemy of shapelessness much like the staunch confession of the early creeds. A key has a pattern that it constantly seeks to maintain. The Incarnation and confession of Jesus as Lord and Savior are that key that “could unlock the prison of the whole world; and let in the white daylight of liberty” (214). Christian orthodoxy is the key to the doors of the Kingdom; to all of history. If this key doesn’t fit the lock of the history of mankind then it’s not because we have the wrong key it’s because we’re trying to open the wrong lock.