The Everlasting Man, G. K. Chesterton, 1925, Ignatius Press, ISBN 0-89870-444-8
Chesterton is always good, but this is his masterpiece of Christian apologetics. It's important to read it in the context of its time, however. The Everlasting Man was written in the early 1920's; a time when the Great War was a fresh horror still dominating the thoughts of all Europeans. WWI was an uncommonly gristly war - after the invention of the machine gun but before effective tanks or battlefield medicine - where more than 100,000 were killed in a single day. Many in England and Europe felt that the war itself invalidated the Church and, to some extent, God. They felt abandoned by a God that would let such things happen. To make matters worse the industrial revolution was in one of its more stark phases, before the advent of environmental or workplace safety laws.
In writing this book, Chesterton was attempting to address this abandonment and show not only that the Church was as relevant and vital as ever, but also that man and man's relationship to God was unique and enduring.
In the introduction, he uses "a story that I never wrote" to illustrate the problems of writing about the Church in the twentieth century.
It concerned some boy whose farm or cottage stood on such a slope, and who went on his travels to find something, such as the effigy and grave of some giant; and when he was far enough from home he looked back and saw that his own farm and kitchen-garden, shining flat on the hill-side like the colours and quarterings of a shield, were but parts of some gigantic figure, on which he had always lived, but which was too large and too close to be seen.
The Everlasting Man can be seen as an early work of postmodernism. Chesterton deconstructs religion in a unique way. Rather than comparing religions, Chesterton divides his investigation as follows:
I should be disposed to divide the natural religion of man under such headings as these: God; the Gods; the Demons; the Philosophers.
Chesterton starts his task by going back to the roots of humanity. He takes on the idea, prevalent at that time (and, to some degree, today), that man is just another animal. We now know that animals use tools and language, blurring the line even more than in Chesterton's time, but these facts don't blur his argument. He argues that man is special because he creates emotional and metaphoric art. At some point on the path to this art, he argues, man acquired intelligence and a soul. He says:
We come back once more to the simple truth; that at sometime to early for these critics to trace, a transition had occurred to which bones and stones cannot in their nature bear witness; and man became a living soul.
Touching this matter of the origin of religion, the truth is that those who are thus trying to explain it are trying to explain it away.
Next, he goes on to argue that worship came naturally to man and that God came first, not the Gods.
The crux and crisis is that man found it natural to worship; even to worship unnatural things. The posture of the idol may be stiff and strange; but the posture of the worshipper was generous and beautiful. He not only felt freer when he bent; he actually felt taller when he bowed.
There is good reason to suspect that many people did begin with the simple and overwhelming idea of one God who governs all; and afterwards fell away into such things as demon-worship almost as a sort of secret dissipation.
...polytheism seems often the combination of several monotheisms. A God will gain only a minor seat on Mount Olympus, when he had owned earth and heaven and all the stars while he lived in his own little valley.
He moves on to the mythologies and deconstructs them into tall tales, rather than tales meant to be believed:
We know the meaning of all the myths. We know the last secret revealed to the perfect initiate. And it is not the voice of a priest or prophet saying, "These things are." It is the voice of a dreamer and idealist saying, "Why cannot these things be?"
Chesterton tackles demon worship
next and tries to show how it devolved from the worship of a supreme being:
In the accounts given us of many rude or savage races, we gather that the cult of demons often came after the cult of deities, and even after the cult of one single and supreme deity. It may be suspected that in almost all such places the higher deity is felt to be too far off for appeal in certain petty matters, and men invoke the spirits because they are in a more literal sense familiar spirits ... But with the appeal to lower spirits comes the horrible notion that the gesture must be not only very small but very low; that it must be a monkey trick of an utterly ugly and unworthy sort. Sooner or later a man deliberately sets himself to do the most disgusting think he can think of ... For most cannibalism is not a primitive or even a bestial habit. It is artificial and even artistic; a sort of art for art's sake. Men do not do it because they do not think it horrible; but, on the contrary, because they do think it horrible.
Next come "the Philosophers", by which Chesterton means Confucius
and the like. One by one, he shows that philosophy is not the same as religion. Confucius, he claims, set out to "organize" China, not to bring it a creed. Buddha, says Chesterton, created:
...a metaphysical discipline; which might even be called a psychological discipline. He proposed a way of escaping from all this recurrent sorrow; and that was simply by getting rid of the delusion that is called desire. It was emphatically not that we should get what we want better by restraining our impatience for part of it, or that we should get it in a better way or a better world. It was emphatically that we should leave off wanting it.
Part II of The Everlasting Man
concerns Christ. Chesterton starts with the Christmas story:
... no other story, no pagan legend or philosophical anecdote or historical event, does in fact affect any of us with that peculiar and even poignant impressioin produced on us by the word Bethlehem.
Chesterton moves on the character of Christ, with some interesting observations:
There is a sort of notion in the air everywhere that all the religions are equal because all the religious founders were rivals; that they are all fighting for the same starry crown. That is quite false. The claim to that crown, or anything like that crown, is really so rare as to be unique. Mahomet did not make it any more than Micah or Malachi. Confucious did not make it any more than Plato or Marcus Aurelius. Buddha never said he was Brahma. Zoroaster no more claimed to be Ormuz than to be Ahriman. The truth is that, in the common run of cases, it is just as should expect it to be, in common sense and certainly in Christian philosophy. It is exactly the other way. Normally speaking, the greater a man is, the less likely he is to make the very greatest claim. Outside of the unique case we are considering, the only kind of man who ever does make that kind of claim is a very small man; a secretive or self-centered monomaniac.
If Christ was simply a human character, he really was a highly complex and contradictory human character. For he combined exactly the two things that lie at the extremes of human variation. He was exactly what the man with a delusion never is; he was wise; he was always unexpectedly magnanimous and often unexpectedly moderate.
If it seems here that I'm just quoting, rather than summarizing or criticizing, the impression is quite right. Chesterton is all but impossible to summarize; because he doesn't write as if he's following an outline. He writes as if he's crafting a story. All of his themes and observations are interwoven, like a good story, and there's no simplifying it down to a summary. Criticism would have to come from someone a lot smarter than I.
The Everlasting Man is so interesting and well written that any thoughtful atheist would enjoy it. Christians will find it as comforting as an old quilt that stirs old memories as it warms the body.