An Interview with Father Ian Boyd of the Chesterton Institute
By Andrea Kirk Assaf
MECOSTA, Michigan, 14 SEPT. 2010 (ZENIT)
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the publication of a collection of essays by the popular English Catholic apologist G.K. Chesterton titled "What's Wrong with the World?"
The president of the Chesterton Institute for Faith and Culture of Seton Hall University in New Jersey, Basilian Father Ian Boyd spoke with ZENIT about the enduring appeal of Chesterton and the prophetic quality of his book.
ZENIT: What does the Chesterton Institute do?
Father Boyd: The institute was founded during the centenary of Chesterton's birth in 1974 to do what T.S. Eliot said should be done in a note at the time of Chesterton's death. Eliot said that we should continue to do in our day what Chesterton began in his; so we took Eliot's advice as the motto for the Chesterton Institute. The basic idea of the institute is, through publishing — such as our own quarterly "The Chesteron Review" — and conferences, to continue the communal work of Chesterton and his remarkable circle of friends into our own day.
ZENIT: Who was in Chesterton's circle?
Father Boyd: There is a famous painting by James Gunn called "A Conversation Piece," and in that is Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, and one who is far less known than he should be, Maurice Baring. These three were friends and represent the breadth of the Chesterton tradition. Baring came from an English liberal family who owned banks. One of his claims to fame is that he introduced Russian literature into the English-speaking world; he spoke Russian, lived in Russia, and attributed his conversion to Christianity to living within a religious culture as Russia was in that day.
ZENIT: Did they think of themselves as having a collective vocation?
Father Boyd: There was something of that — Belloc was the teacher to the group, Chesterton's training was as an artist at the Slade School of Art, and Chesterton looked to Belloc for a theology of history. Baring represented, with his knowledge of half a dozen languages and so on, the breadth of Christian culture.
ZENIT: One hundred years after Chesterton published this book whose centenary you are marking, does this book still contain some of the author's trademark wisdom that can speak to us today?
Father Boyd: In all of Chesterton's writings there is a prophetic quality, so you sometimes feel the people Chesterton was writing for were not the people of his day, but rather the people who read him many years later. He was a person who was a very important figure in his own time, particularly the young Chesterton in the period before the First World War. He was simply one of the best-known figures in the English letters. He became a classic writer in the sense that people quoted him who had never read him; his sayings became part of the treasury of English wisdom literature.
Chesterton saw that people in the modern age were like sheep without a shepherd, who were being misled by false shepherds. I think Chesterton saw his mission as being apostolic really, because people didn't realize the treasure that they held in their Christian faith. The notable writers of the day like the Shaws, H.G. Wells, and so on were teaching them to despise the Christian faith. Chesterton became a voice for the faithful.
Charles Williams wrote an essay about Chesterton's poetry in which he said that in the modern age there was no one to speak for God or for the ordinary human being, that God was defenseless, unarmed, and without a voice. One way of understanding Chesterton is that he stood forward to say "I will be your voice, I will be your weapon." He articulated the deepest feelings that the ordinary, mute man or woman was unable to express. He defended them from a host of modern enemies who would deprive them of that treasure [of the Christian faith].
ZENIT: Despite his Catholicism, didn't Chesterton enjoy a broad appeal among English readers?
Father Boyd: Chesterton became a Catholic in 1922, so his period as a Roman Catholic was relatively short, but right from the beginning he was a spokesman for Catholic truth. He was a kind of ecumenical figure, beloved by evangelical protestants as well as sacramental Christians. He was also a kind of patron saint of journalists, even agnostic, unbelieving journalists have looked upon him as their hero. His wit and humor shouldn't be underestimated, and he was so evidently a good man. I don't think there's any example of Chesterton losing a friend. H.G. Wells and Chesterton quarreled, and in a series of letters Chesterton brought him back to say, "I don't believe there is a God, but if there is one I hope I will get to heaven because I was your friend." Wells thought Chesterton was a good advertisement for Christian faith.
ZENIT: What is there about "What's Wrong with the World" that still speaks to us today?
Father Boyd: For one thing, what you find in it is a social theology. Chesterton and his Anglican friends, long before he became a Roman Catholic, were concerned with evangelizing the culture itself. They recognized that most ordinary people absorb the thought and the behavior of the culture in which they are immersed, so that a toxic culture wounds the people who are part of it. One good example a priest friend of mine pointed out to me is that of abortion. Fifty years ago or even closer to our time, even unbelievers and agnostic doctors looked upon abortion as something shameful. Now it is accepted by so many people; I don't think people have become worse but it means that a healthy culture has become somewhat toxic.
We must be concerned, as Chesterton was, with the cleansing of the collective mind and imagination. This is what we mean by evangelizing the culture that Chesterton and a number of other writers speak of. One thinks of Newman, about to be beatified, who began his work in the 1830s, and Chesterton, who died in the 1930s — there were 100 years of two remarkable writers, national figures, who led that work of renewal through writing, the power of the word.
ZENIT: How do you think these great Catholic writers, such as Chesterton and Newman, came to enjoy such a following in a decidedly non-Catholic country as England?
Father Boyd: Christopher Dawson remarked on this just as a sociological fact, that all this remarkable Catholic literature has come out of a non-Catholic culture— very fine writers, and also sacramental writers in the sense that they teach Catholic truth without talking directly about religion. Muriel Spark would be an example of this phenomenon. Chesterton himself is a great religious teacher who is never sectarian, who presents Christian truth by indirection. Doesn't he say somewhere that he believes that in the end truth can only be taught through parable, through allegory — stealth evangelization, so to speak.
ZENIT: Why is this a good year to pick up "What's Wrong with the World"? What do you think readers will find controversial?
Father Boyd: You learn Chesterton's social philosophy through this book, and also some key principles of right thinking. Of course, all books should be read in the context of their time. A countercultural argument runs right throughout the book. The section on women might be particularly provocative in our day.
One main point is that it's a cheerful book. Chesterton, as the Russians called him, is a teacher of hope. In one passage he challenges the saying that you can't turn back the hands of time: a clock, Chesterton writes, is a mechanical mechanism, and so you only have to move the hands back with your finger to wherever you like! Human society, he said, is also a construction. Humans have the power, as sub-creators, to transform a society. We are not doomed. If something is wrong with the world, then we set out to make it right.
On the Net:
The Chesterton Institute: http://www.shu.edu/catholic-mission/chesterton-about.cfm
The Chesterton Review: http://www.shu.edu/catholic-mission/chesterton-review.cfm