Chesterton-Shaw Debate Speaks to the Present Crisis

Author: Fr. Ian Boyd C.S.B.


WASHINGTON, D.C.-In the Hartke Theatre of the Catholic University of America on Dec. 2nd and 3rd, an unusual entertainment took place as part of a celebration of the 20th anniversary of the founding of and of the G.K. Chesterton Society. The event was a re-enactment of a debate between G.K. Chesterton and George Bernard Shaw.

The fact that the great Catholic apologist and the famous Irish dramatist had been dead for many decades did not seem to matter a great deal to the people attending the event. In two performances some 500 people listened with close attention to a lively and good- humored argument about socialism, the family, and religious faith.

For the most part, the words were taken from actual debates between Chesterton and Shaw. A number of passages, however, were also added to the script from books such as Chesterton's and his biography of Shaw, and a passage was even added from a debate between Chesterton and Bertrand Russell which had originally taken place over BBC Radio in the early 1930s. An earlier version of the Washington debate had been compiled by Michael Higgins and staged in 1986 as part of a Chesterton conference held at St. Michael's College in Toronto, but the material for the new debate had been skillfully edited by John Mueller, a Washington economist who was also one of the organizers of the event.

The people playing the parts of Shaw and Chesterton had been brought in from Britain to do so. Owen Dudley Edwards, a senior lecturer in history at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, played the part of Shaw. Dr. Edwards, a native of Dublin and a well-known author and TV personality, has written a great deal about Chesterton in . He is also an expert on the works of Conan Doyle and the editor of the recently published . Fr. Malcolm MacMahon, O.P., of London, England, is the provincial of the English Province of the Dominican Order, and he played the part of Chesterton. Gary Lee, the only professional actor of the three, was a member of the British Embassy Players in Washington, D.C. He introduced the debate and played the part of Hilaire Belloc, who served as an amusing chairman of the debate by refusing to Shaw's indignation, even to pretend to be an impartial moderator.

Wit And Wisdom

One of the most striking features of the entertainment was its topicality. Although the words had been written many years ago for a society very different from that of today, it was remarkable how the comments seemed to speak directly to the current cultural crisis. As the actors read their scripts, it was easy to forget that the debate was a reenactment of something that had happened long ago. Rather, it seemed as though "Chesterton" and "Shaw" had come to Washington in order to talk about the current problems preoccupying contemporary Americans and indeed all the peoples of the modern world. On every topic, from the topic of feminism, to the topic of sexual morality and the less obvious, but equally serious, topic concerning the hidden connections that exist between the assumptions on which a society is based and the way in which its people behave- on all these questions the debate seemed to be entirely contemporary.

There was, nevertheless, one notable difference between the topicality of what the two authors had to say. It was clear that each was a spokesman for a very different tradition. Shaw was the voice of irreligious modernity; Chesterton the spokesman for Christian orthodoxy. Both spokesmen were witty and persuasive. The main difference was that the same events which had proved one speaker wrong proved the other speaker right. Shaw's words about the benefits of progressive reforms may have sounded plausible when he first uttered them in the early decades of the 20th century, but, for those living amidst the disorders brought about by these experiments in progressive reform, his words had a hollow ring.

At one dramatic moment in the debate, he lectured Chesterton about the benefits that would come from easy divorce: Everyone would be happier, he asserted, when husbands and wives would be free to walk away from any difficult marriage. At the same time, he went on to say that there would be few divorces if divorces could be easily obtained. "Marriage," he said, "is slavery for wives and home a prison for children. Socialism, by making them economically independent, would break the chains and open the prison door.... Far fewer marriages and families will be broken up under socialism."

Chesterton's quick wit and deep wisdom were apparent in everything he said. On the political and economic questions, for example he insisted that there was no essential moral difference between the collectivist system that Shaw advocated and the monopoly capitalist system about which Shaw was complaining. For Chesterton, neither system came close to being the property-owning democracy which he believed was most likely to provide ordinary people with a normal and fulfilling life. Always Chesterton was the voice of common sense and of the inarticulate wisdom of ordinary human beings. He was also the voice of the Church which presents a moral teaching not for a particular religious sect. but for all mankind.

It was appropriate, therefore that the part of Chesterton was taken by a priest. When Fr. MacMahon spoke Chesterton's grave words in defense of the traditional family, a hush fell over the Washington listeners as though they instinctively recognized that indisputable truth was at last being spoken. Shaw was a false prophet; Chesterton was the true prophet. How could a late 20th-century audience that had lived to see his prophecies fulfilled fail to recognize the truth of what he had to say? Consider for example, Chesterton's answer to Shaw's ideas about marriage as something that might be temporary. At one memorable moment in the debate, Fr. MacMahon spoke the following words of Chesterton:

"The overwhelming mass of mankind has not believed in freedom in this matter, but rather in a more or less lasting tie. In everything worth having, even in pleasure, there is a point of pain or tedium that must be survived, so that the pleasure may revive and endure.... The essential element is not so much duration as security. Two people must be tied together in order to do themselves justice, for 20 minutes at a dance, or for 20 years in a marriage. If Americans can be divorced for 'incompatibility of temper' I cannot conceive why they are not all divorced. I have known many happy marriages, but never a compatible one. The whole aim of marriage is to fight through and survive the instant when incompatibility becomes unquestionable. For a man and a woman, as such, are incompatible."

A Happy Man

But there was a sense in which the debate itself illustrated one of the main themes in Chesterton's philosophy. In all his writings, Chesterton insists that the key to happiness and to sound social reform is the discovery of community. In his opinion, small groups of people are the basic units in any good society. He also believed that such groups, working together at some task that at first seems to have no directly religious significance, are sanctified by their work and by their fellowship.

This cheerful philosophy is in fact based on a conviction that God is most likely to be found in such little communities. Instead of the grim liberal view of atomized individuals, forever competing with each other, Chesterton presented the optimistic Catholic sacramental vision of a world in which God continues to be present, even when the only sign of His presence is the happiness of a group of people. With such a religious faith, no wonder that Chesterton was a happy man. As he explains in his great book , "Joy is the gigantic secret of the Christian."

A Spirit Of Friendliness

There was, therefore, something Chestertonian about the evident enjoyment of the people who recreated the Shaw-Chesterton debate and of the people who attended it. It was clear that everyone was having fun. In the age of silent and passive television watching, the enjoyment of good conversation and friendly argument had been recaptured.

The same was true of the people who organized the event. At its own request, this little community of hard-working people remained hidden. Few of the people attending the debate were likely to guess the amount of careful and detailed work its members had done in order to make sure that the debate would be a success.

Frank Cannon and John Mueller are partners in an Arlington, Va., firm of financial analysts (Lehrman Bell Mueller Cannon, Inc.), and they and the people working in their office devoted hundreds of hours of time to organizing the entertainment. And here, too, a Chestertonian spirit of friendliness characterized their work. When Owen Dudley Edwards visited their office, he commented that he had never been in so happy a place. He also pointed out that it was impossible to thank anyone, because the person whom you thanked would always insist that it was someone else in the group who had done most of the work.

It was also interesting to note that this group of happy people included Protestants as well as Catholics, blacks as well as whites. They were a community of people working together in order to help the Chesterton Society and its journal, . They themselves, however, illustrated the truth of what Chesterton had to say about the value of small communities and about the possibility of a social system based on friendship and service.

The Washington debate was the latest in a series of events marking the 20th anniversary of the founding of the Chesterton Society and its journal, . In mid-September, a conference was held in Toronto. In November, the Chesterton Society and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute of Bryn Mawr, Pa., collaborated in order to hold a conference at Fordham University in New York City. And plans are being worked out to hold the Shaw-Chesterton debate in other American and Canadian cities in 1995.

In recent years, the work of the Chesterton Society and has broadened considerably. Founded in 1974, the 100th anniversary of the birth of Chesterton, the society and its journal are devoted to bringing the wisdom of Chesterton to the contemporary world.

In 1993, the society sponsored a conference in Zagreb, Croatia, at which people representing a number of Christian groups discussed ways of evangelizing societies which have been radically secularized. The proceedings of the Croatian conference were published in a double issue of , and plans are under way for the society to sponsor a series of seminars and studies at which the ideas discussed in Zagreb can be brought to bear on a number of contemporary problems.

A Restatement Of Ancient Teaching

But perhaps the main importance of the Shaw-Chesterton debate was as a practical demonstration of how fresh and valuable the Chestertonian perspective remains. Almost every aspect of the evangelization of culture becomes clearer when examined from this perspective. The debate demonstrated first of all that the clear expression of Catholic thought is itself an enormously effective force for good.

It was interesting, for example, to hear a young college student comment on the debate. This student said that although she had studied the social teachings of the Church at a good Catholic university, she had never really understood the Church's teaching about private property until she heard Chesterton's clear exposition of that teaching in the debate. The debate also demonstrated the value of civility and good humor in discussions about even the most important subjects. In spite of the differences between Shaw and Chesterton on almost every question, they were obviously friends who always took care never to hurt each other.

A question-and-answer session which followed each performance possessed many of the same qualities found in the debate. In the discussion which then took place, the debate seemed to be continuing. One of the questions concerned contemporary writers who were in the Chestertonian tradition. No one could think of a writer who combined the qualities found in Chesterton: C.S. Lewis was mentioned and it was pointed out that he had been greatly influenced by Chesterton. There was also a valuable discussion about Chesterton's view of America and how that view changed as a result of his two visits to the country. Chesterton's social philosophy of distributism was also discussed. Someone pointed out that in spite of the strange name, this social theory is simply a restating of the ancient teaching of the Church about the need for true communities in which people take responsibility for their own lives.

Something was also said about Chesterton's belief that people had to be taught to see the world around them with a fresh vision. In his view, it is more important to awaken the imagination than to provide the mind with additional information, because, once people have acquired a fresh perspective, they would then see overly familiar things for the first time. Only then could sensible change take place. In his view, awakening a sense of wonder is the key to all personal and social renewal. From that point of view, the debate itself could be regarded as a practical step toward true reform.

Chesterton And Evangelicals

Other reminders about the importance of Chesterton were also provided by the Washington debate. Chesterton once said that there are certain writers who are "morning stars of the reunion." It is evident that Chesterton himself was such a writer. No modern Catholic writer is held in such high regard among Protestant Christians. It was not surprising, therefore, that a number of the people attending the debate were evangelical Protestants. Everything they said about the evening's entertainment indicated their affection and respect for Chesterton.

In the current cultural wars concerning such things as abortion and euthanasia, an alliance is developing between Catholics and evangelical Protestants. Chesterton will have an important part to play in strengthening that alliance. It is worth remembering, for example, that for Randall Terry, the evangelical pro-life activist who founded Operation Rescue, Chesterton is more important than C.S. Lewis. Comparing the writing of the two authors as intellectual and spiritual food for Christians, Terry used a biblical image from one of St. Paul's epistles (Heb. 5:13-14). For him, the writing of Lewis is "milk for children" and Chesterton's writing is the solid food or "strong meat" for those who are fully grown in the faith.

In recent years, a great deal has been said about a possible "Catholic moment" in modern American history. What the Washington debate made clear was that a Catholic moment must be a Chesterton moment as well. Once again, geniality must somehow be combined with orthodoxy, and happy communities must be established in which important issues can be discussed without bitterness. Chesterton represents the possibility of such harmony. There is no other Catholic writer quite like him. He is our future, as well as our past.

(Anyone interested in becoming a member of the G.K. Chesterton Society and receiving its quarterly journal may do so by writing to , 1437 College Dr., Saskatoon, Sask., Canada S7N OW6. The cost is $35.00 per year, and new members receive a free copy of such jumbo special issues as these: "Chesterton and the Modernist Crisis"; "C.S. Lewis"; "Croatian Conference Special Issue." Orders may also be placed by telephoning or faxing the following toll-free number: 1-800-260-9363.)

This article was taken from the January 19, 1995 issue of "The Wanderer," 201 Ohio Street, St. Paul, MN 55107, 612-224-5733. Subscription Price: $35.00 per year; six months $20.00.