Books Faith

Review of “The Everlasting Man,” by G.K. Chesterton

The other day I finished The Everlasting Man, by G.K. Chesterton. Chesterton is often compared to C.S. Lewis, and of Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man is closest in tone to Lewis’ The Abolition of Man. Indeed, I wonder if Lewis’ title is a play of Chesterton’s. For while Lewis considers what it would mean for man as a species to end, Chesterton concerns himself with a unique event in the history of man: the emergence of Christianity.

Chesterton is a Catholic author, but his argument here is effectively secular: before Christianity there were mythologies in the sense of epic stories about the gods, and there were philosophies that provided an outline of the universe and a moral framework, but no mythic philosophy. Plato may have talked about Forms, in other words, while the priests sacrificed to Zeus, but no serious attempt was to combine these concepts. Thus, the New Testament is truly new, the “good news” really is news, because while dictatorship, democracy, art, puns, cosmology, and all the rest reach beyond history, the combinations of the roles of the Priest and the Philosopher have a definite beginning, in first century Palestine

Chesterton admirably surveys eastern religions to argue for the universalism of the novelty of the New Testament. Here I think he succeeds. Hindus is a world of interweaving mythologies, not a moral system. Likewise, Buddhism or Confucianism are philosophies, but not religions. “Buddhism” is more religious than Confucianism,” but Chesterton emphasizes the Buddhist importance of letting go of attachments, and presents it as a personal philosophy that may be applicable regardless of the structure of the supernatural world. That is, a Buddhist who truly believed that everything was an illusion would also conclude that any fires of purgatory or fields of paradise were themselves part of a wheel of existence, a wheel that continues beyond mortal life. (Chesterton does not address “Salvation Vehicle” Buddhism, but would presumably argue that by adopting myth, it left behind philosophy.)

Several times Chesterton refers to the Jews as keeping the “Secret” of monotheism, and it is with the Jews that he could face the strongest counter-argument. Chesterton explicitly disregards Moses as a mythic figure because the Hebrew Bible repeatedly emphasizes that Moses was a man, not a divine being. Likewise, though Chesterton does not mention the Book of Job, I imagine he would exclude that Hebrew work because God only appears as a whirlwind, and Yamm and Leviathan only appear as allusions.

But it is in Genesis that the uniqueness of Christianity, with regards to Judaism, is most questionable. Because the LORD indeed walked the earth, he scolded Adam and Eve, he ate meat and drank milk with Abraham and Sarah. The strongest argument against that is that Genesis is speaking figuratively when it refers to the Divine on earth, while the New Testament speaks literally. But why should this be so? I suspect Chesterton is influenced by the mainline Jewish interpretation of Genesis, but the same devout critics who doubt God physically walked on Earth three-thousand years ago doubt He walked on earth two-thousand years ago, as well.

Even if you ultimately disagree with Chesterton, he’s well worth reading. He also contrasts events in such a way to give them a whole new dimension. The pagan god Ba’al is an old rival to the LORD among the Hebrews, of course, but it was the Grace of Ba’al who brought his elephants to trample the Romans. Both the Jews and the Romans were horrified at the sacrifice of children to the Phoenician gods. Of course, it would be the high priests and the civilian governor of those civilizations that would execute a greater sacrifice still.

I listened to The Everlasting Man on Audible.

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