Indulge me if you will on a journey. Imagine yourself in a far off country with rolling hills and the back drop of a glorious mountain and pretend for a second that this pristine picture is perfected with a house, owned by you, situated atop a luscious green hill. Now, imagining this house, there are but two good ways in which you can become acquainted with it, and the best way is for you to walk on up to it and dissect it yourself from the inside out. The homeowners should probably know the quirks of their home better than their neighbors. Yet we can still become acquainted with a thing (such as a house) from observing it from the outside. And these people actually have a different, though not better, outlook on the house. For these people, though not knowledgeable about the house itself, have a broad view of its surroundings because they are at a distance. They then can distinctly tell that the house is indeed a house and not a tree. That it sits atop a hill but that a much larger one inhabits its backyard and that though the house may look lively, it is certainly not as living as the sparrows nesting on its roof or the rabbits at play in its front yard — not even as lively as the stream that flows down from the hill in its backyard. They will perhaps even recognize other houses that appear similar in form but strikingly different in execution. Thus, the outside observer has a much different perspective of the house, and yet depending on where that person sits, he may be the observer who can do nothing but criticize (i.e., he is not far enough away from the house). For the observer who is far enough away even from his own prejudices is the only critic who can speak with even a hint of objectivity about a thing. The analogy may make more sense if we take the wood from a house and make a cross. There are a certain number of people who view the Cross only with a critical eye, and no matter what they cannot look at it objectively as one can who is far enough away. Far better to be in the place where the Christ of the Cross can look both beautiful and ugly, both majestic and horrifying, both holy and depraved. The argument may just present itself that that is almost what one finds when he does open up the gospels in this objective manner. It may, however, naturally be a lack of this second sort of viewing the Cross that often leaves a stale story in the lives of many Christians or a stumbling block for the many critics. It is, of course, this second way of observing Christianity that Chesterton adopts in his Everlasting Man.
I was blessed beyond measure to begin this book at the beginning of last month and having now finished it, I can only say that no words can describe all that I feel from such a book (mainly because there was so much that went over my head). It was unlike any I have ever read and consequently presented the Christian faith as I have never before seen it presented. And the odd peculiarity is that the first half of the book is really not about our faith at all but about the creature called man. Much like our (Chesterton’s actually) example of the house, Chesterton pulls the camera back — and may I say way back — and simply begins analyzing man as he is usually analyzed, that is as an animal. And the curious thing is that “the more you really look at man as an animal, the less he will look like one.” Consider our primitive ancestor the caveman and his drawings. It stands to reason that, though he may not be a good artist, he was still an artist, and this curious little fact tells us actually very little but at the same time a great deal.
It is the simple truth that man does differ from the brutes in kind and not degree. And the proof of it is here: that it sounds like a truism to say that the most primitive man drew a picture of a monkey and that it sounds like a joke to say that the most intelligent monkey drew a picture of a man. Something of division and disproportion has appeared, and it is unique. Art is the signature of man.
The man then being analyzed as an animal has some explaining to do, and that is exactly what Chesterton points to using an analogy of miracles. For a miracle is a miracle regardless of its velocity. For example: if a man suddenly transforms into a donkey overnight and his neighbor slowly transforms into a donkey in a period of say twenty years, is one transformation more astonishing than another? Perhaps one delivers in shock value, but both events are equally as perplexing when answers are demanded of the two donkeys. In the same case, if monkey transforms into man (and we are not arguing that he does not) it is equally miraculous if he does so in one hour or one billion years. Time does not “explain the miracle away” any more than the argument of likeness does. To say that the transformation would be less significant because “man is like monkey” is really not an argument because when we declare that something is like something else, we really are saying that they are different to some varying degree. Otherwise we would simply declare that the something is something (monkey is man), and there is really no reason to say that. This different between monkey and man is enough to raise eyebrows when concerning the rate of transformation.
An event is not any more intrinsically intelligible or unintelligible because of the pace at which it moves. For a man who does not believe in a miracle, a slow miracle would be just as incredible as a swift one… The medieval wizard may have flown through the air from the top of a tower; but to see an old gentleman walking through the air, in a leisurely and lounging manner, would still seem to call for some explanation.
And this perplexity of pace must be attributed to the difference in the two species.
A monkey does not draw clumsily and a man cleverly; a monkey does not begin the art of representation and a man carry it to perfection. A monkey does not do it at all; he does not begin to do it at all. A line of some kind is crossed before the first faint line can begin.
Thus, the argument goes, but Chesterton certainly moves on as we will, and it is through the latter part of the first section on man that he began to lose me primarily because he started to describe everything that made man man in regards to what really makes us different than the animals: namely our fascination with religion, mythology, and philosophy. He lost me because, much like C.S. Lewis does, he speaks of popular myths or ideas without explaining them — almost as if he assumes we know them already. As frustrating as this may be, I love that they do this because if they assume I am to know it, it only motivates me all the more to study. It displays my ignorance yet shows me where I need to be. For this I am eternally grateful.
In any case, Chesterton pulls the lens back on the creature man in such a way that he looks at nearly all popular beliefs, mythologies, and philosophies and concludes that they are all lacking in some way. There is not enough time to go through all of it of course, but the conclusion on the matter is that man sought God, or if not God, and answer to the riddle of the universe, and it all ended up in atheism. No philosopher claimed to know all the answers, and no one really believed the mythologies. That is, until one myth arose that people started talking about. And this myth was the myth of Christianity.
Christianity was so different than anything the world had ever seen. In the first place, a man was claiming to be God which classified him with the lunatics. Yet this apparent lunatic, who spoke of a morality that was not just a “better option” but actually seemed to contradict itself, had followers. For he said, “love your enemies and hate your father,” “sell your possessions for camels can’t walk through needles and seek fist the kingdom of God and all these things will be added to you,” and yet people followed and not only that, they believed. This Madman was speaking of a morality that was contradictory because it was a morality from another world. No mere man could make up this type of ethical thought process.
Much like the the lens was taken back on man and subsequently humanity, Chesterton analyzes the man Jesus as an objective viewer would alongside everything else that was in vogue at the time. I wish there was time enough to discuss all that Chesterton argued, but I will graciously end this analysis. I urge you to make an effort to try this book — one that highly influenced great men such as C.S. Lewis to become Christians. If you “get through” the middle part, I promise it will be beneficial. Certainly, I did not agree with everything (his Catholicism comes out a bit more as does his dislike for Calvinism), but that is for another discussion. My last point here is to challenge all my beloved readers to do what I am doing and what Chesterton did and that is give the Bible a second chance. Take a step back from everything that may flood your mind with opinions for or against the greatest piece of literature man has ever encountered. Approach it as best you can as someone reading it for the first time, knowing that it is not just you reading it. But all of western civilization. From Augustine to Edwards, to Shakespeare, Melville, Dickens, Brontë, and Steinbeck. Christians and non-Christians alike have read this book and been in wonder at its mysteries. The book has been read on deathbeds and a births, at weddings and funerals. No book has withstood more criticism only to rise again.
I care not if the skeptic says it is a tall story; I cannot see how so toppling a tower could stand so long without foundation. Still less can I see how it could become, as it has become, the home of man. Had it merely appeared and disappeared, it might possibly have been remembered or explained as the last leap of the rage of illusion, the ultimate myth of the ultimate mood, in which the mind struck the sky and broke. But the mind did not break. It is the one mind that remains unbroken in the break-up of the world. If it were an error, it seems as if the error could hardly have lasted a day. If it were a mere ecstasy, it would seem that such an ecstasy could not endure for an hour. It has endured for nearly two thousand years; and the world within it has been more lucid, more level-headed, more reasonable in its hopes, more healthy in its instincts, more humorous and cheerful in the face of fate and death, than all the world outside. For it was the soul of Christendom that came forth from the incredible Christ; and the soul of it was common sense. Though we dared not look on His face we could look on His fruits; and by His fruits we should know Him. The fruits are solid and fruitfulness is much more than a metaphor; and nowhere in this sad world are boys happier in apple-trees, or men in more equal chorus singing as they tread the vine, than under the fixed flash of this instant and intolerant enlightenment; the lightning made eternal as the light.