Gopnik on Chesterton, Yet Again

Sorry, I'm not quite done with the topic yet: I haven't said anything substantial about Gopnik's critique of Chesterton's approach to Catholic apologetics:

In these books, Chesterton becomes a Pangloss of the parish; anything Roman is right. It is hard to credit that even a convinced Catholic can feel equally strongly about St. Francis's intuitive mysticism and St. Thomas's pedantic religiosity, as Chesterton seems to. His writing suffers from conversion sickness. Converts tend to see the faith they were raised in as an exasperatingly makeshift and jury-rigged system: Anglican converts to Catholicism are relieved not to have to defend Henry VIII's divorces; Jewish converts to Christianity are relieved to get out from under the weight of all those strange Levitical laws on animal hooves. The newly adopted faith, they imagine, is a shining, perfectly balanced system, an intricately worked clock where the cosmos turns to tell the time and the cuckoo comes out singing every Sunday. An outsider sees the Church as a dreamy compound of incense and impossibility, and, overglamorizing its pretensions, underrates its adaptability. A Frenchman or an Italian, even a devout one, can see the Catholic Church as a normally bureaucratic human institution, the way patriotic Americans see the post office, recognizing the frailty and even the occasional psychosis of its employees without doubting its necessity or its ability to deliver the message. Chesterton writing about the Church is like someone who has just made his first trip to the post office. Look, it delivers letters for the tiny price of a stamp! You write an address on a label, and they will send it anywhere, literally anywhere you like, across a continent and an ocean, in any weather! The fact that the post office attracts timeservers, or has produced an occasional gun massacre, is only proof of the mystical enthusiasm that the post office alone provides! Glorifying the postman beyond what the postman can bear is what you do only if you're new to mail.

Of course it's a truism that the zeal of a convert can be irritating and over-the-top at times, and the realism of a cradle Catholic is sometimes the better part of wisdom. And it's no surprise that a liberal ironist like Gopnik wouldn't be much taken with a convert's enthusiasm for his adopted faith. But it's not as if Chesterton's approach to apologetics represent some radical break with the rest of his oeuvre: He applied to the Church precisely the same romantic spirit he brought to everything else as well, which encouraged his readers to see the wonder of the world through fresh eyes - the eyes of a convert, yes, or the eyes of a child. Here, for instance, is a characteristic passage from Orthodoxy:

Just as we all like love tales because there is an instinct of sex, we all like astonishing tales because they touch the nerve of the ancient instinct of astonishment. This is proved by the fact that when we are very young children we do not need fairy tales: we only need tales. Mere life is interesting enough. A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door. Boys like romantic tales; but babies like realistic tales -- because they find them romantic. In fact, a baby is about the only person, I should think, to whom a modern realistic novel could be read without boring him. This proves that even nursery tales only echo an almost pre-natal leap of interest and amazement. These tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water.

Elsewhere in his essay, Gopnik seems to praise this tendency, calling it "the romance of everyday existence," and noting aptly that "Chesterton's mysticism always resolves in the close at hand: in a signal light at Paddington station, not in a sunrise over a beach in Tahiti." It's only when Chesterton applies it to Catholicism that Gopnik turns snide, complaining that his subject is "overglamorizing" what is, after all, just "a normally bureaucratic human institution" - a post office with incense and fancier vestments. But Gopnik himself has just allowed that the appeal of Chesterton is precisely his willingness to take even an institution like the post office and find the glamor buried in it, the wonder that routine and familiarity often blind us to. There are writers enough to catalogue the failings of the USPS; you turn to Chesterton to be reminded that there's something miraculous about it even so, something worthy of the "leap of interest and amazement" that a child might feel when confronted for the first time by fruit trees and running water.

And if this reminder is important where the post office is concerned, how much more important is it when you're dealing with an institution like the Church of Rome, where something rather more important is at stake than the swift delivery of mail? Gopnik isn't convinced by Catholicism's truth claims; fair enough. But it's rather obtuse to admire Chesterton for emphasizing the romance inherent in Paddington Station while criticizing him for emphasizing the romance inherent in an institution that Chesterton believes to have been founded by God for the salvation of souls. Especially since nobody doubts that we need a railway system or a postal system, whereas there are many people - Gopnik among them - who actively doubt the "necessity" of the Catholic faith, seeing it as superfluous at best, malignant at worst. Of course not all of these doubters will be moved by Chesterton's style of apologetics, which asks them to approach Catholicism like a man from, say, 1355 entering a FedEx store for the first time - that is, as though they'd never even conceived that an institution like the Church might be possible, let alone an enduring player in human affairs. And perhaps some would be convinced by the more jaundiced, world-weary, "it's horribly flawed but it gets the job done" approach to apologetics that it seems as though Gopnik might prefer. But you don't turn to Chesterton for jaundiced world-weariness, and complaining that his enthusiasm for the Church is akin to a child's enthusiasm for a post office or a railway station is like complaining that Schopenhauer is too pessimistic, or Waugh too savage: If you don't like childlike enthusiasm, you don't have any business liking Chesterton.