Chesterton and the Power of Paradox
by Joseph Pearce
I owe a great debt of gratitude to G. K. Chesterton. Indeed the debt is so great that it can never be paid. It is for this reason that I always remind myself that the first book that I wrote, following my conversion, Wisdom and Innocence: A Life of G. K. Chesterton, was a two-fold act of thanksgiving: an act of thanksgiving to God for giving me Chesterton but also an act of thanksgiving to Chesterton for giving me God.
What was it about Chesterton that so captivated me?
It was his goodness certainly, and his good humour. It was his great sense of gratitude for the goodness, truth, and beauty of the world in which he found himself, and his realization that life, our very existence, was a great and undeserved gift. We do not live in the best of all possible worlds, he reminds us, but the best of all impossible worlds. Our own existence and the existence of everything we see is an astonishing miracle. Yes, his gratitude, humor, and humility were part of the reason that he was so attractive to me and, no doubt, to those countless others who have found themselves following in his faithful and faith-filled footsteps. There was, however, one other secret to Chesterton’s success. He succeeded in seducing me and others to the creed of orthodoxy that he espoused because of the power of paradox.
Chesterton shows us that life is full of paradoxes. It is full of those apparent contradictions, those incongruous juxtapositions, that point to deeper truths. Take, for instance, the fact that it takes a big man to know how small he is, or the fact that pride is the sin of a small man who thinks he is big. Or take the words of Christ, the ultimate Master of Paradox, who tells us solemnly that the first shall be last and the last shall be first. The Gospels are full of such paradoxes, illustrating that Chesterton was not by any means the originator of the power of paradox. No indeed. One thinks also of the conceits of the Metaphysical Poets, such as St. Robert Southwell, John Donne, George Herbert, and Richard Crashaw, or of the foolishness of wisdom and the wisdom of foolishness to be found in the plays of Shakespeare. Yet few have used the power of paradox more effectively than Chesterton, whose works and whose very life encapsulated the paradox, embodied in the character of his delightful priest detective Father Brown, that wisdom can only be found in innocence. This is nothing less than the truth that Christ teaches. We will not be with Him in heaven unless we become as little children.
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