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Chesterton as standard-bearer

18 December 2015

John Davies finds that a theology of wonder has excess baggage


A Theology of Wonder: G. K. Chesterton’s response to nihilism
Brian P. Gillen
Gracewing £7.99
Church Times Bookshop £7.20


BRIAN GILLEN is an adjunct professor at Seton Hall Catholic University, New Jersey, in the United States. He is also a huge fan of G. K. Chesterton, and this extended essay is Gillen’s tribute to his hero, celebrating Chesterton’s witty, paradoxical, and highly robust rebuttal of the nihilism that he saw as inherent in so many attitudes and philosophies of his day.

Chesterton thought Nietzsche had poisoned the imaginations of a generation with the “venom of nihilism”. Chesterton’s antidote, as Gillen makes clear, was a call for a reorientation of the human spirit: joy, simplicity, and, above all, imaginative wonder — these are the beginnings and indeed the fruits of an authentic path back to God, the source and redeemer of all that is. And the child, in all the wonder of innocence, living in the present, is Chesterton’s, and Gillen’s, true teacher of wisdom.

Dale Ahlquist, president of the G. K. Chesterton Society, is often quoted in Gillen’s text, and writes a generous word of appreciation of the book. There are excellently striking and appropriate quotations from Chesterton himself, the master of the pithy or paradoxical word.

But this Anglican reviewer became increasingly uneasy. As the essay progresses, it becomes very clear that for Chesterton and Gillen the true holder or container of the renewed imagination is the Roman Catholic Church. Chesterton himself abandoned Anglicanism, appalled at the liberalism of Dean Inge and Bishop Hensley Henson. In this text it is Pope John Paul II who, as the great authority, sets the final seal of approach on the appeal for a renewed imagination.

I sensed a pretty conservative agenda behind the book, and I remembered, in contrast, the last writings of Gerard Hughes. His last words on wonder (and he agreed with Chesterton and Gillen that the rebirth of wonder was painfully overdue) were both more generously inclusive and more critical. Hughes was clear that conservative religion could itself be profoundly nihilistic, rubbing out individualism, diversity, and wonder in its insistence on unity and uniformity.

Amen to a call to wonder. In that, Gillen does us a great service, reviving the mighty Chesterton. But deeper questions remain about how.


The Very Revd Dr John Davies is the Dean of Derby, and a former Chaplain of Keble College, Oxford.

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