G. K. Chesterton’s Apologetic of the Imagination

Bart Byl
12 min readMay 7, 2021

No pen, perhaps, has scrawled more energetically in the defence and exposition of traditional Christianity than that of the English writer Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874–1936). His fertile mind expressed itself in a vast range of genres. He contributed a weekly column to The Illustrated London News for thirty years, crafted one of the last great epic poems in the English language with the 1911 publication of Ballad of the White Horse, secured the literary reputation of Charles Dickens with a critical study in 1906, dashed off the metaphysical thriller The Man Who Was Thursday in 1908, penned 53 Father Brown detective short stories between 1910 and 1936, and (after being received into the Catholic Church in 1922), produced intellectual biographies of saints Francis of Assisi (1923) and Thomas Aquinas (1933). Somehow, in between writing, Chesterton found time for public debates with George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, Bertrand Russell and Clarence Darrow, as well as over 150 popular talks on BBC Radio.

“The trumpet of imagination,” declares Chesterton, “like the trumpet of the Resurrection, calls the dead out of their graves.”¹ Chesterton himself skilfully deployed the imagination to win hearts and minds to orthodox Christianity. His sprawling body of work, especially his apologetic work Orthodoxy (1908), sketches a “romantic rationalism” that commends the faith more humanely and compelling than more reductionist logic-focussed accounts.

An unused illustration from Chesterton’s The Ballad of the White Horse.

“The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know. We feel it in a thousand things,” mused the French mathematician Blaise Pascal. “We know truth, not only by reason, but also by the heart.”² His older contemporary René Descartes had attempted to secure the Catholic faith from doubt by establishing it into a rigorous logical foundation, but Cartesian rationalism effectively elevated unaided human reason to be the sole arbiter of truth. Following the Enlightenment, Christian apologists laboured earnestly to demonstrate that the faith was rationally coherent. In England, for example, Bishop Joseph Butler’s 1736 Analogy of Religion, Natural and Revealed offered philosophical arguments for traditional Christianity against deism. Apologetics was approached as a battlefield for the mind. But as Alister McGrath observes, such apologists “neglected the relational, imaginative, and existential aspects of faith.”³ In seeking to win over doubters, Christians had ceded the epistemological ground to rationalism. As a result, Christianity itself was unconsciously reduced to a set of didactic propositions to be defended, rather than a mystery to be celebrated.

Chesterton seeks to integrate the mind and the heart in a more expansive account of the Christian faith. As Brian Sudlow observes, he “strives consciously in his many varied writings to meld the imagination and intuition of the romantic tradition with the realism, common sense and logic of the rationalist tradition.”⁴ Thus, following Aquinas, he acknowledges the value of reason as a path to God, while also recognising the need to speak to the whole person, including the affective dimensions. Whatever Descartes may have believed, human beings are not, in fact, thinking machines who subsist on syllogisms. The essence of Chesterton’s “essentially romantic project” is “to foster the credibility of the imagination and undermine the power of rationalist assumptions,” for if we attempt to live on logic alone, we will lose our humanity.⁵

In “The Maniac”, the second chapter of Orthodoxy, Chesterton turns to the lunatic asylum for insight into what makes people lose their sanity. It is an excess not of “wild imagination” but of reason, he argues, that unhinges minds:

If you argue with a madman, it is extremely probable that you will get the worst of it; for in many ways his mind moves all the quicker for not being delayed by the things that go with good judgment. He is not hampered by a sense of humour or by charity, or by the dumb certainties of experience. He is the more logical for losing certain sane affections. Indeed, the common phrase for insanity is in this respect a misleading one. The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.

The madman’s world is logically consistent — much more so, indeed, than that of his sane friend. Therefore it is a hopeless exercise to try to dislodge the mania of the pure rationalist through logical argument. His philosophy is a perfect and unbroken circle — but, Chesterton, observes, it is a very small circle. “They see a chess-board white on black, and if the universe is paved with it, it is still white on black.”⁷ Perhaps the best way to nudge the madman toward sanity is to suggest, with Hamlet, that “there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”⁸ We might appeal, for example, to a person in the grip of delusional paranoia by saying:

How much larger your life would be if your self could become smaller in it; if you could really look at other men with common curiosity and pleasure; if you could see them walking as they are in their sunny selfishness and their virile indifference! … You would break out of this tiny and tawdry theatre in which your own little plot is always being played, and you would find yourself under a freer sky, in a street full of splendid strangers.

Chesterton is offering a metaphor for dealing with rationalistic materialists and their reductionist explanation of reality. It may be logically complete, but it is can hardly satisfying the deeper longings of the soul — or even the ordinary ones. What the rationalist needs is an encounter with mystery — for, as Chesterton observes, “the Greeks were right when they made Apollo the god both of imagination and of sanity; for he was both the patron of poetry and the patron of healing.”¹⁰ Chesterton is not pitting imagination against reason, but arguing for a proper relationship between the logical and mystical dimensions of the soul. The imagination, once awakened, can suggest new and better possibilities that also turn out to be rationally satisfying. As one of Chesterton’s favourite writers, the 19th-century Scottish minister George MacDonald, argues,

A wise imagination, which is the presence of the spirit of God, is the best guide that man or woman can have; for it is not the things we see the most clearly that influence us the most powerfully; undefined, yet vivid visions of something beyond, something which eye has not seen nor ear heard, have far more influence than any logical sequences whereby the same things may be demonstrated to the intellect.¹¹

It is for this reason that Chesterton criticises Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective stories. “Sherlock Holmes would have been a better detective if he had been a philosopher, if he had been a poet, nay, if he had been a lover.”¹² Imagination is needed to perceive truths hidden to reason, as Chesterton’s detective Father Brown demonstrated again and again in solving his crimes. This approach has strong echoes of fellow Anglican-turned-Catholic John Henry Newman’s 1870 Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent:

The heart is commonly reached, not through the reason, but through the imagination, by means of direct impressions, by the testimony of facts and events, by history, by description. Persons influence us, voices melt us, looks subdue us, deeds inflame us. Many a man will live and die upon a dogma: no man will be a martyr for a conclusion.¹³

Chesterton’s favourite tool is not the syllogism but the paradox. The mind, encountering the paradox, is startled by considering two seemingly contradictory ideas. For Chesterton truth is not found in some Aristotelian mean in the middle, but holding onto both extremes, and here “the imagination is involved in the process of holding these dynamic opposites in tension and not seeking to reconcile or collapse the ostensible contradiction.”¹⁴ Chesterton observes that the ordinary man “has always cared more for truth than for consistency. If he saw two truths that seemed to contradict each other, he would take the two truths and the contradiction along with them. His spiritual sight is stereoscopic, like his physical sight: he sees two different pictures at once and yet sees all the better for that.”¹⁵

Thus for Chesterton the seeming contradictions within Christianity are a feature, not a bug. Other, reductionistic philosophies may be tidier, but they are not nearly so expansive. If the world is rich and complex, shouldn’t our explanation of it be as well? In recounting his own pilgrimage, Chesterton describes his reaction on reading the descriptions of Christianity penned by its enemies:

A slow and awful impression grew gradually but graphically upon my mind — the impression that Christianity must be a most extraordinary thing. For not only (as I understood) had Christianity the most flaming vices, but it had apparently a mystical talent for combining vices which seemed inconsistent with each other. It was attacked on all sides and for all contradictory reasons.¹⁶

For example, Christianity has been criticised for being too pessimistic and too optimistic, too violent and too pacifistic, too ascetic and too gaudy, bad for women yet also too feminine. This mass of contradictions suggests that Christianity is hideously and bizarrely deformed — unless, that is, all the oddities of the Christian faith are because it is an explanation of a world that is itself very odd. “A key and a lock are both complex. And if a key fits a lock, you know it is the right key.”¹⁷ Rather than trim off the odd angles and corners of the faith, then, the task of the Christian is to hold fiercely onto both extremes of its paradoxes, beginning with the core doctrine that Christ, in one person, is fully human and fully divine.

Chesterton’s delight in paradox is an expression of his wonder at the world. The impulse to replace mystery with tidy explanations, to his thinking, is deeply unhealthy. “The poet only desires exaltation and expansion, a world to stretch himself in. The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.”¹⁸ It is not merely a question of which is the best effective instrument for apprehending reality, but of which posture towards the world is the most satisfying. For Chesterton the choice is clear: gaping at wonders is a please reserved for the humble and withheld from the towering Übermensch. “Humility is the mother of giants,” Father Brown remarks. “One sees great things from the valley; only small things from the peak.”¹⁹ In swelling up the ego out of all healthy proportion, pride makes it impossible to relish the world as it truly is. “Ultimately it is humility which helps a human being focus things and people properly and helps prevent individual and collective hallucinations and insanity.”²⁰

Chesterton shares with the early romantics a suspicion of rationalism and a celebration of the mystical, but he never elevates Feeling to the ultimate principle. For him, the imagination is fundamentally ecstatic, looking out of the self to the wonders of the external world. This is the fundamental difference between Christianity and eastern religions: “The Buddhist is looking with a peculiar intentness inwards. The Christian is staring with a frantic intentness outwards.”²¹ In his book on Thomas Aquinas (praised by the Thomist philosopher Étienne Gilson as “without possible comparison, the best book ever written on Saint Thomas”²²) Chesterton observes,

The strangeness of things, which is the light of all poetry, and indeed in all art, is really connected with their otherness, or what is called their objectivity… In this the great contemplative is the complete contrary of that false contemplative, the mystic who looks only into his own soul, the selfish artist who shrinks from the world and lives only in his own mind.²³

To Chesterton, subjectivism, far free being liberating, is cramped and confining. The windows of the mind must be thrown open to see the outside world, and to be astounded each time one does so. “The function of imagination is not to make strange things settled, so much as to make settled things strange; not so much to make wonders facts as to make facts wonders.”²⁴

Because reality is objective, one must embrace that it has a definite shape with distinct edges, for “the moment you step into the world of facts, you step into a world of limits.” If you wish to draw a giraffe, you must give it a long neck, or it is no longer a giraffe you are drawing. “Art is limitation; the essence of every picture is the frame.”²⁵ Far from destroying creativity, the unyielding nature of objective reality, its sheer otherness, stimulates the flourishing of imaginative work by nudging the artist into realisations that could never be generated from within. Thus the strict controls of Catholic doctrine and discipline mark out a place of genuine freedom. Chesterton likens them to the walls of a playground on the cliffs of an island. “So long as there was a wall round the cliff’s edge they could fling themselves into every frantic game and make the place the noisiest of nurseries. But the walls were knocked down, leaving the naked peril of the precipice… when their friends returned to them they were all huddled in terror in the centre of the island; and their song had ceased.”²⁶

Adam Schwartz describes Chesterton as “an apostle of wonder at the joy of Being” — and the proper concomitant of wonder is gratitude.²⁷ “I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought,” Chesterton declares, “and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.”²⁸ Indeed, Chesterton’s own quest for God was borne of his need to find someone to thank for the gift of the world. As Ralph Wood observes, his gratitude “plants the flag of loyal indebtedness to the world and its cornucopia of blessings.”²⁹ This transforms divine ethical requirements into the mysterious conditions for participation in an enchanted world. And the world really is enchanted, for Chesterton, for it is utterly contingent, birthed out of the joyous creativity of God. Things could easily have been otherwise, or not at all. The fairytale exists to recall us to the strangeness of our own world. “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.” Our own world is a wondrous gift, and the commandments of God are the mystical conditions for enjoying it. “If the miller’s third son said to the fairy, ‘Explain why I must not stand on my head in the fairy palace,’ the other might fairly reply, ‘Well, if it comes to that, explain the fairy palace.’”³⁰ It would be foolish to complain the rules are arbitrary, when the world itself is arbitrary. Thus, viewed afresh through the eyes of the imagination, the ethical life is transformed into an expression of gratitude for the gift of life.

Because the Christian faith is ultimately not a philosophy but a participatory experience, it cannot be reasoned into from the outside, but “through imagination we are enabled to indwell the world of religious belief and to obtain a glimpse of what it might be like to live as though it were true.”³¹ The deep desires of the heart must be stirred to awaken a “feeling of homesickness for the truth.”³² Chesterton teaches us to awaken our imaginations so that the good, the true and the beautiful will not only be assented to but loved, with all our hearts.


  1. G. K. Chesterton, The Defendant (London:, R. Brimley Johnson, 1902), 60.
  2. Blaise Pascal, Pascal’s Pensées (London, J. M. Dent & Sons, 1958), 78, 79.
  3. Alistair McGrath, Mere Apologetics: How to Help Seekers and Skeptics Find Faith (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2012), 28.
  4. Brian Sudlow, “A room with a view: window images and ‘open immanence’ in the writings of Adolphe Retté and G. K. Chesterton,” Literature and Theology 26:1 (March 2012), 44.
  5. William Oddie, Chesterton and the Romance of Orthodoxy: The Making of GKC, 1874–1908 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 353.
  6. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (London: William Clowes and Sons, 1908), 30.
  7. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 37.
  8. William Shakespeare, Hamlet, I.5.
  9. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 33.
  10. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 49.
  11. George MacDonald, The Imagination, and Other Essays (Boston, D. Lothrop and Company, 1883), 28.
  12. Chesterton, A Handful of Authors: Essays on Books & Writers (New York, Sheed and Ward, 1953), 174.
  13. John Henry Newman, The Grammar of Assent (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1955), 91.
  14. Josephine Gabelman, A Theology of Nonsense (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2016), 165.
  15. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 47.
  16. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 153.
  17. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 150.
  18. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 27.
  19. Chesterton, The Innocence of Father Brown (New York: The MacAulay Company, 1911), 255.
  20. Elmar Schenkel, “Visions from the Verge: Terror and Play in G. K. Chesterton’s Imagination,” in Bloom’s Modern Critical Views: G. K. Chesterton, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House, 2006), 103.
  21. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 241.
  22. Etienne Gilson, “Letter to Chesterton’s editor”, in Guide to Thomas Aquinas, ed. Josef Pieper (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1987), 6–7.
  23. Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1933), 168.
  24. Chesterton, The Defendant, 60.
  25. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 69.
  26. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 267.
  27. Adam Schwartz, The Third Spring: G. K. Chesterton, Graham Greene, Christopher Dawson, and David Jones (Catholic University of America Press, 2005), 31.
  28. Chesterton, A Short History of England, in Collected Works of G. K. Chesterton, vol. 20 (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2001), 463.
  29. Ralph C. Wood, Chesterton: The Nightmare Goodness of God (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2011), 36.
  30. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 94, 98.
  31. Paul Avis, God and the Creative Imagination: Metaphor, Symbol and Myth in Religion and Theology (London: Routledge, 1999), 71.
  32. Alison Milbank, “Apologetics and the Imagination: Making Strange”, in Imaginative Apologetics: Theology, Philosophy and the Catholic Tradition, ed. Andrew Davison (London: SCM Press, 2011), 33.



Bart Byl

Th.M. student at Regent College. Canadian in Georgia. 🇨🇦🇬🇪