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G.K. Chesterton and Malcolm Muggeridge: A Balance of Opposites


Curiously, if I can risk a paradox so early in discussing Chesterton and Muggeridge for both of them had a love of paradox it is in the similarities between these two men that we find the differences.

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G. K. Chesterton
Malcolm Muggeridge

A short time before Malcolm Muggeridge died in 1990, he suffered a serious stroke and was rushed to hospital. Throughout the night, he was heard crying out in a loud voice: "Father, forgive me! Father, forgive me!" The spiritual agony that seemed to attend Muggeridge's final months stands in contrast to the quiet and gradual approach to death of G.K. Chesterton in 1936. No one is in a position to know – the prerogative is God's alone – the state of the soul of either of these authors. But their respective departure from this life may be seen to mirror the different ages in which they lived.

Chesterton was born in 1874, and was a child of the 19th century; Muggeridge, in 1903, and a child of the 20th century.

Despite the turbulence of Chesterton's time, marked especially by the First World War and the Great Depression, the years of his life appear in retrospect to have reflected a certain stability and calmness – at least by comparison with what followed, when the condition of Western society became far more starkly and even apocalyptically tested. Chesterton died more than fifty years before Muggeridge. He was spared the most searing experiences of mass tyranny and devastation which Muggeridge witnessed in the 20th century – Stalin's Gulag, Hitler's Holocaust, Hiroshima, the abortion tsunami, and other catastrophic developments, which have torn our lives, and our culture, apart.

The sub-title of this paper on Chesterton and Muggeridge is "a balance of opposites" – by which I mean that they form a distinctly complementary pair. Their differences serve as a balance of approaches to Christian truth and experiences in the Christian life. Yet, curiously, if I can risk a paradox so early in discussing Chesterton and Muggeridge – for both of them had a love of paradox – it is in the similarities between these two men that we find the differences. By considering them together, we can gain a sharper insight into their religious faith – and finally, their conversion to Catholicism.

Chesterton and Muggeridge, in fact, had a good deal in common. First, both of them were Londoners. Chesterton was born in the west London suburb of Kensington; and, early in his literary career, he famously commented on the historical riches and the cultural wonders of the city. "A man," he said, "may very well be exasperated with London, as he may be with the universe, but in both cases he has no business to be bored with it." Muggeridge was born in Croydon in south London – now a suburb but at that time on the very edge of the city, a position of geographical remoteness that symbolised the perspective he developed as an outsider, intellectually and culturally, throughout his long life.

Their religious backgrounds were vaguely Christian. Chesterton's father was a Unitarian, and Muggeridge's father had a Baptist background, but both of them had moved unmistakably into the first phase of a post-Christian world by seeing Christianity as a moral code rather than a religious creed – concerned more with sociology and the improvement of man than with theology and the worship of God. These respective backgrounds served to distance both Chesterton and Muggeridge from Christianity – and yet, in a way, it prepared them, too, for their recovery of religious belief and their long journey towards Catholicism. For the secularised versions of the Christian faith which they inherited brought home to them the vast spiritual and intellectual void – the great hunger of heart and mind – which had opened up beneath the moral surface of their society. It showed them how unsatisfying – and ultimately destructive – the rupture was between religious faith and moral idealism.

Chesterton's approach was primarily intellectual and philosophical. He came to find unbelief unbelievable. When confronted with the arguments of atheists, he thought them so pathetic that his response was: "Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian." By contrast, Muggeridge's approach to faith was based more on experience than philosophy – and inspired throughout by disillusionment with ideological substitutes. Muggeridge had embraced for a time the utopian alternatives of the 20th century – especially Socialism – but he found them totally discredited by the barbarity and fraudulence of Stalinist Russia. "In the beginning was the Lie," he wrote about his time in Russia in the 1930s, "and the Lie was made news and dwelt among us, graceless and false." Thus he was impelled to search for truth and meaning elsewhere.

A second similarity between Chesterton and Muggeridge is that they were both practising journalists. It is important to recognise that they were not simply journalists in the contemporary sense – reporting on scandals and crimes, for example, or interviewing celebrities. They drew on a far richer vocational treasury, qualifying more as "men of letters" than as reporters. No doubt "men of letters" is now an archaic term, but it evokes the connection of both men with an historical tradition and a literary identity, and not only a vocational pursuit.

Yet Chesterton and Muggeridge loved the atmosphere of journalism – the rough-and-tumble of newspapers, the romantic excitement of such a varied and creative enterprise. Early in his journalistic career, Chesterton spelt out his enjoyment of this enterprise. He liked to watch "the great lights burning on through darkness into dawn," and to hear "the roar of the printing wheels weaving the destinies of another day." The modern newspaper, he thought, was the greatest work of anonymity since the Christian cathedrals of the Middle Ages. Yet he also saw the perilous nature of this enterprise:

Nothing looks more neat and regular than a newspaper, with its parallel columns, its mechanical printing, its detailed facts and figures, its responsible, polysyllabic leading articles. Nothing, as a matter of fact, goes every night through more agonies of adventure, more hairbreadth escapes, desperate expedients, crucial councils, random compromises, or barely averted catastrophes. Seen from the outside, it seems to come round as automatically as the clock and as silently as the dawn. Seen from the inside, it gives all its organizers a gasp of relief every morning to see that it has come out at all; that it has come out without the leading article upside down or the Pope congratulated on discovering the North Pole.

In his later years, Chesterton developed a more jaundiced view of journalism, believing it had become a trade rather than a vocation, and the journalist "a man who writes things on the backs of advertisements."

Muggeridge, too, began his journalistic career with exalted hopes. From the outset he cherished a great love of words; he was always enraptured by their power and beauty, and believed that journalism was a most suitable setting in which to display that power and beauty. "I suppose," he said on one occasion, "when I come to die the strongest impression of life will be a sheet of white paper on a desk or in a typewriter which needs to be filled." In a hymn of praise to the English language, he sang "of the fabulous riches it offers in the way of vocabulary and imagery, of its versatility and subtlety and strength, of the unique possibilities it provides for packing into the compass of a tiny unadorned phrase feeling and wisdom which whole libraries scarcely contain."

Muggeridge knew that he had caught "the fever of journalism," which even in later life, he admitted, he had not quite shaken off. But he soon acquired a sceptical attitude towards it – even more, a cynical assessment of its cultural and historical impact, and an almost nihilistic view of its value. He was fond of quoting St Augustine's phrase – of the communicator as "a vendor of words" – and he felt more remorse for the words he had wasted, his "false words" (as he called them) than for his false deeds. News, he came to believe, was the expression of the hypochondria of a sick society – like endlessly sucking at a thermometer, or standing repeatedly on the bathroom scales.

As journalists, Chesterton and Muggeridge spanned an age of transformation of the media. Chesterton was essentially a print journalist, moving into the new medium of radio only in his closing years. Muggeridge was a multi-media journalist. He started off in print and continued in that forum throughout his life, but he gravitated to the new visual media, especially television (though also movies), where he gained enormous fame and influence – and also self-publicity, finding himself elevated to the status of a celebrity. Despite his deep ambivalence and even aversion to television – in his final years he refused to have one in his home in Sussex – he was a consummate broadcaster. The quality of his discourse, the power of his presentational style – a distinctive voice, rather affected but nonetheless compelling, a crisp and sharp accent (derived, evidently, from his years at Cambridge, and sharply different from the cockney of his south London upbringing) – produced an unforgettable presence on the screen.

Some of the most biting – and most humorous – passages in Muggeridge's writings are satirical reflections on his life as a journalist, notably when he worked for the Guardian newspaper, then the Manchester Guardian, in the 1930s. On his very first day, he was exposed to the casual predictability and stale indignation that he came to feel was part and parcel of a modern liberal newspaper. He was asked to write an editorial on corporal punishment, and not knowing what attitude he should take, he asked a fellow journalist: "What's our "line" on corporal punishment? The journalist replied: "The same as capital, only more so."

On various occasions, Muggeridge lampooned the characteristic newspaper of our society. The writing of editorials, for example: how effortlessly, he recalled, the familiar phrases would drop on to the page – the use of loaded words as a substitute for thought, the glib expressions of hope and confidence ("there are solid grounds for believing that . . ."), the assertions of moral exhortation and complacency ("it is surely incumbent upon all of us . . ."). They constituted non-language, he later realised: ". . . drooling non-sentences conveying non-thoughts, propounding non-fears and offering non-hopes. Words are as beautiful as love, and as easily betrayed."

At a later time, Muggeridge came to believe that, even more than newspapers, the visual media offered phenomenal possibilities of fabrication and self-delusion. In 1976, delivering some invited lectures in London on "Christ and the Media," he reflected on how the modern media might have handled the appearance of Christ in Galilee. Muggeridge conceived a fourth temptation – added to the actual three which the Devil put to Christ in the desert. He imagined a Roman media tycoon, whom he called Lucius Gradus the Elder (in a rather mischievous reference to the British entertainment tycoon, Lew Grade, known by his critics as "Low Grade"). Gradus had heard Jesus speak in Galilee and realised that, properly presented and promoted, this barely known figure in a remote province could achieve worldwide star quality.

The possibilities for trivialising Christ, in the effort to elevate him in the contemporary market-place, gave full play to Muggeridge's sense of the absurd. To start with, Lucius Gradus thought that Jesus should be brought to Rome for a spectacular show. He envisaged a grand set – there would be fountains playing, a lush atmosphere, organ music, a chorus-line, if possible from Delphi, and some big names from the games – gladiators in full outfits. Jesus would be the central figure, preaching of course, but as a precaution his words would be placed on autocue. To avoid any suggestion of bigotry, readings would take place from different scriptures, and a panel discussion would be arranged, including teachers and students from the Philosophy School in Athens – "always good value", thought Gradus.

Would this itinerant speaker from Galilee agree to such a proposal? Gradus wryly wondered how he could refuse. Here was a chance of reaching a huge audience, right across the Roman Empire, instead of the mere rabble he had attracted in Galilee. Gradus was sensitive enough not to sully the presentation with unsuitable commercials: he thought a single reputable sponsor could be enlisted – for example, the highly regarded public relations company, Lucifer Inc. – which would be unobtrusively listed at the start and end of the program. "Why," Gradus said triumphantly at the planning meeting, "it'll put him on the map, launch him off on a tremendous career as a worldwide evangelist, spread his teaching throughout the civilised world, and beyond. He'd be crazy to turn it down."

But Muggeridge felt that, as with the other three temptations, this one, too, would have been rejected. The recorded invitations of the Devil to Jesus – to turn stones into bread, to become famous through jumping off the Temple without suffering harm, and to gain power through bowing down to the kingdoms of the earth – were all destined to distort and corrupt the person of Christ and His message of eternal salvation.

Chesterton, too, recognised the humorously instructive potential of the media, even though the range of communication forms and outlets were more limited in his time. As a journalist, he engaged in debates with other popular writers of the day, and such exchanges gave him abundant openings for satirical imaginings as a way of highlighting the truth. On one occasion, for example, he conjured up an interview with H.G. Wells on the reported evidence of an actual historical Flood. It enabled him to make fun of Wells' evolutionary and utopian fancies as they had found expression in books like The Outline of History (1920). Chesterton began by noting that the discovery of traces of an actual historical Flood "has shaken the Christian world to its foundations by its apparent agreement with the Book of Genesis." In Chesterton's imagination, H.G. Wells has exclaimed:

I am interested in the Flood of the future: not in any of these little local floods that may have taken place in the past. I want a broader, larger, more complete and co-ordinated sort of flood: a Flood that will really cover the whole ground. I want to get people to understand that in the future we shall not divide water, in this petty way, into potty little ponds and lakes and rivers: it will be one big satisfying thing, the same everywhere. Apr?s moi le Déluge. Belloc in his boorish boozy way may question my knowledge of French: but I fancy that quotation will settle him.

There was another quality which Chesterton and Muggeridge displayed for which journalism provided the arena – namely, courage. Chesterton showed this during his years of editing the weekly journal, The New Witness, which he carried on in honour of his dead brother, Cecil, and later G.K.'s Weekly, in order to promote the cause of Distributism as an alternative social philosophy. Such work was almost certainly injurious to his health and, arguably, distracted him from writing more enduring works – though Chesterton himself would very likely have dismissed this second criticism as inflated and self-centred.

In Muggeridge's case, his publication of highly critical articles on the Soviet Union during the 1930s was a courageous act. It did nothing to secure his position – and his earning power – as a writer in the British literary world then dominated by the ideologies of the Left and infatuated with Stalin and his building of an earthly paradise in Russia.

I have devoted some time to Chesterton and Muggeridge as journalists, not only because this career formed a crucial part of their lives, but also because it was central to their search for meaning – and, finally, their adoption of the Catholic faith. Journalism afforded an arena of intellectual struggle and cultural conflict – the constant clash of ideas and forces – in which their search for truth was played out, and the opening of their hearts to God took place.

A third similarity between the two authors was their social philosophy – and their role as prominent social critics. There were, no doubt, decisive differences between them. Chesterton espoused a particular philosophy – that of Distributism as the promotion of widespread property ownership to secure social freedom – while Muggeridge instinctively distrusted any programs of social reform. Yet both of them were important social critics, not only of England, but of the West in general. Chesterton visited and wrote on a range of countries – chiefly European and Catholic, in particular Ireland and Poland, but also America – while Muggeridge, a more restless spirit, travelled widely, as a teacher or a correspondent or a spy, to places as diverse as India, Russia, Africa, the Middle East, America and Australia.

Yet their common social philosophy was in the key areas of marriage and the family – the "life" issues, as we now call them. This extended to such unfashionable subjects as contraception, where the two men were remarkably in harmony, long before either became a Catholic, and for reasons of natural law rather than supernatural revelation.

For Chesterton, the family supplied the central context for his social thinking. While he and his wife Frances were not blessed with children, he had a profound love of family which was no doubt nurtured by a remarkably happy childhood. In late 19th century English society, he could take for granted a relatively stable family environment, compared to that of Muggeridge's (and our) time, but he nonetheless foresaw the destructive impact of divorce and contraception upon the family – and the society.

Muggeridge also nursed a deep antipathy to divorce and contraception, going back to the 1920s, to his early experience in India where the people's love of children made them resistant to what he later called "the missionaries of contraception," and to his marriage to Kitty which, despite enormous strains as a result of frequent separations and infidelities, lasted happily until the end.

I vividly recall the first time I saw and heard Muggeridge personally. It was at a conference in San Francisco in 1978 on the encyclical Humanae Vitae, and Muggeridge delivered the keynote address. He pronounced Humanae Vitae a document of fundamental importance for our times, and – though not a Catholic at that stage – he thought that history would vindicate the Church's stand on this issue. He was, indeed, speaking at a later time than Chesterton, after contraception had become a pervasive practice in the Western world, and abortion a major arena of moral and political conflict. To that extent, it was a remarkable intellectual act on Muggeridge's part – and an exceptionally courageous one as well – to confront such a settled consensus in Western society.

A fourth similarity between Chesterton and Muggeridge is a dual quality which I would describe as a fondness for paradox and a capacity for prophecy. Paradox is normally defined as an apparent contradiction, but it might be better construed as an emphasis on two truths at the same time – a way of combining them without distorting or diluting them. Chesterton's writing, of course, abounds in paradoxes – to the point where, for some, his prose can degenerate at times into mere word-play and frivolousness. It is nonetheless true, I think, that the freshness and power of his mind had a great deal to do with his paradoxical insights – and especially his insights into Christianity, which itself is a paradoxical faith, resting on truths that can seem contradictory – above all, the Incarnation, Christ being both God and man, and of Christ himself uttering as truths certain affirmations that are full of paradox – most strikingly in the Beatitudes ("Blessed are the poor in spirit . . ."; "Blessed are those who mourn . . ."; "Blessed are the meek . . ."), as well as in key statements of Christ's, such as "whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it."

When Chesterton illuminates the reality of the Incarnation and builds on it, he provides a richness of understanding that is unrivalled. For example, in a central chapter of Orthodoxy called "The Paradoxes of Christianity," he takes certain virtues and shows how their meaning can only be found in paradox. Thus courage, he writes, means "a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die." A soldier surrounded by enemies has to combine a longing to live with a strange carelessness about dying. Or the virtue of humility, which Chesterton sees as the right balance between what he calls "pride" and "prostration." "In so far as I am Man," he wrote, "I am the chief of creatures. In so far as I am a man I am the chief of sinners." Christianity elevated man to being a child of God, a creature of supernatural dignity. At the same time, it taught "the abject smallness of man that could only be expressed in fasting and fantastic submission. . . One can hardly think too little of one's self. One can hardly think too much of one's soul." So, Christianity, in Chesterton's mind, combined furious opposites: it kept them both, and it kept them both furious.

Muggeridge also delighted in paradoxes, which he appreciated in Christianity long before he became a Christian. In 1926, for example, when he was in his early 20s, he wrote to his father:

I love the paradoxes and inconsistencies of Christianity. Christianity is to life what Shakespeare is to literature. For it envisages the whole. It sees the necessity for man to have spiritual values and it shows him how to get at those through physical sacraments.

Muggeridge had an ingrained ability for seeing the paradoxes of life. He loved the phrase of William Blake's, "fearful symmetry," which summed up for him the dual nature of reality – the fact that, as both he and Chesterton felt, human beings yearn to feel at home in this world but cannot do so because they are made for another world. It was this profound longing to "come home" that finally drew them to Catholicism – and was the overwhelming experience they had after their conversion.

Muggeridge's paradoxes were different from Chesterton's. They were experiential rather than philosophical – born of experience, the adventures, and often the ordeals, of life, not based on philosophical inference or logical deduction. His time as a journalist in the Soviet Union in the 1930s was especially decisive in forming his capacity for paradoxes. It was a lacerating experience, and his notion of an earthly paradise, on which he had been nurtured by his father and the members of the Fabian Society in England (notably, the Webbs, Sidney and Beatrice, and public figures like George Bernard Shaw), was forever destroyed by Stalin's purges and his collectivisation of agriculture – a program of mass extermination masquerading as social and economic reform. Muggeridge later reflected that the Webbs embodied the spirit of the age, "pursuing truth through facts and arriving at fantasy, seeking deliverance through power and arriving at servitude."

Muggeridge often quoted a statement attributed to Chesterton (but never fully documented), which he thought shed light on the illusions embraced by apostate human beings – that when people cease to believe in God, they don't believe in nothing; what is far worse, they believe in anything.

During World War II, Muggeridge served as a spy in the British Secret Service, and on one occasion he was interviewed for an assignment by a writer of thrillers. This led him to note a range of paradoxical connections:

"Writers of thrillers tend to gravitate to the Secret Service as surely as the mentally unstable become psychiatrists, or the impotent pornographers."

This statement epitomised Muggeridge's style, which was to pile paradoxes one upon the other, rather than to unpack them in a systematic way, as Chesterton did. This style and mode of thinking are what helped to make Muggeridge so supremely effective on television, involving as it does endless images unfolding to create a picture of reality.

An instructive example of this difference is the observations of Chesterton and Muggeridge on the social effects of institutionalised lust. In the 1960s, Muggeridge wrote an essay on the Sexual Revolution called "Down with Sex." It consists of a gradual building up, through observations and examples, of a picture of corruption and emptiness, so that without any very strong arguments being advanced, the impression one takes away is that this is not a way of life which has anything to recommend it. Muggeridge noted that "we have all got sex on the brain, which, apart from any other considerations, is a most unseemly place to have it." He then gathered up impressions, most of them arising from the daily perceptions of a practising journalist, punctuated by occasional stabs of insight – as when he stated that "sex is the mysticism of materialism;" a kind of spiritual aid to earthly indulgence; a way of making physical pursuits almost metaphysical in their importance. Erotic obsessions, Muggeridge thought, produce a conformist state of mind, and thus favour acceptance of the social and economic status quo. By comparison, when Chesterton made a similar point in 1910, more than fifty years earlier and well before the Sexual Revolution, he spoke in terms that were more philosophical – and, perhaps, intellectually more powerful:

Indecency is not wild and lawless. The danger of indecency is exactly that it is tame, dull, direct, inevitable; a mere law in the members. It is automatic evil. Pride makes man a devil; but lust makes him a machine.

How would paradox lead to prophecy? I think it is because paradox reflects vision – a power to see the truth, to venture beyond the conventional horizon and discern the full outcome of trends that are only in their early stages of development.

The 19th century critic and artist John Ruskin once pointed out how rare is the power of vision. For the hundreds of people who can talk there is only one who can think, and for the thousands of people who can think there is only one who can see. Both Chesterton and Muggeridge possessed that power of vision. They had the artist's eye, and they may, perhaps, be more truly described as literary artists rather than simply writers. Chesterton trained to be an artist and drew pictures all his life. Many of his most memorable passages are, in fact, pictures with words – as befits the gift of vision, the capacity to see, not just to think. Muggeridge, too, showed a visionary quality in his works. He was fond of Blake's cautionary words, that we spend too much of our time looking "with, not thro' the eye." Muggeridge knew that gazing at reality was not enough: we must penetrate it – embrace it, love it, as a great gift. A salient sign of his visionary powers was his television programs, which he made in the 1960s, beginning with autobiographical episodes such as "A Socialist Childhood" and moving on to religious themes such as a pilgrimage to Lourdes, a visit to a Cistercian abbey ("A Hard Bed to Lie On") and, in particular, a study of Mother Teresa of Calcutta ("Something Beautiful for God"). Muggeridge's achievement as a television broadcaster was related to his ability to see, and not merely to speak about, the reality he was conveying on the screen.

Another reason that Chesterton and Muggeridge could discern the paradoxes of life was that they were capable of seeing the world upside down. Chesterton demonstrated this ability in the most startling way when he wrote about St Peter being crucified upside down. His humility, wrote Chesterton, was rewarded by his seeing in death the beautiful vision of his boyhood. He would have seen the landscape as it really is – "with the stars like flowers, and the clouds like hills, and all men hanging on the mercy of God."

Apart from the important perspectives of Chesterton and Muggeridge on marriage and the family, the most penetrating insight which they shared was their understanding of liberalism as a social and political philosophy. Both of them saw that the ultimate unfolding of liberalism was totalitarianism. Liberalism did not usher in greater freedom, but greater servitude. It was not an antidote to totalitarianism, but rather its precursor.

Muggeridge himself recognised this prophetic understanding on Chesterton's part. In a review he wrote in 1963, Muggeridge called Chesterton "an impressive prophet." He quoted a statement of Chesterton's in 1905:

The earnest Freethinkers need not worry themselves so much about the persecutions of the past. Before the Liberal idea is dead or triumphant, we shall see wars and persecutions the like of which the world has never seen.

After quoting this prophecy, Muggeridge added:

Stalin, then a young man of 26, and Hitler, 10 years younger, were, along with others, to make good his words to a fabulous degree.

Muggeridge felt the intensity of this truth in his bones, for he – by comparison with Chesterton (who died in 1936) – lived through the greater part of the 20th century, when the full consequences of modern political ideologies had become inescapably plain. In later life, Muggeridge described himself as "among the walking-wounded from the ideological conflicts of the age." In the 1930s, he had witnessed the gullibility of Western intellectuals in the face of 20th century totalitarianism. He described this phenomenon of intellectual blindness and dishonesty in his novel, Winter in Moscow (1934), and he once noted that a peculiar sin of the 20th century, which had been developed to a very high level, was the sin of credulity.

Chesterton, for his part, had early recognised the intellectual weaknesses of the major secular prophets of his time – addressing these in Heretics (1905), a precursor to Orthodoxy (1908) – long before the cultural effects of their ideas became manifest. He saw the moral ramifications of various social changes – in particular, divorce and contraception. But he did not live to see the ubiquity of abortion and the insistent demand for euthanasia. In 1978, Muggeridge predicted that governments of the future will find the temptation of euthanasia irresistible – as a way of delivering themselves and their constituents from the growing burden of caring for the sick, the senile and the insane. He thought that the delay in generating public pressure for euthanasia was due to its being one of the crimes cited at Nuremberg after World War II. "It takes just over thirty years," he concluded, "in our humane society to transform a war crime into an act of compassion."

An even older example for Muggeridge, relating to a contemporary moral issue, was that of Christ and abortion. Muggeridge marvelled at the escape of Christ from the Massacre of the Innocents, but he wondered whether He would have survived today's Massacre. As he commented:

It is, in point of fact, extremely improbable, under existing conditions, that Jesus would have been permitted to be born at all. Mary's pregnancy, in poor circumstances, and with the father unknown, would have been an obvious case for abortion; and her talk of having conceived as a result of the intervention of the Holy Ghost would have pointed to the need for psychiatric treatment, and made the case for terminating her pregnancy even stronger. Thus our generation, needing a Saviour more, perhaps, than any that has ever existed, would be too humane to allow one to be born. . .

A final observation about paradox and prophecy in our two figures is that these qualities played a substantial part in their effectiveness as Christian apologists. Both men brought a vigour, an excitement, to the ancient truths of the Christian faith by expressing them in new ways. At the same time, neither of them felt a personal pride in their adoption of the Christian faith. As Chesterton put it, "I will not call it my philosophy; for I did not make it. God and humanity made it; and it made me." Indeed, they both felt deeply humbled by the gift they had received – and humbled, too, by the length of time it took them to enter the household of the Faith.

What were the factors which impelled Chesterton and Muggeridge to seek admission to that "household"? Two preliminary points are perhaps of importance.

The first concerns the limits of our understanding of the process of conversion. Finally, faith is a gift – conferred by God and His supernatural grace, not by man and his natural insights. We can probe the reasons for conversion, and the course of intellectual discovery and devotion. We can read the testimony of the convert himself. In Chesterton's case, we can study his book, The Catholic Church and Conversion (1926), and the six chapters (called "My Six Conversions") in The Well and the Shallows (1935), offering reasons for his becoming a Catholic – if, as he noted, "he had not been restrained from that rash step by the fortunate accident that he was one already." In the case of Muggeridge, there are such books as Jesus Rediscovered (1969), Jesus: The Man Who Lives (1975), and Conversion: A Spiritual Journey (1988). Ultimately, however, the process of conversion is God's work rather than man's – and therefore only partly open to human documentation and interpretation.

A second observation relates to the term "conversion," which often does not fully capture the process that takes place in people's lives. "Conversion" is literally a "turning around", but frequently there takes place a more subtle and gradual movement of the mind and heart – a process of development rather than denial; a culmination, not a reversal. The American priest-author Richard John Neuhaus used to refer to his becoming a Catholic as a process of "embracing" rather than "converting". An act of "embracing" probably describes more accurately the step which Chesterton and Muggeridge each took in becoming Catholics.

In the sense of being formally received into the Catholic Church, Chesterton and Muggeridge were both late converts. Chesterton entered the Church in 1922, only fourteen years before his death in 1936; and Muggeridge became a Catholic in 1982, only eight years before his death in 1990.

Yet their interest and even belief in Christianity came much earlier – in both instances, when they were in their 20s. In the case of Chesterton, this is documented in the private notebook he started keeping from the age of 20 (in 1894). In his important study of Chesterton's intellectual development, William Oddie makes clear that his subject's essential outlook on Christianity was formed by the time he wrote Orthodoxy in 1908. Many people presumed that Chesterton was already a Catholic when his reception into the Church was announced in 1922. It was not a surprise – even though his old friend and adversary, George Bernard Shaw, said to him, as though he had committed a social rather than a metaphysical gaffe: "This is going too far." The factors which restrained Chesterton from taking that final step seem mainly to have been personal rather than intellectual or even spiritual – a characteristic slowness in implementing practical decisions, and a reluctance to make such an important move without his wife accompanying him.

In Muggeridge's case, the period of gestation was even longer. His interest in the spiritual life, and in Christ, was quickened when he first visited India in the 1920s, and again during the 1930s in Russia where he responded to the mystical traditions of Russian culture. These traditions found vivid expression in the writings of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky (always two of his favourite authors) and were brought alive for him in a church in Kiev on one Sunday when he came to feel, for the first time, the overpowering truth of Christ's Resurrection.

Both men were tempted, at earlier times in their lives, to join the Catholic Church. For Chesterton, it was during the First World War when he was struck down with a serious illness and told his wife that he was thinking of becoming a Catholic. For Muggeridge, it was in 1944, when the accumulated experience of the 1930s and the Second World War had left him acutely disenchanted and he was searching for a redemptive faith. In 1950, he wrote a diary note: "I see the force and importance of the Catholic Church, but I could not, in honesty, accept its dogma."

A vital influence in the conversions of both Chesterton and Muggeridge was the respective trips they took to the Holy Land. Chesterton went to Palestine in 1919, out of which came a remarkable book, The New Jerusalem (1920); and Muggeridge made a visit in 1967 for the making of a BBC television series called A Life of Christ. In each case, the journey to Christ's homeland registered a decisive psychological impact. It gave a fresh illumination, a breakthrough of clarity and understanding, a quiet surge of conviction. Yet it is also characteristic of their respective approaches to faith that the effects of the visit differed between the two men. Chesterton received primarily a philosophical insight, and Muggeridge, an empirical one.

For Chesterton, the trip brought home the overriding human need for absolution – for forgiveness, for redemption. Reading the Gospels, as Christopher Hollis has pointed out, Chesterton saw that they were essentially "the story of Christ wrestling with evil spirits." This led, in the context of the Middle East, to a further insight – that Islam and Judaism both understood the great truth that there was one God who made the world, but they did not grasp the reality of evil in that world – of man's weakness for evil, and of God's willingness to re-enter the world to assist man to overcome evil. The Muslims, said Chesterton, had one truth – and that, a great truth – which was the creative power of God; but they had no second truth, which was the redemptive power of God. They had "not one thought to rub against another." It is, Chesterton believed, "the friction of two spiritual things, of tradition and invention, or of substance and symbol, from which the mind takes fire. The creeds condemned as complex have something like the secret of sex; they can breed thoughts." Thus, Islam and Judaism are like Christianity, monotheistic, but they are unlike Christianity in not recognising variety in unity. They do not have the truth of the Trinity.

The power of paradox in Chesterton's mind and makeup is again evident – combining two or more truths and keeping them all vital and believable.

"We see in all the Christian ages," he concluded, "this combination which is not a compromise, but rather a complexity made by two contrary enthusiasms; as when the Dark Ages copied out the pagan poems while denying the pagan legends; or when the popes of the Renascence imitated the Greek temples while denying the Greek gods."

When it came to deliverance from evil, only one voice, Chesterton finally found, dared to speak those words of forgiveness, and that was the voice of a Catholic priest. So, when he returned to England, he was focused more than ever on being received into the Catholic Church.

With Muggeridge, the impact of the Holy Land was singularly important, even though more than twenty years were to elapse before he formally became a Catholic. His visit in 1967 was as a religious broadcaster. It differed sharply from his earlier trips to the Middle East as a sceptical journalist absorbed by the political and military conflicts of this region. In 1967 he received what he called "the first intimation of conversion – a mystical feeling . . ." As he sat in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, waiting for the door to close so that filming could begin, he watched the faces of visitors entering the crypt. They seemed to be a typical sample of 20th century tourists, ranging from the devout to the vaguely curious. But then he noticed something extraordinary –and that was how each face was, in some way, transfigured by the experience of being in the actual place of Christ's birth. As he later described their reaction:

This was where it happened, they all seemed to be saying. Here He came into the world! Here we shall find Him! The boredom, the idle curiosity, the vagrant thinking all disappeared. Once more in that place glory shone round. . . .

Muggeridge said that he felt an impulse to kneel down with the worshippers, but he held back, embarrassed, as he later admitted, that the film crew might laugh.

Whereas Chesterton's conversion was not a surprise, Muggeridge's was – for a number of reasons. First, he had an ingrained attitude of scepticism, even cynicism, towards all human institutions, and towards all collective causes and solutions, especially those infected by the urge to perfectionism. He felt the utmost difficulty in seeing any human organisation, even the Church, as a divine organism – an instrument of God's life and love. A crucial influence on Muggeridge's outlook was his close friend and fellow author, Hugh Kingsmill (who was, interestingly enough, the brother of Arnold Lunn, a notable Catholic convert of the 1930s). In a study of powerful leaders, The Poisoned Crown (1944), Kingsmill concluded with a passage that carried a profound appeal to Muggeridge's mind:

What is divine in man is elusive and impalpable, and he is easily tempted to embody it in a concrete form – a church, a country, a social system, a leader – so that he may realise it with less effort and serve it with more profit. Yet . . . the attempt to externalise the kingdom of heaven in a temporal shape must end in disaster. It cannot be created by charters and constitutions nor established by arms. Those who set out for it alone will reach it together, and those who seek it in company will perish by themselves.

Muggeridge, in short, epitomised the radical individualism of modern Western culture. He once said: "There's nothing in this world more instinctively abhorrent to me than finding myself in agreement with my fellow humans." This stands in contrast to Chesterton, who had a deep sense of rapport with the common man – and an instinctive love of ordinary human beings.

There was a further constraint on Muggeridge's mind, in relation to his conversion, and that is the source and timing of his characteristic attitudes. Even where those were most in harmony with the Catholic Church – for example, on spiritual realities such as the human longing for God and on moral issues such as contraception – they had developed independently of Christianity. They did not derive consciously from the Church, and thus there would seem to have been little motive for him to join the Church out of a sense of gratitude or duty. The Church may well have enunciated this or that truth, which Muggeridge accepted, but it had not, as Chesterton put it in his own circumstances, revealed itself to him as a "truth-telling thing" – that is, as an institution with divine authority.

Even after his conversion to Christianity – and before he became a Catholic – Muggeridge remained sceptical about the Church as a vessel of Christian truth and grace. Yet his sense of regret was powerfully felt – and at times poignant in its intensity. He confessed that he found the seeming collapse of the Catholic Church in modern times desolating. "We bemoan," he said, "the passing of a liturgy in which we never participated, of high virtues which we never practised, of an obedience we never accorded and an orthodoxy we never accepted and often ridiculed."

A crucial difference between Chesterton and Muggeridge is that, whereas Chesterton entered a Church in the first half of the 20th century that appeared relatively robust and united, Muggeridge was faced with a collapsing Church in the second half of the 20th century. On one of his trips to Australia, Muggeridge was asked by the political author and activist, B.A. Santamaria, if he was thinking of becoming a Catholic. Muggeridge replied: "Have you ever seen a rat joining a sinking ship?" In a way, the external condition of the Church for Chesterton and Muggeridge accounted for the respective differences in their style of Christian apologetics. As Gregory Wolfe has pointed out, Chesterton was more optimistic and romantic, while Muggeridge was more pessimistic and pungent – "more darkly satirical" and "more willing to balance doubt with faith".

Finally, the decisive factor in Muggeridge's conversion was the unanswerable one – the influence and intercession of a saint, Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Chesterton once wrote that each generation is converted by the saint who contradicts it most. I think that Muggeridge was converted by the saint who contradicted him most. A simple chaste nun, unworldly in her vocation and yet distinctly worldly in her bold and loving care; living in poverty and serving "the poorest of the poor." In the face of a Mother Teresa, Muggeridge said he could trace the actual geography of Christ's Kingdom; all the contours and valleys and waterways. "I need no other map," he said. After publishing the book in which he sketched that image, Jesus: The Man Who Lives (1975), he sent a letter to Mother Teresa. "I long to hear what you thought of my Jesus book sometime," he said. "In a sense I wrote it for you." In 1969 he made the well-known television program on Mother Teresa, "Something Beautiful for God," which, together with his book of the same name, catapulted Mother Teresa on to the world stage as a saint, not only for all time but with particular significance for the late 20th century. Mother Teresa summed up, in her person and in her life of dedication to God and her love of the poorest of His creatures, the qualities most strikingly at odds with a hedonistic culture savagely selective in its attitudes of compassion towards others.

Mother Teresa was not the only woman who influenced the conversion of Muggeridge – and, indeed, of Chesterton. It is hardly possible to do justice to the growing faith of both these men without weighing the importance of their respective wives – of Frances Chesterton and Kitty Muggeridge. Frances had helped her husband to see a luminous expression of Christian faith in the life of someone he loved very deeply; and while he was reluctant to join the Catholic Church without her accompanying him, she was later received – on her own terms of conviction – in 1926.

By comparison, Kitty Muggeridge joined the Catholic Church alongside her husband in 1982. Their intellectual pilgrimage was similar. Kitty was a niece of Beatrice Webb and came from a family background of socialist idealism. But as in Malcolm's case, the scales feel from her eyes in Stalin's Russia. For both of them, the path to Christian faith was paved by the prior disillusionment with an earthly faith, and later intensified by a reading of the spiritual classics. Kitty would often read from these works to Malcolm in the evening, and she shared his interest in Mother Teresa, to whom she devoted an essay in her book, Bright Legacy (1983).

I began by describing the final months of the lives of Muggeridge and Chesterton, and suggesting a contrast that reflected the ages in which they lived. Yet this was not the whole story – or the final chapter. Let me close by highlighting two incidents that occurred at the very end in the case of each man.

Muggeridge, during his last days in hospital, refused repeatedly to accept the medication that nurses were trying to give him in the form of pills – and finally, he had to receive the medication by injection. Shortly afterwards, the hospital chaplain came by to give him Holy Communion. The result was decidedly different. As his son John recalled:

. . . the priest lit a candle, said the usual prayers, gave a piece of the Host first to my mother and me and then to my father, who closed his eyes and consumed it reverently.

Chesterton's last days were marked by a slow deterioration in body and mind. His heart was of particular concern – the heart which a doctor, many years before, had described as too small for his enormous frame. As Maisie Ward commented:

The thought of a Chesterton whose heart was too small presents a paradox in his own best manner.

A close friend and fellow Distributist, the famous Dominican preacher, Fr Vincent McNabb, arrived and, finding that Chesterton had already been anointed, he sang over the dying man the Salve Regina. Looking down, he saw Chesterton's pen lying on the table beside his bed, and he picked it up and kissed it.

This was a touching act of affection and thanksgiving, which can serve as a more general salute to the vocation of Christian writing. It is one we can readily, and respectfully, endorse – and, I think, symbolically repeat all these years later, in honour of two remarkable converts, Chesterton and Muggeridge, and two great champions of the Faith.

This is J. Fraser Field, Founder of CERC. I hope you appreciated this piece. We curate these articles especially for believers like you.

Please show your appreciation by making a $3 donation. CERC is entirely reader supported.



Karl Schmude. "G.K. Chesterton and Malcolm Muggeridge: A balance of opposites." The Chesterton Review vol. XXXV, nos. 3 & 4 (Fall/Winter, 2009): 576-599.

Reprinted with permission from the author, Karl Schmude, and The Chesterton Review.

Footnotes for this article will be found in the original.

The Chesterton Review is a journal of The G.K. Chesrton Institute for Faith & Culture, based at Seton Hall Unviersity. Edited by Ian Boyd, the Review is devoted to exploring the life and work of one of the twentieth century's most original thinkers – G.K. Chesterton. Past issues have also explored the work of writers like C.S. Lewis, Christopher Dawson, Charles Dickens, and George Grant, who share something of the Chestertonian romance with "orthodoxy." Elegantly produced, The Chesterton Review is one of the most prestigious literary and cultural journal published today. Mailed every summer and winter season, each Review is illustrated with period photos and published at 300 pages. To subscribe, go here.

"What makes The Chesterton Review so readable is not only its fresh writing, but its genius for bringing to vivid life a whole age of modern prophets – memorable men we seem determined to forget." – Joseph Sobran

The Author

Karl Schmude is President of the Australian Chesterton Society and a co-founder of the first liberal arts institution of higher learning in Australia, Campion College Australia. Formerly University Librarian at the University of New England in Armidale NSW, he now serves as Executive Director of the Campion Foundation, a private body responsible for establishing Campion College. This article is adapted from a paper he delivered to a conference of the Australian Chesterton Society at Campion College on 10 October 2009, which addressed the topic of 'Double Vision: Converts in Combination'. Karl Schmude is the author of G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc.

Copyright © 2010 Karl Schmude

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