G.K. Chesterton never hid his opinion. During his writing career he carried on innumerable controversies with all manner of public figures. He criticized Germany relentlessly, took aim at modernists, critiqued other famous writers of the day, defended the most indefensible institution of the age (The Catholic Church), and laughed all the while. His manner was incisive and direct, but it was never ad hominem, always humorous, and always fair and sympathetic in the way it interpreted the work of others. This is how Chesterton managed to remain universally beloved. It didn’t hurt that he pretended to be fatter than he was and was said to have collaborated with Belloc to cover Catholicism in a boozy halo.
Speaking of Belloc, his style contrasted with of Chesterton and was far more acerbic. For instance when H.G. Wells wrote his history textbook, Belloc tore into him repeatedly in print for his atheistic explanation of the world until their personal relationship was soured. Chesterton, on the other hand, responded with Everlasting Man and the two remained friends.
Another nemesis of Belloc and Chesterton was George Bernard Shaw. Shaw and Chesterton could not have been more different, even extending to their physical appearances. They debated each other vigorously in both print and in public talks on almost every single issue. And yet they were fast friends. Perhaps the following exchange, noted by Dale Ahlquist, illustrates why:
Chesterton: I see there has been a famine in the land.
Shaw: And I see the cause of it.
Shaw: If I were as fat as you, I would hang myself.
Chesterton: If I were to hang myself, I would use you for the rope.
Suffice it to say, Chesterton may be a saint simply for his ability to defend the truth winsomely and without creating enemies. Because of this, the company of his admirers are sometimes surprising.
Enter Alan Watts, the zen-appropriating, sometime Episcopal priest, amateur psychotherapizing, proto-hippie author. Watts made no secret of his dislike for traditional Christianity, which he thought placed far too much emphasis on guilt and sin. He later graduated into the harder stuff like mescaline, LSD, and, apparently, Chesterton’s biography of St. Francis.
Joseph Pearce writes in his biography, “Writing soon after Gilbert’s death, Watts confessed a love for Chesterton based upon that latter’s spiritual joie de vivre.” He goes on to quote Watts from an article titled “G.K. Chesterton: The Jongleur de Dieu” (a title Chesterton had applied to St. Francis of Assisi)
Although I am anything but a Roman Catholic, the recent death of G.K. Chesterton felt almost like a personal loss. For with no writer of today did I find myself in deeper sympathy. It was not that I agreed with all his ideas, but rather that I felt myself in complete accord with his basic attitude to life.
Later, in a lecture entirely about his love for Chesterton, Watts says, “Chesterton’s fundamental attitude as a poet and a theologian was that even God needed surprise.” Thus, free will, the magical nature of creation, and humor. He comments, “This is why Calvinists are so dreary,” and, “That’s what you would do if you were God.”
He actually has some insightful comments and there is plenty of merit to his understanding of Chesterton. Listen to the full Watts lecture: