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Man is not a machine: The genius of Chesterton’s Father Brown

father brown BOOK COVER

G.K. Chesterton | Penguin Books | Fair Use

Tod Worner - published on 10/24/20

In the early 20th century, G.K. Chesterton crafted 53 wonderful stories featuring a Roman Catholic priest who was also an amateur sleuth.

One of the greatest mistakes of the modern age is to underestimate the wisdom of a religious man or woman. But it is a mistake that is made again and again. Religion, it is argued, is a myth and a crutch. It is the fancy of weak-minded adherents to fairy tales who are reluctant to engage with the hard-boiled facts of “real life.” Who needs miracles and parables when we have iPhones and Amazon?

It is time, we are told, to leave childish religion behind. Science, on the other hand, is our savior. How often do we hear about the “party of Science,” or “being a man of Science,” or the admonishment that “we just need to follow the Science” to arrive at infallible truth? Science, it seems, cannot lie. Amidst the intractable bias and deep-seated superstitions that plague the human condition, we are reminded that our best and only recourse is to Science. Want to answer a question, solve a problem, or meet any need?  Then, we must hypothesize, test, analyze, and conclude. The truth, it is said, is only attainable (now or in the misty future) through clear-thinking calculation and deduction. Emotions and intuition, common sense and faith are pesky confounding nuisances left over from our unenlightened, pre-literate brain.

In the world of detective stories, this perspective is embodied by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock is all about the facts. Evidence poured into the computer of Holmes’ mind invariably leads to truth. And whenever Holmes is momentarily thrown off his sure path, it seems it is from the emotional “irrationalities” of Dr. Watson or some other well-intended but apparently oafish character.

“Detection is, or ought to be, an exact science,” Holmes would correct Watson, “and should be treated in the same cold and unemotional manner. You have attempted to tinge it with romanticism, which produces much the same effect as if you worked a love-story or an elopement into the fifth proposition of Euclid.” To this scolding, Watson nods.

But I don’t.

And that is why I like G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown better than Sherlock Holmes.

In the early 20th century, G.K. Chesterton crafted 53 wonderful stories featuring Father Brown, a Roman Catholic priest and amateur sleuth. The model for Father Brown was Father John O’Connor, a friend and Irish priest instrumental to and present for Chesterton’s own Catholic conversion. To illustrate Father O’Connor’s wisdom, Chesterton remembered confiding in him about a particular proposal Chesterton was about to publish “in connection with some rather sordid social questions of vice and crime.” Privately and soberly, the priest pulled Chesterton aside and schooled the learned writer about the proper way to go. The insights Father O’Connor offered stunned and impressed Chesterton. What was the origin of his counsel? His profound understanding of the darkness that resides in our broken human nature — wisdom that he had learned as a priest.

Chesterton tells the story of how he found Father O’Connor at a party in conversation with “two hearty and healthy young Cambridge undergraduates,” whereupon,

The talk soon deepened into a discussion on matters more philosophical and moral; and when the priest had left the room, the two young men broke out into general expressions of admiration, saying truly that he was a remarkable man, and seems to know a great deal about Palestrina or Baroque architecture, or whatever was the point at the moment. Then there fell a curious reflective silence, at the end of which one of the undergraduates suddenly burst out, “All the same, I don’t believe his sort of life is the right one. It’s all very well to like religious music and so on, when you’re all shut up in a sort of cloister and don’t know anything about the real world. But I don’t believe that’s the right ideal. I believe in a fellow coming out into the world, and facing the evil that’s in it, and knowing something about the dangers and all that. It’s a very beautiful thing to be innocent and ignorant; but I think it’s a much finer thing not to be afraid of knowledge.”

Upon overhearing this, Chesterton blanched,

To me, still almost shivering with the appallingly practical facts of which the priest had warned me [about the proposal I was going to publish], this comment came with such a colossal and crushing irony, that I nearly burst into a loud harsh laugh in the drawing-room. For I knew perfectly well that, as regards all the solid Satanism which the priest knew and warred against with all his life, these two Cambridge gentlemen (luckily for them) knew about as much of real evil as two babies in the same perambulator.

Chesterton’s Father Brown is humble and unassuming, warm and engaging. Clearly bright, he is well-read and well-educated. He is a clear thinker and discerning judge of the facts. In this way, he is much like Sherlock Holmes. But unlike Sherlock Holmes, he is not afraid to grapple with the intangibles. Men, after all, are not machines. They are capable of wild acts, dark moods, and puzzling irrationalities. They are children of God plague by the devil. As such, brute logic is not enough to fully comprehend them or their actions. To understand man, you must be a man and employ (in addition to logic) that which the cult of Science disdains: common sense, intuition, and faith. Our fallibility informs us about the fallibility in others. Where Holmes uses reason alone with success in Doyle’s tales, in reality he risks stunting himself. Chesterton once observed that if you “take away the supernatural … what remains is the unnatural.” In approaching the fullness of man in all of his sensibility and contradiction, Father Brown finds it easier to use reason with room for faith. In so doing, he can solve the crime and love the man.

To be sure, one of the greatest mistakes of the modern age is to underestimate the wisdom of a religious man or woman. G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown shows us why.

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