G. K. Chesterton on romance and religion

In his introduction to the Everyman edition of Charles Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby, G. K. Chesterton comments on how religion and romance are similar. Mind you, when Chesterton says “religion,” what he really means is “Christianity”; thus his is a narrow perspective indeed. Even so, I’m going to quote some of what he says, interspersed with my own commentary:

“Romance is perhaps the highest point of human expression, except indeed religion, to which it is closely allied. Romance resembles religion especially in this, that it is not only a simplification abut a shortening of existence….”

I agree with the first sentence. I think the second sentence is a gross oversimplification of both romance and religion.

“…religion is always insisting on the shortness of human life. But it does not insist on the shortness of human life as the pessimists insist on the shortness of human life. Pessimism insists on the shortness of human life in order to show that life is valueless. Religion insists on the shortness of human life in order to show that life is frightfully valuable….”

Even though Chesterton is really distinguishing between pessimism and Christianity, I think he’s on to something here. Other religions (or other spiritualities) do in fact say that life is frightfully valuable. This is one of the most important functions of religion and spirituality in human society.

“All this is equally true for romance. Romance is a shortening and sharpening of human difficulty. Where you and I have to vote against a man [sic], or write (rather feebly) against a man, or sign illegible petitions against a man, romance does for him what we should really like to see done; it knocks him down; it shortens the slow process of historical justice….”

And religion does this to some extent, too, although we have a longer timeline that the writers of romances like Nicholas Nickleby. In Nicholas Nickleby, evil uncle Ralph Nickleby is driven to death after a period of two or three years; so it’s only a few years until the evildoer gets what he deserves. According to most religions, it takes longer for justice to prevail. The conservative Christians (like Chesterton) talk about judgement by God after death; we will have to wait until death for evil persons to get their just desserts. Progressive Christians like Theodore Parker and Martin Luther King, Jr., talk about the moral arc of the universe bending towards justice; we will have to wait until long after any of us dies before the evil that is in society is expunged. Some strands of Buddhism tend towards quietism and simply accept suffering while trying to transcend it, but the Engaged Buddhists like Thich Nhat Hanh closely resemble Dr. King and Theodore Parker in their timeline for justice to arrive.

I suspect that what both religions like Christianity and Engaged Buddhism, and romances like Nicholas Nickleby share is a commitment to hope. Pessimists (and even some realists) see hope as ridiculously idealistic. Religions and romances take hope as a given.