Friday, January 6, 2017

Friday BookReview: Man Among the Animals, Christ Among the Men

by David Pence


An English journalist wrote this book in response to The Outline of History (1919) by H.G. Wells, which told the story of the physical earth, the evolution of man within the animal kingdom, and the religions and civilizations that contributed to human progress in history.  G.K. Chesterton was a combative friend of Wells and sought to influence the millions who had read the book. He judged the 24-volume work (subtitled: 'The Whole Story of Man') as missing the two central points of that whole story—man with his immortal soul is unique among the animals, and the invisible God who made the universe was unique among men when He walked among us as Jesus Christ. These are startling truths that cannot be folded in as one more step in a very long timeline or one more piece of a theory called evolution. These two facts still startle us. Yet only they unlock the "whole story of man." Only knowing man as man, and Christ as Christ, enlightens our path in this dangerous universe with a new common sense about our place in the scheme of things.


Chesterton made a series of observations. The caveman drew pictures. There is no evidence he beat his wife. Man can be embarrassed and wears clothes as if hiding some root realities of high potential. Man’s capacity for laughter shows he sees some truths of nature that other animals miss. This man, this father, adds something new to the mothering instinct of mammals. A man became a man when he became a father; and there came upon the midnight clear a father/mother/child trinity as if a triangle is at the heart of reality. Man’s history is not a sequence from barbarian to civilized. These states of society are not sequences, but are found side by side throughout history to this day. Despotism rises from old stiffened societies as often as it is a trait of barbarism. It, especially, appears within that tired form of democracy which asks a single sentry to guard its night. Small cities like Troy produced the greatness of the citizen. And from the memory of defeated Hector came the story of Aeneas bearing his father from burning Troy to help build the glory that was Rome. This man, this city builder, will settle the whole earth unlike other species limited in their environmental choices.

Even when he lived in a small hamlet he became a larger man when he became a citizen so the hearths could be protected. Each small tribe acknowledged a single authority protecting the sacred creating the solidarity of the tribe. And when the tribes mingled and assigned more gods to a common pantheon for a larger civilization, something was lost. It was the biggest idea of all -- the Fatherhood that makes the entire world as one. There was one tribe assigned to never forget. If they were vicious at times in being exclusive, it should be remembered they carried the presence of God in a land full of monsters. The Jews fell often but each time returned to their one true G-d who was the Creator of all men. The Jews had a special task but unlike most tribes they never fancied themselves a separate creation. They could never permanently accept a syncretism of gods that others might call compromise. It was their task to remind us that behind the stars and space there was one Father of us all.
Aeneas by Barocci (1598)

The most unusual trait of men among the animals was his religion. Even if he bowed to an idol, he was all the taller for his bowing. If the idol was stiff and lifeless, the gesture of the man was supple and full of life. Mythologies grew in pictures more than patterns, and the vision of dreams more than mathematical philosophies. Mythology had formality, and marked time with festivities. Often there was a surrendering of some set-aside portion to the powers above. An animal burnt, a ring thrown into the sea, wine poured on the ground -- that primal need to sacrifice -- to set aside, to kill, to communicate. The primal myths about death breaking one’s heart or about life coming from death were men asking: "Can these things be true?" Animals, too, experienced death and the coming of spring and the return of winter, but they did not celebrate stories and personalities; and we do not suspect that in another thousand years they will evolve to do so.

Some higher civilizations created disciplines that did not lead man to God as much as prepare man for an answer yet to come. They were in the best sense of the phrase "spiritual but not religious." If the Buddhist taught man to relinquish his desires, it was to prepare him for the perfection that would come with discovering his ultimate wish. If the Chinese taught good habits, respect for authority and community, then they prepared man for his role in a community formed by the highest authority -- the ultimate elder brother. Confucius can be praised without calling him a god, and Chinese civilization admired without calling it a religion. The philosophers created patterns without pictures. Their hierarchy transmitted a cross-generational order that sustained a noble civilization, but it still waited for the sacred.

Men have not always built noble civilizations or sought the better spirits of mythology. The Demons too have had their day. The animosity to witches has always rested on the opposition of peasants to the witches’ hostility to children. The witches sometimes killed the children; more often they prevented births. Hostility to witchcraft portends a culture of life. There are some spirits that bespeak an evil unknown to beasts. These spirits often rise in the most civilized, least primitive, cultures. Thus the worship of Moloch by Carthage and the industrial blood lust of the advanced Aztecs. The spirit of men at war with these cultures was summarized by Cicero: "Carthago delenda est -- Carthage must be destroyed." There are some cults that a decent man cannot abide. Men often went to war at their territorial edges with other tribes. But sometimes there was a conflict more central and it would not be enough to allow each other to live across the border. It is no mark of civilization to wish a compromise could have been struck with Aztecs or Neanderthals. The impetus of such a war is a love of the protected and an organized hatred against some power that cannot be allowed to rule or even coexist. Moloch deserved to be hated. Carthago delenda est. 

Even after men would destroy the demonic, their civilizations were not enough. Even among the good, there was something missing. As if long, long ago there had been a purpose and unity that could fulfill man but it had been forgotten. So often the most developed societies of men would tire of the limited good they knew and seek the most bizarre – "the stranger sins or more startling obscenities as stimulants to their jaded senses. They tried to stab their nerves to life..." The mythologies failed, the philosophies failed, the demons were cast back and then came back seven-fold. Man was a very different being from the animals, but man was incomplete.

There appears another cave in the story -- this one at Bethlehem. It is not a philosophy that will appear, but a drama. The characters will include a baby and a mother. Try, as some will, the Christmas tale can never be represented chipping the mother from the baby. The shepherds carry a local myth of promise. The three kings bring a more broad-minded quest as philosophers. But now their questions that reached out into the horizons of space are focused on a child in a manger. There has appeared a new focus which acts as a centripetal force against the dissipating centrifugal impetus of unanswered questions and an expanding universe. There is a lurching of the human neck as we are brought to a manger to discover the love that moves the stars. The demon too will show his face. That very Rome which had once crushed Carthage and its Moloch now acts as a baby killer itself wielding the swords of Herod. The cave at Bethlehem left no drawings on the walls, but the story is burnt in every heart. It is recorded in festival and feast. Man’s night time has been finally brought to an end for we have seen a great light. No other era will be able to pretend itself the time of Enlightenment. The bells at midnight were cannon shots as well. The Kingdom to be established was returning after usurpation. Let none forget. There will be peace on earth only by remembering why there was a war in heaven. This is not a new king, but the Son of an old King who comes to displace an ancient foe. The disobedient rebel has not yet been fully cast out from the land of the Living. There is in the cave of Bethlehem something like a military foxhole. From the hidden shelter came a desire to undermine the Prince of this World; and especially in the beginning there was more overthrowing the old ruler than building the new principality.


Then a thirty-year silence as if to mark the long gestation and dependency that all men experience under father and mother before they take on the tasks of tribe and nation. The family teaches the language of love and order to the man before he exerts another kind of ordering love on the nations. This Christ was not like the other holy men recounted in Wells' history of men and civilizations. Mohammed did not say he was Allah. Moses did not say "Jehovah and I are one." But Christ said, "Before Abraham was, I am." His claim above all was that he was not simply a teacher. He was the Way. The God who made the Universe had become one of us and we were about to become what was planned from the beginning. The communion he offered could hardly be imagined. But he hinted with his mystical description of the sacrament of marriage as it was in the beginning between Adam and Eve.

His story and his words make the strangest story in the world. And if you don’t believe it, then read the Gospels with no filter. You have heard Christ is all merciful and the Church is wise to emphasize that great truth for most men need mercy most of all. But if you read the gospels, that will not be your first impression. You will never make Christ a pacifist. He seemed particularly fond of children and soldiers. And he was headed somewhere. He was not a wandering itinerant asking one more question at the end of every lecture like Socrates. From the beginning he was headed for the hill on Calvary to his own death that was central to his strategy. He had come from the countryside of Galilee where he had assembled his men. In the country men learn by listening to tradition. But in the city, a once-proud and coherent public had decayed into an urban mob who learned by rumor. And rumor had it that He must be crucified. But so was His Father’s will and he climbed Golgotha where on that Friday the best were at their worst. The soldiers of the civilizing Roman Empire joined the priests of the greatest monotheistic religion and they killed Him.

There were witnesses when he emerged from the third cave in our story. They are the sacred brotherhood he formed to witness to the fact that he had risen from his sepulcher. They were sent out attesting to an empirical event they had witnessed. Modern scientists reject their empiricism because of their own unproven beliefs in the impossibility of resurrection. Christ assembled the witnesses into a Church. They formed a key that unlocks the riddles of life that man has been seeking to solve since he was darkened in the great dispersal after the Fall. Like all keys, the Church has a particular shape essential to her function -- a shape both wonderful and elaborate. The key is elaborate indeed unlocking  simple problems like not enough wine at a wedding feast and bigger riddles like the meaning of human existence.  Christ left not only testimony of his deeds but His own presence in the Church. He left a living thing that has been cut and trampled and buried through the years but keeps its shape and emerges each time stronger and truer to its form. If she is momentarily smaller, that is no problem as long as she keeps the shape of Common Sense. The Church is filling herself out to be the whole Body of Christ.

The women bearing myrrh trying to find our Lord

The Church in the definitive shape of dogma taught the Son was not created. That philosophical point about Father and Son being co-eternal was necessary to make sense of that childlike Christian mantra that God is love. The shape of the key of the Church was Marian and maternal from the beginning. It added an Apostolic and brotherly dimension thirty years later. The shape of love was of the Father for the Son and His love forged a sacred brotherhood. Christian men have been shaped into the corporate loves of Christian nations and an apostolic priesthood to fight evil and exorcise the Evil One. The one-flesh love between man and woman in marriage was declared once again monogamous for life and thus a sign of Christ and the Church. The Church consecrated the life giving feminine love of mothers in families and virgins in convents. The acts of mercy were carried in the shape of virgin mothers. The Church is a key that keeps unlocking the human puzzle to reveal the whole. She has a particular shape, a fantastic shape, and an elaborate shape. She was not the battering ram of progress forging ahead, but a key unlocking a mystery foreordained at the foundation of the world. The key is in the shape of the hidden interior in the form of a virgin veiled. The key is in the shape of a publicly manifest army in the form of 144,000 men who know not women but carry the mark of the Father. And, so, the God who made the universe has revealed Himself as a Personality in history to fill the desire of mythological man for romance and philosophical man for the truth. Nor did He forget the demon. He who entered his lair as a child will return as a King to cast the monster out forever. He has sent out an army of witnesses in a particular formation of sacred priests consecrating sacred times and places to feed the faithful and baptize the nations. He who lives in a communion of Persons as one God has called all of humanity into a communion of persons as one Body of Christ. Let us thank that English journalist for taking us far enough away from our daily formulations to see again the whole and the wondrous joy of the Everlasting Man who has become one of us so we can share in his everlasting life.


  1. Wow! This is a spectacularly written essay on the Everlasting Man. It is by far, the best thing I have read on G. K. Chesterton's masterpiece. God bless you Dr. Pence. And thank you for your inspiring, truly moving, analysis of The Everlasting Man.
    Buzz Kriesel, Church of St. Michael, Stillwater, MN

  2. Great essay and summary of Chesterton's thinking! JMM