and wilderness regions with which few of them will ever havernany direct contact—”the swaying tall pines among the litter ofrncones on the forest floor,” real places which remain for themrnwhat they are for Muriel Spark’s self-destroying modern heroinernin The Driver’s Seat (1970)—a mental construct, a countryrnof the mind. So, too, with the traditional belief in a “communionrnof saints,” as affirmed in the age-old Christian creeds.rnThis faith in the existence of a real but mysterious communityrnof the living and the dead is replaced by a belief in a mock communityrnof the Internet—an abstract and shifting fellowship ofrnwraithlike beings who are incapable of making any permanentrncommitments, because, to borrow Muriel Spark’s phrase, nornmeetings between them can ever materialize. There are evenrnparodies of traditional religious festivals. In international athleticrncompetitions, nations that no longer worship God organizernsecular celebrations which take on the trappings of religiousrnworship, and the celebration of youth and of physicalrnfitness becomes a sinister analogue to the Christian hope in arnworld to come where there will be no more aging or death andrnwhere those who can no longer die will remain perpetuallyrnyoung.rnIf nothing else, the reading of authors such as Muriel Sparkrnand G.K. Chesterton helps one to understand such contradictions.rnNo one familiar with their writing would imagine thatrnthe difference between religion and irreligion is a simple contrastrnbetween those who believe in the unseen world of the spiritrnand those who believe in the world of empirical realities, asrnthough the great modern opposites were the religious spiritualistrnand the irreligious materialist. For these two authors, the oppositernis closer to the truth: Christians are the true materialists,rnand nonbelievers are the spiritualists.rnChesterton’s critique of spiritualism had its origin in a crisisrnwhich occurred in his own life. A personal problem providedrnhim with an insight into the characteristic problem of his age.rnAs a student at the Slade School of Art in the mid-I890’s, thernyoung Chesterton went through a time of complete moral andrnmental isolation. For a brief while, he entertained the possibilityrnthat nothing existed outside his own lonely mind. Whatrnsuch an experience of living in a solipsistic universe means inrnpractice is described in books such as his Autobiography (1936),rnand The Poet and the Lunatics (1929), and, above all, in hisrnstrange 1908 novel The Man Who Was Thursday—a symbolicrnnarrative in the Kafka mode: it is subtitled “A Nightmare,” butrnit is irradiated with a joy unlike anything found in Kafka’s ownrnwriting. When Kafka himself read the book, he commentedrnmemorably: “The author is so happy, that one might almost believernthat he had found God.” It could be said that Chestertonrndevoted the rest of his life to examining the religious and philosophical,rnand even the social and economic, implications of hisrnescape from solipsism. I lis novels, his fantastically improbablernshort stories, his verse, and the unending stream of parables, ofrnvisionary utterances, and of moral maxims which form his vastrnjournalistic output are all part of a single effort to stimulate thernsleeping imaginations of his readers, so that they too would berncapable of escaping from their own private worlds and makerncontact with the world of other people and of other things.rnIt is important to understand that for Chesterton the recoveryrnof a material world was also a key religious experience. Thernfundamental Christian doctrine, after all, is the Incarnation. InrnChesterton’s view, this central religious belief alters the relationshiprnbetween the world of spirit and the world of matter.rnAfter the coming of Christ, the spiritual and the material canrnno longer be separated. “A Christian,” he explains in his 1933rnbook on St. Thomas Aquinas, “means a man who believes thatrndeity or sanctity has attached to matter and entered the woridrnof the senses.” And again, he writes, “the trend of good is alwaysrntowards Incarnation.” Moreover, as he explains in one ofrnhis early IWusfratec/Loncfon News articles (September 22,1906),rnmaterial things provide the only sure way to get in touch withrnthe world of the spirit: “Whenever men really believe they canrnget to the spiritual, they always employ the material. When thernpurpose is good, it is bread and wine; when the purpose is evil,rnit is eye of newt and toe of frog.” For that reason, physicality acquiresrna moral and a religious significance, and the distinctionrnbetween the sacred and the profane is no longer a distinctionrnbetween the spiritual and the material.rnIn a chapter in his book on St. Thomas which he entitled “ArnMeditation on the Manichees,” he comments on what he callsrn”the tremendous truth” that supports all Christian theology:rn”After the Incarnation had become the idea that is central inrnour civilisation, it was inevitable that there should be a return tornmaterialism, in the sense of the serious value of matter and thernmaking of the body. When once Christ had risen, it was inevitablernthat Aristotle should rise again.” A respect for materialrnthings is, therefore, a sign of sound Christian faith. “You becomernmore orthodox,” Chesterton explains, “when yournbecome more rational or natural.” For Chesterton, the existencernof the most ordinary and transitory material things is givenrna new and religious meaning by the life, death, and resurrectionrnof the Incarnate Word. Comparing the teaching of St.rnThomas to the writing of the modern Irish poet “A.E.,”rnChesterton asserts that the saint has the right to borrow the poet’srnwords: “I begin by the grass to be bound again to the Lord.”rnIn his view, the mark of all genuine religion is that it is groundedrnin the material. When material things deceive us, they dornso, he explains, “by being more real than they seem.” He goesrnon to say: “As ends in themselves they always deceive us; but asrnthings tending to a greater end, they are even more real than wernthink them. If they seem to have a relative unreality (so tornspeak) it is because they are potential and not actual; they arernunfulfilled, like packets of seeds or boxes of fireworks. Theyrnhave it in them to be more real than they are.” In his Autobiography,rnone of the final books that he wrote, he asserts that hisrnown philosophy might be expressed by reversing the title of anrnearly Yeats play. Where There is Nothing There is God. “Therntruth presented itself to me,” he writes, “rather in the form thatrnwhere there is anything there is God.”rnThis celebration of the religious value of materiality gives arnspecial power to Chesterton’s critique of modernity. For himrnthe modern error is to have lost touch with the material world.rnPolitical life and vast economic systems and huge shapeless ideologiesrnall share one essential fault: they are unreal; they substituterna world of shadows for a world of things. In small communities,rnpeople are in direct contact with primary things; in vastrnbureaucratic systems, people are condemned to a life of servilerncomplexity, to what he calls a “spirit of illusion, of indirectrnrather than direct things.”rnIn such a solipsistic worid, it is impossible to hear the voice ofrnGod as He speaks to man through other people and throughrnthe direct experience of real things. The very wealth of thernmodern worid cuts people off further from reality. It is understandablernthat in all his fiction and journalism, Chesterton definesrnevil as “the destruction of the material, simple things,”rnDECEMBER 1996/13rnrnrn