All Roads: Roamin’ Catholic Apologetics. By Dale Ahlquist, ACS Books, 2014.
Dale Ahlquist, the president of the American Chesterton Society (Chesterton.org), has written a new book on the Catholic Church and how to live one’s faith and defend it. Most of Ahlquist’s previous works have revolved around G.K. Chesterton. Chesterton is a constant presence in All Roads, but he is not the central character. Perhaps Ahlquist is the main figure in this new book, or perhaps Jesus is. Chesterton is a significant supporting character, as are other figures ranging from writers to popes, all filtered through the amiable light of Ahlquist’s prose. Indeed, Ahlquist notes that, “You will also note my glorious weakness in quoting my friend Mr. Chesterton to illustrate nearly every point, though sometimes I lapse into quoting the Church Fathers, or even, in extreme cases, Scripture. It is the part of my apologetics for which I make no apology.” The heart of this book comes from Ahlquist’s happy descriptions of becoming Catholic and explaining what it means to be Catholic.
In his introduction, Ahlquist writes:
“Becoming Catholic was the most difficult decision of my life. It was a decision I had to defend at the time I entered the Church and again almost every day since. And it was a decision I have never once regretted.
In this book, I will begin with an unnecessarily long prologue telling the story of my conversion. But the rest of it is composed of mercifully short and hopefully sweet accounts of some of the encounters that happened afterwards, the opportunities where I have had the pleasure of defending the faith that I have embraced. There is always someone or something fighting the Catholic Church, and I have found it nothing less than sublime to give them the fight they are asking for. But while defending the faith provides the exhilaration of battle, it also provides a certain serenity, a peace of mind that comes from having the truth reaffirmed at every turn. “If Christianity should happen to be true,” says G.K. Chesterton, “then defending it may mean talking about anything or everything. Things can be irrelevant to the proposition that Christianity is false, but nothing can be irrelevant to the proposition that Christianity is true.” Anything and everything. That is what these short meditations are about. The doctrines and teachings of the Catholic Church relate to every conceivable subject, but conversely, every subject, every idea, every issue is a ready opportunity to demonstrate the truths of the Catholic Church. Everything has a way of pointing to the truth. I suppose another way of saying it is that all roads lead to Rome.”
The introduction to this book is a lengthy overview of Ahlquist’s spiritual development. It is personal, revealing, and ultimately proves to be an effective means of explaining why Ahlquist would become a Catholic apologist and a Chesterton popularizer. Ahlquist tells how an in-law (a Christian musician) introduced him to Chesterton’s writings after learning of Ahlquist’s interest in C.S. Lewis, and then pointing out that Lewis was deeply inspired by Chestertion. After the first essay, fifty-six much shorter essays follow. Many of them are revised versions of articles that were published on various websites and other venues such as the magazine Gilbert. The articles cover a very wide swath of topics, ranging from theology, to history, to Church traditions, to modern art, to the family, to other religions.
Some of the essays serve as editorials, while others ruminate on current events. In one of the most memorable chapters, Ahlquist draws upon a recent controversy at a Minnesota museum, where a beloved and beautiful painting was sold by the institution, despite the pleas of fans and art lovers to keep the artwork. William Adolphe Bouguereau’s Bohémienne was one of the most-liked and celebrated paintings at the museum, but the management of the Minneapolis Art Institute decided that for various reasons, the Bohémienne no longer deserved to have a place at the museum, and would be sold in order to buy other pictures that the curators believed better deserved wall space at the MAI. The curators listed various reasons why the portrait ought not be viewed with reverence, leading to disgust from fans and charges that the modernist art critics were incapable of appreciating a work of humanist realism. The controversy spiraled, fans offered to donate large sums of money if the MAI would keep the painting, but these objections and efforts were ignored. (See http://www.artrenewal.org/articles/2004/Minneapolis/shameful.php for further information on the controversy.)
Ahlquist notes that a lovely painting that thousands of people enjoyed was now in a private collection where hardly anybody would ever see it again. This incident becomes a metaphor for the heart of the book’s commentary of contemporary culture. The self-styled “elites” of the modern world have contempt for the glories of the past, and average people who appreciate the beautiful and unique end up getting cheated through no fault of their own. The truth gets lost amongst the prejudices of people in position of influence, and the broader culture is weakened as a result.
Ahlquist’s cultural criticism moves beyond the art world and into theological debates:
“There is, however, a creeping error within Christianity, even among Catholics, called Universalism, the idea that everyone will go to heaven no matter what. This is clearly contrary to the teaching of the Church, and yet we see in many places an increasing resistance to talk about hell and the “tragic possibilities” that accompany the glory of free will. The Universalists have done the Protestants one better. The Protestants reduced the scheme of salvation to “faith alone,” but the Universalists have dumped even faith. It is inclusiveness taken to the extreme.
But human dignity depends on the doctrine of free will. Chesterton says that another name for free will is moral responsibility: “Upon this sublime and perilous liberty hang heaven and hell, and all the mysterious drama of the soul.” The drama of the soul is this amazing possibility that “a man can divide himself from God.” But even more dramatic is that a man can be reconciled to God. It is not logical– or theological, for that matter– that we can be reconciled with God if we cannot be separated from him.
Hell is not a subject to be avoided; it is a place to be avoided. Not thinking about hell is a great danger. We might even fool ourselves into thinking there is no hell. But thinking about hell is a very good idea. It is a good way to keep ourselves out of it.”
Ahlquist’s approach to Catholic apologetics is to explain the Church’s teachings, and then explain why they make perfect sense. The “commonsensical” tactic that Ahlquist uses is meant to make Catholic morality, which is often branded as a relic of medieval times or an arbitrary set of restrictions, an obvious approach to dealing with a confused and sinful world and the quest towards Heaven. As the above quote indicates, universalism, taken to a conclusion, indicates that actions ultimately do not have consequences. It therefore might obviously make one wonder if there is any reason to choose virtue over vice, if the eternal reward is the same at the end of both paths.
Throughout the book, Ahlquist cites conversations where he raises questions that certain morally complacent people never dreamed of asking. Ahlquist argues that finding accurate answers requires the ability to think up relevant questions, a habit that many people have never developed because of a blind reluctance to challenge certain principles.
“Chesterton says, “Becoming a Catholic does not mean leaving off thinking. It means learning how to think.” I can scarcely convey how astounding that comment is from someone like Chesterton, who was not exactly a dunce before his conversion. But I discovered firsthand that the Catholic faith was not only central to Chesterton’s profound thought, it is central to everything.”
Ahlquist’s earlier books were largely reworked versions of his television series The Apostle of Common Sense, turning the teleplays into essays. By going beyond Chesterton’s world, Ahlquist has actually managed to explore Chesterton’s world better. Since there was virtually no topic that escaped the attention of Chesterton’s pen, there is no reason why one of Chesterton’s biggest fans and supporters ought not to take the same approach to apologetics. The Catholic Church becomes a magnifying glass that is used to see the world and everything in it with great clarity and detail, with previous misconceptions being jettisoned in favor of firm understandings.
Adopting a Catholic mindset, Ahlquist argues, is more than just regurgitating statements that the Church has given its members to learn. Catholic thinking means approaching a question with a mind well trained in common sense and logical thought, leading to an intelligent and clear conclusion. Ahlquist’s book is the story of a journey, but even though his work has taken him around the world, it is the sort of journey that takes place mostly inside one’s head and heart, and he wants his readers to go on a comparable odyssey in order to find the truth in a muddled world.