Lecture 15: The Ball and the Cross

Exactly 35 years after Chesterton died, the Archbishop of Venice wrote him a letter. He wanted to express his grateful agreement with the profound truths conveyed in Chesterton’s novel, The Ball and the Cross, particularly the idea that when people set out to destroy the cross, they end up destroying everything else, and doing it in the name of ‘rationalism.’ Chesterton never wrote back to Archbishop Albino Luciani, but we can speculate that they had a illuminating discussion on the matter when they presumably met just seven years later, when Luciani entered eternity after a mere 33 days as Pope John Paul I.

The Ball and the Cross is a novel full of debates. There is the opening debate between a professor and a monk. The professor’s name is Lucifer, the monk’s name is Michael. Some have suggested that there may be something symbolic in their names. Then there is the debate between McIan and Turnbull, who have challenged each other to a physical duel, but keep getting interrupted before they can carry it out. In the meantime they carry on a duel of ideas. There are other minor debates with other characters who are too important to be called minor, such as Pierre Durand, who represents the needed tonic of “an ordinary citizen with ordinary views.”

If you want adventure, there is nothing more exciting than the accounts of battles in the war of ideas. Since these are the battles most worth fighting, this a book most worth reading.

The opening debate that forms the theme (and title) of the book, occurs when Professor Lucifer and Brother Michael steer an airship through the clouds over London and nearly crash into the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Lucifer notices that the cross at the top of the Cathedral sits on a ball. In his mind, it should be the other way around; the ball, representing the perfection of rationality, is superior to the self-contradiction represented by the cross. Michael finds the allegory quite appropriate, as representing the supposed triumph of all the secular ideas which have been produced to lead or teach mankind. Putting the ball on top of the cross would produce “a most singular effect.”

“What are you talking about?” asked Lucifer. “What would happen?”

“I mean it would fall down,” said the monk…

The same debate is taken up by McIan and Turnbull, and brought to a similar conclusion. As Chesterton does with his opponents, so Michael does with Lucifer, and McIan does with Turnbull: he makes the opponents take their own arguments to their logical conclusions. The Catholic McIan says to the atheist Turnbull, “The world left to itself grows wilder than any creed. . . That is the only real question – whether the Church is really madder than the world. Let the rationalists run their own race, and let us see where they end. If the world has some healthy balance other than God, let the world find it. Does the world find it? Cut the world loose! Does the world stand on its own end? Does it stand, or does it stagger?”

Turnbull also finds himself reeling in a different sort of way in an different sort of debate with a different sort of opponent. Madeline is a young Catholic woman, with whom Turnbull, naturally, finds himself helplessly falling in love.

“You may be right or wrong to risk dying,” said the girl, simply; “The poor women in our village risk it whenever they have a baby. You men are the other half of the world. I know nothing about when you ought to die. But surely if you are daring to try to find God beyond the grave and appeal to Him – you ought to let Him find you when He comes and stands there every morning in our little church.”

[Turnbull responds], “I do not love God. I do not want to find him; I do not think He is there to be found. I must burst up the show; I must and will say everything. You are the happiest and most honest thing I ever saw in this godless universe. And I am the dirtiest and most dishonest.”

Madeline looked at him doubtfully for an instant, and then said with a sudden simplicity and cheerfulness: “Oh, but if you are really sorry it is all right. If you are horribly sorry it is all the better. You have only to go and tell the priest so and he will give you God out of his own hands.”

With all the strength and stubbornness he can muster, Turnbull refuses to accept any of Madeline’s uncomplicated, undemanding, yet strangely compelling statements about God’s presence. He finally says:

“I am sure there is no God.”

“But there is,” said Madeline, quite quietly, and rather with the air of one telling children about an elephant. “Why I touched His body only this morning.”

“You touched a bit of bread.” said Turnbull, biting his knuckles. “Oh, I will say anything that can madden you!”

“You think it is only a bit of bread,” said the girl, and her lips tightened ever so little.

“I know it is only a bit of bread,” said Turnbull, with violence.

She flung back her open face and smiled. “Then why did you refuse to eat it?” she said.

Still twelve years before his conversion, this passage reveals Chesterton’s already deep understanding and appreciation of the Eucharist. But it also demonstrates his astounding ability to transport the weightiest of ideas with seemingly no effort at all.

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