Orthodoxy G.K. Chesterton

Philip K. Weingart

Paul the Apostle noticed that few great intellects were called to the faith, because God wanted to make the wisdom of the wise seem foolish.(i) When intellectuals do come to the faith, they often explain to fellow intellectuals why they’ve fallen into this religion they used to scorn. The need to apologize has given the world St. Augustine’s Confessions, C. S. Lewis’ Surprised By Joy, John Cardinal Newman’s -Apologia, and a real gem of Christian apologetics from the great Victorian writer G. K. Chesterton, called Orthodoxy.

Chesterton, one of the most influential writers of the Victorian era, wrote over 100 books himself and contributed to 200 more, wrote scores of essays on any topic imaginable, wrote poetry, detective stories, history, Christian apologetics, and did it all in an age before word processors were even a dream. His well-known works include The Father Brown Omnibus (a collection of mysteries featuring a priest as hero), The Man Who Was Thursday, Heretics, and Orthodoxy. His Christian writings influenced the writers of the mid-twentieth century (C. S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkein, etc.) as those writers have, in turn, influenced ours.

Raised in a Unitarian home, Chesterton traveled from skepticism to Christianity during his twenties, mostly by analyzing the various “free-thinking” philosophies he encountered as a lecturer. Noting in them what he considered serious errors about the nature of the universe, Chesterton published a criticism of several major writers of his day, including Rudyard Kipling, George Bernard Shaw, and H. G. Wells, entitled Heretics. A reviewer named G. S. Street countered that he would worry about his philosophy only after “Mr. Chesterton has given us his.” Chesterton, with all the solemn dignity of youth, accepted the challenge and delivered Orthodoxy in 1908, which chronicled his own journey from skepticism to faith in a stream of ideas and arguments. He was 34 years old at the time.

Since Chesterton was both a genius and the son of a saner era than our own, the ideas which coursed through his head may astonish modern readers. He seems to turn the world on its head; the book is a continuous feast of the delightfully unexpected. To Chesterton, faith is reason, orthodoxy is liberty, the order of our universe is as unexpected as the wildest fairy tale, and heeding tradition is as natural as allowing all citizens to vote. Modern readers at first will think him just a little bit crazy, but as they warm up to his approach, they will begin to feel that perhaps his point of view is healthier than theirs, and in the best of cases, they will begin to right themselves.

That it is we, and not Chesterton, who are upside down, is proved by prophecy; the philosophies against which Chesterton argued have run their full course in the 20th century, and everything Chesterton claimed they would produce has come to pass. Chesterton predicted modernism would lead to madness, and in the following 80 years the world went mad. Chesterton predicted that questioning everything would lead to the abandonment of reason, and Postmodernism has finally admitted to exactly that. Chesterton claimed that man was at the crossroads, and man clearly made the wrong turn.

Orthodoxy is subtitled “The Romance of Faith,” because Chesterton’s thesis claims that it is romance, mystery, fairy tales, which keep men sane and connects them with eternal truth. By contrast, the Materialist’s insistence on causation within our universe is like the delusion of a man who thinks he’s God:

if the man in [an insane asylum in London] is the real God, he is not much of a god. And, similarly, if the cosmos of the materialist is the real cosmos, it is not much of a cosmos. The thing has shrunk. The deity [of the madman] is less divine than many men; and … the whole of life is something much more grey, narrow, and trivial than many separate aspects of it. The parts seem greater than the whole.

At first blush, insisting on mysteries violates our 20th century intuition, but it turns out to be the right prescription for the disease; Materialism errs precisely because it lacks humility, and restoring mystery to the cosmos also restores our humility before God’s creation.Developing this notion of mystery, Chesterton observes that our universe is a most improbable and miraculous place, first in the sense that it is odd:

I could never mix in the common murmur… against monogamy, because no restriction on sex seemed so odd and unexpected as sex itself.

and then in the sense that it appears to be willful:

It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again,” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon…It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.

His argument ends with the claim that the mirth of heaven is too great for men to apprehend.

...the frantic energy of divine things would knock us down like a drunken farce. We can take our own tears more lightly than we could take the tremendous levities of the angels. So we sit perhaps in a starry chamber of silence, while the laughter of the heavens is too loud for us to hear.

Between those two points, Chesterton cites his discoveries about the world and the faith as they occurred to him, in order, during his journey to faith. He read all the doubters of Christianity and wondered, “This must be an extraordinary religion to incite so diverse and contradictory a set of claims against it.” He realized the futility of constantly altering goals, and how the notion of progress itself denoted an ideal fixed before the foundations of the world. He discovered that Christianity predicted each of the truths he was discovering about the world and its inhabitants. He noticed that all attempts to make Christianity more “liberal” or “scientific” or “free” actually made the world more tyrannical, more limited, and more drab.

Thus Chesterton came to understand the great beauty and romance of orthodoxy, “the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints.”(ii) He saw that only within the bounds of orthodoxy were men free to innovate, to advance, to fight tyranny, oppression, or poverty.

The orthodoxy Chesterton defends is an old and ecumenical one, the doctrines articulated in the Apostles’ Creed. He claims to lack the space to address the question of where lies the seat of apostolic authority. However, there is herein a challenge to Protestants worth mentioning: Chesterton is Catholic, and his notion of orthodoxy includes not only the creeds but the Church which embodies them. He refers once to the Reformation as “the shattering of a religion.” He describes the Roman church as teetering between chasms of error on either side, but miraculously maintaining a precarious and dangerous balance. His defense of Romanism is faint, but present.

While Chesterton thus occasionally incites in Protestant readers a twinge of caution, he more often incites in them respect for traditional thought. There is nothing here of the “works righteousness” for which so many Protestants condemn the Roman church; there is only good sense and humility in the face of an eternal and wise God, and a sense of profound joy in His creation. This same sense permeates the works of the greatest Catholic writers (and Protestant ones as well), and one hopes that Chesterton may occasion more Protestants to esteem their Catholic brothers more highly.

Though Orthodoxy is brief, it is hard going for the modern reader. Chesterton thought deeply and often poetically, and his argument is woven in a complex and beautiful fashion which is difficult to follow in one reading. It took this author three readings to understand the flow of his argument. Still, each of the arguments in the book is robust enough, and, to our modern and skeptical world, heretical enough, that even considering them piecemeal is useful. This book will make the average reader work, but it is worth the effort.

One of the great benefits of reading Chesterton is that one begins to understand how people thought at the turn of the last century. In Chesterton we find not only good reason and a sense of wonder, but a level of sanity and civility foreign to modern culture. Even his philosophical enemies are his jovial friends. We would do well to drink deeply and often from the well of an earlier West, from before the Great Poisoning of the 20th century.

Orthodoxy should be required reading for any modern apologist, for those who defend Christianity in the marketplace of modern ideas. It is also useful for anyone who wants a more general overview of man’s place in the universe. This book is a thinker’s paradise, mostly because it goes beyond mere thought to deep feeling, to joy and humility, where man and God rejoice together in the great dance of heaven.

i I Corinthians 1:19-21
ii Jude 3


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