Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Orthodoxy by GK Chesterton

People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy.
GK Chesterton, that huge and hilarious Christian, wrote two books which might be called, above all his others, masterpieces. One of them is his novel, The Man Who Was Thursday. The other is his apologetic filibuster (if I may use the word): Orthodoxy. I recommended this book to my sister the other day.

“If you’re studying apologetics,” I said, “you should really read Orthodoxy. Shouldn’t she, Justin?”

My brother paused. “If,” he said tentatively, “I could produce a marching band, a fireworks extravaganza, and a troupe of cheerleaders to second that suggestion, I would; but as it is, all I can do is…” and he gave two thumbs up.

Orthodoxy means, loosely translated, “right belief”; and in the book, Chesterton means the Apostle’s Creed by it. The book is, according to Chesterton, “a sort of slovenly biography”; it tells the story of how as a young atheist he tried to found a heresy of his own, “and when I had put the last touches to it, I discovered that it was orthodoxy.”

What ensues is a collection of essays building upon a few central themes, all discussing how the young, atheist Chesterton laboriously put together a philosophy, only to find that Christianity had already arrived at the same conclusions with much less fuss and much more certainty.

In “The Maniac”, he discusses the danger of modernist philosophies. Only Christianity is able to provide for mental health; only Christianity provides the romantic riddle which is necessary for real health:
The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.
For reason to do us any good, it must be something more than unaided reason. In “The Suicide of Thought” Chesterton goes on to discuss, in a somewhat presuppositional manner, the weaknesses within all atheist philosophies, the weaknesses which destroy thought itself.

After spending these two chapters on the insanity of modernist atheist thought, Chesterton then switches up a gear for his credo. Chapter 4, “The Ethics of Elfland”, is absolutely stunning. He describes a hunch he developed listening to fairy tales in his nursery: that the humdrum, every day world is in fact as bizarre and fantastic as any fairy tale land. That a chicken should lay an egg is every bit as fantastic as that a goose should lay a golden egg.
The only words that ever satisfied me as describing Nature are the terms used in the fairy books, "charm," "spell," "enchantment." They express the arbitrariness of the fact and its mystery. A tree grows fruit because it is a magic tree. Water runs downhill because it is bewitched. The sun shines because it is bewitched.
That the world was as unexpectedly beautiful as it was demanded a certain law: one must not open the hidden door, or look upon Cupid in the lamplight, or eat the fruit from the tree in the midst of the garden, if one would remain in paradise. And for this reason, Chesterton says, he was never able to understand the lawlessness of his peers:
Surely one might pay for extraordinary joy in ordinary morals. Oscar Wilde said that sunsets were not valued because we could not pay for sunsets. But Oscar Wilde was wrong; we can pay for sunsets. We can pay for them by not being Oscar Wilde.
Finally, Chesterton says, all that is beautiful in the world seemed desperately precious, as though it had been saved from some primordial ruin. And all this before he had heard the Christian doctrine of the Fall.

The next chapter is titled “The Flag of the World”, and it is Chesterton’s discussion of the Pessimist and the Optimist. Only the Christian is able to believe in the staggering beauty of the world (for was it not made by God?) as well as the comprehensive depravity of it (for had it not fallen from its first state of innocence?).

“The Paradoxes of Christianity” is my second-favourite chapter of this book. It describes the role his atheist reading had in Chesterton’s conversion; the fact that after it had been criticised in one breath for being too timid, and in another breath for being too bloodthirsty; after it had been criticised by Mr A for being hard on women, and by Mr B for offering them a weak-minded comfort, after it had been beaten with every stick, he could not help thinking that perhaps it was the normal and sane thing, and the critics were the ones who were mad. For example, the average pagan finds a balance between arrogance and self-abnegation:
The average pagan, like the average agnostic, would merely say that he was content with himself, but not insolently self-satisfied, that there were many better and many worse, that his deserts were limited, but he would see that he got them. […] Being a mixture of two things, [this moderation] is a dilution of two things; neither is present in its full strength or contributes its full colour. 
Christianity, on the other hand, manages to have both the most flaming pride and the most groveling humility, both at once, and both in the same people:
It separated the two ideas and then exaggerated them both. In one way Man was to be haughtier than he had ever been before; in another way he was to be humbler than he had ever been before. In so far as I am Man I am the chief of creatures. In so far as I am a man I am the chief of sinners.
In fact, this is a pattern for everything in Christianity; that it does not seek a moderation between two extremes, but an equally passionate pursuit of both!
And the more I considered Christianity, the more I found that while it had established a rule and order, the chief aim of that order was to give room for good things to run wild. […]The optimist could pour out all the praise he liked on the gay music of the march, the golden trumpets, and the purple banners going into battle. But he must not call the fight needless. The pessimist might draw as darkly as he chose the sickening marches or the sanguine wounds. But he must not call the fight hopeless. So it was with all the other moral problems, with pride, with protest, and with compassion. By defining its main doctrine, the Church not only kept seemingly inconsistent things side by side, but, what was more, allowed them to break out in a sort of artistic violence otherwise possible only to anarchists.
This, as Chesterton points out throughout the book, means that Christianity provides freedom. The pagans will not allow you pride or humility; they find it embarrassing if you grovel, and repulsive if you skite. Only Christianity allows for both.
This is the thrilling romance of Orthodoxy. People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy. It was sanity: and to be sane is more dramatic than to be mad.
In “The Eternal Revolution” Chesterton argues that Christianity is the philosophical prerequisite for progress; because without it, you do not have a pattern for reform; you have no way of saying what things should be. “The Romance of Orthodoxy” moves back to the defensive and shows another side to the impotence of atheist thought: its tendency to smash the world in its scramble to smash God. And finally, “Authority and the Adventurer” argues that Christianity is also the only religion for romance, adventure, and—joy.

Orthodoxy is not a long book, but it is dense; it’s one of those books that should be read slowly, for fear of missing something. It’s certainly difficult to explain, in a short review, all the wonderful side comments Chesterton makes along the way.

Unlike many books of Christian apologetics, there are very few Scripture quotations in Orthodoxy. What it does is provide an atmosphere in which Scripture and orthodox theology can, in fact, take shape as it was meant to in the reader’s mind. It is not so much an argument for the truth of Christianity as it is an argument for the beauty and goodness of Christianity.

It’s also full of sound theological insight. This time through, I was continually reminded of things I had learned from (of all people!) CS Lewis, Greg Bahnsen, Francis Nigel Lee and RJ Rushdoony. I will only take one example: Chesterton sees quite clearly that the Trinity is the only answer to the question of the One and the Many, and that a unitarian god is a tyrant.

One of the reasons why we Chesterton fans rave about him so much is that, unlike most commentators writing a hundred years ago, he had an uncanny knack of spotting the ideas that would still be plaguing modern thought a century later. In Orthodoxy this talent is functioning at full capacity. In “The Maniac” he begins with a demolition of the idea that one must believe in one’s self—an idea served up in every movie theatre and inspirational seminar you care to mention. In “The Suicide of Thought” he deals with postmodernism even before it had a name.

Orthodoxy is a classic; one of Chesterton’s greatest works. If you haven’t read it—read it.

John Piper on Orthodoxy


Andrew of the House of Lacey said...

It is interesting to note that there is some question about the Hebrew word that is used to describe God's unity. Some people think that the word 'echad' actually refers to a sort of, plural one, or a compound unity. I thought that this was interesting, just as a possible 'layer' of meaning within the Biblical text in reference to Chesterton's views that God must be a trinity.

Helen said...

Your brother is dramatic.


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