Thursday, June 5

Orthodoxy (1908)

Not the edition I read; this book
is in the public domain and
is available in many forms,

including e-book
By G. K. Chesterton

How can I possibly epitomize this wonderful book in a short blog-entry review? Better men than I have summarized it to varying lengths and effect, none of which except where they directly quote the author capture a smidgen of the magic, wit, and – above all – wisdom that is the hallmark of this giant of early 20th -century thought. Such attempts to provide a short aide-mémoire may be useful, and I did consult them (three in particular, by A. Freddoso [LINK], J. Grabowski [LINK], and K. D. Rapinchuk [LINK]), but I can't say they really helped me process what I read. Really, I can't say I have truly processed it at all, despite what I figure at this point must be from two to four readings through – two visual, and two aural via a wonderful audio version on Podiobooks, read by David “Grizzly” Smith [LINK] (whose voice is perfectly suited to the material although he sounds nothing like Chesterton himself [LINK]); I have read and reread, listened to and relistened to parts multiple times, and “two to four” is just a wild guess. I feel like I have barely started to grasp what Chesterton has to offer. Sure, I've been charmed by his wit and audacity – and astonished at how many passages and turns of phrase sound vaguely familiar simply because they have contributed quotations and turns of phrase that I have heard in the past but never in context (I previously [LINK] cited my memory of hearing tradition described as “the democracy of the dead” without being aware it was Chesterton) – but I am absolutely inadequate to taking on the task of distilling his arguments into a short essay. In different ways, the three attempts I linked above do it much better than could I, with Rapinchuk's being the most readable prose summary; Grabowski's being the most analytical, virtually an expanded outline; and Freddoso's incorporating extensive quotations. All I can do is state baldly how life-changing I consider my belated “discovery” of Chesterton to be (I previously described [LINK] my earlier flirtations with his writings), make a couple of observations, and then offer my feeble best.

One barrier to “understanding” Chesterton is that we are now more than a century removed from his writing Orthodoxy. Chesterton was above anything else a journalist and commentator on the Edwardian world of the early 20th century, and his writing is perfused with topical references that have little or no meaning to any modern reader who is not a specialist in that period. I am not a specialist in that period. Chesterton's own prose sweeps the reader past much of what might with a lesser writer leave the reader floundering in quicksand, and context helps the gist of his arguments not to suffer as much as they might, but this is a book that demands a thorough scholarly annotation. Part of what retarded my progress through – and ultimately my processing of – Orthodoxy was my compulsion to jump out of it and into the Internet to track down just who were figures such as “Mr. G. S. Street” and “Mr. R. B. Suthers.” That effort itself had its own rewards, of course, but I know future rereadings will yield deeper and deeper understanding.

Perhaps it's because I am myself Roman Catholic, but it is crystal clear to me that the Christian “orthodoxy” that G. K. Chesterton describes is thoroughly Catholic though some fourteen years would pass before he formally entered the Church in 1922. I did not not know until fairly recently that he was so late in coming home. I always thought of him as the great Catholic apologist, and in fact was surprised when I learned subsequent to experiencing the prominence that he gives Our Lady as a virtual Crusader in 1911's The Ballad of the White Horse that he was not Catholic even then. One lesson of this is that, however Chesterton might proclaim near the beginning of Orthodoxy that “[w]hen the word 'orthodoxy' is used here it means the Apostles' Creed, as understood by everybody calling himself Christian until a very short time ago” rather than the creed of any particular church (chap. 1, “Introduction in Defence of Everything Else”), whatever is true – orthodox – in the belief of any Christian is indeed what is taught by the Catholic Church, and that it is possible to be Catholic without admitting it, perhaps even to oneself. Although my own “kicking against the goads” did not last so long, my own conversion to Catholicism was marked by fairly early internal conviction of the truth met by considerable emotional resistance to the idea of conversion before I finally came home to the fullness of the Christian faith [LINK]. However long – and whatever was the source of – Chesterton's prolonged resistance (and I'm slowly making my way through Maisie Ward's early biography of him, published 1942, and presumably toward a clearer historical understanding of the spiritual journey that is outlined here), it is clear that long before 1922 Chesterton was a practical Roman Catholic.

The first half of so of the book aims more to demonstrate how all other faiths and philosophies are wanting than to argue specifically for Christianity, and as such is a somewhat more generalized treatment of the same themes covered with greater specificity (taking names and kicking arse  not a Chestertonian turn of phrase, but it's what he was doing) in the various shorter essays that make up his earlier book, Heretics – to which this book is explicitly a follow-up, demanded by a contemporary essayist who challenged Chesterton, having argued against various creeds, to put forth his statement for his own.

For me, the heart of the book comes in chapter six, “The Paradoxes of Christianity,” where Chesterton masterfully demolishes, by showing the internal contradictions inherent in, the world's criticisms of the Faith. Christianity is at once charged with being too pessimistic and too optimistic; too pacifistic and too martial; too divisive and too universal; both against and for the family, women, sexuality, and so forth – in all, too humble and too proud. Really, he saw, it was the world which did not know what to make of Christianity rather than Christianity not know what to make of the world. Or, as I would put it, the “paradoxes” of Christianity are a sign of fallen, opportunistic critics who care less for their own consistency or the integrity of their own arguments than scoring a point against their opponents or simply following through with their own assumptions. A pertinent example actually comes from the final chapter and sticks with me: “Upon th[e] point [of miracles] there is a simple logical fact that only requires to be stated and cleared up. Somehow or other an extraordinary idea has arision that the disbelievers in miracles consider them coldly and fairly, while believers in miracles accept them only in connection with some dogma. The fact is quite the other way. The believers in miracles accept them (righly or wrongly) because they have evidence for them. The disbelievers in miracles deny them (rightly or wrongly) because they have a doctrine against them” (chap. 9, “Authority and the Adventurer”).

Then, in chapter eight, “The Romance of Orthodoxy,” Chesterton demonstrates the superiority of specific Christian doctrines against others, including a raft of fashionable contemporary “isms,” ramping up to an awesomely profound statement regarding the incarnate divinity of Christ and its consequences:

[I]f the divinity [of Christ] is true it is certainly revolutionary. That a good man may have his back to the wall is no more than we knew already, but that God could have His back to the wall is a boast for all insurgents forever. Christianity is the only religion on earth that has felt that omnipotence made God incomplete. Christianity alone felt that God, to be wholly God, must have been a rebel as well as a king. Alone of all creeds, Christianity has added courage to the virtues of the Creator. For the only courage worth calling courage must necessarily mean that the soul passes a breaking point -- and does not break. In this indeed I approach a matter more dark and awful than it is easy to discuss; and I apologize in advance if any of my phrases fall wrong or seem irreverent touching a matter which the greatest saints and thinkers have justly feared to approach. But in the terrific tale of the Passion there is a distinct emotional suggestion that the author of all things (in some unthinkable way) went not only through agony, but through doubt. It is written, 'Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.' No; but the Lord thy God may tempt Himself; and it seems as if this was what happened in Gethsemane. In a garden Satan tempted man: and in a garden God tempted God. He passed in some superhuman manner through our human horror of pessimism. When the world shook and the sun was wiped out of heaven, it was not at the crucifixion, but at the cry from the cross: the cry which confessed that God was forsaken of God. And now let the revolutionists choose a creed from all the creeds and a god from all the gods of the world, carefully weighing all the gods of inevitable recurrence and of unalterable power. They will not find another god who has himself been in revolt. Nay (the matter grows too difficult for human speech), but let the atheists themselves choose a god. They will find only one divinity who ever uttered their isolation; only one religion in which God seemed for an instant to be an atheist” (chap. 8).

Ponder that.

The final chapter – nine, “Authority and the Adventurer” – dispenses with any idea that one might rationally accept the moral and social teachings of Christianity without accepting the doctrines – “the religion and not merely the scattered and secular truths out of the religion.” Against all other philosophies, “[Christianity] has not merely told this truth or that truth, but has revealed itself as a truth-telling thing. All other philosophers say the things that plainly seem to be true; only this philosophy has again and again said the thing that does not seem to be true, but is true. Alone of all the creeds it is convincing where it is not attractive....” (chap. 9).

At one point in my struggle to write something doing justice to this great book, I considered taking the easy road and making this post simply a compilation/discussion of those quotations and passages that struck me, whether for their wit or for their profundity (almost every one of them for both); a few made it into the essay above. There are many, many more. In trying to extract passages of note from Orthodoxy, however, the problem is that there are so many – where to stop? Better, I think, simply to refer the reader to the bank contributed by users of, which although unordered is fairly comprehensive [LINK]. Best yet, dive into Chesterton for yourself. You will be the better for it.

Cheers!, and Thanks for reading!

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