Over the course of the modern era, whether fairly or not, orthodoxy has come to be associated with glumness and austerity. Thus, those coming across Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton might assume they are in for a dull and obtuse recitation of doctrine and dogma. They will, however, be delightfully surprised by Chesterton’s wit, feistiness, and zest for life.
It is Chesterton’s contention that, rather than stifling the individual, it is through orthodoxy that man is liberated to both accept and embrace the contradictions of this life for what they really are in all their wonder and horror. It is the heretic that is unable to rise to a level that would give him a perspective that would enable him to appreciate things as they actually are since the heretic is ultimately beholden unto these very forces of life. Chesterton muses, “Thoroughly worldly people never understand even the world; they rely altogether on a few cynical maxims which are not true (22).”
Often, believers are accused of being close minded. However, Chesterton contends that Christians are no more close minded than the adherents of any other outlook. Chesterton writes, “For we must remember that the materialist philosophy…is certainly much more limiting than any religion…The Christian is quite free to believe that there is a considerable amount of settled order and inevitable development in the universe. But the materialist is not allowed to admit into his spotless machine the slightest speck of spiritualism or miracle (41).”
As a result, the heterodox mind must increasingly withdrawal from a world that declares the glory of God in order to maintain the consistency of the fiction it has constructed. For example, in illustrating views regarding the existence of sin, Chesterton offers the following humorous illustration, “If it be true…that a man can feel exquisite happiness in skinning a cat, then the religious philosopher can only draw one of two deductions. He must either deny the existence of God, as all atheists do; or he must deny the present union between God and man, as all Christians do. The new theologians seem to think it a highly rationalistic solution to deny the cat (24).”
Those adverse to traditional religious notions have constructed elaborate epistemological systems in an attempt to justify their unbelief. However, Chesterton assures, such intellects (though formidable by human standards in terms of the facts such minds have accumulated) actually bear a startling resemblance to the insane.
Like the insane, rationalists view themselves as the source of all meaning. In the struggle and strain to understand everything, Chesterton notes, the consistent rationalist is actually driven mad as they end up losing everything but their reason. Chesterton observes, “The man who begins to think without the proper first principles goes mad; he begins to think at the wrong end…But we may ask in conclusion, if this be what drives men mad, what is it that keeps them sane (48)?”
The answer provided by Chesterton is none other than the mystical imagination found in religious orthodoxy. The thing about the cosmos human beings occupy is that is both physically and epistemologically too complex for the finite mind to fully comprehend. The only thing we can do is appreciate what we can and to accept that there is a power beyond us. Chesterton notes, “The real trouble with this world of ours is not that it is an unreasonable world, nor even that it is a reasonable one. The commonest kind of trouble is that it is nearly reasonable but not quite (148).”
Chesterton further likens the spiritual realm to two wild horses threatening to bolt off into the extremities of either direction with only the church adhering to orthodoxy capable of reining in these powerful tendencies that are good and pure when kept together as a team but result in heartache and ruin if not kept working together in tandem. Ironically, Chesterton claims, though often depicted as scatterbrained the best poets (actually quite sensible and businesslike) are often the ones embodying the spirit necessary for handling this awesome responsibility. For what the average person desires above all else is a life of practical romance defined by Chesterton as “the combination of something that is strange with something that is secure (16).” And what is any more mysterious and secure at the same time than God Himself?
Written in the early years of the twentieth century, some of the authors mentioned by Chesterton might seem obscure to readers not that familiar with general literary history. However, the fact that they have been forgotten while Chesterton is still embraced as a foremost defender of the faith is a positive testament to the relevance of Chesterton’s ruminations that, though written nearly a century ago, ring with a truth that sounds as if they just rolled off the presses.
by Frederick Meekins