Sunday 10 March 2013

G. K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy

G.K. Chesterton begins Orthodoxy (1908) with a parable about an English yachtsman who sets sail and discovers a new island in the South Seas. Anxiously (but manfully) he strides ashore, armed to the teeth, and adopts sign language as his means of communication with the natives. In the far off distance he spies a barbaric temple. Courageously he marches towards it with the intent of planting a British flag upon the edifice: except it is not an unfamiliar shrine he discovers there. To his surprise and confusion the barbaric temple turns out to be the Pavilion in Brighton. Does our yachtsman feel foolish? Most certainly he does, and Chesterton should know because he confesses that he was that yachtsman, only the truth he stumbled upon was not the Pavilion in Brighton but Christianity.

More than a century after the publication of Orthodoxy, Chesterton’s tale has lost none of its sting. The progressive liberals of the Edwardian era appear to have been at war with Christian orthodoxy – here loosely defined as adherence to the Apostles’ Creed – no less than today’s PC brigade. Additionally, contemporary defenders of Christianity often share with Chesterton a similar history of once having been on the other side of the barricades. They, too, lived their formative years striving hard to find unique and original truths in order to be “ten minutes in advance” of the latest intellectual fashion, and so also stand to be punished in “the fittest and funniest way”. In other words, the mishap of Chesterton’s yachtsman is, for many of us today, a record of our own misadventures. The yachtsman’s discovery is not untrue, because the Pavilion in Brighton remains the Pavilion in Brighton, whichever way you look at it. Nevertheless, just when the yachtsman – and by extension Chesterton and all who stumble upon their spiritual inheritance later in life – fancies he stands alone in his discovery, the realisation hits that he is “in the ridiculous position of being backed up by all of Christendom”.

Chesterton had a famous penchant for subverting popular sayings and proverbs. “Travel narrows the mind” remains a personal favourite, but the list is impossibly long and over the years not a few critics have considered Chesterton’s wit and levity to be detrimental to his polemical gravitas. Clive James is not alone in arguing that Chesterton’s “vice was wilful paradox”. We can easily imagine Chesterton on television lobbing back droll one-liners to celebrity atheist Christopher Hitchens: “If there were no God, there would be no atheists.” Certainly there are lines in Orthodoxy that some might deem more clever than serious, but Chesterton was a profound thinker, an aspect of the man that really comes into its own in chapter six of Orthodoxy titled, appropriately enough, “The Paradox of Christianity”.     

Chesterton lists the charges made against Christianity by its detractors and finds them, ultimately, inconsistent. Christianity was a nightmare in the opinion of one and a fool’s paradise according to someone else; too optimistic for some, and morbidly pessimistic for others; too meek and too violent; too austere and too full of pomp; and so on ad infinitum: “Christianity could not at once be the black mask on a white world, and also the white mask on a black world.” Chesterton’s epiphany is that at its core Christianity represents a paradox – a paradox, however, that makes a unifying sense of life’s eternal contradictions. The secret of orthodox or conventional Christianity, contends Chesterton, is that it is simultaneously worldly and unworldly. While Paganism or Stoicism seek to balance oppositional human emotions – for instance, modesty and pride – by amalgamating these qualities and thus diluting or moderating their full force, Christianity allows each full reign. People with a Christian faith believe they have a personal relationship with the Creator of All Things, and yet know that they themselves, however successful in human terms, are the creators of very little, let alone their own salvation. Mastering the paradox of mortal existence, argues Chesterton, explains “the thrilling romance” of both the history and the spirit of orthodox Christianity.    

One of the truly startling things about reading Orthodoxy in 2011 is encountering the same arguments against Christianity that we bump into today (witness Dawkins, Dennet, and Harris), only marginally reconfigured and restated in a slightly new context. Chesterton, if he were alive, would find it just as easy to demolish their assertions as he did with those of his own “agnostic” contemporaries. Thus, he noted that so-called free thinkers in the Edwardian era were not free thinkers at all, and that their starting point – “the dogma of materialism” – was always their finishing point. Chesterton would not be surprised to hear that social justice advocates such as John Dominic Crossman and the Jesus Seminar “discovered” in their search for the historical Jesus that the Second Person of the Trinity was an all-too-human social justice advocate. Their worldview, in short, happens to be a closed system, and so the non-divinity of Jesus was decided before their investigation commenced.

When Chesterton penned Orthodoxy, Christianity’s claims to universality had already been under assault for more than a hundred years. In the big picture, so the argument went, was not Christianity just a Euro-centric rendering of a human impulse that in other parts of the world had resulted in Hinduism, Islam and Buddhism? Chesterton will have none of it and time has proven him right. Ask the brave Christians in Iran who daily risk everything to live out their faith if religions are transposable. Orthodoxy also admonishes the claims of secularists who explain Christianity’s ascendancy with moments of great cultural and social ignorance. On the contrary, argues Chesterton, Christianity “arose in Mediterranean civilisation in the full summer of the Roman Empire”. When Constantine “nailed the cross to the mast” the civilised world was “swarming with sceptics, and pantheism was as plain as the sun”. Moreover, Christianity does not belong to the dark ages, but “was the one path across the dark ages that was not dark”. There are many moments in Orthodoxy that are no less illuminating and persuasive than David Bentley Hart’s masterful Atheist Delusions (2009), and one can almost forget Chesterton was working over a hundred years ago at great speed and in the midst of numerous other famous writing endeavours.                          

“Wilful paradox” might have been Chesterton’s flaw but it was also, fittingly, his strength. If the allegorical yachtsman’s – and Chesterton’s – blunder represents a mistake, it is a most enviable mistake. “What could be more delightful than to have in the same few minutes all the fascinating terrors of going abroad combined with all the humane security of coming home again?” The yachtsman, along with Chesterton and everybody else who experiences a mid-life discovery of Christianity, can enjoy going away and coming home, and can enjoy them at the very same time. How agreeable to brace one’s self for the most terrible possibilities imaginable and then realise with a jolt that one is home. It is a fiasco, as Chesterton says, but at least it is a “happy fiasco”.         

This article first appeared in the Spring 2012 issue of The Salisbury Review