David Pickering celebrates the centenary of Orthodoxy G.K. Chesterton’s masterpiece of Christian apologetics full of startling insights, paradoxes and memorable images
G.K. Chesterton’s masterpiece, Orthodoxy, was published a hundred years ago, in 1908. The book is the story of his own journey to orthodox Christianity, written with a joyful, paradoxical wit. Along the way, he debunked and deconstructed a variety of secular attacks on Christianity with cheerful gusto. The book is studded with startling insights, paradoxes and images, which embody his claim that Christianity is not only true, but also an adventure, a ‘thrilling romance’, and far more exciting than any alternative.
In Orthodoxy, Chesterton broke new ground in apologetics. Rather than writing a serious tome on strictly religious questions, he careered through topics as diverse as lunatic asylums and fairy tales, drawing in the arts, intuition, emotion and imagination as witnesses for the Faith, and so demonstrating that rather than being dull and stifling, Christianity is itself ‘The Eternal Revolution.’
He followed a similar path in his other writing, broadening the scope of apologetics by weaving it into fiction, biography, history, journalism and other genres. In all this, he was to prove a seminal influence for generations of Christian apologists. Charles Williams, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ronald Knox, Evelyn Waugh, Malcolm Muggeridge, Graham Greene and C.S. Lewis all acknowledged his influence, as have many others since.
Idiosyncrasy and orthodoxy
A hundred years on, the catch with Orthodoxy is that it was written in dialogue and debate with a host of contemporary foes of Christian belief, most of whom are now forgotten. Because of this, the book requires a certain knowledge of its period. Then there are the idiosyncrasies of the author: Chesterton’s unique, playful style, and his manner of leaping from image to paradox are as frustrating for some as they are entrancing for others.
For those who find themselves in tune with this quirky sage, there is much in Orthodoxy that now seems prophetic. To take one example from many: GKC turned on its head the idea that secularism is the thinking man’s refuge from religion, and suggested instead that secular materialism would lead to ‘The Suicide of Thought,’ and only ‘religious authority’ could defend reason from the corrosion
of sceptical relativism. ‘What we suffer from today is humility in the wrong place… A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed… We are on the road to producing a race of men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table.’
He answered attempts to brand Christianity as repressive with paradoxes and mental images designed to show that Christian morality and doctrine are liberating, not imprisoning. Here is one: ‘Catholic doctrine and discipline may be walls, but they are the walls of a playground. .. We might fancy some children playing on the flat grassy top of some tall island in the sea. So long as there was a wall round the cliff’s edge they could fling themselves into every frantic game and make the place the noisiest of nurseries. But the walls were knocked down, leaving the naked peril of the precipice. They did not fall over; but when their friends returned to them they were all huddled in terror in the centre of the island; and their song had ceased.’ Drugs, STDs, knife crime, booze’n’brawling – an ever-growing list of contemporary terrors reminds us of our need for those playground walls.
The book is peppered with supremely suggestive remarks. Think of Chesterton’s wonderfully positive take on marriage: ‘To bind myself to one woman is a small price to pay for so much as seeing one woman;’ or these words on love: ‘Love is not blind…Love is bound; and the more it is bound, the less it is blind.’ GKC stood up for community and tradition when heroic individualism was all the rage, taking the idea that tradition and democracy are enemies and turning it inside out: ‘Tradition may be defined as an extension of the franchise…it is the democracy of the dead.’
Another place where Orthodoxy may provoke wry smiles today is in relation to the media. GKC famously commented, ‘We do not need censorship of the press. We already have censorship by the press.’
Instead of merely ‘the press,’ the twenty-first century sees a variety of media interpreting the world for us, yet Christian voices seem increasingly censored out of the mainstream. Would such a pun-gently Christian writer as Chesterton be deemed acceptable in the mainstream press today? Would he be exiled to the blogosphere?
Orthodoxy seems prophetic partly because it anticipates numerous more recent criticisms of Enlightenment hubris. Chesterton’s approach might almost be seen as a kind of upside-down, through-the-looking-glass anticipation of Post-Modern critiques of Modernist thought: he delighted to prick the pretensions of secular rationalism, but did so from the perspective of faith, not doubt, and of joy, not bitterness.
The future of orthodoxy
The centenary of Orthodoxy may be a good moment to wonder what Chesterton would have said about today’s controversies. As a starter, I can imagine him arguing that ‘inclusive’ theology turns the Faith from a medicine to a painkiller, or declaiming that if Christianity is even half-right, a gay marriage can never be more than a legal fiction. Given his lifelong opposition to eugenics, we can be sure that he would have had some trenchant things to say about certain recent pieces of legislation.
For another starter, consider Anglicanism’s current debates in the light of Chesterton’s claim that only orthodoxy is equipped for ‘the difficult defence of reason.’ That claim, if true, demolishes the traditional demarcation of Anglicanism into Evangelicals who hold Scripture highest, Anglo-Catholics who hold tradition highest, Liberals who hold reason highest. If it is orthodoxy which conducts the difficult defence of reason, then Liberal theology’s claim to superior rationality is merely wishful thinking, and the defining characteristic of Liberalism is not respect for reason, but respect for culture, that is, for the dominant trends in contemporary culture. In cultural perspective, the theology known as ‘radically Liberal’ might be more accurately labelled as enthusiastically conformist.
What would Chesterton have been writing today?