by G.K. Chesterton
What impresses me most about Orthodoxy is its keen insights into what I often take for granted. Chesterton not only addresses important issues that I have rarely bothered to think about (at least in the ways he presents them), but he does so with a fresh perspective and a depth that are difficult to find elsewhere. Once in a while a book comes into my life which I consider a real gem. This is one of them.
In the foreword, Philip Yancey provides a tongue-in-cheek quote by Chesterton on how badly the Church has shirked its responsibilities: "There is only one unanswerable argument against Christianity: Christians. They prove conclusively what the Bible teaches about the Fall."
This quote sets the tone as the author establishes himself as a chief among sinners, a repentant soul who has taken a spiritual and intellectual journey and has lived to tell about it. The book is basically an autobiography, tracking the development in the author's mind of a unique belief system all his own which made sense of the world in which he lived. It turns out his ideal religion was none other than what Christ has been teaching for centuries:
"I am the man who with utmost daring discovered what had been discovered before. I tried to be some ten minutes in advance of the truth. And I found that I was eighteen hundred years behind it."
The book flows through the processes which brought the author to his realization of the absolute, logical, and necessary truths of the Christian faith. Early chapters point out the logical fallacies in the materialistic mindset which occupies those who have not yet heard the message. Then the subject matter flows naturally to the next step in the conversion of one's heart and mind; the fact that if right and wrong exist, then there must be a source of this ethic, a source which is outside the human race and which provides the standard by which we know what is indeed right and what is wrong. From here, it is a simple step into the meat of the message of Christ, and how it affect our daily lives. The book then concludes with an eloquent description of the excitement, the romance, the hope of the future which is available to those who believe the biblical message of Christ and his works among the human race.
The title of Chapter Three adequately summarizes the contents of the first three chapters: "The Suicide of Thought." These chapters comprise a stunning defeat of the materialistic mindset. The author's first target is the humanist's desire to place mankind in control of things. In reply to the argument that the man who believes in himself can accomplish much:
"It would be much truer to say that a man will certainly fail, because he believes in himself. Complete self-confidence is not merely a sin; complete self-confidence is a weakness. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert - himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt - the Divine Reason."
I suppose the author's worldview prior to accepting the message of Jesus Christ had a lot to do with his insight into the issues grappled with by those whom God is convicting and drawing to Himself. I understand why many of the issues Chesterton deals with have not weighed heavily on my mind before. Having been a Christian since childhood, I had never grappled with some of these arguments pitting the materialist mindset against that of the Truth of God, at least not by the route he has chosen. For those readers who are not Christians, but who want to thoroughly examine the logical strengths inherent in the message of Christ, this book is for you. For those who are Christians, this book is vital in helping you to understand why you believe the way you do.
The materialists are hopelessly trapped within a circular argument. They believe that reason and faith must be separated. This is the essence of the modern conflict between science and religion. While the truth is that science and the truth of the bible very strongly support each other, the materialist segment of the science community insists on the separation of religion from the study of the natural world. But this stance simply will not withstand the application of logic:
"Reason is itself a matter of faith. It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all. If you are merely a skeptic, you must sooner or later ask yourself the question, 'Why should anything go right; even observation and deduction? Why should not good logic be as misleading as bad logic? They are both movements in the brain of a bewildered ape?' "
Chapters Four and Five make the transition toward the hands-on portion of Chesterton's journey. "Ethics in Elfland" addresses the progression into a rational thought process that concludes with the need for a Creator. If right and wrong exist, if good and bad exist, and if humans are capable of distinguishing between the two, then a higher standard must exist:
"I had always believed that the world involved magic; now I thought perhaps it involved a magician. And this pointed [to] a profound emotion always present and sub-conscious; that this world of ours has some purpose; and if there is a purpose, there is a person. I had always felt life first as a story; and if there is a story there is a story teller."
The need for a righteous "story teller", who cared about the universe he created and the beings with which he populated it, is essential to a worldview which actually works. A merely physical universe with merely physical beings (as opposed to immortal of spiritual ones) would be an awfully boring place to reside. Although the universe is grand and fascinating, yet it is limited, and can be discovered. But certain aspects of the spiritual being are not so easily surmised:
"The cosmos went on forever, but not in its wildest constellation could there be anything really interesting; anything, for instance, such as forgiveness or free will."
Many pundits will claim that such "really interesting" things as forgiveness and free will imply religious thought, which may have been quaint and understandable in the dark ages, but are inappropriate for our modern scientific age. The author effectively deals with the notion of an expiration date for certain belief systems or creeds:
"An imbecile habit has arisen in modern controversy of saying that such and such a creed can be held in one age but cannot be held in another. Some dogma, we are told, was credible in the twelfth century, but is not credible in the twentieth century. You might as well say that a certain philosophy can be believed on Mondays but cannot be believed on Tuesdays. What a man can believe depends upon his philosophy, not upon the clock or the century. If a man believes in unalterable natural law, he cannot believe in any miracle in any age. If a man believes in a will behind the law, he can believe in any miracle in any age."
Having laid the groundwork for the necessity of a Higher Being, a Creator by whom standards have been established, the author uses a logical approach to Chapter Six, "The Paradoxes of Christianity." In his own search, he found that certain incongruities exist in the Christian faith which he did not immediately have a handle on. These were not, however, considered roadblocks, but rather more like challenges to help him discover the truth:
"Whenever we feel there is something odd in Christian theology, we shall generally find that there is something odd in the truth."
This truth, that at first seemed odd, but then seemed to fit the world like a key fits a lock, turned out to be the very thing which C.S. Lewis had struggled with early in his life. Lewis gradually made the conversion to Christianity because he saw no other possible route which made logical sense. Certain aspects of the Christian faith were so ironclad, so powerful, that their force became inexorable for both Lewis and Chesterton. Chesterton writes:
"It lookedÖas ifÖany stick was good enough to beat Christianity with. What again could this astonishing thing be like which people were so anxious to contradict, that in doing so they did not mind contradicting themselves?"
The power of the message of Christ had taken hold and did not thereafter let go, either of Lewis or our author. The necessity to live according to this new world view permeated their beings, and changed their characters. Chapters Seven through Nine complete the book by describing just how this new character acts, how it responds to the world around it, and how it affects one's view of the future. The chapter titles are worth mentioning, since they hint at the joy and excitement that belong to those who serve an infinitely loving Creator; "The Eternal Revolution," "The Romance of Orthodoxy," and "Authority and the Adventurer."
The Christian is obviously expected to enjoy life. "Seriousness is not a virtue," claims the author. This faith is a joyous one in which levity is a mark of the soul with eternal security:
"A characteristic of the great saints is their power of levityÖpride cannot rise to levity or levitation. Pride is the downward drag of all things into an easy solemnity. One "settles down" into a sort of selfish seriousness; but one has to rise to a gay self-forgetfulnessÖfor solemnity flows out of men naturally; but laughter is a leap. It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light. Satan fell by the force of gravity."
The true "Romance of Orthodoxy" lies in its simplicity. We need not be serious, we need not be solemn and heavy to appreciate the message of orthodox belief in the claims of the Christian Bible. It is a simple message to grasp and to live one's life by. A simple message requires simple thoughts and simple words. These simple words confound the most intellectual skeptics. These truths are irreducible, and thus cannot be refuted by either logic or experience. Truth is available for those who would search for it, and it is expressed in simple terms. These truths may be difficult to hear for some, but in the end it is this truth that will set you free:
"This, therefore, is, in conclusion, my reason for accepting the religion and not merely the scattered and secular truths out of the religion. I do it because the thing has not merely told this truth or that truth, but had revealed itself as the truth-telling thing. All other philosophies 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."
Orthodoxy is a brilliant dissertation on the necessity of accepting the Christian message, and the logical impossibility of accepting any other belief system as truth. It is not a long book (173 pages in a 6" x 9" format), and it is very readable and understandable. I appreciate Chesterton's sense of humor and wit, and the matter-of-fact and happy spirit in which he approaches the whole subject. It is worthy reading for the non-Christian who is seeking truth, for the Atheist seeking reasons to avoid the truth, and for the Christian who desires to learn more about the truth. Highly recommended.