Orthodoxy completed Thursday, December 29th, 2016

I think I started this book in late 2015. I had a paperback and was savoring it slowly and highlighting it. I put it down in the swirl of changes that encompassed my life for the better part of this year, and picked up the Kindle version for free and read some from it every morning while I waited for the coffee.

G.K. Chesterton recounts his intellectual and logical conversion to the orthodox Christian faith from his Unitarian background that devolved into atheism in his early years. It is not in the style of 21th century conversion stories, about specific people, dates, and times, but does tell his intellectual journey. The obstacles he had to overcome mentally, logical fallacies commonly held by skeptics and nonbelievers or spiritualists. I read the second half of the book on my Kindle and highlighted it paragraphs at a time.

Some samples of passages I highlighted:

“Rational optimism leads to stagnation: it is irrational optimism that leads to reform. Let me explain by using once more the parallel of patriotism. The man who is most likely to ruin the place he loves is exactly the man who loves it with a reason. The man who will improve the place is the man who loves it without a reason”

“Can he hate [the world] enough to change it, and yet love it enough to think it worth changing?”

“A woman loses a child even in having a child. All creation is separation. Birth is as solemn a parting as death.”

“All roads lead to Rome; which is one reason why many people never get there.”

“And it did for one wild moment cross my mind that, perhaps, those might not be the very best judges of the relation of religion to happiness who, by their own account, had neither one nor the other.”

“Really, if Jesus of Nazareth was not Christ, He must have been Antichrist”

“Let us follow for a moment the clue of the martyr and the suicide; and take the case of courage. No quality has ever so much addled the brains and tangled the definitions of merely rational sages. Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die. “He that will lose his life, the same shall save it,” is not a piece of mysticism for saints and heroes. It is a piece of everyday advice for sailors or mountaineers”

“I am here only following the outlines of their argument, which consists in maintaining that man has been progressively more lenient, first to citizens, then to slaves, then to animals, and then (presumably) to plants. I think it wrong to sit on a man. Soon, I shall think it wrong to sit on a horse. Eventually (I suppose) I shall think it wrong to sit on a chair”

“The chieftain chosen to be the friend of the people becomes the enemy of the people; the newspaper started to tell the truth now exists to prevent the truth being told”

“Only the Christian Church can offer any rational objection to a complete confidence in the rich”

“Man must have just enough faith in himself to have adventures, and just enough doubt of himself to enjoy them”

“In the best Utopia, I must be prepared for the moral fall of any man in any position at any moment; especially for my fall from my position at this moment”

“The man of the nineteenth century did not disbelieve in the Resurrection because his liberal Christianity allowed him to doubt it. He disbelieved in it because his very strict materialism did not allow him to believe it.”

“If I vow to be faithful I must be cursed when I am unfaithful, or there is no fun in vowing”

“Almost every contemporary proposal to bring freedom into the church is simply a proposal to bring tyranny into the world”

Well, that is enough I guess.

Chesterton’s logic is lucid throughout, his writing clear as crystal. There are a few references to people and places contemporary to him that are unknown to me, people like Swinborne and places like Pimlico. Most of these can be passed by without missing his point. His arguments are still forceful today in regards to the materialists (aka the New Atheists) and determinists, as well as the New Agers and lukewarm Christians.

Chesterton, in some ways, foresaw the world in which we now find ourselves. The threats of Islam, nihilism, euthanasia, watered-down lukewarm faith, radical environmentalism, the co-option of the media by the elites He was a true liberal, a true democrat, one who believed in liberty and the common man. I think of William F. Buckley’s statement that he would rather be governed by random people from the phonebook than the faculty at Harvard. Much of what he writes comes across as good common sense, that rings true in the hearing, only put much better than we could have put it ourselves. The way he can turn a phrase is remarkable.

I have already read the Everlasting Man, which, as I recall, concerned the idea of the monomyth and the way paganism pointed to Christianity or had some shard of the truth that was fully revealed in Christ. I will see what notes I have on it and post them later. Heretics is the next Chesterton book on my reading list.

–Thomas G Bates,
30 December 2016