Thursday, 5 April 2012

Chesterton's Orthodoxy

In my reading of various works of apologetics I noticed that quite a few Christian writers refer in approving tones to GK Chesterton's Orthodoxy, so I thought I'd have a read.

Chesterton was one of those archetypal English "men of letters", a high-class journalist who churned out books on a massive range of subjects.  He was a jack of all trades and master of none, an eccentric individual famous as much for who he was as for what he wrote.  Most of his works are rarely read these days, but the Father Brown  mysteries are still popular, as is this little book.  It was published in 1908 when Chesterton was 35, and explains his reasons for converting from agnosticism to orthodox Roman Catholic Christianity.

I find it interesting not only that this book is still read, but that it is beloved of more or less orthodox Protestants like CS Lewis and Philip Yancey, who wrote the foreword to this edition.  It's interesting because Chesterton is quite uncompromisingly Roman and highly critical of various aspects of Protestantism.

Chesterton gives us a mix of spiritual autobiography and apologetics, and in both respects the book is as idiosyncratic as it's author.  He slides from topic to topic and from idea to idea with bewildering speed and the connections are often difficult to follow.  It doesn't help that he is very much embedded in the debates of his time, referring to authors and ideas I have never heard of, or dimly recollect hearing of once.  It also doesn't help that much of the scientific knowledge he alludes to is no longer valid, if indeed it ever was.  However, science is not at the heart of his apologetic, and he is not attempting to prove that Christianity is "true" in a scientific sense.  Rather, his argument is a philosophical and imaginative one.

As far as I can work out, his central point is that for him, Christian orthodoxy made sense of a number of converging dilemmas brought up by his pre-Christian exploration of social and philosophical issues.  He uses the image of a key which, once turned in the lock, makes all the diverse parts of a mechanism fall into place and begin working.

However, his path to this point is a winding and at times confusing one.  Along the way, he discusses the idea that what is called "rationalism" destroys rationality by removing its basis, leading to something akin to madness.  The madman, he says, is perfectly logical within a very small, self-contained mental world.  Similarly, the atheistic rationalist is perfectly logical, but his world is very small and so much is missing.

One of the things that appears to be missing for Chesterton is the sense he first learned from fairy tales, that things need not be as they are.  Here he makes a distinction between things that are logically necessary (an apple cannot simultaneously be a pear) and things that are simply what we normally observe (an apple tree normally produces apples, but there is no logical reason why it should not produce the odd pear once in a while).  He doesn't mean this in a scientific sense so much as an imaginative one.  Scientific atheism, to him, is imaginative poverty, an inability to see things as they might be.

Which brings him to the heart of his reasoning, his reflections on optimism and pessimism.  For him, the optimist sees that we are progressing inevitably towards a better world or have even arrived at it.  There is therefore no need to strive for betterment - it will happen anyway.  The pessimist sees the world as inevitably doomed or inevitably bad, so there is no point in striving for betterment.  Chesterton therefore rejects both these views in favour of the orthodox view of fall and redemption.  In this framework, God and his followers love the world with a fierce love while at the same time fearlessly criticising its failings and striving to correct them.  It is only within this framework, he says, that true acts of heroism can take place, the greatest of which is Jesus' willingness to sacrifice himself.

I didn't really find myself any the wiser at the end of this book than at the start.  Perhaps this is because it is neither one thing nor the other.  At the point where he could defend his orthodoxy, when there is still a long way for his agument to travel to reach orthodox Christian dogma, he bails out with the statement that he doesn't propose to turn his spiritual autobiography into a work of apologetics.  Yet he also fails to give us a real autobiography, providing instead a chain of reasoning, the links of which are of an extraordinarily complex design. 

In the end I liked many of his ideas, but remained baffled by two things.  Firstly, despite its title this book is strikingly unorthodox, barely addressing any of the key ideas of Christianity.  Secondly, its reasons for belief are highly personal.  Chesterton believed because belief satisfied his imagination.  It provided him with a world view that made sense of his most treasured ideas and desires.

Perhaps there's a lesson in this for us, and I suspect it's the same lesson as that urged on us by Karen Armstrong.  We have allowed scientific rationalism to dominate our culture.  We demand proof.  Yet so many things, including the things that matter most to us, are beyond the very possibility of proof.  It is no accident that renowned atheist Stephen Jay Gould had a love for Handel and Bach, those most religious of composers.  They provided for him an imaginative world which he could never find in the fascinations of evolutionary biology.  So also with Chesterton.  He doesn't convince us to be orthodox, even though he would like to, but he does convince us that there are imaginative riches in the world of religion and that we and our community would be so much the poorer for neglecting them.

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