Honestly I don’t know how to begin reflecting on G.K. Chesterton’s classic apologetic book Orthodoxy. Reading it was a dense and delightful experience. Simultaneously unusual and common-sensical in perspective, Chesterton’s account of how he came to believe the Christian religion is true is a literary and logical tour de force.
Rather than set out a typical intellectual defense of the faith, Chesterton approaches the question of Christianity from psychological, sociological, and creational categories. He is a master at employing the imagination in observing what must and must not be true. If it can be said the author concludes that Christianity is beautiful, good, and true (in that order), it’s probably also right to say the opposite. Interacting with the philosophies en vogue during the late 19th and early 20th centuries (particularly in the Enlightenment West), he playfully argues they are ugly, bad, and false (again, in that order) when put under the microscope or observed in the real world of nature and human relationships. Many acknowledge the more famous C.S. Lewis as an original thinker. But interacting with Chesterton’s mind gives the impression that Lewis digested and synthesized him for the next generation. Thus to appreciate and understand the gigantic influence of Lewis, one must swim upstream and listen to his teacher. After reading Orthodoxy, the one thought that kept popping into my mind was “A student is not greater than his master” (Matthew 10:24).
When it comes to understanding anything or anyone well, it is wise to turn to converts. Because converts have lived and imbibed the teachings of another perspective. First they knew and believed another viewpoint, another teaching, another “orthodoxy” from the inside before ending up critiquing it. That is Chesterton’s advantage. He was a pagan and total agnostic before he (re)turned to the Christianity on which he was weened. From the 1995 Ignatius Press edition’s back cover:
Chesterton had the remarkable experience of developing a personal, positive philosophy that turned out to be orthodox Christianity. Orthodoxy, his account of it all, has not lost its force as a timeless argument for the simple plausibility of traditional Christianity…This intellectual and spiritual autobiography of the leading twentieth-century essayist combines simplicity with subtlety in a model apologetic that appeals to today’s generations of readers who face the same materialism and anti-supernaturalism as did the “man at war with his times.” Of the numerous works that Chesterton wrote, the most scintillating synthesis of his philosophy and deeply religious faith was manifested in the masterpiece Orthodoxy, written when he was only 34 and which tells, in his inimitable, soaring prose, of his earth-shaking discovery that orthodoxy is the only satisfactory answer to the perplexing riddle of the universe. Orthodoxy is perhaps the most outstanding example of the originality of his style and the brilliance of this thought.
So what is the author proposing and defending as “orthodoxy”? One might say it is mere Christianity as expressed in the ecumenical creeds, especially the Apostles’ Creed. Some Protestants are reluctant to read Chesterton because he is often upheld as a proponent of traditional Roman Catholicism, but the author penned this book when he was still an Anglican. Thus it can realistically speak to both Protestants and Catholics (and for that matter also the brave Orthodox believer willing to give him a try!). That is one of the valuable things about this book. It belongs to the wider church, not just one particular branch, which is why it is still worthy studying—and still is in many secular college and university religious and humanities programs. Despite Chesterton’s disdainfully equating all things “Calvinistic” and “Puritan” with philosophical determinism, nothing else jumped out to this reader as uninformed.
The book is organized in the following chapter titles:
- Introduction in Defence of Everything Else
- The Maniac
- The Suicide of Thought
- The Ethics of Elfland
- The Flag of the World
- The Paradoxes of Christianity
- The Eternal Revolution
- The Romance of Orthodoxy
- Authority and the Adventurer
Unlike many recent apologetic or philosophical books that make the case for Christianity, Orthodoxy is not a collection of essays on various questions about the faith. Rather it is a sustained argument, where each chapter builds on the next. Without the foundation of chapter 2 (The Maniac), chapter 4 (The Ethics of Elfland) will appear strange and unconvincing. But taken as a whole, Chesterton’s apologetic for his own personal philosophy and account of coming to faith has a mystical, spiritual, worldly, and intellectual coherence that makes sense of all reality. The skeptic may not agree with Chesterton’s vision of Christianity, but he will be hard pressed to say it doesn’t make sense. Why? Because the author masterfully paints a picture of Christianity that possesses both internal consistency and external coherency.
So much more could be said of this classic book. Its appeal has endured the sunset of modernism into the sunrise of postmodernism. I’m not sure if it has the same legacy in the non-Western world in places where paganism, animism, syncretism, or Eastern spirituality are dominant. But it would be interesting to find what the converts from those worldviews to Christianity have to say about Chesterton’s account of the Christian faith.
Although it took concentrated reading to follow the author’s train of thought, the prose is artistic and pleasing to read. Chesterton is a word-smith and an expert at turning a phrase. He seems to glory in paradoxes and the apologetic tactic of “turning the tables” on the objector. And he pulls it off with a literary smile on his face. To put it succinctly, the man can write, and he has fun doing so. As such, his style of apologetics is worthy of study and emulation because he models classical persuasion by employing logos (logic), pathos (emotion), and mythos (story telling) to win an audience to his viewpoint. Yet the wonderful thing about Chesterton is he is no sophist. He actually believes and delights in the Lordship of Jesus Christ. He is obviously satisfied in him in every sense of the word—intellectually, academically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually, relationally, and even physically (the man was quite big due to his love for good food and drink).
One of the surprising rewards of reading Chesterton’s Orthodoxy is discovering the source of so many quotable sections, including a few famous quips that have earned their place in the Christian lexicon. Here are just a few:
“I had always felt life first as a story: and if there is a story there is a story-teller.”
“Imagination does not breed insanity. Exactly what does breed insanity is reason. Poets do not go mad; but chess-players do. Mathematicians go mad, and cashiers; but creative artists very seldom. I am not, as will be seen, in any sense attacking logic: I only say that this danger does lie in logic, not in imagination.”
“As long as you have mystery you have health; when you destroy mystery you create morbidity.”
“Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.”
“The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.”
“According to most philosophers, God in making the world enslaved it. According to Christianity, in making it, He set it free. God had written, not so much a poem, but rather a play; a play he had planned as perfect, but which had necessarily been left to human actors and stage-managers, who had since made a great mess of it.”
“Art, like morality, consists of drawing the line somewhere.”
“Love is not blind; that is the last thing that it is. Love is bound; and the more it is bound the less it is blind.”
“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.”
“Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.”
“There is a thought that stops thought. That is the only thought that ought to be stopped. That is the ultimate evil against which all religious authority was aimed.”
Many people have profited from a careful reading of Chesterton’s Orthodoxy. It’s uncommon for an apologetic work to retain its beauty, edge, and relevancy more than 100 years later. In the case of Orthodoxy, it has not gone out of style—just like its subject matter: “orthodoxy”. After all, classics are classics for a reason.
Read Orthodoxy at Christian Classics Ethereal Library
Free Orthodoxy audiobook by Librivox, read by J.A. Carter
Free Orthodoxy e-book in EPUB and Kindle formats
Outline of Orthodoxy
Online Discussions for readers of Orthodoxy
A quirky Reformed and Presbyterian perspective (“Presbyformed”)
James Mark Shields (scholarly)