Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 856
Though sometimes vaguely regarded as a minor British literary figure, G. K. Chesterton is considered by many informed readers to be one of the great writers of the English language in the twentieth century. A prolific author of astonishing creativity, he published dozens of books (including novels, biographies, and social, literary, and religious criticism), hundreds of short stories and poems, and thousands of essays. Though nowadays perhaps most often remembered as the author of the well-known Father Brown detective stories, he was a public intellectual in the media of his time. His enduring cultural significance is found in his sometimes prescient, sometimes naïve critiques of modernist ideas, and in his vigorous, witty defense of the intellectual respectability of traditional Christian doctrines. Orthodoxy, one of his most important books, presents his effervescent apologia pro vita sua.
The title of chapter 6, “The Paradoxes of Christianity,” articulates what in a real sense is the subject of the whole volume. Though Chesterton condemns the use of “mere paradox,” his characteristic humor is pervasively couched in paradoxical terms: Orthodoxy reads like Saint Paul’s epistles as written by Oscar Wilde. With glittering wit, Chesterton endorses Christian doctrine as the logical upshot of a humble and democratic common sense. To some readers his unrelenting inversion of truisms may grow predictable and tedious; to others, the verbal pyrotechnics are redeemed by an abundance of unfashionable truths memorably expressed.
Chesterton explains how he came to Christianity but provides neither conventional autobiography nor ordinary apologetics. Offering “mental pictures” rather than deductions, he tries to show how his instinctive view of life—a view in sharp contrast to the drift of modern thought—was ultimately recognized by him as consonant with historic Christian faith. (A decade and a half later, in 1922, he embraced Roman Catholicism.) His “ultimate attitudes towards life” include the idea that the meaningfulness of the world requires a personal agency behind it, an agency to whom people owe the good of their lives and to whom deference is due.
Chesterton encapsulates the main problem for philosophers in this question: “How can we contrive to be at once astonished at the world and yet at home in it?” He describes the important influence fairy tales had upon his outlook. “These tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green.” This “mixture of the familiar and the unfamiliar” he calls “romance,” and he presents Christian faith as uniquely equipped to provide a place for such romance in the world. In effect, he presents Christian doctrines and symbols as the most satisfying expressions of life’s mystery.
Chesterton critiques the sensibility of his times, which he sees as involving both a lack of balance among the various attitudes human life requires and a loss of belief in the reality of truth. Modernist views seem to him materialistic and therefore skeptical and self-defeating. They undermine human reason, will, and energy, so they ultimately result in what he calls (it is the title of chapter 3) “the suicide of thought.” The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche is a frequent target, and some of Chesterton’s cogent observations point to philosophical weaknesses arguably still found decades later in so-called postmodernist philosophers.
Only in his final chapter (“Authority and the Adventurer”) does Chesterton at last address the important question of why thinkers should fully accept Christianity rather than merely extract from it whatever worldly truths it may have discerned. He responds to agnostic or atheistic objections, arguing that the skeptic’s case invariably derives from a mistake about the facts. It is skeptics who reject concrete evidence such as human testimony because of their commitment to an abstract dogma about what is possible, he says. “It is we Christians who accept all actual evidence.”
Chesterton may intend to suggest that Christian belief has been shown to be better, or at least no less acceptable, than materialist belief. To reach this conclusion, however, he must rely upon his view that complexity in the world implies (divine) personal agency, and in the end he concedes that this conviction is “undiscussable . . . a primary intellectual conviction.” If this conviction may seem more in question today than it did a century ago, the issue remains central to the ongoing debate over Darwinian evolution and so-called Intelligent Design. Chesterton’s brief discussion of evolution presents the subject, depending on how it is understood, either as perfectly innocuous or as yet another example of the suicide of thought.
Chesterton could insist that his concern is only to explain his beliefs rather than to compel the belief of others, for the argument he discusses is not, he says, his real reason for accepting Christianity. He is persuaded not because Christianity has told him this or that particular truth but because it “has again and again said the thing that does not seem to be true, but is true.” Critics will note that if the romance of orthodoxy depends on the individual believer’s way of telling the story or involves the relativity of incommensurable primary intellectual convictions, then heterodoxy may yet have a word to be said for it.
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