Orthodoxy

The above title is of a book, published 100 years ago in 1908. It is the single-best book published in the last hundred years. Take it on faith if you must. Read it, you will find out. The book is profound, witty, memorable, incisive, and brilliant. It is, of course, G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy.
The book is not an “autobiography.” Chesterton later, just before he died in 1936, did publish his Autobiography. The Autobiography began with an ironic spoof of the higher criticism, biblical and otherwise. Though he could not “prove” it, he admitted nonetheless that he took it on faith that he actually was born. Here is how he put it:
Bowing down in blind credulity, as is my custom, before mere authority and the tradition of the elders, superstitiously swallowing a story I could not test at the time by experiment of private judgment, I am firmly of the opinion that I was born on the 29th of May, 1874, on Campden Hill, Kensington; and baptized according to the formularies of the Church of England . . . .
How utterly amusing that is!
Chesterton, in the Autobiography, also cited his Scottish grandfather in a passage I have never forgotten. His grandfather Keith, from whence Chesterton received his middle name, said, shockingly, that he would thank God for his existence even if he went to hell. When you have sorted out the theology and metaphysics implicit in that striking remark, you are well on your way to understanding the real nature of things — of what is good, of what is the origin of evil.
But Orthodoxy is an intellectual autobiography, an intellectual treat. It is not, as Chesterton says, about whether the faith is true or not, but about how he came to believe that it is. In coming to believe in Christianity, Chesterton, as he tells us, did not read a single Christian book in the process. Rather, he read book after book of those who maintained that Christianity could not possibly be true. After he had read many of these tractates, he suddenly realized that the intellectual opponents of Christianity were constantly contradicting themselves about what they were opposing. Chesterton, the most logical of men, figured that anything so odd as to be opposed for the exact opposite reasons must either be quite strange or, in fact, rather normal and true.
I do not recall now how many times I have read this little book. It is always a delight. It is 160 pages long. It takes both no time and forever to read it. It is almost impossible to put down once you begin it. Many editions of Orthodoxy have been published in the past century. I myself possess a 1924, London, Bodley Head Edition, a falling-apart 1974 Doubleday Image paperback edition, and the first volume of the 1986 Ignatius Press Collected Works.
Orthodoxy can easily be found online via Google, but it is best to own it. The book has been translated into many languages. Just how Chesterton’s famous paradoxes sound in French or Polish, I have no idea. Chesterton is so typically English that it is difficult to imagine understanding him in some other tongue. But the same could be said of almost any book translated into another language, beginning with Plato.
The book is essentially about what it is to be sane, normal, to see the world as ordinary people see it. The scientific mind has its own foibles, which Chesterton has great fun pointing out. Chesterton is not “anti-scientific,” but he is devastating with science when it is not itself reasonable.
Three years before Orthodoxy, in 1905, Chesterton published Heretics. This book accounted for the great intellectuals of his era. It is most amusing and insightful. After he had published Heretics, a man by the name of G. S. Street wrote that “it is all very well for me (Chesterton) to tell everybody to affirm his cosmic theory, but that I had carefully avoided supporting my precepts with example. ‘I (Street) will begin to worry about my philosophy when Mr. Chesterton has given us his.'” Chesterton was delighted with the challenge. Orthodoxy is the happy result.
The first chapter of Orthodoxy is titled “The Maniac.” The madman is not someone who does not think; he is a man who only thinks one thought and cannot balance it off with the rest of reality.
The next chapter is called “The Suicide of Thought,” almost an advanced description of too many modern philosophy departments. Chesterton had before him books of Nietzsche, Shaw, Schopenhauer, and Tolstoy.
They are all on the road to the emptiness of the asylum. For madness may be defined as using mental activity so as to reach mental helplessness, and they [modern thinkers] have nearly reached it. He, who thinks he is made of glass, thinks to the destruction of thought; for glass cannot think. So he who wills to reject nothing, wills the destruction of will; for will is not only the choice of something, but the rejection of almost everything.
That is a pithy description of modern relativism, skepticism, and non-judgmentalism.
Let me conclude: This is not a book review. It is an alert. When I read the following passage, I knew that the world, as I suspected, was essentially good, as the Creed says:
No other philosophy makes God actually rejoice in the separation of the universe into living souls. But according to orthodox Christianity this separation between God and man is sacred, because this separation is eternal. That a man may love God it is necessary that there should be not only a God to be loved, but a man to love him.
On finishing this passage, I had no difficulty in knowing that it was the truth. Orthodoxy is full of such “knowings,” even more so a century after it was first published.

Fr. James V. Schall

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The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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