Book Review: ORTHODOXY – by Gilbert Keith Chesterton


Orthodoxy was written in 1908, by the British journalist and biographer Gilbert Keith Chesterton. It is presented by him as a sort of summary of a personal journey towards an acceptance of the Christian faith as sufficient and perfectly satisfying the ultimate yearnings of man. It is, in this sense, a voyage; but in actual fact, merely describing it as this alone, would be a grave understatement. It is a slender book which deserves to be read and digested not too hastily. More than just a survey, it speaks of Christian Orthodoxy as the orthodox, the only one (truly fitting) for man, the truth paradoxical yet consistent, the obvious truth.
The book consists of nine chapters. The first, which is an introduction titled “In Defense of Everything Else”, Chesterton employs the symbol of a quest for some previously unfound land, a journey. He had embarked upon a voyage, seeking something new, perhaps some satisfying understanding of reality and of life. What he finds, he first thinks to be a novel discovery.
but then he realizes that it was already found by many before. It was, and is, the ancient, always relevant truth, the Orthodoxy that is Christianity.
In Chapter 2 (The Maniac), he examines the alternatives to the Christian view of the world and of existence. He compares secular humanism and the eastern religions (which were, and are, among the most adhered to ‘alternatives’ to the Christian faith) to lunacy. The emphasis in this Chapter is that there is something terribly wrong with these systems: the confidence in the ability of man’s (finite) mind to explain everything ends up producing an obscure and uncertain picture of everything. His argument here, is this: that those who are more likely to be found in the mental asylum are those who express an excessive self-belief; perhaps to the point of appearing delusional. Likewise, the men who employ the so-called power of reason to explain existence and ‘demystify’ it are deluded. The point of similarity between these is the lack of a real basis for their rationalizing- just as one suffering from delusions of grandeur thinks himself reasonable, but is in fact living in a false reality based on weird presuppositions. He also dismisses eastern religions as “centripetal” , tending to lead to self-preoccupation and selfishness.
The next Chapter, (the Suicide of Thought) is an attack upon various strands of ideas which have questioned the need for rules and boundaries (which the Church does recognize). He criticizes free thinkers for doing away with what is in essence, a basic constituent of meaning, or of defining. He rejects “pacifist” philosophy which emphasizes the morality of peace; and the worship of will, which is the opposite (one which exalts the “survival of the fittest”, the rule of self-centeredness). Instead, he extols a combination of radical passion and radical tenderness and care, as seen in Joan of Arc, and ultimately, in Jesus Christ.
In the “Ethics of Elfland”, Chesterton speaks of democracy and of his love for it. Then he makes a positive comparison to Christianity, which does not exclude, but calls out; and which also speaks of the mystical, something which man’s culture widely (‘democratically’ if you will) attests to. The pure and unfettered appeal to human logic which shuts out the unfathomable, the irreconcilable contrasts, and the apparent signs of the divine, is in fact aristocratic. It is held by a minority who would want to impose this view upon all else. He also continues to intensify the point he has made about the  difference between those who believe (those who dwell in elfland of the fairy tales) and the logicians who seek to explain (away) everything. Their so-called laws of nature are not laws at all. They are only uniformities which, in reality, rarely (if ever) exist in these exact representation. To this extent, to be a ‘elflander’ is to be plain and honest about existence as it appears to us: mysterious and exciting. But the pure logician is the one who actually believes in fairy tales- such as the fairy tale of  the “laws of nature”.
Then in chapter five, he speaks more about radical opposites which Christianity shows forth, in its approach to the state of the world. For him, the intriguing thing that makes this faith fit into the world’s keyhole is that in it, we hate the state of the world around us enough to absolutely detest it, yet love it (that is, the people and their society) enough to be moved to improve upon it. We, in hatred for its present state, seek to dismantle it. We, in love for it as God’s creation, want to build it up better and purer.
After speaking some more about the paradoxes of the Christian faith in chapter six, he goes on in chapter seven to describe Christianity as instigating an eternal revolution. While the rebels of Chesterton’s day frequently spoke of the constant need to do away with the old (including traditional Christianity), Chesterton points out that it is actually Christianity which is to be considered as eternally revolutionary. It strives continuously for perfection and wholeness. The so-called revolutionaries of modern thought however bring about more of the same. Their “change” is always going to grow old, and their introduced novelty will in time be the archaic “enemy of progress”. But old as the Christian faith is, it never ceases to call us to something better, never ceases to intimidate the status quo, never ends its drive against all worldly wisdom considered in as being in vogue or passing. It is truly the revolution.
Chapter eight, titled “The Romance of Orthodoxy”, the writer makes a case against “liberalizing” influences, and speaks in favour of traditional Christianity, along with its affirmation of faith in the incredible (e.g. miracles)- something the liberals would rather remove from Christian faith. He makes the point that a reconstruction of Christianity with regards to its firm belief in the mystical and awe-inspiring, the rule and the divinity, would negatively affect western civilization, since it is precisely these which have formed the basis for Europe’s thriving culture. The influence of eastern mysticism, with its emphasis on the self and a detached approach to the world does not bode well for western civilization. Orthodoxy, which is far more radical and rule bound (passionate and definite) sets us on a clear path to a certain destination.
“Authority and the Adventurer”, which is the last chapter of the book, is a conclusion. The question is raised: even if Christianity contains these truths that have been mentioned, why not take the truths and leave Christianity behind? And underlying this question is the belief that Christianity is flawed in some way. He addresses some of the arguments underlying this belief one after another, saying that they were things which formed the basis of many people’s unbelief; and they were false. At the end, he tackles the question of an alleged lack of joy in Christianity. He claims that the pagans only find joy in the little things- the material things of this world. But as they view things on a larger, cosmic scale, that joy is increasingly replaced by despair and resignation, as they stare at what would appear to them to be a cold universe in which fate ultimately means death. For the agnostic/atheist, it seems that its worse: emptiness and meaninglessness. But as the Christian looks upon existence, he may be dissatisfied with the little things in the imperfect world. But as he perceives everything in its wholeness, his joy grows. It is not fate that decides; there is a sense of peace and joy, of gratitude which is seen only in Christianity. And it is this need of man for certainty and rest, of passion and definition, of mystery and revelation, that drew the writer unto his discovery of novel, yet ancient panacea- Christian Orthodoxy.

Chesterton’s wit is breathtaking. Every other line is, literally speaking, a punchline. This book has been hailed as one of the great works on Christian apologetics (although the writer claims to have scarcely read such works). And rightly so. Its a challenging book to read, but it is also rewarding. And yes, thought provoking too.


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