In his Autobiography, G. K. Chesterton tells the story of having only recently come to public attention as a result of a running debate on the pages of The Clarion with that newspaper’s editor, Robert Blatchford. Blatchford was a proud and voluble atheist who had issued an open challenge to readers to respond to his broadsides against Christianity. Chesterton, a young and rising British journalist, had responded in four essays in 1904 that remain to this day classics of Christian apologetics.
Chesterton attended a dinner party at the time, put on by The Clarion, and noticed a gentleman sitting next to him, “one of those very refined and rather academic gentlemen from Cambridge,” as he described him:
“Excuse my asking, Mr. Chesterton, of course I shall quite understand if you prefer not to answer, and I shan’t think any the worse of it, you know, even if it’s true. But I suppose I’m right in thinking you don’t really believe in those things you’re defending against Blatchford?” I informed him with adamantine gravity that I did most definitely believe in those things I was defending against Blatchford. His cold and refined face did not move a visible muscle; and yet I knew in some fashion it had completely altered. “Oh, you do,” he said, “I beg your pardon. Thank you. That’s all I wanted to know.” And he went on eating his (probably vegetarian) meal. But I was sure that for the rest of the evening, despite his calm, he felt as if he were sitting next to a fabulous griffin.
The Edwardian Era in which Chesterton came to prominence followed the late Victorian Era, a time in which the intellectual class—in what Julian Benda called “The Treason of the Clerks”—had abandoned Christianity as a living belief. Christianity was first replaced by traditional morality—to which the Victorians held the more strongly as the religion that had given it warrant was pulled out from underneath it. Deprived of Christianity, the Victorians made morality their religion. But by the time of the Edwardians, skepticism, “an universal wolf” (to use Shakespeare’s words), had undermined traditional morality too. In such circumstances, it is no wonder that Chesterton, an unapologetic apologist for both Christianity and the morality for which it was the only justification, would have been viewed in such exotic terms.
In fact, part of Chesterton’s allure could be attributed to the interesting figure he cut as a defender of orthodoxy in an age in which heresy had become orthodox. Skepticism enjoyed the fashionable status that always accrues to the subversive and the revolutionary in modern societies. Cultural revolutionaries thrive on the conceit that they are outsiders living in defiance of a stuffy and inflexible establishment, and their very existence depends on the belief that they are insurgent radicals battling an entrenched elite.
But in a world in which skepticism had become established and the revolutionaries were in charge of the culture, it was the subversives who were now ripe for satire, and Chesterton was uniquely fitted to administer it. “There had been plenty of humor and wit and ridicule in the public controversy on religious matters,” explained British writer Curtis Maycock, “but it had all been on the other side—everyone took for granted the ridiculing of tradition and orthodoxy. The idea of using such weapons in their defence was so novel as to be incomprehensible.” It is Chesterton who was now the revolutionary, fighting those who would blind us to the obligations of the eternal.
It was a battle in which not only our religion, but our civilization, was at stake. For Chesterton, Western civilization was synonymous with Christendom, that majestic and all-pervading cultural ideal that still haunted the dreams of Europe well into the twentieth century. There was no separating Christianity from the West: Their history was intertwined and their fate was one. This is why Orthodoxy is not only a book of Christian apologetics, but one of the great defenses of the Christian West.
Chesterton’s argument in the first part of Orthodoxy is this: Western man may have lost his belief in sin, but he retains at least a belief in sanity. But when we look to the philosophies of the modern world we find all the cultural signs of madness. Modern worldviews possess the very characteristics of insanity, the chief of which are fragmentation and reductionism—the inability to see the world whole and the obsession with some one idea at the expense of all others. According to Chesterton,
The modern world is not evil; in some ways the modern world is far too good. It is full of wild and wasted virtues. When a religious scheme is shattered, … it is not merely the vices that are let loose. The vices are, indeed let loose, and they wander and do damage. But the virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander more wildly, and the virtues do more terrible damage. The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone.
The most salient feature of modern worldviews is not necessarily that they are illogical, but that they are fractured, isolated, each founded on some one Christian doctrine, separated from other truths in the balance of Christian belief. We are all, said Chesterton, “the survivors of a wreck, the crew of a golden ship that had gone down before the beginning of the world,” and as that great catastrophe has faded into history and receded in our collective memory, we have each in our intellectual and spiritual desperation sought refuge on some one piece of the wreck, thinking it the whole ship. For the Marxist it is the brotherhood of man, for the materialist, the objectivity of nature, for the evolutionist, change itself.
So closely connected is Western civilization with Christianity that Western civilization, deprived of its religious foundation, is quite literally coming apart.
In the second half of Orthodoxy, Chesterton argues that the beliefs of Christianity fit the facts of the world, like a key fits a lock. And it isn’t only that the beliefs fit the facts, but that the peculiarities of the facts of the world are explained by the equally peculiar beliefs of Christianity—and that the peculiarities match. This was an implicit articulation of John Henry Newman’s “illative sense”—the idea he articulates in his Grammar of Assent that the real reason we come to a conviction about anything is not because there is one simple logical argument that proves it, but rather that everything seems to prove it. Chesterton makes a similar case:
The secularist is not to be blamed because his objections to Christianity are miscellaneous and even scrappy; it is precisely such scrappy evidence that does convince the mind. I mean that a man may well be less convinced of a philosophy from four books, than from one book, one battle, one landscape, and one old friend. The very fact that the things are of different kinds increases the importance of the fact that they all point to one conclusion.
The role of reason in Chesterton’s defense of metaphysical law and order took a particular and unique form. Chesterton was a romantic rationalist. What sets him apart from any other writer is the way in which he combines both reason and imagination into what Gary Wills has called “the Chestertonian dialectic.” Here again, Chesterton’s thought is a return to an earlier synthesis and is at odds with his age. T. S. Eliot had spoken of the “dissociation of sensibility,” and Allan Tate of the “double retreat from the moral center”—each referring to the bifurcation both in culture and discourse, as well as in the modern mind itself, of reason and imagination.
To get the full scope of Chesterton’s rational and imaginative religious thought is no easy thing. One cannot decide, for example, to put aside his books on literature and poetry and economics and politics in order to find out what he believes about Christianity. In fact, what he has to say about Christianity is said as much in his books on literature and poetry and economics and politics as in his books about Christianity. He talks as much about Christianity in his George Bernard Shaw as he does in Heretics, and it is no less a consideration in The Return of Don Quixote than in The Everlasting Man. As Chesterton said in a Daily News column in 1903,
You cannot evade the issue of God: Whether you talk about pigs or the binomial theory, you are still talking about Him. Now if Christianity be … a fragment of metaphysical nonsense invented by a few people, then, of course, defending it will simply mean talking that metaphysical nonsense over and over. But if Christianity should happen to be true, then defending it may mean talking about anything and everything. Things can be irrelevant to the proposition that Christianity is false, but nothing can be irrelevant to the proposition that Christianity is true. Zulus, gardening, butchers’ shops, lunatic asylums, housemaids and the French Revolution—all these things not only may have something to do with the Christian God, but must have something to do with Him if He lives and reigns.
And yet if one were forced to resort to one book that best represented Chesterton’s thoughts on Christianity, there really is no doubt which one it should be. It is said that he had no one masterpiece, not because none of his books were great, but because so many of them were. There is truth to this. But while time has taken many of his books from our attention, it has perhaps also done us the service of concentrating our attention on this one great book—a book, though written over a hundred years ago, that speaks to us today in our cultural crisis every bit as much as it did in the cultural crisis of the Edwardians. And it is able to do this because the two crises are the same.
It is the same crisis, and yet our time seems darker even than Chesterton’s. Cultural illiteracy reigns. Sexuality has been confounded. Marriage has been redefined. The tool of technology threatens to turn into a tyrant. But if you read enough of Chesterton, you will know that he predicted these things, and still it didn’t dampen his spirits. Why? Because he knew it had happened before and would likely happen again. The Phoenix of the Church might burst into flame, but it would rise again from the ashes:
Christendom has had a series of revolutions and in each one of them Christianity has died … But the first extraordinary fact which marks this history is this: that Europe has been turned upside down over and over again; and that at the end of each of these revolutions the same religion has again been found on top. The Faith is always converting the age, not as an old religion but as a new religion.
Chesterton’s own reputation has occasionally fallen into obscurity, but Orthodoxy has been republished again and again since its original printing in 1908. Chesterton reminds us, not only that Christianity is the true revolution, but that, unique among the systems of belief that populate the history of the world, Christianity has the power to effect its own renewal: “Christianity has died many times and risen again,” he said, “for it had a god who knew the way out of the grave.”
This article is an abridged version of Martin Cothran’s Introduction to Orthodoxy,
by G. K. Chesterton, newly published by Mud House Publishers and available from Memoria Press.