It would be unfair to the work to describe my first encounter with Orthodoxy as a reading. That makes it sound so benign, so mild and harmless. The first time I picked up G. K. Chesterton’s most important book—-and maybe the most important book for the twenty-first century—-was a collision, a smashup that left my outlook on the world in pieces and me panting for breath.
I was at the time tempted by the depressed cynicism from which many undergraduates at Christian colleges never quite recover. Having grown up in the church, chin-stroking deconstructive anti-institutionalism (combined with a strong sense of intellectual superiority) had an intoxicating allure. Even if I had wanted to, I could not escape the vague, uncharted feeling that I had missed out on a critical dimension of the world. Instead, I reveled in my restlessness and reminded everyone else of it as well.
That was a little more than a decade ago, just before my sophomore year at university. I still walk with a limp. Before I started reading, I heard reports that it was not an easy book. That is one way of putting it: on a first read, though, Orthodoxy almost appears not to be a book at all, but rather a long string of glittery sentences, each threatening to undo our reading by drawing us into the world anew. It wasn’t until my fourth reading or so that I realized Chesterton has a subtle and sophisticated argument at work through the book. The previous three times, I simply ruminated on whatever “mental pictures” and sentences happened to jump out.
Still, reading Orthodoxy that first time was a bit like guzzling an intellectual solvent. Chesterton didn’t merely demonstrate the deadliness of popular intellectual currents such as materialism and intellectualism. He put forward a more thrilling, more cheerful, and more intellectually satisfying alternative. Chesterton makes the world seem so delightfully strange. He confronts us with its peculiarities and its oddities—all to show how the phenomena are solved only within the paradoxical affirmations of Christianity. Critics had painted Christianity as simultaneously too pessimistic and optimistic, that it simultaneously prevented men, “by morbid tears and terrors,” from enjoying their pleasures while providing them irresponsible degrees of comfort through its notion of providence—critiques that, in Chesterton’s hands, turned out to be reasons to believe. The whole thing left me dazzled, not merely by Chesterton’s wit but by a picture of Christianity that was so remarkably sane.
All this led up to the final page of the book, a page that included nearly 400 words that (as the saying goes) “changed my life”:
The mass of men have been forced to be gay about the little things, but sad about the big ones. Nevertheless (I offer my last dogma defiantly) it is not native to man to be so. Man is more himself, man is more manlike, when joy is the fundamental thing in him, and grief the superficial. Melancholy should be an innocent interlude, a tender and fugitive frame of mind; praise should be the permanent pulsation of the soul. Pessimism is at best an emotional half-holiday; joy is the uproarious labour by which all things live. Yet, according to the apparent estate of man as seen by the pagan or the agnostic, this primary need of human nature can never be fulfilled. Joy ought to be expansive; but for the agnostic it must be contracted, it must cling to one comer of the world. Grief ought to be a concentration; but for the agnostic its desolation is spread through an unthinkable eternity. This is what I call being born upside down. The sceptic may truly be said to be topsy-turvy; for his feet are dancing upwards in idle ecstacies, while his brain is in the abyss. To the modern man the heavens are actually below the earth. The explanation is simple; he is standing on his head; which is a very weak pedestal to stand on. But when he has found his feet again he knows it. Christianity satisfies suddenly and perfectly man’s ancestral instinct for being the right way up; satisfies it supremely in this; that by its creed joy becomes something gigantic and sadness something special and small. The vault above us is not deaf because the universe is an idiot; the silence is not the heartless silence of an endless and aimless world. Rather the silence around us is a small and pitiful stillness like the prompt stillness in a sick-room. We are perhaps permitted tragedy as a sort of merciful comedy: because the frantic energy of divine things would knock us down like a drunken farce. We can take our own tears more lightly than we could take the tremendous levities of the angels. So we sit perhaps in a starry chamber of silence, while the laughter of the heavens is too loud for us to hear.
Chesterton does not simply magnify “joy,” a concept we hear much about and experience very little. He understood the permanent temptation to view the sadness and the sorrow as the substance, and the cheerful and uplifting as the shadow.
Chesterton marks out a path that leads away from despairing cynicism, the besetting sin of hipster Christians. When our resistance to the overwrought, pollyannish cheerfulness of suburban megachurch Christianity (or so the story goes) crosses over into treating the “real” and “authentic” as that which is broken and sorrowful, we have embraced a sub-Christian outlook on the world.
Comedy But Not a Joke
Chesterton never minimizes the reality of brokenness: his haunting poem on suicide makes it clear he tasted enough of the dark to know its power. To declare defiantly that the good is fundamental requires seeing and acknowledging the parasitic power of evil. But Chesterton’s cosmic and transcendental oath of patriotic affirmation demands that we acknowledge that the world may be a comedy, but it is not a joke. There is no vicious prankster at the end, waiting to pull the rug from beneath us. There is only resolution and satisfaction, a good more potent and real than any of its degraded imitations.
These days, we tend to suspect that things done in secret must be working to our harm. But such a joy, for Chesterton, is too overwhelming and powerful for it to be had easily, or even to be displayed in public. There is a joy beyond words, a joy behind the veil that runs too deep to show others. And it is a joy that, when we taste, we realize that we are ill equipped to live with. Like those poor Israelites who plead with God to hide himself, it is goodness that we are not equipped to handle, even while we include sorrow and suffering among our friends. Here Chesterton closes his work: “Joy, which is the small publicity of the pagan, is the gigantic secret of the Christian. . . . There was something that [Jesus] hid from all men when He went up a mountain to pray. There was something that He covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was one thing that was too great for God to show us when he walked upon the earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was his mirth.”