In the first post of this series, Matthew Lee Anderson and I described the merits of G.K. Chesterton and his book Orthodoxy. We also invited you to read along and discuss the latest section of the reading plan with us each week.
Previously, we focused on the introduction, “In Defense of Everything Else,” as well as chapters 2 and 3, “The Maniac” and “The Suicide of Thought.” Last week, we went through chapters 4 and 5, “The Ethics of Elfland” and “The Flag of the World.”
Today, we are discussing chapter 6, “The Paradoxes of Christianity.”
Trevin: The contradictions of skeptics
I believe this chapter is the key not only to Orthodoxy, but to Chesterton’s thinking as a whole. The combination of oddity and truth is what leads Chesterton to praise the complexity of Christianity, and this emphasis on paradox comes up again and again in his work.
Chesterton says he never read a line of Christian apologetics. It was the skeptics who brought him back to orthodox theology because they all seemed to condemn Christianity for contradictory reasons. Christianity is responsible for inhuman gloom and pessimistic, while being far too optimistic and rose-colored in its vision of the future. Christianity is for weaklings who resist fighting and become like sheep, while it is also the mother of all wars.
“It looked not so much as if Christianity was bad enough to include any vices, but rather as if any stick was good enough to beat Christianity with. What again could this astonishing thing be like which people were so anxious to contradict, that in doing so they did not mind contradicting themselves?”
From there he has the “thunderbolt” realization that perhaps Christianity is the standard and this is why it is criticized for contradictory reasons. It is the holding together of opposing emotions, paradoxical doctrines, and “apparent accidents” that makes Christianity so thrilling.
Matthew: Paradoxes with sharp edges
I think you’re right that this is key to Orthodoxy. Chesterton’s description of a Christianity that’s as strange as the world is worth ruminating on.
You pointed out that Chesterton came to this by way of reading the critics of Christianity, not its defenders, which is a point that deserves highlighting. Chesterton is really confident in Christianity, but his confidence comes (as it were) from seeing it from the inside, not from a single argument on its behalf. As he puts it,
“The whole case for civilization is that the case for it is complex. It has done so many things.”
And so also for Christianity.
Yet this business about paradox, well, it helped me get through the day. To sound an earlier theme, Chesterton has his lines critiquing logic’s limits here, but he’s not tossing it overboard for a gooey, vacuous fog of throwing around “mystery” every chance he gets. The various collisions he describes have sharp edges, and they make everything clearer. That final bit about the “creed, reeling but erect”—it’s prefaced by the very important point that the church had to fight about tiny points of doctrine because such points really mattered.
“If some small mistake were made in doctrine, huge blunders might be made in human happiness. A sentence phrased wrong about the nature of symbolism would have broken all the best statues in Europe.”
But let me highlight just one of Chesterton’s paradox, to see how the smashup shines light on the thing itself. Here’s a serious question: has there ever been a more stirring, rousing, or accurate description of courage?
“Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die. ‘He that will lose his life, the same shall save it,’ is not a piece of mysticism for saints and heroes. It is a piece of everyday advice for sailors or mountaineers. It might be printed in an Alpine guide or a drill book. This paradox is the whole principle of courage; even of quite earthly or quite brutal courage. A man cut off by the sea may save his life if he will risk it on the precipice. He can only get away from death by continually stepping within an inch of it. A soldier surrounded by enemies, if he is to cut his way out, needs to combine a strong desire for living with a strange carelessness about dying. He must not merely cling to life, for then he will be a coward, and will not escape. He must not merely wait for death, for then he will be a suicide, and will not escape. He must seek his life in a spirit of furious indifference to it; he must desire life like water and yet drink death like wine.”
Now, share your thoughts
Next week, we will be discussing chapters 7-8 “The Eternal Revolution” and “The Romance of Orthodoxy,” but first, what were your thoughts from this week’s reading?
From Chesterton’s perspective, how do skeptics make a pervasive argument for Christianity?
Do the skeptics make a similar case today?
How could a wrong phrasing on symbolism caused all the best European statues to be broken?
What do make of his defining courage in terms of have a “spirit of furious indifference” to life?