Well, Matthew Lee Anderson and I have reached the end of our journey through G. K. Chesterton’s famous book, Orthodoxy. Here is a rundown of the previous posts in this series, followed by our discussion of the final chapter – “Authority and the Adventurer.” In case you’d like to join us belatedly, go ahead and download an ebook version for free.

DISCUSSION OF CHAPTER 9 – “Authority and the Adventurer”

Trevin: Reading Orthodoxy leaves me a little dizzy. Chesterton moves so quickly through arguments, often adding related points and chasing rabbit trails that become relevant only once the totality of his vision is expressed.

What stands out to me in this final chapter is how Chesterton stands against the tide of liberalism (that would shed doctrines and dogmas while holding onto a vague notion of “Christian morals) and against a view of history that makes the Church just a relic of past superstition.

Here’s how it works. First, he shows how the blazing fire of Jesus as described in the Gospels holds together the many paradoxes, so that opposite passions “may blaze beside each other.” It’s only Christianity that saves us from ignorance and darkness.

“Christianity, so far from belonging to the Dark Ages, was the one path across the Dark Ages that was not dark. It was a shining bridge connecting two shining civilizations.”

Chesterton claims the Church is what brought us out of the Dark Ages, not into them. This is a direct counterpoint to an Enlightenment view of history that sees religion as falling before the merits of a progressive secularism.

Matthew: Trevin, you’re right about the dizzying effect. But I have often wondered how much that has to do with the way Chesterton argues things or whether it stems more from how he sees them. This final chapter has always made me feel as though I’d always been standing on my head, and only now could begin to walk upright (to steal his image).

Chesterton’s third reason why he is a Christian may be the hardest for us these days to acknowledge, but which is paradoxically precisely what we need. As he puts it, he accepts Christianity because the Church “has not merely told this truth or that truth, but that it has revealed itself as the truth-telling thing.” And recognizing it as such is crucial, for Christianity preaches “obviously unattractive” ideas like original sin which eventually lead to necessary conceptions of “pathos and brotherhood, and a thunder of laughter and pity.” I will say, though, that Chesterton’s leaps aren’t entirely clear here. When he suggests that a man “can expect any number of adventures if he goes traveling in the land of authority,” he doesn’t spell out the difference. I feel the gap here more keenly than I do anywhere else in the book.

Trevin: Secondly, Chesterton exposes the doctrinaire position of those who deny anything miraculous. I took a similar approach in a New York Times forum on naturalism and faith, and was dismissed by naturalists because belief in a Creator is immediately ruled out of court. It’s not the religious person who is closed-minded, but the naturalist who is the one who cannot admit any evidence that would contradiction his doctrine.

“Somehow or other an extraordinary idea has arisen that the disbelievers in miracles consider them coldly and fairly, while believers in miracles accept them only in connection with some dogma. The fact is quite the other way. The believers in miracles accept them (rightly or wrongly) because they have evidence for them. The disbelievers in miracles deny them (rightly or wrongly) because they have a doctrine against them.”

Matthew: The final mark of Christianity, that of joy, is so profound and unusual that I am terrified we’ve lost its power by repeated overuse. Chesterton suggests that it is a mark that is “difficult to express,” but he handles it well. I doubt I would be a Christian were it not for those few pages. We often miss out on the terrible, transformative power of goodness of this world. It must be an awful glory, to somehow explain the sorrow and the suffering. For joy to make “sadness something special and small”–the mind boggles and dizziness sets in, I’m afraid. Standing on our feet takes some getting used to, no?

Now, share your thoughts

  • Is Chesterton right to say that “joy” is the grand secret of Christianity?
  • Do you believe the Church has the reputation of being a “truth-telling thing?” Why or why not?
  • How does Chesterton’s view counter the prevailing Enlightenment interpretation of world history?