A Place Outside This World G.K. Chesterton’s religious identity as revealed in Orthodoxy (3 of 3)

mist irelandOrthodoxy is not only (as is often urged) the only safe guardian of morality or order, but it is also the only logical guardian of liberty, innovation and advance” (O, 133), Chesterton writes.  He concludes the final two chapters of his book as a way for his readers to see the necessity, progress, and joy of orthodoxy. He writes that “People have fallen into the foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or exciting as orthodoxy” (O, 100).  To illustrate his point, Chesterton writes of a story where a group of children are playing on a hillside next to a steep cliff. The children are running, laughing, and playing without notice or care of the plummeting precipice. Chesterton points out that the reason the children are able to play with such complete abandon is that there is a fence surrounding the entire yard. The children are free to play as close as they want to the fence because they are in no danger of toppling off the hillside. Chesterton then continues with the same setting instead this time the fence has been removed. The children are no longer roaming freely in the yard; instead, they are huddled together, closely in the middle of the yard, afraid to come to close the hillside’s edge. Chesterton compares this image with his understanding of orthodoxy. Within well-established boundaries, people are allowed to manoeuvre safely in their thinking without the fear of a misstep leading to death.  Reversely, the liberal mind that promotes removing all boundaries for the sake of freedom is as Chesterton might suggest, intentionally misleading or exceedingly naïve to the reality of human thought. Chesterton’s understanding of this paradox leads him to a robust understanding of orthodoxy as a way to sustain a sense of intellectual wonder and discovery without worrying about falling off the epistemological cliff side.

If the Apostle’s Creed sufficed Chesterton as the guideline for Christian orthodoxy, he surely turned to the person of Jesus Christ to illustrate the perfect example of paradox, progress, and orthodoxy. In nearly every argument against the Materialist that Chesterton brings forth in Orthodoxy, he maintains the tension between a fallen humanity and a transcendent God. His eyes are firmly focused on the matter of humanities inability to fully understand transcendence, yet our innate desire to evolve to something, to someone, greater than ourselves. Materialists argue that if the human mind cannot uncover the mystery than the mystery must be an illusion—they are confined to the centre of a gigantic hillside—for humanity is all that truly exists. Yet, Chesterton believes that if the human mind does not understand that it is the mind, not the mystery, which is the difficulty.  George Steiner supports Chesterton’s argument when he writes, “The final paradox which defines our humanity prevails: there is always, there always will be, a sense in which we do not know what it is we are experiencing and talking about when we experience and talk about that which is. There is a sense in which no human discourse, however analytic, can make final sense of sense itself” (Steiner, 215). For Steiner, this is the real presence of a transcendent God. For Chesterton, that real presence—the ultimate paradox in which there are no words—became flesh in the God/man Jesus Christ and spoke the words “I AM.”  “No other philosophy makes God actually rejoice in the separation of the universe into living souls,” Chesterton writes, “But according to orthodox Christianity this separation between God and man is sacred because this is eternal” (O, 124). Chesterton describes Jesus as both a rebel and a King—“the only religion in which God seemed for an instant to be an atheist” (O, 130).  For Chesterton, this belief began in the understanding that man does not reside in the heavens as God, yet it finishes with God residing with a man on the earth. “Insisting that God is inside man, man is always inside himself,” Chesterton points out, “By insisting that God transcends man, man has transcended himself” (O, 126). Dale Ahlquist succinctly explains Chesterton thoughts when he writes that, “He [Chesterton] discovered that paradox is the key to truth and that the ultimate paradox is the key to the ultimate truth. And that the ultimate paradox is Jesus Christ: fully God and fully man” (Ahlquist, 30).

G.K. Chesterton was a man defined by who he wasn’t. He believed in the transcendent, so he wasn’t a Materialist. He believed in God, so he wasn’t an Atheist. He believed in revolution, so he wasn’t an Anarchist. But above all, he believed that deconstructing all beliefs for the sake of liberal thinking was a lie. Orthodoxy, according to Chesterton, is not only romantic and adventurous, but also true. In an age that discouraged belief in anything that was not physical, Chesterton nailed his transcendent dogmas to the church door. It was here that he found Christianity:

One can find no meaning in a jungle of scepticism, but the man will find more and more meaning who walks through a forest of doctrine and design. Everything has a story tied to its tail, like the tools or pictures in my father’s house; for it is my father’s house. I end where I began—at the right end.  I have entered at last the gate of all good philosophy. I have come into my second childhood (O, 150).

In Chesterton’s final words in the essay “Authority and the Adventurer,” he ceases his transcendent/materialist debate to remind his readers that they have not only read an apologetic defence of Christianity, but they have been part of the re-telling of Chesterton’s own faith narrative.  “My reason for accepting the religion,” Chesterton writes, “[is] because the things have not merely told this truth or that truth, but has revealed itself as a truth-telling thing.  All philosophies say the things that plainly seem to be true; only this philosophy has, again and again, said the thing that does not seem to be true but is true” (O, 149).  Chesterton’s perceptive ability to see and live within paradox enabled him to thrive within Christian orthodoxy and provided keen insight into the great Christian mysteries of sin and salvation. His opponents criticized his dogmas, yet nevertheless praised his courage, and it was Chesterton’s greatest criticism of his opponents that they would not admit that they too were dogmatic. Chesterton allows his readers to follow the same path that he walked down in becoming a Christian, and the trust that is created from the honesty of Orthodoxy allows his readers to believe Chesterton when he writes that,  “Joy…is the gigantic secret of the Christian” (O, 152).

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