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Part Two of "Chesterton and the Delight of Truth" | James V. Schall, S.J. | Part One

The Logic and Excitement of Orthodoxy

The title of Orthodoxy means literally right opinion. First of all, it implies that there can be a wrong opinion and that the difference between the two makes considerable difference in how we live. It means further that how we live is directly affected by how we think. Almost a hundred years after Chesterton, we live in an age that doubts everything about itself – that the mind can know the truth, even that it ought to know the truth, that it ought to know anything. We advocate a kind of relativism or multiculturalism that, far from simply pointing to the myriad differences in the reality of time and space, maintains that nothing is certain, that there are no standards, particularly no human standards. Therefore, because there are no standards, no truth, we are said to be "free." In this system, it is not the truth that makes us free. We make ourselves free by denying any criterion outside of ourselves. Everything is permitted because not only is nothing known, but nothing can be known. We choose our choices so that we are enslaved by what we want.

Second, orthodoxy implies that it is possible to establish what right opinion is by examining all opinion, especially wrong opinion. Chesterton’s favorite book list seems to have been the famous Index of Forbidden Books. It was from errors in the most popular and most scientific positions that he found the raw material of truth. "All I had hitherto heard of Christian theology had alienated me from it. I was a pagan at the age of twelve, and a complete agnostic by the age of sixteen.... I never read a line of Christian apologetics." Nietzsche was a favorite author if only because he put what was wrong so well. Literally, as he tells us, Chesterton learned truth from the weirdness of the constant error he read.

On the basis of the impossibility of what theories the great modern philosophers used to explain reality, Chesterton set out to found his own "heresy," as he delighted in calling it. He himself, however, as he conceived it, was the ultimate "heretic"! And when he found the truth, he discovered to his astonishment that it was invented some eighteen hundred years before his time and was called "orthodoxy." He was glad that he did not have to invent the "heresy of orthodoxy" himself but could simply recognize it as already having been invented – a fact that made him even more curious. Invented by whom?

Chesterton was constantly amused by the fact that the most true and delightful teaching was the one to which most opposition was found. It was quite contrary to what was actually taught in the modern schools. Yet, "there never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy," he reflects. It was "perilous" because it affirmed that our choices were infinitely serious and potentially dangerous; it was "exciting" because it showed us that our choices could lead either to damnation or to what was infinitely worthwhile. Chesterton defended the possibility of excitement by defending the doctrine of free will and the fact that it could choose rightly or wrongly, but freely, not necessarily. We may not want to have this choice, which logically means that we may not want to be what we are. But the fact is that denying our freedom leads not to excitement and drama, but to dullness and indifference. Chester ton preferred the world of freedom and excitement with its dangers and its glory.

Chesterton as a young man never heard of Christian truth, but he knew that what was proposed, especially against the faith, on examination could not be true. He could understand contradictions and therefore errors. Chesterton was converted intellectually by the heretics, not by the orthodox. He could not at first understand the odd nature of the opposition to the classic faith, but what he did notice made him wonder, finally, if it might be true because it could not be all the contradictory things said against it. "Men who begin to fight the Church for the sake of freedom and humanity end by flinging away freedom and humanity if only they may fight the Church."

This was, I say, not something he expected as a matter of theory, but something he observed as a matter of fact. He reflected that something against which every sort of accusation is made, even if it be contradicted by another accusation, might be very odd indeed, but it might also be the normal. For to the abnormal, it is only the normal that looks most grotesque. Somehow most modern philosophy seemed to picture an utterly abnormal world that bore little relation to what was true.

The Meaning of Sin’s Existence

One of the chapters in Orthodoxy is called the suicide of thought. Roughly, this means that no one can think if he maintains that his organ of thinking cannot know anything or that his organ of will cannot decide anything about what is known. Moreover, no one allows his organ of deciding to decide anything if there are, on the basis of what he knows to be true, certain things that will be forbidden to him. If it should so happen that some things are right and true, we may just not want to know about them if we suspect that they might interfere with what we have already chosen to do. When we act on this failure to know what we should know, we sin, to use the classic word that indicates both the seriousness of our thoughts and the choices that follow from them. Not surprisingly, then, when asked, the reason Chesterton himself gave for his final conversion to the faith was that he wanted to get rid of his sins. He knew that the structure of reality was such that they were possible, and he knew himself well enough to know that he, no one else, committed them.

Chesterton liked to talk about sin, no doubt because it was so serious and so common. Indeed, in his Father Brown stories, he liked to write about it. He thought we should be sinning all the time, not by actually murdering or stealing or committing adultery, of course, but by writing about such aberrations. Though he loved the sinner, he did not have any sympathy for those who refused to understand the reality or depths of sin. He often suggested, furthermore, that those who know most about sin are not the sinners themselves but the pure of heart, those who have decided not to commit it. The knowledge of sin and its attraction is not itself a sin but a necessary element in our understanding ourselves. But the existence of sin and its terribleness was part of the risk of the universe that contained the finite free creature. If God wanted to create a finite person who could love Him freely, He had to accept, as in all love, the possibility of being rejected.







Chesterton was acutely aware that what made the universe particularly interesting was not the existence of sin in it, with its pre-condition of free will, but the possibility and condition of its forgiveness. In determinist theory, "the cosmos went on forever, but not in its wildest constellation could there be anything really interesting; anything, for instance, such as forgiveness or free will." Free will meant that we could sin and were responsible for it. It also meant that we could be grateful for existence itself. Forgiveness meant that even if we sinned, what we sinned against could forgive us, that sin was personal both on our parts and on the part of what we sinned against. "Such ... was the joy of man; ... happiness depended on not doing something which you could at any moment do, but which, very often, it was not obvious why you should not do it." All romance depended on not doing what ought not to be done. Sometimes on crucial things, we simply had to obey. "Thou shalt not ...."

Chesterton, moreover, thought that the doctrine of original sin grounded democracy and was the only reason we could give for not absolutely trusting a ruling elite. "The unpopular parts of Christianity (like original sin) turn out when examined to be the very props of the people." Original sin explained why we needed to bind even our rulers by law, morality, and sanction. They too were sinners and lived in the worst possible occasion for sin – the life of power, publicity, and comfort. "In the best Utopia, I must be prepared for the fall of any man, in any position, at any moment...." But no matter in what sort of society or situation in which man lived, sin is always caused by will, not by something external to us. No arrangement of society or state, contrary to Rousseau and his tradition, would ever eliminate the possibility of sin and wrong doing from among us, especially from the elite. "For she (the Church) has maintained from the beginning that the danger was not in man’s environment, but in man." This awareness of the possibility of sin in anyone, even rulers, is one fundamental element of any charter of liberty, of any understanding of responsibility.

What is surprising at first sight is the amount of attention that Chesterton gives in Orthodoxy to questions of sin, original sin, and free will. These three are, no doubt, essential doctrines of the faith and its philosophic support. If there is such a thing as sin, the deliberate choice of a thought or action against God and man, there must first be a free will to choose such thought or action. Moreover, it is clear that from time immemorial, man has had difficulty in living virtuously, even when he wanted to and chose to do so. Indeed, this difficulty in living virtuously will seem to justify theories which maintain that sin is the normal condition of mankind, so we should not worry about it but expect it, even excuse it, make it "normal" because it is so frequent. Chesterton’s response to this position is again amusing: "Men may have had concubines as long as they have had horses – still they were not part of him if they were sinful." The frequency of any sin does not somehow indicate its rightness but its wrongness.

All That Is
Is Created in Joy

The greatest thing about Orthodoxy, however, is its enthusiasm for and delight in what is.

The structure of Orthodoxy is cast in the form of the adventure of a man who set out around the world to discover some strange land. Finally, his ship reaches this distant land; only there he discovers that it is England, his original home. The analogy, of course, is to Chesterton’s own spiritual adventure in discovering orthodoxy to be the home he was looking for all along only he did not recognize it right before his very eyes. One of the mysteries of his life, Chesterton tells us, was why he could be "homesick at home." This homesickness-at-home is a most striking image, for Chesterton loved home and thought it the noblest word in the language. Yet, he understood that even when we have everything, even when we do not sin, we feel that there is something missing to us. We seek our true home even at home.

In his musings about what it is we want, what sort of freedom is the greatest, even at home, Chesterton argued that it is the freedom to bind ourselves. "I would never conceive or tolerate any Utopia which did not leave to me the liberty for which I chiefly care, the liberty to bind myself." This freedom of binding oneself was for Chesterton the key to the highest wisdom about the most basic things of life. "I could never mix in the common murmur of that rising generation against monogamy, because no restrictions on sex seemed so odd and unexpected as sex itself... Keeping to one woman is a small price for so much as seeing one woman. To complain that I could only be married once was like complaining that I could only be born once." Chesterton was capable of elevating this principle to the more universal idea that our individual uniquenesses, in being bound by love, lie at the heart of all true relationships. "I want to love my neighbor not because he is I, but precisely because he is not I. I want to adore the world, not as one likes a looking-glass, because it is one’s self, but as one loves a woman, because she is entirely different."

And because God too is entirely different and stands at the heart of all binding promises, of all freedom, it is possible to love Him because we know we are first chosen, that being ourselves is not enough. Our ideas of God decide our ideas of the world. "By insisting especially on the transcendence of God we get wonder, curiosity, moral and political adventure, righteous indignation, Christendom. Insisting that God is inside man, man is always inside himself. By insisting that God transcends man, man has transcended himself." In transcending himself, in what he might expect of himself, man does not cease to be himself. We do not become "gods." We love God and this is our joy. Eternal life comes precisely to us, as we are.

Chesterton ends Orthodoxy by suggesting that the only thing that the Incarnate God did not show us while He was on earth was his "mirth," his joy. He did not show us this mirth because we could not bear it now, not because this was not of the essence of His being. "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. ... Joy ... is the gigantic secret of the Christian."

This at last is the secret of Chesterton and of his Orthodoxy. All that is is created in joy because this is what God is. Life is our seeking to find wherein joy is our home. And we can finally only have a home if we bind freely ourselves. Only this philosophy, this "heresy" of "orthodoxy" – which Chesterton discovered and in discovering leaves its gift of sanity to us – "has again and again said the thing that does not seem to be true, but is true." Ultimately, this truth, in its splendor, is the delight of orthodoxy.


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G.K. Chesterton: Author's Page at Ignatius Insight
G.K. Chesterton: Common Sense Apostle & Cigar Smoking Mystic |
Dale Ahlquist
Chesterton and Saint Francis |
Joseph Pearce
The God in the Cave |
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"What Is America?" |
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Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.

He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture, and literature including Another Sort of Learning, Idylls and Rambles, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs: Teaching, Writing, Playing, Believing, Lecturing, Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing, and A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning.

Read more of his essays on his website.



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