Chesterton and the "Paradoxy" of Orthodoxy | Carl E. Olson | Ignatius Insight
Chesterton and the "Paradoxy" of Orthodoxy | Carl E. Olson | Ignatius Insight
Author's note: This year marks the 100th
anniversary of the publication of G. K. Chesterton's
widely regarded as one of the most important and unique works of Christian
apologetics written in modern times. I first read it in 1993 as an Evangelical
Protestant; it played a significant role in my journey to the Catholic Church,
which my wife and I entered in 1997. In 1998, writing about that journey, I acknowledge
Reading G. K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy was the opening of a door I would not have found on
my own. This stunning apologetic for Christianity against the errors of modern
philosophies made me realize how central "paradox" is to the Christian faith.
True Christianity is a radical balance of "both/and" instead of just "either/or."
This understanding later became the key to understanding certain Catholic
This essay reflects briefly on one chapter in Orthodoxy; it was originally published in a different
(shorter) form in the July/August 2002 issue of Gilbert! magazine.
My favorite passage of Chestertonian brilliance is the sixth
chapter of Orthodoxy, titled "Paradoxes
of Christianity." It should be required reading for all critics of
Christianity, especially those self-anointed, enlightened folk who, gazing back
(and down) upon two thousand years of dogmatic darkness, have figured out all
that is wrong and insulting about the Church and now eagerly take up sticks
with which to beat down the crude absurdities embraced by the followers of
In that chapter the young Chesterton (just in his early thirties
when he penned Orthodoxy), described his
own intellectual journey from paganism to agnosticism to theism. Along the way
he examined various challenges to Christianity, noting, "It was attacked on all
sides and for all contradictory reasons." His observations are just as
illuminating today as they were one hundred years ago—perhaps even more
so—for they outline the flawed nature of the biases of skeptics and
scoffers, and are therefore of no small assistance to anyone defending
Christianity in today's hostile public square.
The first contradictory criticism is that Christianity is "a
thing of inhuman gloom" and "purely pessimistic and opposed to life". In
contemporary terms: Christianity is allegedly repressive, dysfunctional, and
depressing. In the words of Ted Turner, Christianity
is a "religion for losers." Such is the mantra of the sexually
"liberated," who see any restraint upon their libido as the work of a self-loathing
and prudish Church. This portrayal of Christianity is such regular fare it
hardly needs to be pointed out.
And yet, Chesterton continues, Christianity was also mocked
because it "comforted men with a fictitious providence" and was " a fool's
paradise." Don't you know, muses the
enlightened "free thinker", that Christianity enslaves by promising
heavenly bliss and eternal glory, when in fact life is a series of random biological
accidents without any purpose, direction, or meaning? Ah, so who
is really depressing and pessimistic?
"The very man who denounced Christianity for pessimism," Chesterton notes, "was
himself a pessimist." It is demeaning, say some critics, to speak of "sin"; far
better to believe that man is an animal with little or no control over his
lusts and passions, which are simply products of genetics and environment.
Other criticisms are aimed at the pacifist and violent natures of Christianity—or, better, of
Christian history. Of course, both the meekness and the fury found in
Christianity are looked down upon; they are often conveniently isolated from
both the context of their times and from the greater whole of Christian
theology and practice. On one hand, Chesterton wrote, Christianity is mocked
for being "timid, monkish, and unmanly . . . especially in its attitude towards
resistance and fighting." Founded by a meek Jewish carpenter, Christianity "was
an attempt to make a man too like a sheep."
This calls to mind the campaign in
recent years against Pope Pius XII, who has been often demonized for his seeming
silence and alleged cowardice in the face of Nazism. The Church, we are told, did
not fight hard enough in the recent past against the evils of Nazism, slavery,
and economic inequality. Today, the common wisdom goes, the Church does not
fight hard enough against sexism, homophobia, Western imperialism, and any
number of trendy causes.
And yet, in direct contrast, Christianity is found to be
alarmingly violent and full of fight. "I found that I was to hate Christianity
not for fighting too little," Chesterton mused, "but for fighting too much.
Christianity, it seemed, was the mother of wars. . . . The very people who
reproached Christianity for the meekness and non-resistance of the monasteries
were the same ironically-challenged critics who reproached it also for the
violence and valor of the Crusades." On one hand, we are told, fighting the
onslaught of Islam many centuries ago was wrong (and even daring to note that most
terrorists practice radical Islam is considered an insult worthy of a violence
On the other hand, Pius XII's failure to physically fight the
Nazis with his non-existent papal armies is found to be equally loathsome. In
our own day, many of those talking heads clamoring for "tact" and "diplomacy"
in handling the war on terror today lament the tact and diplomacy of Pius XII
and insist he could have—should have!—done more in addressing Nazism,
a sure case of having and eating the proverbial cake.
And then there is the matter of exclusivity. "The one real
objection to the Christian religion is simply that it is one religion." Here is
the heart of the matter: what is truth and who has the authority to speak it? Who
dares to speak truth, or even say it exists?
The criticism comes in the form of various empty clichˇs,
ranging from "There is no objective truth" to "It's unfair to claim that your religion is the
true religion" to "I respect all types of truth." In reality, this seemingly open-minded approach
disguises a nasty bias, both against truth itself and the very groups it claims
to defend. While Christianity is attacked, Chesterton pointed out, for leaving
"all others to die in the dark", skeptical critics assert that modernity and
progress have, by necessity, left the vast majority of people in the dark.
Religious people, because they believe in some sort of objective truth, are set
to the side. There is no truth—and that's the truth! the secularist shouts. How wise we are!
Attacks on the
document Dominus Iesus (some such
attacks coming from Catholic theologians) readily demonstrate this sort of muddled
thinking. While deriding the document's teaching that Jesus Christ is God and
Savior, some critics groused crossly and confusedly about "sensitivity" and
"inclusiveness" and "triumphalism." They were apparently blind to the fact that
acceptance of all beliefs is
actually acceptance of none—and therefore, logically, a rejection of the
truthfulness of any of them.
Chesterton concluded his chapter on paradoxes in this way:
"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." Indeed.
The same floundering search for sticks continues today, with fresh faces regurgitating
the same tired arguments of ages past, certain they will suffice to brush aside
the superstitious dogmas of Christianity. Alas, there is nothing new under the
sun, regardless of how good the stick feels in the eager hand of the skeptic.
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles and Book Excerpts:
Ignatius Insight Author Page for G.K. Chesterton
The Attraction of Orthodoxy | Joseph Pearce
The Emancipation of Domesticity | G.K. Chesterton
The God in the
Cave | G.K. Chesterton
What Is America? |
Mary and the Convert |
Seeing With the Eyes of G.K. Chesterton | Dale Ahlquist
Recovering The Lost Art of Common Sense | Dale Ahlquist
Common Sense Apostle &
Cigar Smoking Mystic | Dale Ahlquist
and Saint Francis | Joseph Pearce
the Delight of Truth | James V. Schall, S.J.
The Life and
Theme of G.K. Chesterton | Randall Paine | An Introduction to The
Autobiography of G.K. Chesterton
Hot Water and
Fresh Air: On Chesterton and His Foes | Janet E. Smith
ChesterBelloc | Ralph McInerny
Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.
He is the co-author of The
Da Vinci Hoax: Exposing the Errors in The Da Vinci Code and author
Catholics Be "Left Behind"? He has written for numerous
Cathlic periodicals and is a regular contributor to National Catholic
Register and Our Sunday Visitor newspapers. He has a Masters in Theological Studies from the University of Dallas.
He resides in a top secret location in the Northwest somewhere between Portland,
Oregon and Sacramento, California with his wife, Heather, their two children, their two cats, and far too many books and CDs.
Visit his personal web site (now undergoing a major overhaul) at www.carl-olson.com.
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