Orthodoxy (1908)

An extended quote about tradition in Scott Cairns’ The End of Suffering inspired me to read G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy.

In this book, Chesterton tells about how he fell in love with the Christian tradition, which he calls “orthodoxy,” or “the Apostles’ Creed, as understood by everybody calling himself Christian until a very short time ago and the general historic conduct of those who held such a creed” (p. 5; loc. 74).

A large portion of the book hinges on the notion of sin. To start with, sin is the reason that we must not believe in ourselves as if we were a substitute for divinity. Sin, according to Chesterton, has fallen out of vogue, so to speak, such that some people no longer talk about it as being anything real. Therefore, they must begin in a different place when talking about the moral life (or just plain old life in general). Whereas the church starts with Original Sin, the Fallen condition we find ourselves in and are pilgrimaging away from, modern, Enlightened folks eliminate sin and start with self. So Chesterton is able to identify these folks as maniacs because “[t]he madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason” (11; 165). All that is left for the so-called madman is the sinless self.

In the case of the madman, Chesterton notes that Christian virtues, when removed from Christianity, become vices. We love not because God first loved us or because we feel solidarity with others but because we become greater in others’ eyes when we love others. It’s a sort of upside-down love. Virtues turned vices cause us to lose sight of our telos, or our goal: “For the old humility made a man doubtful about his efforts, which might make him work harder. But the new humility makes a man doubtful about his aims, which will make him stop working altogether” (24; 360).

This raises the question of what progress is. For Chesterton, progress is not change for changes’ sake. He writes, “If the change-worshipper wishes to estimate his own progress, he must be sternly loyal to the ideal of change; he must not begin to flirt gaily with the ideal of monotony” (27; 420). But to progress, we must look to the old way of orthodoxy.

Tradition, then, is actually the greatest of progressive democracies. “Tradition may be defined as an extension of the franchise. Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about” (40; 604).

That’s a helpful statement. The beauty of Christianity is that it privileges our forbearers and casts doubt on innovation. To the extent that our forbearers knew God — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — this is a good thing.

Chesterton next addresses three critiques: that Christianity is too pessimistic/optimistic; that Christianity is too passive/violent; and that Christianity is just one religion among many. To these critiques Chesterton answers that it is unlikely that Christianity is wrong is these extreme ways. Christianity is unlikely to be wholly pessimistic or wholly optimistic, wholly passive or wholly violent. “Perhaps (in short) this extraordinary thing is really the ordinary thing; at least the normal thing, the center. Perhaps, after all, it is Christianity that is sane and all its critics that are mad — in various ways” (83; 1278).

This introduces the notion of the center, which is important for Chesterton. Christianity is not about being on the extremes; it is about being in the center. The Christian is tasked neither with total feast nor with total fast but is rather advised to feast every so often and fast every so often. Sort of, all things in moderation. This keeps the will in check so that “[o]ne can hardly think too little of one’s self. One can hardly think too much of one’s soul” (88, 1348). It’s the great “both/and” of theology. “All this simply means that the Church preferred to use its Supermen and to use its Tolstoyans” (91; 1394). The key is to be in the center, to be balanced because “[i]t was only a matter of an inch; but an inch is everything when you are balancing. The Church could not afford to swerve a hair’s breadth on some things if she was to continue her great and daring experiment of the irregular equilibrium” (93; 1429).

Next, Chesterton returns to the notion of progress, saying that it must be going towards a fixed target. Moderns are wont to change the goal of human life — perhaps happiness today, fulfillment tomorrow, and money the next day. But Chesterton says that the Christian tradition is able to progress because it has the same aim today as it did in the first century — to praise and love God and to live with God forever. “My ideal at least is fixed; for it was fixed before the foundations of the world. My vision of perfection assuredly cannot be altered; for it is called Eden” (102; 1578). Chesterton also says that progress must be composite, building upon the best of what’s gone before, and Utopia, heralding the Kingdom of God in the here-and-now. Humans are inclined to move backwards, to degenerate, but orthodoxy allows humans to progress.

Finally, the Church is presented as a living teacher, as opposed to Plato and Shakespeare, who are dead. We can uncover aspects of Truth and Love that we have never before seen each day, taught by our mother, the Church. It continues to be a truth-telling body.

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