Thursday, November 27, 2008

Orthodoxy at 100

Here's Ralph Wood in First Things on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of G.K. Chesterton's classic, Orthodoxy. Chesterton is oft-quoted but rarely-read-- a shame, really. His prose is accessible, clever, insightful. He's similar to Lewis and Sayers in those ways-- and probably beyond that.

Wood starts with high praise from famous literary types:

Graham Greene once described it as “among the great books of the age.” Etienne Gilson declared that Chesterton had a philosophical mind of the first rank. Hugh Kenner said that the only twentieth-century author with whom Chesterton could be compared is James Joyce. And Dorothy Day was inspired to return to Christianity mainly by reading Orthodoxy.

Then, he makes a grand claim-- which I think can be supported:

Indeed, we might say that the last century belongs to Chesterton—for in that now one-hundred-year-old book, Orthodoxy, he remarkably prophesied the ailments of both modernism and postmodernism, while adeptly commending Christianity as their double cure.

Wood covers Chesterton's background before describing what was behind his conversion. In a word, it was that Christianity provides the best answers to life's most challenging questions. While many theories and philosophies can answer the easier questions, Christianity's seemingly paradoxical answers emerge as uniquely insightful....

Chesterton regarded his conversion as a progressive and not a reactionary decision—not a nostalgic, backward-gazing act. The central argument of Orthodoxy is that Christianity finally answered his pressing questions. It challenged him to push ahead toward the consummation of all things: “The only corner where [people] in any sense look forward is the little continent where Christ has His Church.”...

Chesterton rarely devoted himself to straightforward theological writing. He sought to come at things indirectly, slyly suggesting or else thunderously pronouncing about matters whose religious import was often more implicit than overt. Orthodoxy is the notable exception to his usual pattern of writing. It is not an anthology but a carefully argued and deceptively complex work whose title indicates that its moral concerns are also theological. It is a subtle account, in fact, of his own conversion...

As for "the world" and its modern (and post-modern) worldviews...

What tack, then, does Chesterton take to deal with such an enormous collapse in the courts of heaven? In an exceedingly shrewd ploy, Chesterton argues that our age is insane. Perhaps sensing the new vogue of psychology that would dominate the twentieth century, he declares us to be both mentally and morally unhinged. In so characterizing our age, he becomes the uncanny prophet of both modernism and postmodernism.

Chesterton attends first to our insane rationalism. His attack on rationalism is no attack on reason: “Reason itself is a matter of faith,” Chesterton observes. “It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all.”...Unfortunately, since the time of Descartes, we have come to believe that there is nothing but reason—reason of a largely reductive and calculating kind. Real things are said to be those that can be demonstrated either by empirical science or mathematical logic.

For Chesterton, such modernist rationalism is madness. The rationalist who ignores the limits of reason is always on the verge of becoming a maniac. The maniac is not the person who has lost his mind, Chesterton observes. “The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason. . . . He [dwells] in the clean and well-lit prison of one idea.”...

For Chesterton, the symbol of rationalist insanity is the circle, and its sane counter-symbol is the cross. The circle is a self-enclosed thing, while the cross breaks all confines....

Wood continues at length, but I have to stop this sometime! If you're familiar with Orthodoxy-- or not-- check this essay and the book out!


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