This year marks the 100th anniversary of Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton. It remains one of the great books of the English Catholic revival in the last part of the 19th and early 20th centuries, even though it was written before Chesterton’s conversion to Catholicism in 1922 and is a counterpart to an earlier book titled Heretics, in which Chesterton laid out the arguments against a materialist, secular worldview.
Chesterton (1874-1936) was one of the great Christian apologists. His work ranges widely over plays, poetry, journalism, reviews and scores of books, including the popular mystery series starring Father Brown, the priest-detective. The great Catholic historian Christopher Dawson, for one, credited Chesterton for his own conversion, and many American thinkers, from the liberal Garry Wills to the conservative Russell Kirk, credit Chesterton as a formative influence. Chesterton’s infectious style uses paradox and taking arguments to their logical ends in order to demonstrate their consistency, or lack thereof.
In Orthodoxy, Chesterton explains how he came to what C.S. Lewis was later to call “mere Christianity.” Chesterton defends orthodox Christian belief from the materialists and the rationalists, arguing that Christian doctrines about the Fall, the Incarnation and the Trinitarian nature of God are not only reasonable, but necessary to protect the world against a descent into madness and inhumanity.
The arguments against Christianity were contradictory:
“One accusation against Christianity was that it prevented men, by morbid tears and terrors, from seeking joy and liberty in the bosom of Nature. But another accusation was that it comforted men with a fictitious providence, and put them in a pink-and-white nursery.” This led Chesterton to consider whether Christianity may in fact be true, the balancing center among the conflicting impulses of peoples and cultures, what he called the “thrilling romance of orthodoxy.”
Orthodoxy gleefully skewers the opponents of Christian orthodoxy in Chesterton’s inimitable style.
For example, Chesterton argues against the then-popular religion pantheism in words that are as relevant today, when New Age religions and revived pagan “Wiccan” cults are treated seriously:
“The only objection to Natural Religion is that somehow it always becomes unnatural. A man loves Nature in the morning for her innocence and amiability, and at nightfall, if he is loving her still, it is for her darkness and her cruelty. He washes at dawn in clear water as did the Wise Man of the Stoics, yet, somehow at the dark end of the day, he is bathing in hot bull’s blood, as did Julian the Apostate.”
Christianity was a revolution, and it saved Western civilization from the brutality of the pagan world. Christianity was revolutionary because it took God out of the world and returned him as a person.
This transformed religion from one of appeasing impersonal forces to speaking with a friend and fellow human being, in whose divinity we too could share. At a practical level, it demolished the old pagan categories in which the vulnerable and marginalized were enslaved or abused, and elevated the status of women and children to that of the classical paterfamilias.
As Christianity retreats across Europe and the United States, a crude consumerist materialism, the descendant of pantheism, is taking its place, and we would do well to remember why Christianity was so appealing in the first place to those early generations of Romans.
In his long writing career, Chesterton wrote about eugenics, the family, the nature of work and the role of economic systems in supporting a stable society, all subjects that remain very much with us.
Decades before the advent of modern technologies such as genetic screening, he was writing against the eugenics advocates of his day in his prophetic book Eugenics and Other Evils and in essays on the importance of appreciating family as a gift and not something that can be chosen or manipulated through science.
More generally, in movements such as community-supported agriculture, Catholic home schooling, and the growing interest in traditional farming techniques, we can see the influence of the loose structure of ideas and institutions Chesterton called “distributism,” which was based on the assumption that the economy should serve the needs of real people and small communities and not be swallowed up by abstractions such as “capitalism” or “socialism.”
Chesterton’s work has inspired a large, worldwide following.
There are Chesterton centers and groups operating from Argentina to Poland, from Japan to Sierra Leone. In the United States, the Chesterton Institute for Faith and Culture, located at Seton Hall University, is the central standard-bearer and nexus for the global Chestertonian renaissance.
Through its flagship journal, The Chesterton Review, now in its 34th year, the work of Chesterton and important contemporaries such as Dawson, David Jones, George MacDonald and others is showcased. Moreover, it serves as a clearinghouse for ideas and proposals for a new generation of Chestertonians.
Chesterton famously wrote that the “Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.” Transcending current notions of right and left, liberal or conservative, Chesterton tried to show what that Christian ideal might look like. It is a vision that inspires still.
Gerald J. Russello is a fellow of the
Chesterton Institute at Seton Hall University.