A Place Outside This World: G.K. Chesterton’s religious identity in Orthodoxy (2 of 3)

In his introduction of Orthodoxy, Chesterton writes that he examined all of the questions of Christianity and believed that he was alone in his discovery—he then realized that he was “in the ridiculous position of being backed up by all of Christendom” in which he found his fancied modern ideas to be “1800 years old” (O, 4).  In fact, Chesterton finds that Christian theology is “the best root of energy and sound ethics” (O, 5) and that orthodoxy is not mere tradition but universal truth which solidifies through the ages.  It is Chesterton’s belief that Christian orthodoxy holds the key to true reform because it is situated on a solid ground with eyes focused on a God that transcends man.  In all of his searching for great human progress, Chesterton finds the answers in orthodoxy.  Chesterton propounds that “orthodoxy is not only (as is often urged) the only safe guardian of morality or order, but is also the only logical guardian of liberty, innovation and advance” (O, 133).  For Chesterton, orthodoxy is progress.  “We need not rebel against antiquity,” Chesterton writes, “we have to rebel against novelty” (O, 107). It is the “gate of all good philosophy” (O, 150).

Chesterton does not frame himself as a theologian; instead religion informs his thoughts as “theology is only thought applied to religion” (The New Jerusalem). Chesterton vigorously wrote on virtually every topic, yet he writes that “you cannot evade the issue of God, whether you talk about pigs or the binomial theory, you are still talking about Him” (Daily News, December 12, 1903). The Physicalists of the day, such as H.G. Wells and Rudyard Kipling, balked at the notion that Religion should ever been discussed among sensible people, but Chesterton disagreed. “Take away the supernatural,” Chesterton writes, “and what remains is the unnatural” (Heretics, 88). Chesterton continued to write about Religion, as it had to do with his relationship with God, and Politics, as it had to do with his relationship with his neighbor. He concerned himself instead with writing stories about the natural person who operates within the natural law of Christian orthodoxy. Chesterton uses the traditions of Christian thought to form a certain re-creation of his life in the modern world. Kearney employs Aristotle’s Poetics to describe this re-creation as a type of mimesis: “the disclosure of the inherent ‘universals’ of existence that make up human truth” (Kearney, 131).  Kearney continues by writing that “mimesis re-enacts the real world of action by magnifying its essential traits” (Kearney, 131).  For Chesterton, these essential yet mysterious traits are critical to everyday discussion because of the theological implications embedded within daily conversation.  Joseph Schwartz discusses the role of narrative in Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man as he compares Chesterton to St. Augustine in Chesterton’s use of theology as a way to shed light on the “philosophical enterprise” of life.  Schwartz  writes, “The actor in the drama is, of course, man as he reveals himself in his activities and experience—moral, religious, political, social—and in art—his signature” (Schwartz, 58). The Everlasting Man is an articulate response to H.G. Well’s Outline of History, yet Chesterton identifies himself in the same way as he does in Orthodoxy—through the tradition of Christianity. It this self-labeled “dogmatic” belief that gives the readers of Orthodoxy such a lucid view into the human mind.

Chesterton’s dogmatic beliefs were formed because of his understanding of the mind’s yearning for conclusions. In the final chapter of Heretics, entitled “Concluding remarks on the Importance of Orthodoxy,” Chesterton remarks on the human mind and the modern notion of progress, and combats the belief that the human mind improves with the deconstruction of dogmas.  “The vice of the modern notion of mental progress is that it is always concerned with the breaking of bonds, the effacing of boundaries, the casting away of dogmas. But if there is such as a thing as mental growth, it must mean the growth into more and more definite convictions, into more and more dogmas. The human brain is a machine for coming to conclusions; if it cannot come to conclusions it is rusty” (Heretics, 151). Chesterton compares the mind that is too clever to believe to a nail that is too good to hold down a carpet or a bolt that is too strong to keep a door shut. “Man can be defined,” he writes, “as an animal that makes dogmas” (O, 151). For Chesterton, it makes logical, and in many senses of the word “natural,” sense for the human mind to search out the mysteries of humanity—not as a direct attempt to understand how the humanity works; rather, as an attempt to understand how humanity doesn’t work. Chesterton removed each false assumption of humanity as one might discard books from a shelf until only one book remains. For Chesterton, this book was the Bible—his dogma, Christian orthodoxy. “Truths turn into dogmas,” Chesterton writes, “the instant that they are disputed.  Thus every man who utters a doubt refines a religion” (O, 160). Chesterton welcomed the skepticism of his day because he saw it as an opportunity to examine the beliefs he held, which is likely the reason why Chesterton was able to maintain such close relationships with some of his most ardent critics.  And as Chesterton explores the arguments from his critics, his narrative of universal humanity expressed in Heretics transforms into a richer narrative of personal identity in Orthodoxy.

Author: Josh Withrow

I want to help people creatively tell their stories by giving them the tools to engage other people with captivating ideas. My 14 years of classroom teaching and my master's degree in English Literature give me the experience to make my classes both creative and informative. People don't need a degree to enjoy learning -- but sometimes a little guidance goes a long way.

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