Reading Orthodoxy: Chapter 1

Matt Anderson and Trevin Wax are hosting a discussion of G.K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy over the next several weeks. Follow along here.

I have a warm relationship with Orthodoxy, because it saved me from David Hume. Flash back to my sophomore year in college, 2 am. I'm sitting in the dorm hallway outside my room, reading Hume's Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding which is due later that day[1]. I am mired in a fog of deep skepticism, pulled in by Hume and unable to argue my way back out. The solid things of the world, like cause and effect, seemed to be giving way before my feet. As my roommate walked by on his way to get ready for bed, I stood up and dropped the book on the floor. "Did you know", I asked him in a defeated voice, "that there is no necessary connection between the book hitting the floor and the sound that it made when it did so?" He just gave me a concerned look and said "Gabe, don't get too screwed up".

It was a year or two later that I read Orthodoxy for the first time, and marveled as Chesterton resolved my crisis in about 2 pages - but more on that when we get to chapter 4, "The Ethics of Elfland".

In Chapter 1 Chesterton lays out the project for his book, in a refreshingly honest way. "I have attempted in a vague and personal way, in a set of mental pictures rather than in a series of deductions, to state the philosophy in which I have come to believe". That is not the way one would expect a book defending Christian orthodoxy to begin. And even more unexpected is the way he intends to do it: "I wish to set forth my faith as particularly answering this double spiritual need, the need for that mixture of the familiar and the unfamiliar which Christendom has rightly named romance".

If this is a need of mine, it is not how I would have expressed it. But to speak of safety, permanence, adventure, and joy as Chesterton does certainly has an allure to it. And to suggest that those qualities of life can uniquely be found in the Christian faith is a fascinating thesis. He later speaks of his theme in different terms: "These essays are concerned only to discuss the actual fact that the central Christian theology (sufficiently summarized in the Apostle's Creed) is the best root of energy and sound ethics". The connection to his "romance of the familiar and unfamiliar" is not immediately clear to me; I'll be watching to see how it plays out in the rest of the book.

But one thing is clear, and it has bothered me somewhat on previous readings of Orthodoxy. Chesterton is not concerned here with whether or not Christianity is true. Or if he is, it is a very inductive argument - "isn't something so astonishing and so unique, and which fills human needs so well, very likely to be true?" The force is more to make you wish it were true than to convince you straightaway that it is. But the thought nags me: does all of this sound so convincing just because Chesterton is a gifted storyteller? Nietzsche, after all, was also a gifted storyteller who could spin a good yarn explaining Christianity.

Those are some of the questions chapter 1 has raised, and I'll be keeping them in mind. Chapters 2 and 3 next week!

[1] I don't recommend ever reading Hume at 2 am.