Reading Orthodoxy: Authority and the Adventurer

Matt Anderson and Trevin Wax are hosting a discussion of G.K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy over the next several weeks. Follow along here. The final chapter, 9, is this week.

This last chapter has a lot going for it, and I’m happy to end on a high note after an ambivalent impression of the last few chapters.

I’m still fairly ambivalent about the project of defending Christianity by defending Christian Europe. It seems that Chesterton gives Christianity credit for all the positives, and explains (rather dismissively) all the negatives as a failure to live up to its own ideals. Still, there is plenty that is unique about Europe and I do think that much of it can be credited to Christianity. Even the most secular scientism presupposes Christian values (cf. Nietzsche).

At any rate, there was plenty in this chapter for me to latch on to. Tellingly, I greatly enjoyed the “apologetics” digression, though to Chesterton it seemed like no more than a necessary bore. But Chesterton is right about materialism dismissing miracles based on dogma. There are only a handful of miracles a Christian must believe based on dogma; practically all reports he may evaluate carefully and weigh the evidence. The explanations available to a Christian are not in conflict with the explanations available to a materialist, they are a superset of them. Christianity is not harmed by showing that a miracle was a fraud (save perhaps the resurrection); materialism really is harmed, and fatally, by showing a miracle is not a fraud. And so they adopt an epistemology that guarantees a miracle can never be proved not to be a fraud. I once had an atheist admit to me, almost in these words, that if a miracle were unrepeatable that was grounds for denying that it was real; but if it were repeatable then it would not be a miracle either, simply a lawlike property of nature (here Chesterton might interject that all laws are miracles!).

I’ve often thought you could take Hume’s argument against miracles, with the immense weight it places on humanity’s experience of the world, at face value and still come up with a good argument for miracles (though, strangely, you might not be able to rationally believe in any particular one). That dead men stay dead is enormously well attested. But as Chesterton points out, across all times and places the existence of the supernatural is also enormously well-attested. You can’t accept one body of evidence and not the other without presupposing your conclusion.

But the most powerful idea in this chapter was of Christianity as a living teacher to the soul, and that resonates deeply with me – though to me it is less important if Christianity explains Europe; it certainly explains me. The living teaching I find in the Bible and the church explain, tutor, and nurture my soul in new ways all the time.