Reading Orthodoxy: The Paradoxes of Christianity

Matt Anderson and Trevin Wax are hosting a discussion of G.K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy over the next several weeks. Follow along here. Chapter 6 is this week.

I had a hard time knowing how to approach this chapter, for at least two reasons.

First, the flow of the argument is subtle and hard to follow. He begins by describing the many contradictory ways in which Christianity is criticized, and expresses some skepticism that Christianity, even if it was wrong, could really be that wrong. “It looked not so much as if Christianity was bad enough to include any vices, but rather as if any stick was good enough to beat Christianity with”. He goes on to explain these paradoxical criticisms as being rooted in strange contradictions of the critic, and of modern life, rather than in Christianity. After expressing surprise that Christianity could really be that wrong, he essentially turns to the criticism on its head, painting modernism as really that wrong.

But then he pivots. Maybe the critics are on to something: “There was really an element in [Christianity] of emphasis and even frenzy which had justified the secularists in their superficial criticism”. And he’s off, explaining the thrilling adventure of orthodoxy. “Christianity got over the difficulty of combining furious opposites, by keeping them both, and keeping them both furious”.

That is a complicated argument. But my second problem is that, now that I know what it is, I am not really sure how to evaluate it. It relies heavily on extrapolation to general principles from specific examples. Chesterton is always making throwaway comments about how many examples he has, and how he only has space for a few. But several more examples would have greatly increased my confidence that the examples he cites are getting at something fundamental about Christianity and the objections to it, rather than being specially picked to prove the point.

I suppose that it is an invitation to go digging more than anything else. Chesterton claims to have found these things to be the case wherever he turned. Having got this idea into your head, do you find it everywhere you turn?