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Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton: Discovering Faith in Ordinary Life


Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton: Discovering faith in ordinary life
Orthodoxy explains how the great writer and wit found the truth of Christianity in the nursery, family life, fairy tales and common sense.

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Today we are looking at another CLASSIC OF CHRISTIAN LITERATURE, Orthodoxy, by G.K. Chesterton. I first came across it when I was in college, and it was a perfect fit for some of the questions I was getting on Christianity. It remains an excellent fit for “seekers” today, especially in regard to big philosophical issues.

Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton: Why the author was famous?

G.K. Chesterton wrote the shortest letter of the 20th century. In response to The Times inquiry “What’s wrong with the world today?” Chesterton responded simply, “I am.”

This displays two characteristics of the famed English writer that I love: 1) a deep understanding of BIBLICAL THEOLOGY and sin, and 2) a keen sense of humor wittily expressed. We will find these often in Orthodoxy.

While most critics and English professors point to Orthodoxy as the best place to start reading Chesterton, it is not his most popular creation. That would probably be his “Father Brown” mystery stories, my favorites too. He was a big man in many ways, 6’4” and 285 lbs acting in a big arena where he occupied considerable space.

WIKIPEDIA tells us he “wrote around 80 books, several hundred poems, some 200 short stories, 4,000 essays (mostly newspaper columns), and several plays. He was a literary and social critic, historian, playwright, novelist, Catholic theologian APOLOGIST, debater, and mystery writer.”

He was also well known for converting from the Church of England to Roman Catholicism, although that conversion took place 14 years after he wrote Orthodoxy.

Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton: What it’s about

In his preface, the author makes his purpose clear: It is an explanation, not of whether the Christian Faith can be believed, but of how he personally has come to believe it.

When the word “orthodoxy” is used here it means the Apostles’ Creed, as understood by everybody calling himself Christian until a very short time ago and the general historic conduct of those who held such a creed.

The book is a statement of Chesterton’s philosophy, but in his unique and clever way he whittles that down:

I will not call it my philosophy; for I did not make it. God and humanity made it; and it made me.
I did try to found a heresy of my own; and when I had put the last touches to it, I discovered that it was orthodoxy.

It is NOT an academic or scholarly analysis of other philosophies or religions but Chesterton’s own experiences in ordinary life that he describes.

His teachers are the ordinary people of everyday life whom he values for their common sense and intuitive grasp of truth versus the academic thinkers and philosophers whose views are so contrary to Christianity and down-to-earth realities.

It becomes a paean to Everyman and a sharp satire of those in the ivory tower. It is Chesterton’s wit and literary artistry that makes Orthodoxy a classic.

Orthodoxy: What’s a man to believe?

In the second chapter of Orthodoxy, Chesterton relates a conversation with a publisher who expressed a fairly common view of life: “That man will get on; he believes in himself.” After Chesterton shows him that many who believe in themselves become lunatics or spendthrifts or “rotters” in some other way, the conversation goes on:

“Well, if a man is not to believe in himself, in what is he to believe?”
After a long pause I replied, “I will go home and write a book in answer to that question.”
This is the book that I have written in answer to it.

And he begins with sin “which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.”

Chesterton “proves” sin by observation and inductive reasons, and this is an affirmation of what St. Paul says in Romans.

For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; Romans 3:23
Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned: Romans 5:12

Because of sin, we abide in darkness because we will not see the light that is all around us. Instead of enjoying God’s creation and worshipping Him, we refuse and deny and try to figure out things without Him.

This places us in an eternal circle with no future, no way out, and no hope. Chesterton expounds:

As we have taken the circle as the symbol of reason and madness, we may very well take the cross as the symbol at once of mystery and of health.
For the circle is perfect and infinite in its nature; but it is fixed for ever in its size; it can never be larger or smaller.
But the cross, though it has at its heart a collision and a contradiction, can extend its four arms for ever without altering its shape.

Orthodoxy, Chapter III THE SUICIDE OF THOUGHT

Chesterton demonstrates in chapter 3 that reason in and of itself is destructive. He recognizes and believes in the power of reason but only as long as it is connected to the heart, and exercised in a spirit of humility:

The central theme here is “humility,” what Jesus called being poor in spirit,” Matthew 5:3

Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert—himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt—the Divine Reason.
The old humility was a spur that prevented a man from stopping; not a nail in his boot that prevented him from going on. For the old humility made a man doubtful about his efforts, which might make him work harder.
But the new humility makes a man doubtful about his aims, which will make him stop working altogether.

And this, to Chesterton, is man’s ruin:

Therefore the modern man in revolt has become practically useless for all purposes of revolt. By rebelling against everything he has lost his right to rebel against anything.

At this point, I ask “Where is Jesus in all of this?” and Chesterton replies to my thought:

They have torn the soul of Christ into silly strips, labelled egoism and altruism, and they are equally puzzled by His insane magnificence and His insane meekness.
They have parted His garments among them, and for His vesture they have cast lots; though the coat was without seam woven from the top throughout.

The Bible puts it like this: Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools. Romans 1:22

Orthodoxy, IV THE ETHICS OF ELFLAND

Chesterton next takes us into the world of Fairy Tales:

My first and last philosophy, that which I believe in with unbroken certainty, I learnt in the nursery.
I generally learnt it from a nurse; that is, from the solemn and star-appointed priestess at once of democracy and tradition.
The things I believed most then, the things I believe most now, are the things called fairy tales.

Besides the fact that they were told by trusted, caring figures, Chesterton drew from these tales:

two convictions; first, that this world is a wild and startling place, which might have been quite different, but which is quite delightful;
second, that before this wildness and delight one may well be modest and submit to the queerest limitations of so queer a kindness.

These convictions, of course, ran up against “reality,” especially what he calls “scientific fatalism,” and Calvinism, both encompassed by their principle of “determinism.”

From all of this Chesterton concludes:

first, that this world does not explain itself. It may be a miracle with a supernatural explanation; it may be a conjuring trick, with a natural explanation.
But the explanation of the conjuring trick, if it is to satisfy me, will have to be better than the natural explanations I have heard. The thing is magic, true or false.
Second, I came to feel as if magic must have a meaning, and meaning must have someone to mean it. There was something personal in the world, as in a work of art; whatever it meant it meant violently.
Third, I thought this purpose beautiful in its old design, in spite of its defects, such as dragons.
Fourth, that the proper form of thanks to it is some form of humility and restraint: we should thank God for beer and Burgundy by not drinking too much of them.
We owed, also, an obedience to whatever made us.

But good and interesting as all of this is, I ask the question.So what?” “Where does this lead?

Chesterton does not make this point, but I will, simply quoting the Lord Jesus:

Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child shall in no wise enter therein. – Luke 18:17

Orthodoxy, V THE FLAG OF THE WORLD

Chesterton begins chapter 5 with this:

In the last chapter it has been said that the primary feeling that this world is strange and yet attractive is best expressed in fairy tales.
The reader may, if he likes, put down the next stage to that bellicose and even jingo literature which commonly comes next in the history of a boy. We all owe much sound morality to the penny dreadfuls.
Whatever the reason, it seemed and still seems to me that our attitude towards life can be better expressed in terms of a kind of military loyalty than in terms of criticism and approval.
My acceptance of the universe is not optimism, it is more like patriotism. It is a matter of primary loyalty.

Where do we stand? Where is our loyalty? I am reminded of Elijah’s cry to the children of Israel:

How long halt ye between two opinions? if the LORD be God, follow him: but if Baal, then follow him. And the people answered him not a word. 1 Kings 18:21

Chesterton avers:

Before any cosmic act of reform, we must have a cosmic oath of allegiance. A man must be interested in life, then he could be disinterested in his views of it.
“My son give me thy heart”; the heart must be fixed on the right thing: the moment we have a fixed heart we have a free hand.

It all must start at the heart:

And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment. –Jesus in Mark 12:30

Orthodoxy: VI THE PARADOXES OF CHRISTIANITY

Chesterton points out in chapter 6 the apparent conflicts between the “turn the other cheek” doctrines with the wars ordered by God.

Swinburne denied the faith and wrote this famous line:

“Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilaean, the world has grown gray with Thy breath.”

But the world has grown gray only for the unbelievers. Christians are full of color and life:

St. Francis, in praising all good, could be a more shouting optimist than Walt Whitman. St. Jerome, in denouncing all evil, could paint the world blacker than Schopenhauer.
Both passions were free because both were kept in their place. This is the thrilling romance of Orthodoxy.
People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy.
It was sanity: and to be sane is more dramatic than to be mad. It was the equilibrium of a man behind madly rushing horses, seeming to stoop this way and to sway that, yet in every attitude having the grace of statuary and the accuracy of arithmetic.

Orthodoxy: VII THE ETERNAL REVOLUTION

Progress and Utopia are the author’s targets here. First, he takes on the progressive idea of evolution:

Darwinism can be used to back up two mad moralities, but it cannot be used to back up a single sane one. The kinship and competition of all living creatures can be used as a reason for being insanely cruel or insanely sentimental, but not for a healthy love of animals.
On the evolutionary basis you may be inhumane, or you may be absurdly humane; but you cannot be human. That you and a tiger are one may be a reason for being tender to a tiger.
Or it may be a reason for being as cruel as the tiger. It is one way to train the tiger to imitate you, it is a shorter way to imitate the tiger.
But in neither case does evolution tell you how to treat a tiger reasonably, that is, to admire his stripes while avoiding his claws.

Next, he addresses Utopianism:

All my modern Utopian friends look at each other rather doubtfully, for their ultimate hope is the dissolution of all special ties. But again, I seem to hear, like a kind of echo, an answer from beyond the world.
“You will have real obligations, and therefore real adventures when you get to my utopia. But the hardest obligation and the steepest adventure is to get there.”

Orthodoxy: VIII THE ROMANCE OF ORTHODOXY

In this chapter, Chesterton defends six important doctrines of Christianity. For the sake of brevity, I am simply listing them here. You can find a fuller summary and discussion of them at CHESTERTON’S ORTHODOXY from which the following headings have been borrowed:

  1. ORIGINAL SIN(vs. Oligarchy):

  2. MIRACLES(vs. Naturalism or Materialism)

  3. DIVINE TRANSCENDENCE(vs. Pantheism and immanentism, and especially Buddhism)

  4. TRINITY(vs. Unitarianism)

  5. HELL (vs. Universalism)

  6. DIVINITY OF CHRIST(vs. Arianism)

Orthodoxy: IX AUTHORITY AND THE ADVENTURER

In this chapter, Chesterton states:

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.

In Orthodoxy, Chesterton finds freedom:

All the real argument about religion turns on the question of whether a man who was born upside down can tell when he comes right way up.
The primary paradox of Christianity is that the ordinary condition of man is not his sane or sensible condition; that the normal itself is an abnormality….
It is only since I have known orthodoxy that I have known mental emancipation.

But this is not the end result of finding Orthodoxy. Chesterton’s final conclusion all comes down to the One whose Name is above all names. The Lord Jesus Christ and His great salvation:

The tremendous figure which fills the Gospels towers in this respect, as in every other, above all the thinkers who ever thought themselves tall. His pathos was natural, almost casual.
The Stoics, ancient and modern, were proud of concealing their tears. He never concealed His tears; He showed them plainly on His open face at any daily sight, such as the far sight of His native city.
Yet He concealed something. Solemn supermen and imperial diplomatists are proud of restraining their anger. He never restrained His anger. He flung furniture down the front steps of the Temple, and asked men how they expected to escape the damnation of Hell.
Yet He restrained something. I say it with reverence; there was in that shattering personality a thread that must be called shyness. There was something that He hid from all men when He went up a mountain to pray.
There was something that He covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth.

Orthodoxy: Analysis, Conclusions and Takeaways:


Chesterton shows me clearly that Christianity is “reasonable” and something we moderns can defend intellectually. But all his analysis is chaotic, and his faith may be simply because the Lord has given him a heart attuned to Him. The bottom line, we need the Word of God.


Here in this classic of Christian literature, we find fascinating dialogue, deep analysis, fine writing, and strong arguments. It is full of tension, only to lead us to rest. I enjoyed this when I was a college student, but now as an old man found it dated and overly objective.

I have no doubt that G.K. Chesterton was a Christian and knew more about the history and theology of the church than anyone else I can think of. But I wonder if he knew Jesus. I hope so, for He is All in all.

Sometimes I get carried away with my writing, my reading, my spiritual disciplines, but I pray that Jesus will help me to never lose sight of Himself. I pray that for you too!

NEVER LOSE SIGHT OF JESUS O pilgrim bound for the heav’nly land, Never lose sight of Jesus! He’ll lead you gently with loving hand; Never lose sight of Jesus!
Refrain: Never lose sight of Jesus! Never lose sight of Jesus! Day and night He will lead you right; Never lose sight of Jesus!
When you are tempted to go astray, Never lose sight of Jesus! Press onward, upward the narrow way; Never lose sight of Jesus! Tho’ dark the pathway may seem ahead, Never lose sight of Jesus!
“Lo, I am with you,” His Word hath said: Never lose sight of Jesus! When death is knocking outside the door, Never lose sight of Jesus! Till safe with Him on the golden shore; Never lose sight of Jesus! Rev. Johnson Oatman,Jr., 1895

Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God. Hebrews 12

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