Chesterton and the “Paradoxy” of Orthodoxy

Today is, as Brandon Vogt reminded me, the 77th anniversary of the death of G. K. Chesterton. As a sort of modest homage, here is an essay about Chesterton; it reflects briefly on a chapter in Chesterton’s classic book, Orthodoxy; it was originally published in a different (shorter) form in the July/August 2002 issue of Gilbert! magazine.

My favorite passage of Chestertonian brilliance is the sixth chapter of Orthodoxy, titled “Paradoxes of Christianity.” It should be required reading for all critics of Christianity, especially those self-anointed, enlightened folk who, gazing back (and down) upon two thousand years of dogmatic darkness, have figured out all that is wrong and insulting about the Church and now eagerly take up sticks with which to beat down the crude absurdities embraced by the followers of Jesus.

In that chapter the young Chesterton (just in his early thirties when he penned Orthodoxy), described his own intellectual journey from paganism to agnosticism to theism. Along the way he examined various challenges to Christianity, noting, “It was attacked on all sides and for all contradictory reasons.” His observations are just as illuminating today as they were one hundred years ago—perhaps even more so—for they outline the flawed nature of the biases of skeptics and scoffers, and are therefore of no small assistance to anyone defending Christianity in today’s hostile public square.

The first contradictory criticism is that Christianity is “a thing of inhuman gloom” and “purely pessimistic and opposed to life”. In contemporary terms: Christianity is allegedly repressive, dysfunctional, and depressing. In the words of Ted Turner, Christianity is a “religion for losers.” Such is the mantra of the sexually “liberated,” who see any restraint upon their libido as the work of a self-loathing and prudish Church. This portrayal of Christianity is such regular fare it hardly needs to be pointed out.

And yet, Chesterton continues, Christianity was also mocked because it “comforted men with a fictitious providence” and was ” a fool’s paradise.” Don’t you know, muses the enlightened “free thinker”, that Christianity enslaves by promising heavenly bliss and eternal glory, when in fact life is a series of random biological accidents without any purpose, direction, or meaning? Ah, so who is really depressing and pessimistic? “The very man who denounced Christianity for pessimism,” Chesterton notes, “was himself a pessimist.” It is demeaning, say some critics, to speak of “sin”; far better to believe that man is an animal with little or no control over his lusts and passions, which are simply products of genetics and environment.

Other criticisms are aimed at the pacifist and violent natures of Christianity—or, better, of Christian history. Of course, both the meekness and the fury found in Christianity are looked down upon; they are often conveniently isolated from both the context of their times and from the greater whole of Christian theology and practice. On one hand, Chesterton wrote, Christianity is mocked for being “timid, monkish, and unmanly . . . especially in its attitude towards resistance and fighting.” Founded by a meek Jewish carpenter, Christianity “was an attempt to make a man too like a sheep.”

This calls to mind the campaign in recent years against Pope Pius XII, who has been often demonized for his seeming silence and alleged cowardice in the face of Nazism. The Church, we are told, did not fight hard enough in the recent past against the evils of Nazism, slavery, and economic inequality. Today, the common wisdom goes, the Church does not fight hard enough against sexism, homophobia, Western imperialism, and any number of trendy causes.

And yet, in direct contrast, Christianity is found to be alarmingly violent and full of fight. “I found that I was to hate Christianity not for fighting too little,” Chesterton mused, “but for fighting too much. Christianity, it seemed, was the mother of wars. . . . The very people who reproached Christianity for the meekness and non-resistance of the monasteries were the same ironically-challenged critics who reproached it also for the violence and valor of the Crusades.” On one hand, we are told, fighting the onslaught of Islam many centuries ago was wrong (and even daring to note that most terrorists practice radical Islam is considered an insult worthy of a violence response).

On the other hand, Pius XII’s failure to physically fight the Nazis with his non-existent papal armies is found to be equally loathsome. In our own day, many of those talking heads clamoring for “tact” and “diplomacy” in handling the war on terror today lament the tact and diplomacy of Pius XII and insist he could have—should have!—done more in addressing Nazism, a sure case of having and eating the proverbial cake.

And then there is the matter of exclusivity. “The one real objection to the Christian religion is simply that it is one religion.” Here is the heart of the matter: what is truth and who has the authority to speak it? Who dares to speak truth, or even say it exists?

The criticism comes in the form of various empty clichés, ranging from “There is no objective truth” to “It’s unfair to claim that your religion is the true religion” to “I respect all types of truth.” In reality, this seemingly open-minded approach disguises a nasty bias, both against truth itself and the very groups it claims to defend. While Christianity is attacked, Chesterton pointed out, for leaving “all others to die in the dark”, skeptical critics assert that modernity and progress have, by necessity, left the vast majority of people in the dark. Religious people, because they believe in some sort of objective truth, are set to the side. There is no truth—and that’s the truth! the secularist shouts. How wise we are!

Attacks on the document Dominus Iesus (some such attacks coming from Catholic theologians) readily demonstrate this sort of muddled thinking. While deriding the document’s teaching that Jesus Christ is God and Savior, some critics groused crossly and confusedly about “sensitivity” and “inclusiveness” and “triumphalism.” They were apparently blind to the fact that acceptance of all beliefs is actually acceptance of none—and therefore, logically, a rejection of the truthfulness of any of them.

Chesterton concluded his chapter on paradoxes in this way: “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.” Indeed. The same floundering search for sticks continues today, with fresh faces regurgitating the same tired arguments of ages past, certain they will suffice to brush aside the superstitious dogmas of Christianity. Alas, there is nothing new under the sun, regardless of how good the stick feels in the eager hand of the skeptic.

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About Carl E. Olson 1190 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.