Sunday, July 29, 2007

Introducing Orthodoxy

A journalist asked G.K. Chesterton what one book he would want to have along if stranded on a desert island. He paused only an instant before replying, "Why, A Practical Guide to Shipbuilding, of course."

Apart from the Bible, if I had to choose one book to have along if stranded, it may well be Chesterton's own spiritual autobiography, Orthodoxy.

Why anyone would pick up a book with that formindable title eludes me, but one day I did so and my faith has never recovered. I was experiencing a time of spiritual dryness in which everything seemed stale, warmed over, lifeless. Orthodoxy brought freshness and, above all, a new spirit of adventure. "I am a man who with the utmost daring discovered what had been discovered before," Chesterton said. "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." Guided by Chesterton, I landed in the same place, but the voyage to get there was exciting and unforgettable.

The desert-island analogy appears often in Chesterton's work, for he viewed this world as a sort of cosmic shipwreck. The human search for meaning resembles a sailor who awakens from a deep dark subject, The Man Who Was Thursday. Amazingly, considering their differences, he wrote it the same year as Orthodoxy. He later explained that he had been struggling with despair, evil and the meaning of life, and had even approached mental breakdown. When he emerged for that melancholy, he sought to make a case for optimism in the shadow of such a world. These two books resulted, one a book of apologetics full of unexpected twists and turns, the other best described as a combination spy thriller and nightmare.

More than any facts or intellectual arguments, I gained from Chesterton a new, "Romantic" way of looking at my faith. Pagan virtues such as justice and temperance, he said, are the sad virtues. The Christian virtues of faith, hope, and charity are the gay and exhuberant ones.

Each has about it an aura of audacity: "Charity means pardoning what is unpardonable, or it is no virtue at all. Hope means hoping when things are hopeless, or it is no virtue at all. And faith means believing the incredible, or it is no virtue at all."

I realized that my own faith had become a tight-lipped, grim exercise of spiritual discipline, a blending of ascetism and rationalism. Joy had melted away. Chesterton restored to me a sense of the Romantic, a thirst for the gay and exuberant virtues. "Despair," he said, "does not lie in being weary of suffering, but in being weary of joy."

G.K. Chesterton fits the stereotype of the jolly fat man. His weight hovered just under the 300-pound mark, and that combined with general poor health disqualified him from military service. This fact led to a rather brusque encounter with a patriot during World War I. "Why aren't you out at the front?" demanded the indignant elderly lady when she spied Chesterton on the streets of London. He cooly replied, "My dear madam, if you will step round this way a little, you will see that I am."

Chesterton put his wit on display in public debates with agnostics and skeptics of the day, most notably George Bernard Shaw. (Imagine a time when a debate on faith could fill a lecture hall!) Chesterton usually arrived late, peered through his pince-nez at various scraps of paper on which he had scrawled notes, and proceeded to entertain the crowd, laughing heartily at his own jokes. Puffing through his moustache, his eyes twinkling, he would defend such "reactionary" concepts as original sin and the Last Judgement. Typically he would charm the audience over to his side, then celebrate by hosting his chastened opponent at the nearest pub. "He is so gay, that one might almost believe he had found God," said Franz Kafka.

Works by Chesterton which can be considered "apologetic" include Orthodoxy, Heretics and The Blatchford Controversies, all three stimulated by a running newspaper debate between Chesterton and Mr Robert Blatchford, editor of Clarion. When Blatchford stated the reasons he could not accept Christianity, Chesterton responded with a vigorous and good-humoured rebuttal that turned Blatchford's arguments upside-down. "If I gave each of my reasons for being a Christian," he said, "a vast number of them would be Mr Blatchford's reasons for not being one."

Chesterton readily admitted that the Church had badly failed the Gospel. In fact, he said, there is only one unanswerable argument against Christinaity: Christians. They prove exclusively what the Bible teaches about the Fall. When The Times asked a number of writers for essays on the topic "What's Wrong with the World?" Chesterton sent in the reply shortest and most to the point:

Dear Sirs:
I am.

Sincerely yours,

Chesterton seemed to sense instinctively that a stern prophet will rarely break through to a society full of religion's "cultured despisers"; he preferred the role of jester. He described his method this way: "In dealing with the arrogant asserter of doubt, it is not the right method to tell them to stop doubting. It is rather the right method to tell him to go on doubting, to doubt a little more, to doubt every day newer and wilder things in the universe, until at last, by some strange enlightenment, he may begin to doubt himself."

We direly need another Chesterton today, I think. In a time when culture and faith have drifted even further apart, we could use his brilliancem his entertaining style, and above all his generous and joyful spirit. When society becomes polarized, as ours has, it is as if the two sides stand across a great divide and shout at each other. Chesterton had another approach: he walked to the centre of a swinging bridge, roared a challenge to any single combat warriors, and then made both sides laugh aloud.

G.K. Chesterton managed to propound the Christian faith with as much wit, good humour, and sheer intellectual force as anyone in this century. With the zeal of a knight defending the last redoubt, he took on the likes of Shaw, H.G. Wells, Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx and anyone else who dared interpret the world apart from God and Incarnation. T. S. Eliot judged that "he did more, I think, than any man of his time . . . to maintain the existence of the important minority in the modern world."

I know he did that for me. Whenever I feel my faith going dry again, I wander to a shelf and pick up a book by G.K. Chesterton. The adventures begins all over again.

- Philip Yancey, 'Foreward' to G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy.

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