Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton

This is something different for me!   Clearly it is not fiction for a start and I am no theologian.   It was given to me by a friend of mine with the challenge to blog it:   I now challenge you to read it for yourselves too.   It is essentially a religious autobiography that Chesterton himself explains as his 'own solitary and sincere speculations' and the 'style in which they were all suddenly satisfied by the Christian Theology'.

Chesterton was a well known literary figure by the time he wrote this in 1908 and had at least four major works behind him including The Man who was Thursday and Napoleon of Notting Hill. By the end of his life [1936], he had published eighty books and myriad articles, essays and poems.   He was noted for his wit and the sense of humour he brought to his writing, enjoying particularly paradox.   He was not a modernist like Shaw who was a close friend but with whom he disagreed regularly and similarly with H.G. Wells.    Though his writing was frequently philosophical, he argued strenuously with the philosophers of his time accusing philosophy of 'uncommon sense', taking particular exception to Nietzsche.   He was a Christian apologist and he converted to Catholicism in 1922.

As you might expect with Chesterton who writes with such a fluid style, this book is an easy read if frequently giving pause for thought.   The least convincing are the first thirty nine pages at the end of which he himself says: 'here I end [thank God] the first and dullest business of this book - the rough review of recent thought'.   Along the way he examines and pans the will and volition, scepticism [which can hardly be described as 'recent thought'], relativism, materialism, evolution and rationalism which he describes as a 'doomed fortress' - indeed, 'our mental ruin has been wrought by wild reason'. This last is curious as he describes himself later in the book as a rationalist.   In this early section, rationalism and reason seem to be confused - but then Chesterton was no semantic pedant!   He sums up his thinking on these various isms by contending that 'most characteristic current philosophies have not only a touch of mania, but a touch of suicidal mania' and maintains that 'free thought has exhausted its own freedom' while 'liberalism has been degraded into liberality'.   He is fond of aphorisms that abound in this section, together with the kind of clever wordplay one associates with him.

Chesterton proceeds then for the remainder of the book to look at his own fundamental ideas and personal philosophy which he was startled to discover had already been discovered by Christianity.   He describes the elemental wonder of fairy tales, the joy of mystery in the face of the sterile facts of science and the modern world's insistence on the Panglossian necessity of things being as they are whereas he saw the world as a wild and startling place which might have been quite different.   [I'm not sure that the idea of contingency is compatible with Catholic theology!]   The magic, the mystery of the world must have a meaning, he claims, and meaning must have someone to mean it.   He argues that Christian optimism is based on the fact that we do not fit into the world; that Christian pleasure is poetic and full of romance in the face of the logician.   He does a wonderful chapter on the paradoxes of Christianity, some familiar, some that might never have occurred to me that made me feel, in his words, that 'life is not only a pleasure but an eccentric privilege'.

Though some of his beliefs need contextualisation, some seem plainly wrong [though I am open to correction!].   For example, he argues the matter of the immanent or the transcendent deity.   He avers that by insisting on the immanence of God we get introspection, self-isolation, quietism and social indifference.   By 'insisting specially on the transcendence of God we get wonder, curiosity, moral and political adventure, righteous indignation'.   Surely, we need both - the immanent God that we may learn to love ourselves and, also, the transcendent.

Nevertheless, I shall support firmly his belief of 'how much every man owes to the tyranny and privilege of women, to the fact that they alone rule education until education becomes futile'.   He says that whenever he was most under a woman's authority, he was 'most full of flame and adventure'.  And maybe he was looking ahead to some bloggers when he says 'women who are utter mystics in their creed are utter cynics in their criticism'!

For all that his clever clever use of language, the generously sprinkled aphorisms and the self-contradictory pieces may annoy, this is worth reading as one man's journey in faith.

Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton, Doubleday €8.80 [Veritas], €5.90

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