apologetics · Books for Grownups · Reading

“Orthodoxy” review

I recently attended a conference on classical education hosted at Highlands Latin School in Louisville, KY. It was a great conference and very informative (especially since I’ll be teaching for our local Highlands Latin Cottage School this fall and at the time had very little idea what I had gotten myself into).

A strange thing happened at this conference. The central plenary sessions were given to four separate speakers: two were frequent defenders of classical education, one was a homeschool mom, and the fourth an Anglican minister/headmaster. Each of these in turn, with no coordination, quoted from a specific book: Orthodoxy by G. K. Chesterton.

Needless to say, I went and bought the book.

Reading Orthodoxy was thoroughly enjoyable. It is no light read, to be sure, and took a very healthy and invigorating focus – like these kettlebells I’ve been exercising with demand a very healthy and invigorating exertion. At the same time, Chesterton’s style is smooth and funny and accessible (much smoother and funnier than my kettlebells, by the way), and does not slog along like some heavier reading can do.

As for the content, he gives his thesis from the start: “It is the purpose of the writer to attempt an explanation, not of whether the Christian Faith can be believed, but of how he personally has come to believe it.”

Of course, in doing so, the effect is also to defend that the Christian Faith can be believed. His purpose bears itself out in an apologetic-type work that focuses not at all on the traditional arguments for Christianity, but revolves instead around Chesterton’s personal observations and feelings about how the world really is compared to how pagan philosophies portray it to be.

First the negative: I don’t personally find this type of argument terribly convincing, simply because it is based on one individual’s perception of what reality is truly like. Chesterton’s innate feeling that the world is a magical, purposeful, meaningful place (as opposed to the dead, fatalistic, purposelessness of materialism and its like) can simply be countered by someone who claims an innate feeling that it is something altogether different. The mysteries for which Chesterton found Christianity the key, it could be claimed, are fitted just as well by another philosophy as long as you don’t mind finding a very different door on the other side.

That being said, in his discussion on those impressions that led him from paganism to orthodoxy, Chesterton presents some fascinating observations that have definite apologetic value. Of particular note is his chapter on the paradoxes of Christianity and how curious it is that our religion can be attacked simultaneously and by the same detractors both for preventing “men, by morbid tears and terrors, from seeking joy and liberty” and for comforting them “with a fictitious providence” of the kind found in nurseries and childrens’ tales. Or for being both “timid, monkish, and unmanly…in its attitude towards resistance and fighting” while at the same time being “the mother of wars…[whose] anger had been the most huge and horrible thing in human history.”

This is fascinating and though Chesterton admits that these and other similarly contradictory attacks do not “prove” the truth of Christianity (perhaps it is such an odd and strange bird as to wear all these evil and contradictory feathers all at the same time) it throws grave doubts on the attacks themselves and makes one seriously wonder if the detractors are not the ones off from center.

This is only a sample and there is lots more good in here (even unintentionally….). My one other note of criticism would be Chesterton’s obvious disdain for John Calvin (who I esteem as much closer to doctrinal truth than Chesterton’s Roman Catholicism), but this in no way prevents me from recommending Orthodoxy as a profitable – and simply enjoyable – read.

An additional benefit is that you will now, apparently, have prime quotation material if you are ever called upon to speak at a classical education conference.

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