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In the first post of this series, Matthew Lee Anderson and I described the merits of G.K. Chesterton and his book Orthodoxy. We also invited you to read along and discuss the latest section of the reading plan with us each week.

Previously, we focused on the introduction, “In Defense of Everything Else,” as well as chapters 2 and 3, “The Maniac” and “The Suicide of Thought.” Last week, we went through chapters 4 and 5, “The Ethics of Elfland” and “The Flag of the World.”

Today, we are discussing chapter 6, ”The Paradoxes of Christianity.”

Trevin: The contradictions of skeptics

I believe this chapter is the key not only to Orthodoxy, but to Chesterton’s thinking as a whole. The combination of oddity and truth is what leads Chesterton to praise the complexity of Christianity, and this emphasis on paradox comes up again and again in his work.

Chesterton says he never read a line of Christian apologetics. It was the skeptics who brought him back to orthodox theology because they all seemed to condemn Christianity for contradictory reasons. Christianity is responsible for inhuman gloom and pessimistic, while being far too optimistic and rose-colored in its vision of the future. Christianity is for weaklings who resist fighting and become like sheep, while it is also the mother of all wars.

“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. What again could this astonishing thing be like which people were so anxious to contradict, that in doing so they did not mind contradicting themselves?”

From there he has the “thunderbolt” realization that perhaps Christianity is the standard and this is why it is criticized for contradictory reasons. It is the holding together of opposing emotions, paradoxical doctrines, and “apparent accidents” that makes Christianity so thrilling.

Matthew: Paradoxes with sharp edges

I think you’re right that this is key to Orthodoxy. Chesterton’s description of a Christianity that’s as strange as the world is worth ruminating on.

You pointed out that Chesterton came to this by way of reading the critics of Christianity, not its defenders, which is a point that deserves highlighting. Chesterton is really confident in Christianity, but his confidence comes (as it were) from seeing it from the inside, not from a single argument on its behalf. As he puts it,

“The whole case for civilization is that the case for it is complex. It has done so many things.”

And so also for Christianity.

Yet this business about paradox, well, it helped me get through the day. To sound an earlier theme, Chesterton has his lines critiquing logic’s limits here, but he’s not tossing it overboard for a gooey, vacuous fog of throwing around “mystery” every chance he gets. The various collisions he describes have sharp edges, and they make everything clearer. That final bit about the “creed, reeling but erect”—it’s prefaced by the very important point that the church had to fight about tiny points of doctrine because such points really mattered.

“If some small mistake were made in doctrine, huge blunders might be made in human happiness. A sentence phrased wrong about the nature of symbolism would have broken all the best statues in Europe.”

But let me highlight just one of Chesterton’s paradox, to see how the smashup shines light on the thing itself. Here’s a serious question: has there ever been a more stirring, rousing, or accurate description of courage?

“Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die. ‘He that will lose his life, the same shall save it,’ is not a piece of mysticism for saints and heroes. It is a piece of everyday advice for sailors or mountaineers. It might be printed in an Alpine guide or a drill book. This paradox is the whole principle of courage; even of quite earthly or quite brutal courage. A man cut off by the sea may save his life if he will risk it on the precipice. He can only get away from death by continually stepping within an inch of it. A soldier surrounded by enemies, if he is to cut his way out, needs to combine a strong desire for living with a strange carelessness about dying. He must not merely cling to life, for then he will be a coward, and will not escape. He must not merely wait for death, for then he will be a suicide, and will not escape. He must seek his life in a spirit of furious indifference to it; he must desire life like water and yet drink death like wine.”

Now, share your thoughts

Next week, we will be discussing chapters 7-8 “The Eternal Revolution” and “The Romance of Orthodoxy,” but first, what were your thoughts from this week’s reading?

From Chesterton’s perspective, how do skeptics make a pervasive argument for Christianity?

Do the skeptics make a similar case today?

How could a wrong phrasing on symbolism caused all the best European statues to be broken?

What do make of his defining courage in terms of have a “spirit of furious indifference” to life?


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11 thoughts on “A Discussion of “The Paradoxes of Christianity” from G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy

  1. BrianBel says:

    I’ve been reading along each week, though I haven’t commented much. I say this simply so that you know there are those like me who are enjoying this weekly gathering. Chesterton lists many examples in this chapter as to how the skeptics contradict themselves. I don’t think it was mentioned in this particular chapter (or perhaps even in this book), but I recall that he once spoke of how the skeptics ridicule the priest for taking vows, yet they quickly pounce on the priest should he ever break one. I don’t think the skeptic necessarily thinks through the argument he puts forth. I think they respond emotionally, without critical thought, and consequently flail about in an effort to smash and destroy that which they reject. It’s often tough to communicate with them, though Chesterton did so quite well in his day.

    1. Trevin Wax says:

      Book discussions always tend to die down after a few weeks. I’m never sure if it’s because people aren’t keeping up, or if they’re just enjoying the main blog posts.

      I love your point about skeptics and rule-keeping, Brian.

  2. gk says:

    [[[That final bit about the “creed, reeling but erect”—it’s prefaced by the very important point that the church had to fight about tiny points of doctrine because such points really mattered.

    “If some small mistake were made in doctrine, huge blunders might be made in human happiness. A sentence phrased wrong about the nature of symbolism would have broken all the best statues in Europe.”]]]

    This reminded me of two other places where Chesterton echoes this theme:

    Theological distinctions are fine but not thin. In all the mess of modern thoughtlessness, that still calls itself modern thought, there is perhaps nothing so stupendously stupid as the common saying, “Religion can never depend on minute disputes about doctrine.” It is like saying that life can never depend on minute disputes about medicine. The man who is content to say, “We do not want theologians splitting hairs,” will doubtless be content to go on and say, “We do not want surgeons splitting filaments more delicate than hairs.” It is the fact that many a man would be dead to-day, if his doctors had not debated fine shades about doctoring. It is also the fact that European civilization would be dead to-day, if its doctors of divinity had not debated fine shades about doctrine.
    [The Resurrection of Rome]

    And…

    “In truth, this vividly illuminates the provincial stupidity of those who object to what they call ‘creeds and dogmas.’ It was precisely the creed and dogma that saved the sanity of the world. These people generally propose an alternative religion of intuition and feeling. If, in the really Dark Ages, there had been a religion of feeling, it would have been a religion of black and suicidal feeling. It was the rigid creed that resisted the rush of suicidal feeling…. A thousand enthusiasts for celibacy, in the day of the great rush to the desert or the cloister, might have called marriage a sin, if they had only considered their individual ideals, in the modern manner, and their own immediate feelings about marriage. Fortunately, they had to accept the Authority of the Church, which had definitely said that marriage was not a sin…. when Religion would have maddened men, Theology kept them sane”
    [The Dumb Ox]

  3. Gabriel says:

    I do think that skeptics make a persuasive case for Christianity. When they cannot agree about what is wrong with Christianity it is a beacon of something else going on.

    Today, it isn’t so much that the skeptics disagree with each other, it is instead the ad hoc arguments and the vitriol with which many present them that gives people pause to consider Christianity.

    It seems to me that wrong phrasing on symbolism could lead to the destruction of statues in one main way. Whether the wording venerates the statues too highly, or it criticizes them to the point of rubbish, at least group of people would be apt to destroy the art. Venerated statues would be destroyed by those who seek to protect us from idolatry. Marginalized statues would be destroyed by those who do not understand their value.

    I understood Chesterton as claiming Courage is the knowledge/action to give up everything for the opportunity to save everything. So, it seems as though we must be totally indifferent to our own plight for the possibility of gaining true life.

    Throughout this chapter I kept being reminded of Jesus criticizing the Pharisees for chastising him for partying too hard, but chastising John the Baptist for fasting too much. Christianity has seem to come under fire from all directions. Even the early church was accused of Orgies, but later we are all labeled prudes. Chesterton’s claim that Christianity is right because all others are criticizing it seems especially true in light of Jesus. He is too strict for some, too lax for others;too symbolic for pragmatists, too practical for artists;too meek for warriors, too confrontational for pacifists. However, through it all Christ remains as the standard for law and grace, art and utility, peace and passion.

  4. Jeff Kincaid says:

    There is a word in Japanese, “hanmenkyoushi.” It means a person who instructs by doing the opposite of what you should do. It applies to anything really that teaches via a reverse reflection. This is what skeptics did for Chesterton. Whether this is an effective way to learn is debatable, but it served Chesterton and could work for someone today, though I wouldn’t say that it’s a one-size-fits-all method. You have to be perceptive enough to see it and then utilize it in such a manner as to benefit by it.

    Human pride has created all variety of Christianity. Instead of focusing our attention on Christ Jesus, we put ourselves before God and even go to war in the name of our need to be right to the T. True humility goes out the window. This is the point Chesterton is making with the paragraph on how “wrong phrasing” could cause all the best European statutes to be broken.

    The “furious indifference to life” I read as a call to abandon ourselves to Christ. “…for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:13) Only thus are we living a genuine Christian life. Without this surrender, we’re still in the sin that caused the fall. The movement towards God requires courage to this end.

    1. I like Chesterton’s description of courage as a Christian virtue – a disdain of death, rather than a disdain of life. The martyr vs. the suicide contrast keeps coming up again and again.

  5. Richard Worden Wilson says:

    Hummm, doesn’t anyone else sense the subtle superficiality of Chesterton’s arguments? Is it ever appropriate to put the views of two opposing antagonists to a particular belief system in the same argument against it, as if two negative always make a positive? It seems rather like saying Communists say Nazi Socialism didn’t go far enough toward collectivism and Democratic Capitalists say it didn’t go far enough toward democracy so Nazism is surely the most balanced system. Ridiculous.

    I’ve enjoyed reading Chesterton recently (even or particularly his fiction), and almost love his poetic prose as it ebbs and flows, waxes and wanes over the intellectual arguments of his day (as they so closely parallel those of ours today), but wonder whether we should be enthralled by his apparent mastery of the philosophical/religious, moral/ethical issues he engages because he so rarely addresses a single biblically based argument.

    OK, so you don’t have to be a New Testament scholar in order to have something worthwhile to say, but when every argument is rooted in a merely personal impression that the world is so much better because Christendom has gotten the balance of everything right one wonders if there isn’t a bit too great a triumphalist homeboy bravado pushing every line of reasoning in the direction that makes him, and us, feel better about our pre-commitments.

    I am ultimately perplexed by the question of what a bunch of avowed Protestants are doing basking in the reflected glow of Chesterton’s wit and wisdom when following the trajectory of his reasoning would clearly land one in the Roman Catholic camp!

    On the other hand, I am a bit gratified by his identifying the creedal “orthodoxy” to which he had expressed allegiance as that of The Apostles’ Creed rather than the whole nine yards of conciliar orthodoxy–the whole tradition having gone rather well beyond the simplicities and pre-clarities of Scriptural revelation.

    Finally, I am disappointed by his lack of reference to any specific biblical teaching of either Jesus or the Apostles as the source of his certainties or beliefs. Rationalizing arguments can be very intriguing and even entertaining, but for me hardly compelling without reference to biblical revelation. He seems a lot more like a lot of liberal Christians who cling to Christianity because of its positive benefits to human culture rather than because they have embraced the One who enables those benefits. Because of that I find him rather uninteresting and unconvincing.

    I hope to find time soon to critique some of the specific lines of reasoning Chesterton follows, but these general shots across the bow will have to do for now.

  6. BrianBel says:

    Richard,

    Regarding your critique, those of us with a liturgical background operate in a somewhat different place than the me-and-my-bible crowd. (That’s not meant to be a slap at they or their bible.) But, liturgy, reason, history, natural law, and rationed explanations may exude a deeper religious sense. I think folks are basking in that. Chesterton comes at the world differently than most folks, yet his explanations are refreshing. Yes, ultimately this may draw one to liturgy or Catholicism, Eastern Orthodox, or Anglicanism, or perhaps not. But, it seems there’s some potential edification in hearing him out.

    1. Richard Worden Wilson says:

      Just to clarify, perhaps a bit defensively, but with the hope of further dialogue, I’m actually in the “US and OUR Bible crowd.” I do enjoy the refreshing and insightful, however whimsically amusing, reflections of Chesterton on the nature of Christianity versus other worldviews. I’m learning to appreciate him as someone with reflective reasoning patterns not greatly different from my own.

  7. William Harris says:

    I suppose that I prefer “Flag of the World” to this chapter — at the very least, I think that its argument is superior.

    The argument against the skeptics falters in two places for me. First, there is the plaint that the skeptic is trying to have it both ways, surely a logical inconsistency (Chesterton’s loose standard of citation prevents any evaluation; we must trust him). However, the response becomes a celebration of the “duplex passion,” of paradox. Basically a both/and approach. However, this begs the question of unity: a paradox unified how? The answer, such as it is, is “the Church.” This appears to be as much the church known historically than the theological entity; in a word, Christendom.

    The second place where Chesterton’s argument falters is with its turn to the personal or subjective, the disease is in Swinburne; they hate because they’re haters, so to speak. This turn means that Chesterton then doesn’t have to deal with the substance of criticism (and indeed, he merely dissolves it in paradox). In fairness, much of Orthodoxy is suffused with this subjective tilt, insofar as it is a sort of spiritual memoir.

    Then there is Chesterton the Romantic. He does not want things diluted, but each (proud, humble) to stand clear — St George is red and white, not pink. This leads I think, to a sort of “wave of the hand” when it comes to violence of the monstrous religious wars (Evidently, the Calvinist snarks, Paris was worth the Mass). Here, he seems to be solidly a man of his time, a time that will be washed away at Ypres and the Somme.

    And finally, because he also says some very fine things, I especially like “the chief aim of (Christianity’s) order was o give room for good things to run wild.” Romantic certainly, but nice.

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​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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