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Well, Matthew Lee Anderson and I have reached the end of our journey through G. K. Chesterton’s famous book, Orthodoxy. Here is a rundown of the previous posts in this series, followed by our discussion of the final chapter – “Authority and the Adventurer.” In case you’d like to join us belatedly, go ahead and download an ebook version for free.

DISCUSSION OF CHAPTER 9 – “Authority and the Adventurer”

Trevin: Reading Orthodoxy leaves me a little dizzy. Chesterton moves so quickly through arguments, often adding related points and chasing rabbit trails that become relevant only once the totality of his vision is expressed.

What stands out to me in this final chapter is how Chesterton stands against the tide of liberalism (that would shed doctrines and dogmas while holding onto a vague notion of “Christian morals) and against a view of history that makes the Church just a relic of past superstition.

Here’s how it works. First, he shows how the blazing fire of Jesus as described in the Gospels holds together the many paradoxes, so that opposite passions “may blaze beside each other.” It’s only Christianity that saves us from ignorance and darkness.

“Christianity, so far from belonging to the Dark Ages, was the one path across the Dark Ages that was not dark. It was a shining bridge connecting two shining civilizations.”

Chesterton claims the Church is what brought us out of the Dark Ages, not into them. This is a direct counterpoint to an Enlightenment view of history that sees religion as falling before the merits of a progressive secularism.

Matthew: Trevin, you’re right about the dizzying effect. But I have often wondered how much that has to do with the way Chesterton argues things or whether it stems more from how he sees them. This final chapter has always made me feel as though I’d always been standing on my head, and only now could begin to walk upright (to steal his image).

Chesterton’s third reason why he is a Christian may be the hardest for us these days to acknowledge, but which is paradoxically precisely what we need. As he puts it, he accepts Christianity because the Church “has not merely told this truth or that truth, but that it has revealed itself as the truth-telling thing.” And recognizing it as such is crucial, for Christianity preaches “obviously unattractive” ideas like original sin which eventually lead to necessary conceptions of “pathos and brotherhood, and a thunder of laughter and pity.” I will say, though, that Chesterton’s leaps aren’t entirely clear here. When he suggests that a man “can expect any number of adventures if he goes traveling in the land of authority,” he doesn’t spell out the difference. I feel the gap here more keenly than I do anywhere else in the book.

Trevin: Secondly, Chesterton exposes the doctrinaire position of those who deny anything miraculous. I took a similar approach in a New York Times forum on naturalism and faith, and was dismissed by naturalists because belief in a Creator is immediately ruled out of court. It’s not the religious person who is closed-minded, but the naturalist who is the one who cannot admit any evidence that would contradiction his doctrine.

“Somehow or other an extraordinary idea has arisen that the disbelievers in miracles consider them coldly and fairly, while believers in miracles accept them only in connection with some dogma. The fact is quite the other way. The believers in miracles accept them (rightly or wrongly) because they have evidence for them. The disbelievers in miracles deny them (rightly or wrongly) because they have a doctrine against them.”

Matthew: The final mark of Christianity, that of joy, is so profound and unusual that I am terrified we’ve lost its power by repeated overuse. Chesterton suggests that it is a mark that is “difficult to express,” but he handles it well. I doubt I would be a Christian were it not for those few pages. We often miss out on the terrible, transformative power of goodness of this world. It must be an awful glory, to somehow explain the sorrow and the suffering. For joy to make “sadness something special and small”–the mind boggles and dizziness sets in, I’m afraid. Standing on our feet takes some getting used to, no?

Now, share your thoughts

  • Is Chesterton right to say that “joy” is the grand secret of Christianity?
  • Do you believe the Church has the reputation of being a “truth-telling thing?” Why or why not?
  • How does Chesterton’s view counter the prevailing Enlightenment interpretation of world history?

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10 thoughts on “Discussion of “Authority and the Adventurer” and Concluding Thoughts on G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy

  1. Christiane says:

    I didn’t realize that Chesterton was an object of study among evangelism, but I am glad to learn of it . . . he is one of the more colorful and interestingly insightful commentators among Catholic authors.

    You might be interested in this comment, which actually addresses his ‘paradoxes’ section:
    “The Church consistently and poetically placed the opposites side by side and allowed them to coexist in all of their purity, power, and intensity; Christianity encouraged the lamb and the lion to lie down together, without ever forcing the lion to become lamblike or the lamb lionlike.”
    This comes from Robert Barron’s blog:

    For those who must have their logical doctrines in neat and controlled boxes, it is the paradoxes of Christianity that help shake them up enough so it becomes possible for them to even begin to contemplate the great and holy mystery of the Incarnation. Seen as a ‘paradox’, the Incarnation is strangely more clearly expressed to us. From there, we can better comprehend the Lord of the Cosmos Who ‘meek and mild’, but yet at Whose Word, the storm ceases and the waves become stilled.

  2. Gabriel says:

    Thanks to you for hosting this read-along. I have enjoyed it thoroughly.

    I have often thought of as Joy as the “linchpin” of Christianity, and now I see it is because I was thinking similarly to Chesterton. Most people seem to think we will be most happy when we are able to ourselves. Thus, they see the serving of a master that Christianity requires as a killjoy. However, Chesterton seems to be saying that once we give ourselves to the master, we find this is truly the “ourselves” we were saying we thought would bring us joy. Only in the Joy of knowing our Kyrios do we understand the proper place of sadness, that of a temporary thing that does not last in the face of the unimaginable glory of God.

    The church has not been a truth-telling thing. However, when the church participates in the Church it has no choice but to scream hope-filled truth.

    Chesterton’s argument against the Enlightenment ideals is very good, but I especially enjoyed his argument against the undefined mysticism of the 19th century. He starts with “the greatest disaster of the 19th century was this: that men began to use the word ‘spiritual’ as the same as the word ‘good.'” Then he goes on to point out that there are plenty of spiritual things that are not good. We may be very spiritual, but it may be making deals with the devil that we are doing. In an age of wishy washy spiritual guidance, the Oprahs, Tolles, and others are leading many astray with mysticism and spiritual self-reliance I find Chesterton’s words to be especially poignant.

    Anyway, thank you again for you desire to lead this. I would love to do another one soon.

    1. The point about mysticism is a good one. Ross Douthat’s *Bad Religion* is about the best contemporary version of Orthodoxy that I know of, at least in argumentation if not in style. He takes on that thread of American culture quite well there.

      1. Trevin Wax says:

        I recommend Douthat’s work too, for a primer on where American religion has been and how we’ve arrived where we are.

  3. That was a great ride! I loved Chesterton’s emphasis on joy. It must indeed have a fantastic power to outweigh all the suffering in the world. There is a modern obsession with “happiness” that I think completely misses the point.

    My thoughts are here:

    1. Gabe, you’re right to be worried about how Chesterton played fast and loose with his narrative about Europe. But as a general vision of the world, I’m already on record defending the “Christendom” model, so I am more sympathetic to at least the outline of that part of the argument.

      Also, you’re point about Christianity explaining *you*….clearly brings us full circle, back to Chesterton’s beginning. I’m sure on that point it is not accidental for him.

      1. Matt,
        I think my main concern is that in these sections Chesterton doesn’t “show his work”. The impression I get is of him giving a few examples off the top of his head and then asking us to trust him that there are enough others to establish his conclusion.

        But you could turn that into a virtue of the work; rather than “asking us to trust him” he could be inviting us to a more active reading that has to think about and wrestle with the picture he is painting. I found some of his assertions ridiculous on face value, but further thought revealed that there was a lot more to them than I had realized at first (and, honestly, than Chesterton’s style might lead you to expect). In a sense you do have to just trust that he is making an intellectually serious case, or you will just dismiss what he says rather than go digging.

  4. Jeff Kincaid says:

    Is there one grand secret of Christianity? Great question, again. Certainly joy understood in light of Christ’s atoning work on the cross qualifies as does the grand wonder of how all the dots connect in the Christian faith–all other thought (philosophical/religious) systems reach a dead end. The Church, with a tall C, is nothing but truth-telling; the small c’s sin-stained hands can at best only feebly point towards the truth of Christ Jesus, or the capital C. Chesterton nails the Enlightenment in his conclusion: “…I look at everything with the old elvish ignorance and expectancy. This or that rite or doctrine may look as ugly and extraordinary as a rake; but I have found by experience that such things end somehow in grass and flowers.” It clearly moves us from legalism and custom to poetry, to “some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon the earth; and I have sometimes fancied it was His mirth.”

    Thank you Trevin and Matthew for hosting this enlightening discussion!

  5. gk says:

    Chesterton appears to situate his conclusions (whatever they may be) as “wrong/defective” and the church as “right/universal.” Is he submitting ‘Orthodoxy’ to the authority of the church? I’m curious if/what other Christian writers are this explicit in how they situate their observations and conclusions. Does anyone know some who do? (Newman does in his Development of Christian Doctrine—do others?) It struck me that this was unusual of Chesterton to do, but perhaps it’s not as unique as I think. (It’s not a surprise that it reminded me of 1 Timothy 3:15.)

    And yes, thank you for the lively discussion! Enjoyed it!

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Trevin Wax

​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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