Friday, July 21, 2006

Chesterton's Orthodoxy

This post is part of an ongoing dialog between my friend Ernie and me about the validity of Christian belief.

It has been just over a month since Ernie suggested I read three books. I have previously posted on C.S. Lewis' Pilgrim's Regress and Brian McLaren's A Generous Orthodoxy. The third book Ernie recommended was G.K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy, which I finally got from the library two weeks ago. As it turns out, the book is freely available for download as well: you can find several different formats here.

Orthodoxy was written to answer a challenge from a Mr. G.S. Street, issued in response to Chesterton's earlier book Heretics in which Chesterton (apparently) criticized the philosophies or beliefs of some of his contemporaries. Street said, "I shall not begin to worry about my philosophy of life until Mr. Chesteron discloses his." Orthodoxy was intended to be this disclosure.

The book is not long, only 168 pages. Even so, I have only read two-thirds of the book and am unlikely to finish. While there may be some redeeming features in the last sixty pages, I am not hopeful. I cannot recall ever using the term sophistry to describe a work before, but I would be sorely tempted here. In fact, in the course of reviewing the early chapters of the book as I write this, I find in the first chapter that "Mere light sophistry is the thing that I happen to despise most of all things, and it is perhaps a wholesome fact that this is the thing of which I am generally accused." If his other works were similar in character to this one, I would tend to side with his accusers.

The first chapter is the introduction. The meat of the book begins in Chapter 2, "The Maniac", and its very first paragraph made a poor impression. He relates an anecdote wherein a publisher made a comment in reference to somebody else "That man will get on; he believes in himself." Now when somebody is said to believe in himself, we normally mean that they have a certain amount of self-confidence. Chesterton responds that those who truly believe in themselves are found in lunatic asylums. But this is an extreme literal interpretation that I would expect from my eight-year-old son. Yes, it is possible to have too much self-confidence, but that hardly means that we should have none at all. According to Chesterton, the publisher eventually said, "Well, if a man is not to believe in himself, in what is he to believe?" By the second page, Chesterton has already introduced a false dichotomy: either you believe in yourself so completely as to be insane, or you cannot believe in yourself at all.

This practice of contrasting his views with their extreme opposite is far too common. Much of Chapters 2 and 3 are spent criticizing other philosophies propounded by his contemporaries. Perhaps some of them really did hold the extreme views that he attributes to them. If so, while he was right to reject those views, he cannot validly draw conclusions that exclude more moderate positions without addressing those positions, and this he does not do. (Of course, if his opponents did not in fact hold the views he attributes to them, his case is even worse.) For instance, on pp 28-29 (of the 1995 printing by Ignatious Press), Chesterton is attempting to demonstrate that materialism is more limiting than any religion. Now there is a sense in which this is true, insofar as religions (typically) involve a material world plus some sort of spiritual world. But Chesterton takes this too far when he says:

The Christian is quite free to believe that there is a considerable amount of settled order and inevitable development in the universe. But the materialist is not allowed to admit into his spotless machine the slightest speck of spiritualism or miracle. Poor Mr. McCabe is not allowed to retain even the tiniest imp, though it might be hiding in a pimpernel...

Spiritual doctrines do not actually limit the mind as do materialistic denials. Even if I believe in immortality I need not think about it. But if I disbelieve in immortality I must not think about it.

I would suggest that most materialists adopted that position based on insufficient evidence for anything non-material. Materialists' disbelief in imps and immortality does not prevent them from considering them; rather, their consideration of them does not extend far beyond the positive evidence for them. Since such evidence is lacking, so is their belief. This "limitation" thus stems from a superior epistemological method, as it excises belief in unsupported (and sometimes unsupportable) propositions, so long as they remain unsupported.

This sort of skepticism is anathema to Chesterton. On pp 36-37, he writes:

But what we suffer from to-day is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert - himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt - the Divine Reason...

At any street corner we may meet a man who utters the frantic and blasphemous statement that he may be wrong. Every day one comes across somebody who says that of course his view may not be the right one. Of course his view must be the right one, or it is not his view. We are on the road to producing a race of men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table...

I may be wrong, but I think he is quite wrong in this.

In Chapter 4, "The Ethics of Elfland", Chesterton contrasts the natural world with the world of fairy tales, a world that is somehow more pure or more real because its characters and rules are so stereotypical. In fairyland, the laws are laws of reason, laws of necessity. They cannot be broken: "If Jack is the son of a miller, a miller is the father of Jack" And then he writes,

But as I put my head over the hedge of the elves and began to take notice of the natural world, I observed an extraordinary thing. I observed that learned men in spectacles were talking of the actual things that happened -- dawn and death and so on -- as if they were rational and inevitable. They talked as if the fact that trees bear fruit were just as necessary as the fact that two and one trees make three. But it is not. There is an enormous difference by the test of fairyland; which is the test of the imagination. You cannot imagine two and one not making three. But you can easily imagine trees not growing fruit... The men in spectacles spoke much of a man named Newton, who was hit by an apple, and who discovered a law. But they could not be got to see the distinction between a true law, a law of reason, and the mere fact of apples falling.

So laws in fairyland are unbreakable laws, while so-called natural laws are merely inductive "it has always been that way but it could be different" statements. Now, that may be a worthwhile distinction to make. But what I found ten pages later was most curious:

In fairyland there had been a real law; a law that could be broken, for the definition of a law is something that can be broken. But the machinery of this cosmic prison [the natural world] was something that could not be broken; for we ourselves were only part of its machinery. We were either unable to do things or we were destined to do them. The idea of the mystical condition quite disappeared; one can neither have the firmness of keeping laws nor the fun of breaking them.

So, in fairyland laws cannot be broken, but they can be, else they would not be laws. In the real world, the laws are not true laws because we could imagine breaking them, but they are not true laws because they cannot be broken.

Chapter 6, "The Paradox of Christianity", Chesterton continues to describe what finally led him to return to Christianity. He had observed that some skeptics of Christianity would accuse it of one thing, and others would accuse it of the opposite. Christianity, they said, was too pessimistic and too optimistic. Christianity advocates fighting too little (turn the other cheek) and fighting too much (causing wars and their attendant misery). Christianity drags women away from their families into the cloister, and Christianity forces marriage and family upon people. Christianity shows contempt for women, and only women go to church. And from this, Chesterton eventually concludes, Christianity must be correct because it brings together and balances such paradoxical ideas.

There is, however, another explanation. Christianity does none of those things because Christianity is a religion, a belief system or even a family of related belief systems. It is not itself an actor, an agent. Christians do those things. Some do one thing, some its opposite. Some do one thing at one time and its opposite another. Christianity as an institution is complex; it is possible for both one thing and its opposite to be true in different parts of the overall whole, or at different times. The same can be said of many complex institutions. Why should we therefore look to Christianity for truth and not these other institutions?

In addition to reading the book, I have done a small amount of reading about Chesterton himself, and one point that I found not at all surprising was that C.S. Lewis apparently held Chesterton in high regard, calling his book The Everlasting Man "the best popular apologetic I know". When I read in Chapter 4 that

In short, I had always believed that the world involved magic: now I thought that perhaps it involved a magician. And this pointed a profound emotion always present and sub-conscious; that this world of ours has some purpose; and if there is a purpose, there is a person. I had always felt life first as a story: and if there is a story there is a story-teller.

it reminded me immediately of C.S. Lewis. Unfortunately, it reminded me of that which I find least convincing in Lewis' writing, an "I'd like it if this were true, so it must be" sort of reasoning.

These are some examples of what I found lacking in Orthodoxy. Obviously there is more to the book than just this, but yet, in some ways there is not. That is, I did not find anything remotely compelling. I generally hate to leave books unfinished once I get started; I like closure. But after reading two-thirds of this book, there was still nothing that had been opened, nothing that led me to think, "that's a good point, I wonder where it leads." Perhaps I was just too dense to see it, or too biased, but I am afraid all I got from this book was a rather poor impression of G.K. Chesterton. Sorry, Ernie.

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