More From “Orthodoxy”

I mentioned several months back that I had been reading G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy. I’d heard many people talk of Chesterton’s work in glowing terms, so I finally decided to at least take a step toward remedying my ignorance on the matter. I’m definitely not sorry I did, and I thought I’d take another opportunity to highlight a bit of his work. Following Chesterton’s thought sometimes feels like trying to swim apace with a breaking wave. But in that rough and tumble, I was consistently provoked to see new connections, or old truths with new vitality. Consider this oft-quoted passage:

People feel that if the universe was personal it would vary: if the sun were alive it would dance. This is a fallacy even in relation to known fact. For the variation in human affairs is generally brought to them, not by life, but by death: by the dying down or breaking off of their strength or desire. A man varies his movements because of some slight element of failure or fatigue….Now, to put the matter in a popular phrase, it might be true that the son rises regularly because he never gets tired of rising. His routine might be due, not to lifelessness, but to a rush of life. The thing I mean an be seen, for instance, in children, when they find some game or joke that they specially enjoy. A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we. The repetition in nature may not be a mere recurrence; it may be a theatrical encore.

[Perhaps this is why my daughter can hit the button on the toy that plays the alphabet song again and again, long past the point when I’ve been driven to the very precipice of sanity. Of course, if Chesterton is right, maybe the real problem is with me, rather than with my two year old.]

As I indicated in the earlier post, I was also repeatedly struck by how relevant this book remains despite the fact that it was originally published over a hundred years ago. This is born out in a whole host of ways, but I’ll mention two examples. The first comes from Chesterton addressing the contention that all religions, at root, are one in what they teach:

The things said most confidently by advanced persons to crowded audiences are generally those quite opposite to the fact; it is actually our truisms that are untrue. …So the truth is that the difficulty of all the creeds of the earth is not as alleged in this cheap maxim: that they agree in meaning, but differ in machinery. It is exactly the opposite. They agree in machinery; almost every great religion on earth works with the same external methods, with priests, scriptures, altars, sworn brotherhoods, special feasts. They agree in the mode of teaching; what they differ about is the thing to be taught. Pagan optimists and Eastern pessimists would both have temples, just as Liberals and Tories would both have newspapers. Creeds that exist to destroy each other both have scriptures, just as armies that exist to destroy each other both have guns.

A second example finds Chesterton addressing three representative convictions that have led “many a sensible modern man” to abandon Christianity, including the idea that men are “very much like beasts, a mere variety of the animal kingdom”:

The only objection to them (I discover) is that they are all untrue. If you leave off looking at books about beasts and men, if you begin to look at beasts and men then (if you have any humor or imagination, and sense of the frantic or the farcical) you will observe that the startling thing is not how like man is to the brutes, but how unlike he is. It is the monstrous scale of his divergence that requires an explanation. That man and brute are like is, in a sense, a truism; but that being so like they should then be so insanely unlike, that is the shock and enigma. That an ape has hands is far less interesting to a philosopher that the fact that having hands he does next to nothing with them; does not play knuckle-bones or the violin; does not carve marble or carve mutton. People talk of barbaric architecture and debased art. But elephants do not build colossal temples of ivory even in a rococo style; camels do not paint even bad pictures, though equipped with the material of many camel’s-hair brushes. Certain modern dreamers say that ants and bees have a society superior to ours. They have, indeed, a civilization; but that very truth only reminds us that it is an inferior civilization. Who ever found an ant-hill decorated with the statues of celebrated ants? Who has seen a bee-hive carved with the images of gorgeous queens of old?…We talk of wild animals; but man is the only wild animal. It is man that has broken out. All other animals are tame animals; following the rugged respectability of the tribe or type. …So that this first superficial reason for materialism is, if anything, a reason for its opposite; it is exactly where biology leaves off that all religion begins.

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