Sunday, 25 October 2015


On Tuesday 20 October I finished Orthodoxy by GK Chesterton.

GK Chesterton and CS Lewis are probably the two most-quoted people in books or articles I've read making/defending the case for God, meaning and morality in general and Christianity in particular (apologetics, that would be) - or, at least, the two most-quoted whose quotes resonate with me.

I've read pretty much everything non-academic of CS Lewis's, but I hadn't read any of GK Chesterton's non-fiction. I thought it was about time I did, and I got off Amazon (to top up a book order of something else, for free postage) what turned out to be a print-on-demand edition (as you can get for many out of copyright things), but none the worse for that, of Orthodoxy, his most notable work of apologetics.

(CS Lewis is widely known and praised, of course; fewer direct you to GK Chesterton's original works, though I have friends like Danica who recommend him highly (and of course CSL did himself), and his apologetics works are not come by so easily. I've read The Man Who Was Thursday, which was very good apart from its disappointing ending; The Club Of Queer Trades, which was pretty good; a couple of essays in collections; and a Father Brown collection (for which he is most famous, though I found them preposterous when I read them long ago and didn't go back to a second volume; perhaps I would feel differently now).)

It was just around a hundred pages but was the kind of book that you read two pages at a time - not because it's heavy going, but because it's densely packed with things to think about. He's a great phrasemaker, especially expressing apparently paradoxical ideas, or at least expressing ideas in apparently paradoxical ways. That's why he gets quoted so much, I guess. The writing, and the thinking it expresses, is beautifully crafted.

I found it helpful, and it appealed to me a great deal. There were bits - mostly in one early chapter in particular - where I wasn't sure what he was on about, not because it was unclear, but because I didn't really get what the problem or issue was that he was addressing. I guess for some people the whole book might be like that, or different bits from the bits which didn't resonate with me (perhaps if I read it again in the future the bits I didn't get would be addressing something live for me at that time) - just writing about issues which don't trouble them, or in a way which leaves them cold.

(Partly it may also depend on how prepared you are to read something written from another time and culture, bits of which may be jarring to your own time and culture, without thinking that invalidates its relevance or ability to speak into your time and culture. That's always something I've been prepared to do, in fiction or non-fiction. I'm not one for the arrogance of chronology, or the definitive superiority of the modern; conversely, I'm firmly of the view that people, and their thoughts and feelings etc, aren't as different as differences in time and culture might lead us to believe.)

There's a giant page of GK Chesterton quotes on Wikiquote, and that's with separate substantial pages for several of his works, including Orthodoxy.

Of the sections I noted while reading it, this was probably my favourite, especially the last eight words: 'this world does not explain itself. It may be a miracle with a supernatural explanation; it may be a conjuring trick, with a natural explanation. But the explanation of the conjuring trick, if it is to satisfy me, will have to be better than the natural explanations I have heard. The thing is magic, true or false. .... I came to feel as if magic must have a meaning, and meaning must have some one to mean it.'

I also appreciated the section (too long to reproduce here) where he wrote about the ways in which different people objected to or complained about different aspects of Christianity in ways which were polar opposites to each other, and the church's great balancing act (in the 'paradoxes of Christianity' chapter).

And finally, a couple of quotes from the 'romance of orthodoxy' chapter:
- 'In actual modern Europe, a free-thinker does not mean a man who thinks for himself. It means a man who, having thought for himself, has come to one particular class of conclusions'
- 'But in truth this notion that [the New Theology] is "free" to deny miracles has nothing to do with the evidence for or against them. It is a lifeless verbal prejudice of which the original life and beginning was not in the freedom of thought, but simply in the dogma of materialism. The man of the nineteenth century did not disbelieve in the Resurrection because his liberal Christianity allowed him to doubt it. He disbelieved in it because his very strict materialism did not allow him to believe it.'

I'm sure it won't be long before I read some more GK Chesterton.