4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars
A detective's romance, April 21 2004
Before his series of Father Brown mysteries, G.K. Chesterton wrote "Orthodoxy," an autobiographical 'detective' story of how he came to believe the Christian faith. Drawing from "the truth of some stray legend or from the falsehood of some dominant philosophy...an anarchist club or a Babylonian temple what I might have found in the nearest parish church," Mr. Chesterton playfully and inductively reasons his way toward the one worldview that best explains and preserves the phenomena in the world he found around himself.
The world around Mr. Chesterton was rife with Modernism in the early twentieth century. Based on philosophies of the late nineteenth century, religious and political traditions were being questioned. Anarchism, communism, and socialism were the parlor topics of the day; the merely symbolic importance of religion was being settled upon. These are the roots of our post-modern society today in which the meaning of nearly everything (even words, according to literary deconstructionists) is now in doubt. At one point in the chapter entitled "The Suicide of Thought," Mr. Chesterton quips, "We are on the road to producing a race of men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table." An exaggeration even today, undoubtedly. Still, we have traveled quite a distance philosophically since the era before the World Wars, and "Orthodoxy" is an excellent snapshot of where we've come from.
But be warned: This snapshot captures a lot of active thought. It took me a couple of reads over as many years to get a handle on the structure of the book, and now the rest of it has been becoming clearer to me. Part of the problem is Mr. Chesterton's writing style. There is much playfulness in his language, and a reader could mistakenly conclude that the author's reasoning relies heavily upon wordplay, the turn of a phrase to turn the tables on his opponents. It can become frustrating if one isn't careful. Mr. Chesterton himself acknowledges this impression, "Mere light sophistry is the thing that I happen to despise the most of all things, and it is perhaps a wholesome fact that this is the thing of which I am generally accused." But don't miss the meat for the gravy (or the salad for the dressing, as your case may be). The potency of his arguments doesn't rely on his clever semantics but on his connections between observed facts and the ancient, corresponding orthodoxy of Christianity. Mr. Chesterton has fun with words because he can, not because he needs to.
This mixture of cleverness and careful thinking ultimately leads Mr. Chesterton to this conclusion: Christian faith is well-reasoned trust in Christ. And the desire for well-reasoned trust is a "practical romance," as Mr. Chesterton calls it--a need in the ordinary person for "the combination of something that is strange with something that is secure...an idea of wonder and an idea of welcome." A way to accept the knowable while looking beyond it toward what is yet to be known.
Mr. Chesterton wrote "Orthodoxy" for people looking for that kind of romance. "If anyone is entertained by learning how the flowers of the field or the phrases in an omnibus, the accidents of politics or the pains of youth came together in a certain order to produce a certain conviction of Christian orthodoxy, he may possibly read this book." However, this book isn't for everyone. "If a man says that extinction is better than existence or blank existence better than variety and adventure, then he is not one of the ordinary people to whom I am talking. If a man prefers nothing I can give him nothing." The inconvincible cannot be convinced. Yet the skeptical (such as Mr. Chesterton once was) can be because they are the doubters who're still looking around. I myself come from a skeptic's background and regard "Orthodoxy" as a plausible, if sometimes difficult to comprehend, and wonderful way someone can come to trust the claims of Christianity.