Reading Through Chesterton’s Orthodoxy: “The Eternal Revolution” and “The Romance of Orthodoxy”

In the first post of this series, Matthew Lee Anderson and I described the merits of G.K. Chesterton and his book Orthodoxy. We also invited you to read along and discuss the latest section of the reading plan with us each week.

Previously, we focused on the introduction, “In Defense of Everything Else,” as well as chapters 2 and 3, “The Maniac” and “The Suicide of Thought.” The week before last, we went through chapters 4 and 5, “The Ethics of Elfland” and “The Flag of the World.” Last week we dealt with chapter 6, ”The Paradoxes of Christianity.”

Today, we are discussing chapters 7-8 “The Eternal Revolution” and “The Romance of Orthodoxy.”orthodoxy-212x300

Trevin: Why “progress” and “open-mindedness” often mean the opposite

Chesterton’s comments on progress are especially relevant today. He tackles the idea of “progress” by measuring it by a fixed ideal, as you said, not by changing the ideal again and again (which is what tends to happen in the world). The curious problem of progressive Christianity is that it tends to progress itself out of existence. It is parasitical on true Christianity, gaining converts by attracting disillusioned Christians who’ve grown tired of the ideal and offering them a new one. As Chesterton writes:

“It does not matter how often humanity fails to imitate its ideal; for then all its old failures are fruitful. But it does frightfully matter how often humanity changes its ideal; for then all its old failures are fruitless.”

One other aspect of these two chapters deserves comment: Chesterton’s inversion of what open-mindedness means in relation to orthodoxy. Chesterton points out the silliness of saying that it is more liberal to disbelieve in miracles than to believe in them. “For some inconceivable cause a ‘broad’ or ‘liberal’ clergyman always means a man who wishes at least to diminish the number of miracles; it never means a man who wishes to increase that number.” I love his exposing of the closed-mindedness of naturalism: 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.

Matthew: We want liberty, not libertinism

How Religion Poisons Everything is the subtitle of Christopher Hitchens’ screed God is Not Great. Chesterton sets out to advance that Christianity actually makes things better. Or rather, the more precise argument is that by providing a picturesque fixed ideal, orthodoxy makes progress possible. Which if you think about it, is about as fun an inversion as you’re going to find anywhere. Even these days, we have been told that the way forward for the church lies through a path where “everything must change,” that progress means leaving behind orthodoxy for more comfortable confines. But the form of orthodoxy makes reformation possible, if Chesterton’s argument has legs. As you said, It’s a fixed ideal that we need to measure our “progress,” which is what orthodoxy gives us.

It’s interesting to me on this reading, though, how much Chesterton is focused on demonstrating Christianity’s democratic element. We’ve seen him mention this before, but it really comes through here. The third requirement for progress that Chesterton mentions, namely the need for watchfulness against corruption, turns into a critique of the default presumption that the better educated or more wealthy are better fit to govern. The democratic impulse that he thinks must be an element of Utopia turns out to be a Christian impulse that stems from the doctrine of original sin.

But Chesterton’s utopia is not anarchic, only his argument against it is perhaps the best I have ever head:

“I could never conceive or tolerate any Utopia which did not leave to me the liberty for which I chiefly care, the liberty to bind myself. Complete anarchy would not merely make it impossible to have any discipline or fidelity; it would also make it impossible to have any fun. The dissolution of all contracts would not only ruin morality but spoil sport.”

The liberty that we want is not a libertinism, but the a liberty of limits and of real and meaningful consequences for breaking them.

Now, share your thoughts

Next week, we will be our final discussion where we will go through chapter 9 “Authority and the Adventurer” and give some concluding comments of our own. But first, what was meaningful to you in this week’s reading?

How does Chesterton invert the concepts of progress and open-mindedness as they are usually understood? What is more surprising to you that Chesterton was able to cut directly through the arguments of liberal Christianity or that similar versions of Christianity continue despite such an effective rebuttal being levied in a century earlier? Why does Chesterton feel orthodoxy makes progress possible? What might Chesterton say to a modern-day libertarian?

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  • Gabriel

    What a ride. For much of these chapters I had no clue what was being said. But once finished I looked back as after a good roller coaster and loved where we went.

    To me the main takeaway was Chesterton’s idea of needing to look back (not forward) at some ideal for progress to be worthwhile. He mentions that Orthodoxy looks back to Eden as the ideal and works back to it. If we remember Eden, the “vision of Heaven” will not always be changing, so the vision of earth will also change. One needs rules to understand what we fight/strive for and against.

    Today it seems as though being “progressive” or “open-minded” are really just euphemisms for “letting people do what they want.

    I find Chesterton’s assertion that Christianity sees God as both King and Rebel interesting and somewhat disconcerting.

    Chesterton also showed why we should look for progress in those around us:

    “I want to love my neighbour not because he is I, but precisely because he is no I. I want to adore the world, not as one likes a looking-glass, because it is one’s self, but as one loves a woman, because she is entirely different. If souls are separate love is possible. If souls are united love is obviously impossible. A man may be said loosely to love himself, but he can hardly fall in love with himself, or, if he does, it must be a monotonous courtship.”

    It is precisely the fact that they are not us, that we have reason to know them, cherish them, and nurture them.

    As you can probably note from the above ramblings, I am still processing these chapters and this response reflects my current scatterings of thought.

    • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

      Gabriel,

      I’m so glad you’re enjoying it. I do think your distillation of the main theme is a good one. And I think that business about “not I”….well, it’s been an important part of my life. I often joke that I’m in the “twoness” business with my wife, just so I can keep remembering that I am *not* her.

      And yes, I’m sad that more people aren’t commenting more, too. But that tends to happen with readalongs like this.

      Matt

      • Gabriel

        Well, I’ll be waiting for the next one too!

  • Gabriel

    I’m sad that as we deepen into the reading less people are commenting (especially because it has helped my understanding so much).

  • gmoothart
  • Jeff Kincaid

    Chesterton re-forms our inverted concepts of progress and
    open-mindedness: “You will either walk towards or away from the New Jerusalem.”
    Every system of thought argued back to its origin will ultimately prove
    untenable except Christianity. Christ’s teachings have always been
    revolutionary, hence, the eternal revolution. Rebuttals will be
    levied, but they cannot sustain full truth.

  • BrianBel

    Gabriel references, “I want to love my neighbour not because he is I, but precisely because he is not I.” Elsewhere we had read where Chesterton speaks of good things running wild. Tangentially related is my observation about my dog. She’s a couple of years old and she’s a joy. I find that she’s quite happy and contented when I let her be, well, a dog. I can’t make her be something she’s not, nor do I want her to be. I accept her as a dog, and I let her do dog things, and consequently, we both have a grand time. Similarly, I don’t want my neighbor to be me, and I want to love them as they are. Though I surely know that they’ll be most happy and contended when they allow themselves to be what God intended. There’s the rub. Sharing what I know of God’s plan for us, and sharing that joy and contentment come from living as God intended that we do will sometimes cause friction with those with whom we share.

  • Richard Worden Wilson

    I have really enjoyed reading Chesterton’s own “whirling adventure” toward the New Jerusalem. Thanks for suggesting it as a communal read. I have altogether appreciated his witty critiques of the various worldviews of his day, especially since many of them are still current today. I also found his reflections on Christian ethics very insightful. He may have spiritual insights deeper than I can grasp. Nevertheless, I wonder if his inclination toward orthodoxy gets us to where we need to go, and I wonder not only because his happens to be a Roman form of orthodoxy.

    The orthodoxy we should identify, affirm, and implement is that of the New Testament witness, the story, teaching, and doctrines of God found therein; but those aren’t necessarily those of “orthodoxy,” however conceived. Jesus warns us not to follow the traditions of men, but that seems to be where Chesterton would lead us despite his characterizing much of it as having been conceived in eternity by God. There is a way that is right, and there are words that are right, but those are the way and woods of Jesus and scripture, not necessarily those of tradition. Supposing these are the same as those of the orthodoxy of Chesterton’s early last century, or of today, just isn’t likely to be a good thing. It is probably not a good place to get comfortable considering that the Pharisees were the orthodox of their day. Accepting as orthodox the fruit of millennia doesn’t necessarily serve God’s eternal purposes. Rather than developing reasons to settle into orthodoxy we should be seeking a more precise perception of biblical orthodoxy–we need to be about the harder work of growing into a clearer understanding of and closer practice of the Kingdom of God and its righteousness, the Gospel as conceived and reflected in the New Testament.

    The problem with “orthodoxy,” mere or otherwise, may be not unlike that Chesterton identifies with “progressive Christianity” in that it may have already adopted a changed ideal. If one goes merrily along with the standards of orthodoxy without seriously questioning whether it is true orthodoxy one may never discover whether s-he actually knows what real orthodoxy is. It may be the case that orthodoxy long ago diverged in some ways from the standards of scripture in crafting its creeds and practices and ethics. But how will we know if we don’t test that question in the light of scriptural revelation?

    Christianity as Christendom fixed its ideal on something, and revised some things along the way, but is it actually fixed on the ideals of God in Christ, or on something slightly less, slightly other? The great compromise of Christendom, it seems to me, was in not expecting full Christian discipleship as it baptized unbelieving masses. About the same time it was imposing its supposedly “liberated” values on those it subjected, it was also compromising biblical ethics, the moral vision of Christ, by embracing the power principles of paganism. If in any way orthodoxy is allied with the compromised values of Christendom then close scrutiny, criticism, revision and/or rejection is required. _Semper reformandi_ isn’t just a principle that applies to some past practices that have now been reformed, but one relevant to every aspect of our potentially putrified predilections. Anything less is unworthy of the One who envisioned, embodied, lived, taught, died and was resurrected as the one true Word, the one true Way, the standard of orthodoxy.

    This may be wholly in concert with Chesterton’s “democratic” principle of reform, but it doesn’t feel like it. We’ve been liberated for obedience to Christ and his Kingdom, so let’s exercise our liberty by binding ourselves to the Christ of scripture and the Spirit while following Jesus’ lead in critiquing the doctrines and practices of mere tradition.

  • BrianBel

    Richard,

    Food for thought… Who said, ” I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I have delivered them to you”? Who said, “So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter”? Who said, “Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is living in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us”?

    Paul said all these things (1 Cor 11:2, 2 Thes 2:15, 2 Thes 3:6). He’s exhorting the church to observe the tradition he is handing on. In fact, Paul said, “Therefore I sent to you Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church.”
    1 Cor 4:17 So, Paul’s expectation was that tradition be handed on, and that the apostolic teaching be, always and everywhere, the same! The same in every church! That, to me, is orthodoxy. So, to dismiss apostolic tradition would be… well, it’d be unscriptural. Sorry for the polemic, but Chesterton hits in areas that large parts of evangelicalism haven’t considered, and I think it’s important to clarify this (and it his case, to defend it).

  • Sheila S. Conrads

    OK, let’s bind our self to the Christ of scripture – the Christ of scripture says – Matthew 16:18 Peter, on you I will build my Church. The gates of hell will not prevail against it. Paul was part of this Church. What he said was OK’d by the Church when they decided what books should be canonical. Christ of scripture says John 17:11 – Holy Father, keep them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one just as we are one. Church built on Peter is to be one, that’s what I get from the Christ of scripture. It’s all in the interpretation. Who decides that interpretation? Where is the authority?

  • Patricia Hofer

    GK Chesterton defines Christian moderation as a “duplex passion” and calls it the “Christian key to ethics”
    (Orthodoxy 71-72). It allows us to have both courage and humility just as it allows us to separate the crime from the criminal.

    I think Jesus Christ completely understood the moderation of “duplex passion”—probably because he originated
    it!