Book Review: “Orthodoxy”

It’s been a few months since my previous book review, but that’s because my wife and I only read a few pages each night before bed. I mostly read medical texts and classic fiction on my own time…which doesn’t always make for great “book review” material.

For those who aren’t familiar with G.K. Chesterton, the man was a genius. I actually posted a Chesterton quote page back in May of 2012, so clearly I’m a fan.

In “Orthodoxy”, Chesterton sets about describing his own intellectual journey – from his early Christian upbringing to his adolescent skepticism and back again. It’s very much a “gut-level” approach, with Chesterton explaining how, despite his best efforts, the orthodox teachings of Christianity gradually won him over.

Chesterton was also a pretty sarcastic (and hilarious) guy, so there were a few laugh-out-loud moments.

I actually think that the chapter titles do a pretty good job of describing the progression of the book:

Chapter 1: Introduction in Defense of Everything Else
Chapter 2: The Maniac
Chapter 3: The Suicide of Thought
Chapter 4: The Ethics of Elfland
Chapter 5: The Flag of the World
Chapter 6: The Paradoxes of Christianity
Chapter 7: The Eternal Revolution
Chapter 8: The Romance of Orthodoxy
Chapter 9: Authority and the Adventurer

“Orthodoxy” is the perfect book for anyone looking for an honest, intuitive, lighthearted, and personal sort of apologetic. Chesterton defends the Christian worldview in an easy-to-grasp manner by appealing to “an enormous accumulation of small but unanimous facts” (as he puts it).

As usual, I’ve collected below a few of my favorite passages:

“As an explanation of the world, materialism has a sort of insane simplicity. It has just the quality of the madman’s argument; we have at once the sense of it covering everything and the sense of it leaving everything out…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…The Christian admits that the universe is manifold and even miscellaneous, just as a sane man knows that he is complex. The sane man knows that he has a touch of the beast, a touch of the devil, a touch of the saint, a touch of the citizen. Nay, the really sane man knows that he has a touch of the madman. But the materialist’s world is quite simple and solid, just as the madman is quite sure he is sane. The materialist is sure that history has been simply and solely a chain of causation, just as the interesting person before mentioned is quite sure that he is simply and solely a chicken. Materialists and madmen never have doubts.”

“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.”

“Reason is itself a matter of faith. It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all. If you are merely a sceptic, you must sooner or later ask yourself the question, ‘Why should ANYTHING go right; even observation and deduction? Why should not good logic be as misleading as bad logic? They are both movements in the brain of a bewildered ape?’ The young sceptic says, ‘I have a right to think for myself.’ But the old sceptic, the complete sceptic, says, ‘I have no right to think for myself. I have no right to think at all.'”

‎”…But when I came to ask [the determinists] I found they had really no proof of this unavoidable repetition in things except the fact that the things were repeated. Now, the mere repetition made the things to me rather more weird than more rational…The recurrences of the universe rose to the maddening rhythm of an incantation, and I began to see an idea.”

‎”…What we need is not the cold acceptance of the world as a compromise, but some way in which we can heartily hate and heartily love it. We do not want joy and anger to neutralize each other and produce a surly contentment; we want a fiercer delight and a fiercer discontent. We have to feel the universe at once as an ogre’s castle, to be stormed, and yet as our own cottage, to which we can return at evening.”

“I found it was [my agnostic teachers’] daily taunt against Christianity that it was the light of one people and had left all others to die in the dark. But I also found that it was their special boast for themselves that science and progress were the discovery of one people, and that all other peoples had died in the dark. Their chief insult to Christianity was actually their chief compliment to themselves, and there seemed to be a strange unfairness about all their relative insistence on the two things.”

“Some satisfaction is needed even to make things better. But what do we mean by making things better? Most modern talk on this matter is a mere argument in a circle – that circle which we have already made the symbol of madness and of mere rationalism. Evolution is only good if it produces good; good is only good if it helps evolution. The elephant stands on the tortoise, and the tortoise on the elephant.”

‎”In actual modern Europe a freethinker 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: the material origin of phenomena, the impossibility of miracles, the improbability of personal immortality and so on. And none of these ideas are particularly liberal. Nay, indeed almost all these ideas are definitely illiberal, as it is the purpose of this chapter to show…”

“If I am asked, as a purely intellectual question, why I believe in Christianity, I can only answer, ‘For the same reason that an intelligent agnostic disbelieves Christianity.’ I believe in it quite rationally upon the evidence. But the evidence in my case, as in that of the intelligent agnostic, is not really in this or that alleged demonstration; it is in an enormous accumulation of small but unanimous facts. The secularist is not to be blamed because his objections to Christianity are miscellaneous and even scrappy; it is precisely such scrappy evidence that does convince the mind. I mean that a man may well be less convinced of a philosophy from four books, than from one book, one battle, one landscape, and one old friend….I can only say that my evidences for Christianity are of the same vivid but varied kind as his evidences against it. For when I look at these various anti-Christian truths, I simply discover that none of them are true. I discover that the true tide and force of all the facts flows the other way.”

‎”Somehow or other an extraordinary idea has arisen that the disbelievers in miracles consider them coldly and fairly, while believers in miracles accept them only in connection with some dogma. The fact is quite the other way. The believers in miracles accept them (rightly or wrongly) because they have evidence for them. The disbelievers in miracles deny them (rightly or wrongly) because they have a doctrine against them…If it comes to human testimony there is a choking cataract of human testimony in favour of the supernatural. If you reject it, you can only mean one of two things. You reject the peasant’s story about the ghost either because the man is a peasant or because the story is a ghost story. That is, you either deny the main principle of democracy, or you affirm the main principle of materialism – the abstract impossibility of miracle. You have a perfect right to do so; but in that case you are the dogmatist. It is we Christians who accept all actual evidence – it is you rationalists who refuse actual evidence being constrained to do so by your creed. But I am not constrained by any creed in the matter, and looking impartially into certain miracles of mediaeval and modern times, I have come to the conclusion that they occurred.”


14 thoughts on “Book Review: “Orthodoxy”

  1. Interesting. I wasn’t familiar with it but downloaded the book (for a very pleasing ninety-nine cents!) I love CS Lewis and it sounds a little like him.

    • It’s a *lot* like CS Lewis – even down to the writing style. I get my Lewis and Chesterton quotes mixed up all the time, haha.

  2. this book has sat on my bookshelf for too long being only partially read. your post has given me the boot in the bum to get it finished. thanks!

  3. I’ve always loved the one line I know from this book:

    “People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy.”

    These other parts sound pretty good, too—maybe I should actually read the book!

    • I have – overall I think it’s a little more ‘solid’ feeling than Orthodoxy, because TEM is a philosophy of history that starts at the beginning and ends at the end (as most things do, duh). It actually reminds me somewhat of Augustine’s City of God in its tracing of history and (here it differs from COG) its subtle revealing of God in history.

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