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May 08, 2007

Chesterton's "Orthodoxy"

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I recently finished reading G.K. Chesterton's "Orthodoxy." I found it a fascinating book for a variety of reasons. For one: Chesterton describes his book as a far more modest project than it turns out to be. According to what he announces at the outset, he's simply setting forth how he came to embrace Catholicism at its most traditional. [CORRECTION: Make that "Christianity at its most traditional." Thanks to several visitors who pointed out that Chesterton didn't commit to Catholicism until a number of years after publishing "Orthodoxy."] But he doesn't in fact keep the book that personal; he doesn't stick to his announced limitations. Instead, he winds up making an aggressive and ambitious case for Catholicism as the truest account we have of life, and the most trustworthy guide we have to that life.

I suppose that Chesterton, a sly fox, was pursuing this bait-and-switch strategy deliberately. Does it really matter if he wasn't? Given what a spokesguy for limits and forms he generally makes himself out to be, perhaps it does, if only a little.

Anyway: a quick personal aside. I have a tendency to treat myself to looks into Christianity or Judaism -- into monotheism, Western-style -- once or twice a year. When I do this and I blog about my adventures, I always receive solicitous emails from people convinced that I'm teetering on the verge of committing to some Christian faith or other. I'm guessing that, in the view of these correspondents, I'm blogging out of intensely-felt spiritual agonies, and that all I need is a little love and encouragement to enable me to fall into the embrace of the Church.

The care and interest are both much appreciated, of course. But they're based on a misapprehension. I'm not blogging out of a sense of agony and yearning. Really I'm not. I take my looks into Christianity and Judaism out of nothing more than curiosity.

Well, a strong curiosity, but mere curiosity anyway. Western monotheism is a knot I gnaw at. One reason for this: Western civ was partly formed by Western monotheism. I inhabit Western civ; I'm an arts-and-culture kinda guy. Hence, I'd like to understand the connections between Western monotheism and the life around me better than I do.

The other basis for my curiosity and gnawing is even more dopey. Western monotheism has never worked for me in the most basic sense. Forget about ideas and beliefs, let's talk showbiz. I don't get it, emotionally or imaginatively. I stare at Western monotheism like I stare at a comic book series that fails to hook me. I find that I can tune in to the fascination and the magic for a second or two tops. Then it slips away from me again. As a result, I'd like to develop a better grasp on what it is I'm missing.

(FWIW, and purely for the sake of self-indulgence: I not only don't get monotheism, I find it unappealing. It seems to me designed to lead to perfectly predictable dissatisfactions and unhappinesses. My own soul and imagination are stirred and satisfied by Buddhism, Hinduism, Vedanta, and yoga. For me, these religions / philosophies / self-help-systems don't involve any leaps of faith, let alone commitments to a belief in some Big Daddy who's Other Than Us and Out There. They're simply descriptions and explorations of how I've always found life to be. The mythologies they peddle? I can take 'em or leave 'em; I came to Buddhism and Hinduism too late in life to resonate to their fairy-tale sides. But one thing I like about the mythologies of these two schools is that I find them useful and moving even when I only take them metaphorically -- I instinctively know what's being talked about. With Judaism or Christianity, by contrast, I always lose track.)

Anyway: I pursue these investigations because 1) I find them enlightening so far as understanding the culture we live in goes, and 2) I'm fascinated by what works for people. I'm curious about the art that works for people too, even when it doesn't work for me. I'd really, really like to know what it is that people get out of Western monotheism, and why it works for them.

Where "Orthodoxy" goes, I'll skip the book-reviewing except to recommend the book. As a writer, Chesterton was quite a phenomenon. Readers who haven't sampled him are in for an encounter with a bizarre but undeniably brilliant giant. He's also a fun figure in lit history because he was so completely unmodernist, even anti-modernist. So he's likely to be of interest to people who enjoy exploring a wider range of works and creators than the usual modernist lit-history storyline allows for.


Chesterton's writing style is something to behold too. The way that symmetries, parallels, and paradoxes tumble out of him is so distinctive, fecund, and eccentric that -- perhaps inevitably these days -- he has become one of those geniuses that lesser mortals suspect might have had Aspergers.

But on to what interests me, me, me ...

What I want to write about here is the way Chesterton makes his case for hyper-traditional Christianity. It's curious. His account of his own personal discovery of Catholic faith is valuable and moving, courageous testimony about matters that many people find it hard to write about.

His more general case for orthodox Catholicism falls into three steps, at least as I see it. One is a hilariously effective demolition job on materialist explanations for life. Chesterton is full of respect for medicine, science, and economics, at least for their material effectiveness. But he's also devastating about how they fail as Accounts of Everything. Here, I'm entirely with him.

In Step Two, Chesterton makes the case for tradition as inherited wisdom. He's quite brilliant here too -- on a par with Burke, Oakeshott, and Hayek. We inherit more than we shall ever know. Habits and crotchets that seem merely ornamental turn out to be essential structural things, a fact you discover too late, when you talk yourself into thinking that you can afford to be rid of them ... I'm with Chesterton here too, even if I might emphasize more than he does that an important part of tradition is its ability to adapt and evolve.

In Step Three, though, he loses me entirely. Here, he makes the leap into traditional Catholicism.

It's a strange part of the book. Chesterton is frank about how reason and intellect didn't play much of a role in his embrace of orthodox Roman Catholicism; it simply suited him. (He uses words similar to mine above when I described how Buddhism, Vedanta and yoga have hit me. In essence: "Why, that's how things have always seemed to me!") But, having admitted this, he goes on to argue out his case in terms of reasons anyway. He can't help himself, it seems: compulsively, he winds up writing a kind of op-ed in favor of Catholicism. Perhaps this is a sign that Chesterton really was an Aspie. After all, some Aspies are Mr. Spocks, determined that everything they do should be rational, or at least seem rational.

I was sorry the book took this turn. I didn't really want or need intellectual arguments for orthodox Christianity. I've been through enough of those. I was hoping for more of an evocation (or something) of what grabbed him, and of how it grabbed him. A) If science and philosophy aren't enough ... If tradition is to be respected ... , well then, B) why Catholicism rather than some other faith? Was it the music? The visuals? The Latin?

And, despite his reason-giving, Chesterton makes a leap here. Chesterton treats A (modern faiths and techniques are inadequate) as though it explains B (embracing Catholicism). As far as I could tell, Chesterton feels that if you should ever wake up to the inadequacy of materialistic accounts of existence, then -- if you have any sense at all -- you will automatically find yourself embracing Catholicism. It's just, simply, plainly, obvious.

Here I'm guessing, but perhaps what was more evident to Chesterton than to me is this step: If you let go of false religions and fall back into Real Faith, the only faith that you really have to fall back into is the one that you've inherited as a Westerner. Given Western history, what you'll eventually find yourself in the arms of is the One True Religion, aka Catholicism.

Anyway, a fun book, even if it didn't answer my main question, which boils down to: "What do people really find appealing about Western-style monotheism? What emotional / imaginative thing does it serve?"

I'm not being entirely frank, though. Although Chesterton is constructing arguments, something else emerges from his book too. It's that he finds Christianity fortifying, while he finds the modern pseudo-faiths and philosophies (evolution, Marxism) enervating.

It seems to buck him up to picture the world as a battle between on the one hand negativity and nihilism -- between a devil-like impulse towards meaninglessness -- and, on the other, positivity, clarity, and life (Christianity, Catholicism, faith, tradition). He likes the idea that it's a pitched battle. And he likes fighting on the side of the life-enhancing good guys; it revs him up. Though I find this a little ... well, boyish, I also have to admit that part of the fun of Chesterton's writing generally is that while being such a giant he's yet so in touch with his inner little boy.

Anyway, I'm grateful to the book for a lot of reading pleasure, for some amazingly good arguments against materialism, and for this probably-not-intended insight. Here's the question it left me with, though: Is that the central emotional appeal of Christianity, at least for many people? That they find it fortifying?

Wikipedia has a good entry on Chesterton. Here's the American Chesterton Society. I see that they have a meeting coming up soon, June 14-16 in St. Paul, Minnesota. You can listen to "Orthodoxy" on audiobook too. Here's the Chesterton-influenced, semi-Crunchy Distributist Review. Here's my own wrestle with C.S. Lewis' "Mere Christianity."



posted by Michael at May 8, 2007


One thought about why Western monotheism is popular (inasmuch as it's something people choose)is because it offers a psychological answer to what's missing in our society--simplicity. Add to that the narrative of Judeo-Christian mythologies and you get a rather comfy tale that really doesn't face down evil and death in the way one can find in other non monotheistic religions. This is no more true than in Tibetan Buddhism, which has a huge body of practices that help one to confront death and in so doing create a richer, fuller life.

This is not to say that this does not happen in the Judeo-Christian tradition but it is more of an aside-the stuff of mystics and heterodox thinkers. Mostly our culture likes to avoid the death thing altogether. This is understandable to a great degree but sadly leaves us living a half life.

Posted by: The Lock on May 8, 2007 9:15 PM


Thanks for this review of Orthodoxy. I recently read the book and fell in love with it. It was a bit startling, too, to discover such a brilliant prose style in a writer I'd never read before.

I have a small nit to pick. I think Chesterton converted to Catholicism in 1922, several years after the publication of Orthodoxy. His argument is more an argument for Orthodox Christianity than for Catholicism per se, isn't it?

Posted by: Kate Marie on May 8, 2007 9:16 PM

I think he was Anglican, but parts of the Anglican church were very philo-Roman Catholic in those days - some still are.

Posted by: Intellectual Pariah on May 8, 2007 9:52 PM

Mr Blowhard, your discussion of Chesterton's embrace of tradition misses a point that I think is important to an understanding of the man: he was a liberal. Yes, he was a liberal in a special sense of the word. Not in the post-modern American sense; not even in the "classical sense", strictly speaking, but a liberal all the same. (He even says so in Orthodoxy.)

He believed in democracy, and in the separation of Church and State. His economics were "distributist", meaning that he believed that ownership of the means of production should be diffused as widely as possible within a society, rather than owned by corporations or by the state. Not so different from the original ideals of American republicanism and ownership of property, although those developed before "property" was understood to be much more than "real estate."

In fact, his economic ideas may be a key to his conversion to Catholicism, which indeed did not occur until 1922. (Orthodoxy was published in 1908.) Much of his thinking regarding economics had been influenced by Leo XIII's encyclical Rerum Novarum. I don't know enough about the details of his life to be certain, but it's possible that he was sufficiently impressed by Catholic social thinking, or rather found it sufficiently sympathetic, that it was this that moved his religious views. "Like all solemn little boys," he wrote, "I tried to be some ten minutes in advance of the truth. And I found that I was 1800 years behind it."

Posted by: alias clio on May 8, 2007 10:27 PM

So, Michael, how do you feel about the yoga portfolio in the new Vanity Fair? Just images, no dogma.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on May 8, 2007 10:59 PM

The Lock -- It does seem to offer a nice, easy to grasp story, with a real direction to it, doesn't it? Chesterton all but says a few times that he likes the Christian, er, myth because it makes life more of a romance, in the medieval quest-for-the-grail kind of way. So maybe for some people it's a valuable heightener too.

Kate Marie -- It's like bumping into Nabokov without having been warned, isn't it? Where they get off not teaching this guy in colleges ... Anyway, I'm sure you're right. Shhh -- I actually read the the book a couple of months ago and only now got around to writing the posting. So I'm not surprised if my memory's off on a few points ...

I.P. -- Good lord, more complications!

Alias Clio -- Chesterton was an interesting guy in many ways, wasn't he? And those are a bunch of excellent points, tks. So far as the liberal/conservative thing goes, he reminds me a bit of Oakeshott. Great Oakeshott quote: "I'm a conservative in politics because I'm a radical in everything else." FWIW, I know one trad conservative who claims that Oakeshott wasn't a conservative at all, and maybe he wasn't. I wonder what my trad-conservative has to say about Chesterton.

P. Mary -- There's a yoga portfolio in VF? I haven't looked at the mag for years. Annie Liebovitz? Celeb yogis? I hope she's making them look good. She's a funny photographer. Sometimes she really does a great job doing glamour photographs (she seemed to love Sharon Stone some years back). But sometimes she makes people look just awful.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 8, 2007 11:19 PM

"What do people really find appealing about Western-style monotheism? What emotional / imaginative thing does it serve?"

Speaking for myself (I'm a Christian, of the Calvinist variety), it is immensely comforting to believe that there is One Creator of the cosmos, and that He is control of everything that happens, that nothing happens that is not in accordance with His will - even evil (though He's not morally responsible for men's choices, but rather permits humans to inflict suffering on themselves and one other). In contrast, I find polytheism's gods unsatisfying, because, when I look at pagan Greek or Roman or Norse or Hindu, etc. deities, they strike me as just flawed humans writ large, and I can't reconcile the order and harmony of the natural world, with the chaos of the multiple divine personalities of paganism - how could any order arise from such, with not one clearly in control, responsible for creation and the moral order? In contrast, Christianity only has one powerful supernatural being opposing God, Satan, and so with only two adversaries, and Creation preceding the Fall, it's easy for me to reconcile what I observe empirically, with Scripture. (This isn't specifically the only reason why I am Christian, BTW; I'm just explaining one aspect of why I find monotheism appealing and satisfying, over and against polytheism.)

(As for the pantheism that Hinduism also espouses, I know full well that I am not God, that I am not part of any "Brahman", and that I didn't play any part in the creation of the cosmos (and I don't consider reality to be an illusion, either, BTW). So, pantheism is as unsatisfying to me as polytheism.)

"Is that the central emotional appeal of Christianity, at least for many people? That they find it fortifying?"

For my part, no. I find Christianity to be true, and that is what appeals to me. (As for it being fortifying, it certainly can be. Other times, though, I may find myself wondering why I go through the things I go through. Notwithstanding the "Prosperity Gospel" of John Hagee and other evangelicals, historically, orthodox Christianity, generally (regardless of tradition) has emphasized a theology of suffering, teaching that we can expect suffering on earth, and shouldn't be surprised to find ourselves suffering, and that ultimately, this is for our good, as it is meant to drive us back to God in prayer. (The Book of Psalms and the Book of Job show us many examples of the sort of suffering we can expect, but also that ultimately, we can expect to benefit from our trials.) And it can be precisely then and there that we find our faith most fortifying. But that isn't, for me, the central emotional appeal of Christianity.)

P.S. If The Lock is still reading, I'm baffled as to what he/she means by monotheism not facing "down evil and death in the way one can find in other non monotheistic religions.", and his/her contention that Tibetan Buddhism does; I'd like to hear more.

(For me, it's clear; "the wages of sin is death"; there's the cause-and-effect relation right there in a nutshell. Prior to the Fall, no death; with the Fall, as God warned would happen, Death came. And is still with us. But Christ defeated death and sin, and we who believe will partake in His resurrection, as we are also resurrected.

Thus, how the Church has understood evil and death. I'm not sure where The Lock thinks death and evil haven't been faced down; I don't understand his/her contention. I'm also curious to learn more about how Tibetan Buddhists answer these sorts of questions.)

Posted by: Will S. on May 8, 2007 11:24 PM

I'm not sure Chesterton actually betrays his stated intentions to the extent that you seem to think. He's pretty explicit that he is writing the book in answer to a demand that he provide a positive philosophy about life, rather than simply demolish others'. His was an apologia from the beginning, although his conversion structures what he has to say. It isn't quite true to say he was simply supposed to be giving an account of his conversion, in a biographical sort of way.

Posted by: michaeldefendus on May 8, 2007 11:36 PM

"tradition as inherited wisdom": except on the matter of neck-ties.

Posted by: dearieme on May 9, 2007 1:18 AM

Have you read his biography of St. Francis? In case you haven't, it's a great book. I think you might like it because it's written in a very different tone than _Orthodoxy_ since it deals with a figure whom the author felt very drawn to from an early age and who was very important to his conversion to Catholicism. So he ends up spending a lot more time talking about what "grabbed him" (as you put it) about St. Francis and, by extension, the religion.

Posted by: Rabia on May 9, 2007 1:40 AM

"Is that the central emotional appeal of Christianity, at least for many people? That they find it fortifying?"

Will S. said: "For my part, no. I find Christianity to be true, and that is what appeals to me."

Precisely the same here. I am a Catholic, btw. If it were not true it would have no interest whatsoever for me. All else derives from its truth, i.e. that it is "fortifying", etc. By living a life where you are working to remain in the presence of God, you get to the point where you really cannot imagine living any other way. To that extent Christianity is existential. It is not a set of propositions to which one gives assent -- e.g. merely finding St. Thomas Aquinas' five proofs for the existence of God to be intellectually compelling. Rather it is a way of life whose meaning is discovered by living it, and whose meaning is disclosed to others by observing the words and deeds of a person who is living the faith. It is tangible, even existential, rather than intellectual. Or, rather, the intellectual element and arguments are a small part of the whole. That is why it is sometimes said that the truest catechism is the lives of the Saints, who are each unique, but who each in their own place and time imitate the life of Jesus Christ.

I agree also that you would probably get more of the "flavor" of Christianity, and its emotional appeal, at least as Chesterton felt it, from his two short biographies of St. Francis of Assissi and St. Thomas Aquinas.

Posted by: Lexington Green on May 9, 2007 9:25 AM

High Church, Low Church, Broad Church, Anglo-Catholics... it's a pretty interesting mix. I've attended Anglican church services that feature Hail Marys and the invocation of saints, and clouds of incense of course. The theory that used to be held in High Church/Anglo-Catholic circles and that I was taught at Confirmation was that the Anglican Church was an equal and independent Catholic Church alongside the Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox (and maybe the Lutherans got in there too - I don't remember). The institutional organization may have been disrupted, but we were willing to take them back as soon as they dropped some of their sillier ideas, like Papal supremacy.

This is lovely view in many ways, but an obvious delusion, given that no-one in supposed sister churches held anything much like it. So it's steadily lost ground, and that's led to a decline in the Anglo-Catholic movement. A pity, because they can put on a really beautiful liturgy, better than what you get in most RC churches, I believe. (Some would argue that's not the important part!) But in Chesterton's day, the Anglo-Catholics were the happenin' thing in the church.

The current crisis in the church over homosexuality (well, about lots of things, but homosexuality has become the flashpoint) pits the new-ish but dominant liberal wing against the conservative remnants of the factions I mentioned above. Some conservatives (esp. High Church) are playing footsie with Rome again, even talking (dreaming?) about institutional fusion under an Anglican Rite (like the Eastern Rite RC's who are effective Eastern Orthodox within the RC Church). The irony is that the remaining Anglo-Catholic clergy are heavily gay.

Barchester Towers is a good read if any of this stuff appeals to you.

Posted by: Intellectual Pariah on May 9, 2007 9:59 AM

Anyone who truly internalizes the injunction that "Thou shalt worship no god but God," has innoculated himself against the first cause of human misery: the worship of idols. Whether the idol is The State, A Leader, Sex, Money, Race or what-have-you, monotheism is a great bulwark against the inevitable price paid for putting ones faith in a chimera. Not only is monotheism not shallow, it is the deepest defense ever devised against the tendency of the thin reed to waiver.

Posted by: ricpic on May 9, 2007 10:14 AM

Will S. -- That's very helpful and very eloquent too, many thanks. I wish I could find a similar quality of coaching where other subjects that baffle me go.

MichaelDefendus -- Really? I don't have the book with me, but I noted down a number of places where he made modest, "I'm not really here to make a general case for Christianity" sounds. But it doesn't really matter, does it? Or it does, but it's just part of the book's character -- I certainly didn't mean to criticize the book on that basis. Hard to tell sometimes if Chesterton is being sly or eccentric, isn't it? Which is part of the fun.

Dearieme -- Did I miss something about neckties? My knowledge of Chesterton's life is limited to what I've read in a few reference sources ...

Rabia -- Thanks for the rec, it sounds like a fascinating book too. I'm currently in the middle of "The Man Who Was Thursday," which is certainly a remarkable thing in its own right. I'm not sure I love-love-love Chesterton -- he isn't hitting me in that way. Do you deeply love his work? But it's a lot of fun getting to know such an amazing phenom.

Lex -- That's very enlightening too, tks. As well as in some ways more direct than anything Chesterton managed to say. He did seem to have a compulsion to turn his intuitions and feelings into intellectual-ish ... well, not quite arguments, but something. Even when he was doing his best not to. Odd duck, but a magnificent one. The whole question of truth is an interesting one, no? At one point I was cooking up a blog posting about the way the word is sometimes used in the arts ("that performance just had such truth to it!", that kind of thing) -- it's ridiculous in a way, but in another way you know what's being talked about. Sounds similar to your use of it here. I'd love to hear more of your reflections about the use of the word truth in religion vs., say, the law ...

IP -- Lordy, the ingrown complexity of it! That's very amusingly put too, tks. I should really get around to "Barchester Towers" one of these days. (Hey, maybe it's on audiobook ...) I wonder if I'd be able to follow the doctrinal stuff, if doctrine-disputes do indeed play a role in the novel. Like I say, most inside-the-Christian-Church stuff whizzes right past me. "They're talkin' about wha'?" ... My brain seems amazingly feeble in that domain.

Ricpic -- I had to read that three times before I got it, but I think it's a great point.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 9, 2007 11:27 AM

The Man Who Was Thursday is one of my favorite books - I reread it every few months or so. I seem to react to it the same way that you do with the Hindu and Buddhist works; not that it's something new, but that it reflects what I've been thinking all along.

If you're still in the middle of it, I won't spoil it all, but the whole series of images and patterns - the growing hopelessness of the cause, down to a single tiny group, fighting against a growing enemy; the stubborn refusal to give up, finally culminating in a glorious explosion of fealty and peace - well, they fit so closely into my experience.

More personally, that's what my (few) experiences with the numinous have been like - growing alienation and depression that comes close to despair, yelling at God, trying to catch Him, and finding out, when I do, that it wasn't what I expected. So reading Chesterton, particularly this story, comes more as a reminder than an argument.

I don't know why it resonates with me and not you in the same way. But then, God made us all different, and intended us to see Him in our own way, no?

Posted by: Brett on May 9, 2007 11:48 AM

Michael, I don't know Chesterton's views on neck-ties. I was just letting fly on my loathing for them in spite of my acceptance that sometimes tradition is inherited wisdom. I don't mind cravats. Broad-minded, me.

Posted by: dearieme on May 9, 2007 12:16 PM

1. Chesterton may have begun life as an Anglican, but he converted to Roman Catholicism in 1922.

2. If you want to get a better understanding of why Chesterton believed and what he believed you should try The Everlasting Man, which is rather like Orthodoxy but deals more directly with Jesus.

3. The use of the word "truth" by an orthodox Christian concerning the truths of Christianity and Judaism refers to the historicity of the truths of the Bible - without necessarily being concerned with defending every passage literally - rather than referring to the idea of "beauty is truth, truth beauty," or any other more nebulous usage.

4. Some of the truths of Christian morality and belief in God can indeed be determined by a process of reasoning. Some require revelation. In other words, if you cannot accept the historicity of the truths revealed in the Bible, much of Christianity and Judaism will remain opaque to you.

Posted by: alias clio on May 9, 2007 12:51 PM

Will S.- I was afraid my post was far too simplistic and that such a reaction would be forthcoming. I didn't have a lot of time but couldn't help but weigh in.

First off, let me just say that I'm very wary of valuating religious traditions against one another. I believe that religious choice is much a matter of constitution and aesthetics as well as the need to embrace history, tradition, and culture. Furthermore, I think that there are many more similarities and consistencies among the worlds religions (a la Joseph Campbell)than many would like to admit.

There is certainly "facing down death" in Christianity, but it is very different than what one finds say in Buddhism (specifically Mahayana Buddhism). And in my opinion, the Christian emphasis on the afterlife deemphasizes the cultivation of one's consciousness in the here and now. And so while Christianity is high on inspiration and wisdom sayings it is low (by comparison)on the practical day to day stuff that helps people get from where they are, right now, to whatever the next best step is for them. And Buddhism recognizes that fear of death (attachment to the body) and the craving for sex (attachment to pleasure) are two of life's greatest challenges. So there is an implicit understanding that any practice that does not address these is missing out on something essential.

Of course, this happens in Christianity, but in my experience it is more of a proxy confrontation of death by way of Jesus. In Buddhism, it is all about facing down one's own death and in so doing coming to the realization that the fear of death is unwarranted; the ground of our being--our essence--remains untouched by death's arrival. There are very specific teachings and practices that adepts undertake in order to release these fears. In a sense, they "practice dying". This is very direct as there is no stand in for this journey.

Also, in Mahayana Buddhism, there is an idea called "skillful means" or "skill in means" (Upaya in Sanskrit). This idea says that a teacher of sufficient wisdom and compassion will teach and minister according to the individual understanding and predilections of the person whom he/she is attempting to help. They will do this even if it defies some other tenet or principle of the tradition in which they practice. In other words, compassion is more important than dogma.

In any case, what one finds in the Tibetan Buddhist culture (esp. pre-invasion) and in the Hindu traditions of India are a mind boggling number of practices and understandings that address almost every conceivable human condition. I think of these as "how to" religions. And their strength is that they describe and refer to actual experience and so do not demand that the practitioner do or believe things they are not really into at that point.

O.K. That's an extreme simplification of a very complex subject. And I find Christianity and Christ to be profoundly compelling. But at an early age I saw a pattern; namely that people tend to practice the religion that they were born into. That's significant to me. I appreciate your post and your honesty. I hope that helps. May all be happy...

Posted by: The Lock on May 9, 2007 1:26 PM

The Lock: thank you for your further explanation, of what you meant. Indeed, while we certainly won't see eye to eye in this, I appreciate your explanation of your opinion, and your enlightening me more about the Mahayana Buddhist worldview.

Michael, Alias Clio, and others: anyone who finds Chesterton's combination of conservative views with some collectivist or leftist tendencies, might also find the Canadian philosopher George Parkin Grant of interest.

Posted by: Will S. on May 9, 2007 2:07 PM

'Tradition as inherited wisdom'...

There was a better summation of his politics:

"Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead."

Democracy of the dead, I like that.

Posted by: david on May 9, 2007 2:27 PM

Chesterton's style, when he pours it on, is recognizable from at least fifty yards away. "Peculiarly vigorous" is the phrase that applies, I think. I mean, here's the guy who started out his preface to "The Napoleon of Notting Hill" with "The human race, to which so many of my readers belong, . . ." (and so on to an entertaining discussion of the game of Cheat the Prophet).

There's another writer that reminds me distantly of him, but just on style (minus the philosophy, in other words). Ever come across R. A. Lafferty? His stories also give me the Chestertonian feeling that the prose is geysering out of some huge underground reservoir.

Posted by: Derek Lowe on May 9, 2007 2:53 PM

"And their strength is that they describe and refer to actual experience and so do not demand that the practitioner do or believe things they are not really into at that point."

That pretty much nails my appreciation of Buddhism and my problems with just about every other religion. In other words, I'd be Catholic if I didn't have to believe in God or the divinity of Christ.

Posted by: the patriarch on May 9, 2007 3:41 PM

"Hard to tell sometimes if Chesterton is being sly or eccentric, isn't it? Which is part of the fun."

Delicious observation, Michael, and so true. I have the quote ready to hand, but I don't think the point is important enough for a game of gotcha, and besides I think you're right: Chesterton is the conservative's Rousseau. He's delightful precisely because he is archly opaque.

Posted by: michaeldefendus on May 9, 2007 7:23 PM

The Man Who Was Thursday is a strange, brilliant and excellent book.

Note that Orwell had a character named Syme in 1984. I think it is a cue that Orwell was responding to TMWWT in his book. There are many overlapping themes and images in the two books.I could go on and on about that, but I'll restrain myself. I also suspect that Tolkien was influenced by certain passages in TMWWT.

Posted by: Lexington Green on May 9, 2007 8:52 PM

While Christianity and Judaism are monotheistic, I don't think that people believe in them for that reason. That is simply an abstract description that distinguishes if from other types of gods.
Rather, what Christians point to is the divine being as a person. The appeal is to knowing a personal God. I suspect that this only makes sense after some revelatory experience. Modernist church people love to argue the faith on rational grounds, and within those presuppositions, the arguments are sound. But you have to accept the presuppositions. This is probably so for any religious faith. Within their circle of presumptions, the faith makes sense. The question is really whether there is any ground of reality that provides an objective basis for deciding whether a religious faith is true. As a Christian, I don't find the rationality of the faith the reason for my belief. That's my natural skepticism coming out. Instead, I find it provides me a window to see a larger world that as it opens up to me makes more sense. That world is beyond my imagining and my control. I see it like I can see the next peak of a ridge of mountains, but don't know what I'd find there once I got there. For me it has more to do with seeking to understand the nature of things apart from my own perception of them. If reality is only what we perceive it to be then it really doesn't matter what we believe. We'll believe that which makes us comfortable and rationalizes away our fear. And for some Christians that is the basis of their faith. But if there is some ground upon which faith rests apart from my own capacity to believe, then that is what I want to know. I'm not really thinking of some abstract ground of being or realm of ideals. Instead, I'm looking for some explanation other than a mechanistic one for why the world works as well as it does. And I find Christianity's explanation satisfying.

Posted by: Ed on May 9, 2007 10:15 PM

This is a first-rate discussion; thanks to Michael for sparking it, and to all who have contributed so far.

Like Will, I'm a small-o orthodox Christian of the Calvinist subspecies. And I could not agree more with his main point: we follow Christ because we believe what He said and did are true, not because we find them helpful. That is the essence. I hesitate to use the word, because it's come to be associated with a very different form of faith, but in one facet, at least, becoming a Christian is a kind of submission. It is a bowing down before the Creator, the Word, the Truth.

But it's also more than that. Being a Christian also means being in a relationship, with that same Creator, that same Word, that same Truth, via the salvific power and grace of the Son of God. God loves us. God loves us, with all our flaws, our petty ingrown hatreds, our vast shortcomings. He died for us. He wants us to be with Him, forever.

In response to The Lock's excellent post on Buddhism: you're right. Christianity doesn't really prepare us for death, because that's not the point. We are eternal creatures, so death is a transition, not the end. We do have a 'stand-in', so we live in hope and indeed confidence, not stoicism.

Michael, I think Chesterton and others use and have used every device from reasoning to testimonials to paradox to romance to the out-and-out grotesque (e.g. Flannery O'Connor and her 'shouting' at her readers) to try to convey the sheer oddity of the Christian truth. I hope you keep reading, and thinking.

Posted by: Mr Tall on May 9, 2007 10:21 PM

I'm late commenting on the question that you posed at the end of your post, Michael, but I wanted to chime in -- as a "capital C" Catholic -- and agree with those commenters who said that they find Christianity appealing because they find it to be true. But the truth can also be fortifying, can't it?

As for the way that Christianity deals with death, one of my favorite passages from Orthodoxy touches on what I find most compelling about Christianity's response to death:

"That a good man may have his back to the wall is no more than we knew already, but that God could have His back to the wall is a boast for all insurgents forever. Christianity is the only religion on earth that has felt that omnipotence made God incomplete. Christianity alone felt that God, to be wholly God, must have been a rebel as well as a king. Alone of all creeds, Christianity has added courage to the virtues of the Creator. For the only courage worth calling courage must necessarily mean that the soul passes a breaking point -- and does not break. In this indeed I approach a matter more dark and awful than it is easy to discuss; and I apologize in advance if any of my phrases fall wrong or seem irreverent touching a matter which the greatest saints and thinkers have justly feared to approach. But in the terrific tale of the Passion there is a distinct emotional suggestion that the author of all things (in some unthinkable way) went not only through agony, but through doubt. It is written, "Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God." No; but the Lord thy God may tempt Himself; and it seems as if this was what happened in Gethsemane. In a garden Satan tempted man: and in a garden God tempted God. He passed in some superhuman manner through our human horror of pessimism. When the world shook and the sun was wiped out of heaven, it was not at the crucifixion, but at the cry from the cross: the cry which confessed that God was forsaken of God. And now let the revolutionists choose a creed from all the creeds and a god from all the gods of the world, carefully weighing all the gods of inevitable recurrence and of unalterable power. They will not find another god who has himself been in revolt. Nay (the matter grows too difficult for human speech), but let the atheists themselves choose a god. They will find only one divinity who ever uttered their isolation; only one religion in which God seemed for an instant to be an atheist."

Sure, Chesterton makes claims for the uniqueness of Christianity that may not be accurate, but I think this passage refutes the notion that Christianity doesn't acknowledge or deal in any serious way with the horror of suffering and death.

I think, too, that Chesterton's idea of the Christian myth is close to Tolkien's idea -- that Christianity is the one "true myth:"

"All Christianity concentrates on the man at the cross-roads. The vast and shallow philosophies, the huge syntheses of humbug, all talk about ages and evolution and ultimate developments. The true philosophy is concerned with the instant. Will a man take this road or that? -- that is the only thing to think about, if you enjoy thinking. The aeons are easy enough to think about, anyone can think about them. The instant is really awful: and it is because our religion has intensely felt the instant, that it has in literature dealt much with battle and in theology dealt much with hell. It is full of danger, like a boy's book: it is at an immortal crisis. There is a great deal of real similarity between popular fiction and the religion of the western people. "

In that passage, I think Chesterton essentially predicts Tolkien, and suggests that other myths and stories are essentially "sub-creations" or shadows of the one true myth.

I find that idea enormously appealing -- not because I think it can be shown to accord with the Truth in any logically rigorous way, nor because I find it particularly fortifying -- but because it seems to explain or answer for my experience of things. Would I have the same reaction if I hadn't grown up in the Catholic faith? I don't know . . . but Chesterton begins his book with the story of an explorer who sets off on a journey to discover new worlds who lands on his home shores and experiences the familiar as a revelation.

Posted by: Kate Marie on May 10, 2007 2:07 PM

Chesterton on Islam:

"A void is made in the heart of Islam which has to be filled up again and again by a mere repetition of the revolution that founded it. There are no sacraments; the only thing that can happen is a sort of apocalypse, as unique as the end of the world; so the apocalypse can only be repeated and the world end again and again. There are no priests; and this equality can only breed a multitude of lawless prophets almost as numerous as priests. The very dogma that there is only one Mohamet produces an endless procession of Mohamets."

Posted by: adrian on May 10, 2007 5:26 PM

A thoughtful review of the book; thank you. If you'd like to read a smattering of Chesterton's lesser-known works, I invite you over to my Chesterton blog The Hebdomadal Chesterton. I'm posting excerpts from his books once a week.

Posted by: The Hebdomadarian on May 10, 2007 7:43 PM

Many thanks to all for a very interesting and enlightening discussion. I think I got more out of it than I did out of reading "Orthodoxy." Who says religion can't be discussed in a civilized fashion?

Posted by: MIchael Blowhard on May 10, 2007 10:15 PM

Barchester Towers reads very well as a pure social comedy/satire, almost an ecclesiastical predecessor of a 20th century academic comedy (David Lodge, say). The plot is set off by the government parachuting a Low Church bishop (with his wife and chaplain - all depicted as fools) into a High Church diocese, and mostly revolves around struggles over preferments and the hand of the Warden's lovely widowed daughter. But the turmoil of 19th century Anglican politics is very much in the background.

The BBC put on a good dramatization back in the 80s, with Nigel Hawthorne as Dr Grantly, the bishop's great enemy, and exemplar of the old High and Dry church (yet another faction/social group).

Posted by: Intellectual Pariah on May 11, 2007 1:12 PM

The BBC production was entitled "The Barchester Chronicles", and was indeed quite entertaining.

Posted by: Will S. on May 11, 2007 3:28 PM

"Is that the central emotional appeal of Christianity, at least for many people? That they find it fortifying?"

I think the most appealing thing about Christianity is its radical humanism. I'm thinking specifically of the teachings of Jesus, which are not systematic, but a series of poetic metaphors about the overturning of existing society in a way that privileges people's inward characters rather than their outward circumstances.

Jesus describes this revolution in being -- the coming of the Kingdom of God -- as a cosmic thing. It is a description of the connection of the human and the divine. Of course, he himself is held up as the embodiment of humanity and divinity by his followers, altho he was coy about identifying himself that way.

But the point is that he describes human nature as connected to a larger reality, whose values are different, and more fundamentally just and defined by love, than the values of the world we live in here and now. And he does it by using language that is so beautiful, striking, mysterious, and compelling that it gives me chills every time I peek into the Gospels.

So I find Christianity, at least when it is focused primarily on the actual teachings of Jesus, to be grounding -- in that it affirms our connection to this divine reality -- and also challenging, in a good way -- because of the moral imperative to conduct ourselves in accord with the Kingdom: "You must change your life."

I also like the idea of Jesus himself as achieving the fusion of human and divine natures... and the notion (more popular in Eastern Orthodox theology than in Catholic or Protestant) that this opens the way for all of us to achieve a similar "deification". But I think it is his descriptions of the Kingdom of Heaven, rather than Jesus himself as an "opener of the way" to human-divine reconciliation, that appeals to me most.

I don't know how much I can relate to the idea of having a "personal relationship" with Jesus. From reading the Gospels, I don't see him as being _anybody's_ "best bud". He's compassionate and charismatic, but also keeps his distance, even from his friends and family.

And the theory of substitutional sacrifice, most common in Western Christianity, has always been problematic to me. God sacrificing himself to himself, thereby absolving us from the eternal torment he was otherwise going to inflict on us? And we're supposed to... humbly thank him for this favor? I can't understand the crazy cosmic voodoo psychodrama of it all.

Posted by: Maximus on May 12, 2007 2:47 PM

Well, Michael, thus far you have three Calvinists and two Roman Catholics in this discussion who all agree that what appeals to them about Christianity, is that they find it true (I'm including Ed's 'satisfying' as true - and in his blog he says he's Presbyterian), and one person, affiliation unknown (and quite different, BTW, in way of thinking on most points raised from anything most Protestants, Roman Catholics or Eastern Orthodox would consider orthodox Christianity), who instead points to "its radical humanism". (Take that for what you will; I'm not getting into any arguments with anyone reading, BTW. But I think it's fairly clear what's more representative of self-identified Christians from even this small sample.)

Posted by: Will S. on May 13, 2007 7:19 PM

It's funny. I wasn't raised with a religion. In my younger years, I enjoyed Asimov and similar skeptics (I was a nerd, after all...). Later on I got to appreciate what religion holds for other people. But I never managed to believe myself. I just can't take stuff on faith.

Different strokes for different folks, eh?

Posted by: SFG on May 15, 2007 9:12 PM

For what it's worth: Jesus is wonderful. I love Him, and He reveals Himself to me. That's what I get out of it.

Posted by: anon believer on May 16, 2007 8:50 AM

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