The Message of Orthodoxy
By Genevie Roby
In perhaps his most famous work, Chesterton sets forth a vision of Christian belief with lasting and exceptional value.
When we shove our faith under a bed like last year’s Christmas present, G. K. Chesterton pulls it back out and reminds us of its sparkling enchantment. In Orthodoxy, Chesterton, armed with wit and bucketloads of good humor, details his return to faith. What drew Chesterton to Christianity was what he called the “romance of orthodoxy.” While many books argue for Christianity’s rationality, Chesterton chose instead to argue for its beauty, liveliness, and mystery. He found Christian orthodoxy to have a grander view of the world than its alternatives, a more compelling take on virtue, and to be the only faith that was truly joyful.
First, Chesterton was unimpressed by the materialist’s universe. He found materialism to be a philosophy that shrunk the universe to fit inside the head of a man: nothing was unaccounted for, everything was perfectly understandable. The logician arrogantly demands to understand every inch of the cosmos. Chesterton believed that reason was not the best tool for making sense of the world around him. After all, the world is full of mysteries reason can never fathom. When the logician fails to understand something, he pretends it doesn’t exist. The universe truly is pathetic if a single man can comprehend all its intricacies.
Chesterton tossed aside the arrogance of materialism for the childlike wonder of Christianity. The Christian universe is filled with things too vast and lovely for humans to understand, rich in both clear order and unexpected miracles. Christians are both free to recognize the hand of an orderly creator around them and rest in what they cannot understand. In that sense, Christianity is less limited than materialism. The world is unconfined by our own comprehension and is set free to startle and amaze us. Chesterton writes, “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 materialist could never let the transcendent into his ideology. Essentially, the transcendent stretches above man’s comprehension, and the materialist demands to comprehend everything. The Christian, however, is free to marvel at everything from the smallest details to the grandest mysteries of the universe.
Chesterton also relished Christianity’s paradoxes. Anyone who has ever met someone truly good knows that goodness is not flat or dull—it is dynamic, captivating, and vivid. Most religions, however, present a view of virtue that is lifeless and colorless. Many religions offer explanations for the general workings of the world, but only one is peculiar enough to capture all the nuances of goodness. Unlike other religions obsessed with balance, Christianity’s virtues are passionate and undiluted, very much unbalanced. All these paradoxes come to the forefront in Christ. Here is a suffering servant and a conquering king, a “gentle and meek” lamb and the lion of Judah. The goodness of Christ dazzles like lightning—electric, engaging, and untameable. Christian orthodoxy maintains precarious balances that both captivate and offend. Through history, it has refused to compromise its virtues into something more watery and palatable.
Finally, Chesterton argues that Christianity was the only ideology that offered a joyful universe. Non-Christian ideologies offer grim universes. On a surface level, they might appear to be happier, free from the burden of pursuing holiness; after all, doesn’t paganism delights in excess and sensuality? Chesterton thought not. He found pagan worldviews to be grim. Within a pagan worldview, self-indulgence is the only joy you’ll get; as Paul wryly remarks, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” Suffering might hit at any time, and death is inevitable. If there are gods, there is no guarantee they will care about you. In paganism, the greatest joys are fragile against the hurricane of suffering that might sweep in at any moment. Chesterton calls this a topsy-turvy ideology that goes against man’s deepest instincts for joy to be primary. Chesterton writes, “Man is more himself, man is more manlike, when joy is the fundamental thing in him, and grief the superficial. Melancholy should be an innocent interlude, a tender and fugitive frame of mind; praise should be the permanent pulsation of the soul.” The Christian weeps over temporal sorrows, yes, but ultimately believes in a future filled with life and infinite joy. The primary truth of the universe is that God is good, he has triumphed over death, and will restore all that is broken. Sorrows pale compared to an eternity of joy. Sorrow is light and passing, while joy is heavy and permanent. In Christianity, the heavens rejoice above us, though we are often deaf to its song.
Ultimately, Chesterton encourages us in Orthodoxy to wake up from our complacency. He dusts off ancient truths and shows us their luster. He entreats the Christian to look around at the universe and not underestimate its glories. Chesterton doesn’t just want his readers to hold to Christian orthodoxy, but to relish it. Let our hearts not fear sorrow, but look forward to the revelry of eternity. Let our eyes be opened to the mysteries around us that fill us with wonder. Let our lives be filled with unrestrained virtues, crashing together like thunderclouds.
Genevie Roby is a homeschooled high school senior who lives in Monument, CO. She’s passionate about storytelling, reading good books, and hiking her way through the mountains and forests surrounding her home. Next year, she plans to attend a private Christian university.
Every time we administer the CLT, the forty top-scoring students are invited to make a contribution to the Journal. Congratulations to Miss Roby on her high score! If you’d like to see more from our students, check out this essay on religion and superstition in Huckleberry Finn, or this one on the traditional proverb that power corrupts; and be sure to take a listen to our weekly podcast, Anchored, hosted by our founder Jeremy Tate.