October 29, 2008
This year is the one hundredth anniversary of G.K. Chesterton’s masterful book, Orthodoxy. If you are not familiar with Chesterton this anniversary is a good excuse to begin reading this great (and extremely amusing) Christian mind and Orthodoxy is a fine place to begin.
Chesterton wrote in his Autobiography, “I am firmly of the opinion that I was born on the 29th of May, 1874, on Campden Hill, Kensington; and was baptized according to the formularies of the Church of England in the church of St. George opposite the large Waterworks Tower that dominated the ridge.”
He goes on to say, “I indignantly deny that the church was chosen because it needed the whole water-power of West London to turn me into a Christian.” That may be true, but anyone examining Chesterton’s early life would conclude that even “the whole water-power of West London” would have been insufficient.
Chesterton was a thorough-going skeptic and in Orthodoxy he explains how he came to Christianity as skepticism—and all the other various and sundry “isms” of his day—showed themselves to be frauds.
Rereading Orthodoxy, I was again struck by how the book could have been written yesterday. The weak arguments and faulty thinking of 1908 still haunt us inside and outside the Church.
Chesterton found a strange pattern in arguments denouncing orthodox Christianity. Critics argued that “not only… had Christianity the most flaming vices, but it had apparently a mystical talent for combining vices which seemed inconsistent with each other. It was attacked on all sides for all contradictory reasons.”
Chesterton came to see that the problem was not with Christianity, but with its critics who could not see that Christianity incorporates apparent opposites into single truths. Jesus was not half God and half man like Aeneas or Achilles who each claimed one divine and one human parent. Jesus was fully God and fully man. He encompassed both humanity and deity in their totality. Emphasizing only one or mixing them together yields, as Church history continues to show, a bland counterfeit.
This got me thinking about other opposites. The first is critical to the debates over sexuality. On the one hand the Church has always opened her arms in unconditional acceptance of everyone. Many make this truth the center of their understanding of the Church, grace, and the love of God. In doing so they deny the opposite extreme that is equally true: everyone is unconditionally unacceptable.
The Christian message tells us that God in Christ accepts the unacceptable. It is the whole point of the cross. The liberal focusing on acceptance and the legalist focusing on unacceptability each grab half the truth and walk away with a whole untruth. But orthodoxy affirms both. We are fully accepted as we are and are so utterly unacceptable as we are that we must be born again, a rebirth that forces us to change everything.
A second set of opposites is critical to every debate. On the one side are the subjectivists who know because they “just know.” They “feel comfortable” or “sense the Spirit” or “have a peace” about whatever it is they happen to believe—so it must be true.
On the other side are objectivists with their relentless emphasis reason, hard facts, natural law, and Bible verses. Truth is objective and absolute, they say, regardless of our feelings or experience.
Never let it be said that orthodox Christianity has no room for knowing by experience. Anyone reading about St. Paul’s vision of Heaven or glancing at Bernini’s Ecstasy of St. Teresa or studying Jonathan Edwards on revivals will see that experience is central to orthodoxy. But experience must be tethered to objective truth. St. Paul wrote the rigorous, rational Epistle to the Romans. St. Teresa is a “doctor of the Church,” that is, a teacher of doctrine. And Edwards is arguably the greatest theological mind ever born in North America. Their subjective experience was rooted in objective truth.
Orthodox Christianity is the most personal and subjective religion. We experience God whose Spirit lives in us. At the same time Christianity is the most universal and absolute religion. It is the one true faith, true everywhere at all times and would still be even if no one believed it. To emphasize one at the expense of the other or to create some strange amalgam of the two leaves an insipid mess that is open to all manner of errors. Taken together, the faith is coherent, vibrant and, to use Chesterton’s word, “fierce.”
“People have fallen,” Chesterton wrote, “into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or exciting as orthodoxy.” If believed and applied, it has the power to revive the Church and change the world.
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