A small book group discussing G.K. Chesterton’s magnum opus Orthodoxy is on at Northern Seattle’s Newman center. This week the group read the first two chapters: “In Defense of Everything Else” and “The Maniac”. Though I could write any amount of words on either of these two chapters, it was interesting to hear others’ thoughts who were reading it for the first time. Their insight was very different from my own. I never expected to be reading Orthodoxy with people more Catholic than myself; and reactions, both positive and negative, were quite different from those I’ve heard from more secular people.
“Chapter 1 : In Defense of Everything”
In his introductory chapter Chesterton goes through what he hopes to accomplish over the course of Orthodoxy. But instead, I believe he succeeds in establishing himself as the greatest master of the humble-brag in human history. As per his usual fashion, Chesterton starts by deriding his book as a feeble and boring attempt at auto-biography ( even going so far as to call himself a fool for feeling the need to write it). By the end of the chapter, however, he claims to have discovered the eternal font of human vitality, purpose, and truth.
But beyond Chesterton’s impetuous temperament, the chapter does manage to communicate the book’s primary purpose, namely, to defend Christianity and to defend it in a very particular way.There have been many level-headed defenses of Christianity as the end point of logical deduction, but Chesterton instead wishes to motivate his faith by a desire for romance. Characteristically, Chesterton defines romance as the paradox of simultaneously feeling both at home with the world and at war with the world. It is this feeling Chesterton associates with his own return to the Catholic church, and it is this feeling that Chesterton claims is essential for a lively and engaged attitude towards existence.
The introductory chapter received a fair amount of criticism from the reading group. The concept of romance was found by many to be wanting. I know when I have discussed this book with others, more secular, the main objection to Chesterton’s romance is that it seems anti-empirical and esoteric ( How can one develop a practical understanding of the Universe with some kind of Manichean world-view that assigns values to every blade of grass ?). The majority of objections from the Newman group, however, seemed quite the opposite. Here, the main objection was that Chesterton was attempting to justify eternal truths through worldly ends. Many believed that Chesterton was building the foundation of faith on an un-rational bed of a sand that would lead to inexorably to moral relativism. Others simply felt that romance itself was a shoddy and materialist thing that could not, in itself, point to transcendent truths.
I find these objections worthwhile. A desire for romance is a poor justification for faith, since any single thing is a poor justification for faith. A spiritual belief must be greater than the sum of any one explanation or, in my opinion, it wouldn’t be a true spiritual belief. For this reason, reading a work of philosophy, theology, or apologia always has a sense of pantomime to it. We are going through the motions of trying to communicate in a medium that everyone acknowledges is insufficient to the task at hand. Nonetheless, I think Chesterton is purposefully challenging readers of all persuasions. If a romantic justification of a world view is wrong, could there be something wrong in a merely rational justification of a world view? Chesterton is only too happy to explore this topic in his next chapter.
“Chapter 2 : The Maniac”
I think everyone who has ever read Orthodoxy balks at Chesterton’s second chapter: “The Maniac”. Here, with the utmost bravado (is their a Catholic equivalent of Chutzpah? ), Chesterton launches a frontal assault on the very concept of rationalism and individual self-worth. One can hardly fault Gilbert for mincing words. In the first 10 pages of his book he identifies self-confidence as madness, and rationalism as the root of all insanity. The two great idols of our age smashed in an instant. Why even read further?
Admittedly, in this chapter Chesterton is trying to justify a theological approach by substituting insanity ( a universally acknowledged evil) for sin. Nevertheless, one could hardly come up with a more provocative presentation than “The Maniac”. Are all people “who believe in themselves” only a step or two away from believing they are Napoleon ? Are mathematicians on the highway to insanity? Chesterton goes through one blood-boiling assertion after another. In fact, if you read through this chapter without feeling the need to strangle the author, I think you too might be on the way to an insane asylum yourself (or failing that, perhaps Sainthood).
Needless to say, the group had many objections to the chapter, this time none too different from the standard secular complaints. Although many neo-atheists claim religionists are anti-rational, Catholics have traditionally associated their belief with a Cartesian knowledge of rational/natural law. Many modern Catholics even see rationalism as the primary portal to understanding the divine. I could sense there were many Thomists in the group who were having none of Chesterton’s anti-rationalist sophistry. We will have to see in later installments whether Chesterton can dig himself out of his rhetorical hole; but for the time being, I’m happy that Chesterton has unsettled everyone’s very modernist assumptions. Gilbert may be guilty of sophistry, but he is never boring.
But reactions aside, is it true that mere logic and rationalism lead to insanity? Ignoring the obvious reductio ad absurdum, I think there is at least some truth to Chesterton’s claim. I can’t help but remember my favorite insane mathematician, Kurt Godel, who’s Incompleteness Theorem (ironically enough) ended the ambitions of rationalists like Bertrand Russell to establish a complete logical basis for all truth. It is in fact true that, before Godel, many mathematicians who tried to stretch the boundaries of logic did go mad; therefore, I can’t help but credit Chesterton for being prophetic. As Godel showed in mathematics, an all-encompassing explanation of truth will in fact lead to untruth (if it is complete, it cannot be consistent). So perhaps a fanatical pursuit of an all-encompassing explanation of life does lead to insanity.
This leads me back to my earlier statement that our most fundamental beliefs must transcend their own explanations. People may come to the truth through many different means and I think acknowledging that fact is an important part of being a sane person in the modern world. We must forgive people like Gilbert Keith Chesterton who use bizarre and byzantine ways of justifying their religious world views, because, in all truth, the justifications for our own world views are probably just as bizarre objectively. Explanations and justifications are always unworthy of the truth they describe; and If “The Maniac” can help us realize that paradox, I think Chesterton has accomplished his task.