It is often a wonder — though no small wonder at that — that Christians apparently cannot get along at all if it so happens that their theologies do not align to the fullest. Thus, the Baptists want nothing to do with the Methodists who steer clear of the Nazarenes while all three, being protestant, join forces against the Catholic. Now, I, being a Reformed Protestant Calvinistic Southern Baptist (or, RPCSB), believe doctrine and theology to be quite an important aspect of who I am, and it is an essential part of being a Christian. Subsequently, I have issues with the Catholic doctrine and practices, yet, despite those differences, I have been goaded on to both agree with, learn from, and love my great friend G.K. Chesterton who was indeed Catholic.
After reading his fantastic “biography” on Dickens, I decided to check out his works on theology, and, due to his book Orthodoxy being highly recommended by John Piper and quoted by Tim Keller (both reformed theologians), I decided to give it a go, weary to some degree of what I may disagree with.
Yet, to my great surprise, I disagreed with very little, if anything. Though perhaps my main critique would be to some assumptions that simply were not fleshed out enough for my liking — but in sincerity, it was probably more a moment of me simply not getting what he was talking about as opposed to his being unable to explain himself.
The book essentially takes on the role of a spiritual autobiography in which Chesterton goes through his own thought process before coming to the conclusion that Christianity simply makes the most sense. The premise in my mind is that “There is a thought that stops thought. That is the only thought that ought to be stopped” (p. 28). In engaging our current society, Chesterton explains, there are a group of individuals that hold the belief that man should be a free-thinker. Today, I believe this would be known as being open-minded.
This belief comes about from what Chesterton explains as the “new humility.”
The old humility made a man doubtful about his efforts, which might make him work harder. But the new humility makes a man doubtful about his aims, which will make him stop working altogether.
The idea is that being told there are no absolutes essentially defeats itself. If I am to be doubtful of what I believe — if I am to question everything — I end up questioning myself. I begin to not believe anything. Our generation does not believe the wrong things so much as they believe in nothing at all. And this is because of a humble (yet in the end arrogant) belief that man is incapable of knowing anything. “We are on the road to producing a race of men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table” (p. 27). And if we have no foundation, if evolution is true (I speak philosophically, not biologically), and there is only randomness, then consequently I have no valid reason to think about anything in the first place.
Just as one generation could prevent the very existence of the next generation, by all entering a monastery or jumping into the sea, so one set of thinkers can in some degree prevent further thinking by teaching the next generation that there is no validity in any human thought.
And yet this is what Chesterton claims he was battling as he sought for some solution, some theory, some orthodoxy to explain his own thought process — some validity to the reason for thought. The problem with skepticism, or truly pessimism, in the end is that it does not even allow for itself. If I am here by random chance, here to be open to any theory because no theory is or can be true, then the theory I ascribe to that says nothing can be true is itself something we should question and claim as not absolutely true; and if this be the case, if being open-minded should be questioned, we have arrived nowhere. We have traveled the world over only to arrive back where we started. I, like Chesterton, cannot answer for my own thought process (for it is too complex) by simply ascribing it to random chances. There is no evolutionary purpose for thinking outside the box apart from God being the beginning of it all; for the fittest survive just as well if not better without reasoning everything out. If I don’t have to think about the morality of killing someone for food, killing someone for food becomes much easier for me.
We have not reached what I believe for me was the scariest part of this new ideology of thought. That is, that the person just described must fall into one of two camps: the pessimist or the optimist. The pessimist, or what Chesterton calls the “uncandid candid friend” has truly a “secret desire to hurt, not really to help” (p. 64).
The evil of the pessimist is, then, not that he chastises gods and men, but that he does not love what he chastises — he has not this primary and supernatural loyalty to things.
The problem we face when we have obliterated thought in this sense — that is, if life has no meaning — is that one natural road will be taken: we throw up our hands in submission and criticize everything to no end; for there is an end and frankly it upsets us. Pessimism is not seeing no good in anything (for that is nonsense), it is seeing glimpses of good knowing they hold no meaning and cannot be forever enjoyed.
Now one may just as well state then that it is far better to be an optimist. But in the end, we are simply one white-washing the world, who, despite seeing that all is not well, still tells himself all is well — the blind lover if you will. This person leaves himself no room for change, no means by which we can reform our world. If everything is already good why change it? And this must coincide with the notion that all is meaningless, for if all thought is irrelevant, what matter is there to change? For “a man’s friend likes him but leaves him as he is: his wife loves him and is always trying to turn him into somebody else.”
What then must we do? Chesterton states this well when he says that “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” (p. 67)
We must come to the point where our optimism and pessimism are not canceling each other out but are instead all the more fierce. Life with meaning means that we must live in extremes. We must hate evil more than pessimism would have us and love good yet more. Our desires should not be after this world to the end but for a new world altogether. We view this world as but a telescope which we look through to find a much fuller picture of reality, and that reality comes much clearer to us in imagination than in reason. Reason in the end reasons itself out, imagination sets us free.
Christianity is then a religion in which the faculties of imagination are set free. We often find more wonder in the small things of this world if they have meaning to us. The seasonal cycles, old age, and ultimately death are no longer monotonous mysteries but clues to something far greater. Modern man has simply placed too much glory upon himself, he is unable to hold the weights. Much like if I was inclined to start lifting things on my own, the modern man has placed far too much weight of glory and reason upon himself. If the secret to life is found within oneself, we may find an answer but it will not be a freeing one. It will be an eternal fetter which we like to call egoism and narcissism. While man has found an answer to life’s secret in himself, he has not found the answer. He has not discovered that if he truly desires to be set free from his bondage he must look elsehwere and that must not be with modern thought or theories. It must be found in the old theories and paradoxes of Christianity. For only in Christianity is one told to be righteously pessimistic about our world and yet righteously zealous. While on the outside Christianity is viewed as a stale, cold religion that destroys thought and stops creativity, it instead does the opposite. No man is more creative than he who knows the Artist of this world. No man is more free to think than he who acknowledges that all thought comes from a never ending fountain of imagination that is poured down on us from above.