Orthodoxy is the trunk of the tree from which all the other branches of Chesterton grow. It is a masterpiece of rhetoric, it has never been out of print since it was first published in 1908, and it is simply one of the best books written in the 20th century.
If you only read one book by Chesterton – well then shame on you – but if you only read one book by Chesterton, it has to be Orthodoxy. But don’t compound your shame by thinking you can get away with reading it only once. Or only twice. The first problem is that every sentence in the book makes you stop and think, which makes you lose the thread of the main argument. “Every act is an act of self sacrifice.” Think about that. Or, “Death is more tragic than death by starvation.” Or, “The mere pursuit of health always leads to something unhealthy.” Or, “Progress should mean that we are always changing the world to suit the vision. Progress does mean (just now) that we are always changing the vision.” Or this one: “Angels can fly because they can take themselves lightly.”
Besides the fact that almost every sentence in the book is a show-stopper, the next problem is that the next sentence, or even the next word is never what you expect – which makes you lose the thread of the main argument. “A madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.” “When you do love a thing, its gladness is a reason for loving it, and its sadness a reason for loving it more.” “We do not need a censorship of the press. We have a censorship by the press.”
And there’s a third problem: when you read the book a second time, completely different sentences will jump off the page at you, leading you to conclude that Chesterton has somehow managed to re-write the book since the first time you read it. Which makes you lose the thread of the main argument.
So, what is the main argument that seems so hard to keep a hold of in this book? It is this: “that the central Christian theology (sufficiently summarized in the Apostles’ Creed) is the best root of energy and sound ethics.” Simple.
Chesterton begins the book by describing a book he didn’t write, a “romance” about a man who sets sail from England in order to discover a new land. He accidentally gets turned around and returns to England, thinking it is the new place he had sought to discover, and finds himself looking at familiar things as if seeing them for the first time. Chesterton had intended to write that story as a way of illustrating what he perceived to be one of life’s greatest riddles and challenges: “How can we contrive to be at once astonished at the world and yet at home in it?”
But more importantly, Chesterton’s unwritten story of romantic discovery is a metaphor for his own spiritual odyssey. He had set out to discover a new heresy that he could call his own. But when he had put the finishing touches on it he discovered that it was traditional Christianity, or orthodoxy: “I have kept my truths but I have discovered, not that they were not truths, but simply that they were not mine. When I fancied that I stood alone I was really in the ridiculous position of being backed up by all Christendom.”
Chesterton goes on to compare traditional Christianity with modern philosophies, with eastern mysticism, with ancient paganism, and with basically everything else. He notes that Christianity begins with the doctrine of Original Sin, which, he says, is the only part of Christian theology that can be proved. But the hope of mankind lies in the fact that we have sinned and can be forgiven. The philosophies which reject the idea of original sin, ironically end in doubt and utter despair. If taken to their logical conclusions, they lead not only to madness but self-destruction. Whatever pleasures and thrills they offer are short and shallow. Christianity, on the other hand, may seem from the outside to have only rigid doctrines and disciplines, but inside there is abundant freedom and everlasting joy. This is the gigantic secret of the Christian faith. And while Christianity may also seem to be a rather odd and complicated affair, that is one of the best evidences of why it provides the solution to the equally odd and complicated riddles of life. “If the key fits the lock, you know it is the right key.”
The word orthodoxy means, literally, “straight doctrine,” and Chesterton explains why it is so important to get the doctrine exactly right; and why even a slight divergence from the truth has to be fiercely opposed. Truth is a balancing act. But not a simple balancing act with a few sedate and neatly contained ideas. What is being balanced are the wild animals of all our best hopes and beautiful passions and creative energies. The Church, says Chesterton, “has always been a lion tamer,” making sure that no particular aspect of the truth gains an upper hand over any of the others, even by an inch: “People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy.”