Heretics is one of Chesterton’s most important books. It is also one of his most neglected books. Perhaps the reason has to do with the title.
The word heretic conjures up frightful images of controversial characters being barbecued for their beliefs. It smacks of “intolerance.” The very word “dogmatic” is perceived as being intolerant. But Chesterton says that man is the animal who makes dogmas. “Trees have no dogmas. Turnips are singularly broad-minded.” There is something ironic about “tolerance” being an ideal, and that it is connected to religious freedom. In reality, “tolerance” has done more to suppress religion than has any persecution. It has left us not only afraid to debate about our beliefs, it has made us afraid even to discuss them. As Chesterton says, “We now talk about the weather, and call it the complete liberty of all creeds.” This strange silence about religion leaves the impression that religion is not important.
There is one thing that is infinitely more absurd and unpractical than burning a man for his philosophy. This is the habit of saying his philosophy does not matter, and this is done universally in the twentieth century… A man’s opinion… on Botticelli matters; his opinion on all things does not matter.
Chesterton says that we can’t get away from the fact that we have a general view of existence, whether we like it or not. It affects and involves everything we say or do, whether we like it or not. And our general view of things is based on our ultimate view of things. Religion is never irrelevant.
This book is not an attack but a defense, a defense of the ancient truths that are under attack by modern heretics. Chesterton claims to have gained a deeper appreciation of the Christian Faith through the simple exercise of defending it. He says he never realized the great philosophic common sense of Christianity until the anti-Christian writers pointed it to him.
Heresy, it turns out, is usually a distinct lack of common sense. A heresy is at best a half-truth, but usually even less than that. A heresy is a fragment of the truth that is exaggerated at the expense of the rest of the truth. The modern world praises science and hygiene and progress. These are all very well and good, but they have been elevated at the expense of larger truths, such as faith and tradition and permanent ideals.
In this book, Chesterton takes on George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells, and other “heretics” whose names may not be familiar, even if their “heresies” are still exceedingly familiar. The original objection to Heretics, which in fact compelled Chesterton to write Orthodoxy, is that his own criticisms of others were not to be taken seriously unless Chesterton himself declared what he stood for. This is perhaps why Heretics is considered the negative for which Orthodoxy is the positive. But any reasonable reader can see that Chesterton’s criticisms are a defense of a well-defined position. By criticizing moral and artistic relativism, he is defending identifiable and absolute standards. By criticizing egoism and the cult of success, he is defending humility. By criticizing skepticism, morbidity and muddle-headedness, he is defending faith, hope, and clarity.
Clarity. The truth which Chesterton is defending should be obvious. But because Chesterton has to defend it, it obviously isn’t obvious. The heretics have obscured the truth, they have distracted us, they have won us over with lies. The first lie is that truth doesn’t matter.
It may be surprising to some that Chesterton wrote Heretics before he became Catholic. Yet he defends Catholic thought and doctrine throughout the book, and never more artfully than when he responds to the well-worn heresy that every great society must be built on strong men:
When Christ at a symbolic moment was establishing His great society, He chose for its corner-stone neither the brilliant Paul nor the mystic John, but a shuffler, a snob, a coward – in a word, a man. Peter. And upon this rock He has built His Church, and the gates of Hell have not prevailed against it. All the empires and the kingdoms have failed, because of this inherent and continual weakness, that they were founded by strong men and upon strong men. But this one thing, the historic Christian Church, was founded on a weak man, and for that reason it is indestructible. For no chain is stronger than its weakest link.