Chesterton's Apologia

Orthodoxy - G.K. Chesterton

Christian authors seem to always end up writing a book about how they came to believe what they believe, and in fact from when I was a youth (that is in my twenties) one of the things that the Bible teachers would always do would be to teach us to explain to people why we believe what we believe. They would refer to this as our testimony and it would generally, though not always, fall into a similar pattern – I was a really bad person, but I then had this divine revelation, and suddenly I am now a Christian. The problem with that is that many of us got stuck on the 'I was bad' part of the story and simply finished it off with a 'now I'm a Christian'. The truth is, though, explaining why one is a Christian as opposed to how one became a Christian is a very difficult task, especially since it involves a lot of thinking. To be honest there are actually quite a lot of Christians out there that if you were to ask them why they are a Christian then they wouldn't be able to give you an answer. While I could give you a tonne of examples of the testimony, a friend of mine wrote a very good example of what I will call an Apologia.


Orthodoxy is another really good example this form of literature (and yes, you will also find similar examples in the writings of Paul the Apostle, but for now I will stick to Chesterton). At the beginning of this book Chesterton explains that the reason that he wrote this book was because he spent all of his time in [book:Heretics] explaining why a number of the secular beliefs that were circulating at the time were not so much wrong, but unsatisfactory, and didn't provide any ideas of a way that was satisfactory. As such he writes this book, not so much as an objective argument as to why Christianity is superior to these other beliefs (because it is very difficult, if not impossible, for one to write an argument objectively as to why one's belief system is superior), but rather why he considers Christianity superior.


One of the interesting things that we are seeing in this book is the beginnings of the war between science and religion. It isn't as if Chesterton is saying that science is wrong, but rather he is suggesting that a world that exists within a closed system that is run purely by the laws of science does not actually provide a rational and satisfying answer to the basic question of life – why are we here? I have to admit that I agree with him, because to me a universe that functions purely on the rules of science is little more than a cold and unloving machine that offers no hope and no purpose. I guess this is one of the main reasons why people in the later part of the 20th Century have began to seek out religious answers again because the harsh reality of the closed system in the end leaves us empty and alone.


One of the things that Chesterton focuses on is the idea of miracles, or I would prefer to suggest as the idea of magic – namely that there are aspects of this universe that completely baffle us and the more than we look into it them more confused that we become – how is it that light can behave as a particle and a wave, and in turn matter exist not only as a particle but have wave like properties about it. What is emotion, and what causes us to feel these emotions: joy, sadness, excitement, love? The problem is that we live in this scientific world that seeks answers to this questions in science – we have determined that emotions are caused by chemical reactions in the brain, and thus we create drugs to pump into people to try to cure them of depression, or to make them sit still in class (when in reality children don't want to be stuck in a class room that is a form of prison being taught using a system of education that belongs back in the industrial age).


Then there is the notion of sin – not big 'S' Adam ate the apple and got kicked out of the garden sin, but rather the fact that people can be really annoying at times. In fact there is a whole field of study called criminology that tries to explain why people do bad things. Well, I guess it happens to be because we really only care about one person - ourselves. Half the reason that charities survive is because you get tax deductions for giving money to them – I wonder how long a charity would last if it didn't have tax deductible status? Then again it is always the other person who is bad because we can never accept us as doing any bad things – yet our prisons are full of people who claim that they never did anything wrong (though I do have serious concerns with the way the criminal justice system operates).


One thing that Chesterton does is that he goes back to his childhood to look and remember the joys, and the magic, of growing up. How we would be marvelled by the animals that we would see at the zoo, or the trains that would go roaring past. In many ways that magical part of childhood is not so much lost, but forced out of us, as we grow up. We aren't supposed to have this magical fascination of trains any more because one is now an adult and one is supposed to do adult things – such as sitting in an office all day trying to be as productive, and as profitable, as possible, even if you aren't enriching yourself.


I want to finish off here by saying a few things about conservatism because while Chesterton may sound like your standard Christian conservative, in reality he isn't. In fact he considers conservatism to be a incredibly dangerous thing, namely because nothing stays the same forever. He uses the example of the white post – if one leaves the white post and doesn't do anything to it (thus attempting to maintain the status-quo) the the white post will sooner or later become a black post. For that white post to remain a white post one must paint it. The same is the case with conservatism – it is corrupting. If we maintain the status-quo then eventually the system will become corrupted, and eventually we will all lose out. We are seeing this happening today with the ever widening income gap, and the ravages of climate change. This is probably why democracy is a good thing because at least every few years we get to ditch the tired old party and bring in a new one – though the problem arises not so much with the parties, but with the system they represent – we may change the parties, and we may change the policies, but the system, in the end, remains the same. This is why Chesterton not so much supports progress, but rather progress in the form of a revolution, a revolution that seeks to move us out of the corrupted status quo and back to the edenic world of the past. There are many ideas as to how one can do this, but in Chesterton's mind this can only be done if we return to the original teachings of Jesus Christ.


You can read this book online here (and probably numerous other places as well).