Thursday, January 17, 2008

Dr. Thursday's Post

An exploration of Orthodoxy: the beginning

One of my duties here in the E-cosmos, as in the outer, or Real world - yes, John Mayer, there really is such a thing, as I am sure he asserts every time he goes to cash his album royalty check. But then Chestertonians know that "No sceptics work sceptically." [GKC St. Thomas Aquinas CW2:542]

Sorry, I've wanted to say that for some time. (Incidentally I rather enjoy that song, but the philosophy is silly.) Ahem. I shall start again.

One of my duties here in the E-cosmos, as in the Real World, of which this blogg is just a small and unplottable fragment, is to provide an interesting counterbalance to certain topics. It gets me into hot water - but then (as GKC remarks) "I believe in getting into hot water. I think it keeps you clean." (ILN Mar 10 1906 CW27:142) Though it can be frustrating, for the audience as well as for me.

So, in keeping with this Chestertonian scheme of keeping clean by getting into hot water, I have decided to talk about 1908 and what happened then. Everyone knows that 2008 is the centennial of Orthodoxy, one of GKC's most important books - and I will begin my exploration in the usual Chestertonian way - by talking about something else. Like Father Brown.

Click here to continue reading.

You see, there is a very important centennial coming up in the Fall (I mean Autumn) of this year which may be slightly overshadowed by our celebration of the centennial of GKC's "slovenly autobiography". [CW2:215] That event was the Eucharistic Congress of 1908, held in London... or have you forgotten these stirring words?
Flambeau was in England. The police of three countries had tracked the great criminal at last from Ghent to Brussels, from Brussels to the Hook of Holland; and it was conjectured that he would take some advantage of the unfamiliarity and confusion of the Eucharistic Congress, then taking place in London.
[GKC, "The Blue Cross", The Innocence of Father Brown, emphasis added]
Yes, there really was a Eucharistic Congress in London - the nineteenth of such meetings, which are world-wide, and still being held - that one was held September 9-13, 1908. See here for some more about the amazing story.

Why do I start there? Because, though it may be hard to talk well about such a gigantic book as Orthodoxy, the one we shall examine closely throughout this year, it is necessary that we look into things in an upside-down, and a distant, an alien, an outsider kind of view. Otherwise, we shall get nowhere. We must imagine, in a sense, that WE are Flambeau. We are in England. Someone is after us. Actually two people. One, to arrest us and bring us to trial. (He, alas, shall face a different kind of trial before we do; but I cannot explain this allusion here.) Another, who is not so much following us, but in front of us, is trying to catch us with "an unseen hook and an invisible line"... for the Lord has made him a Fisher of Men. [See "The Queer Feet" in The Innocence of Father Brown]

Chesterton, in his own way, is also a fisher of men. And that is a distinctly Christian vocation. It is not only the priest who is called to this fishing. Nor does such fishing always involve nets! If we were proceeding to argue as Aquinas, we should indeed cite that Father Brown story about the thread.

Orthodoxy, you see, is one of the most potent of Chesterton's threads.

Our ACS president, Dale Ahlquist, and I have discussed the curious division of Chestertonians into those who seem to center on Orthodoxy and those who seem to center on The Everlasting Man. Some people read Orthodoxy first and then The Everlasting Man, and some do it the other way around. (Some haven't yet, lucky you! Get busy.) There is a debate - a silly, and rather half-hearted one - about which is "more important" or "more fundamental". (We do not debate it. We like them both.)

After some struggle, we have produced a shorthand explanation, to remove all doubt, and set the matter to rest:
Orthodoxy is about how GKC found it.

The Everlasting Man is about what he found. (Or, rather WHOM. Remember that "the Everlasting Man" is GKC's own title for Jesus Christ.)
So. Having settled another seeming paradox of "A OR B" by choosing "A AND B", as is my right, since I know Boolean Algebra, I shall now proceed to make a first examination of Orthodoxy. Every Chestertonian is going to be doing this during 2008. The whole Conference, according to last report, is going to be doing this. I can only hope to do it differently by trickery. I shall do it by NOT doing it, like Calvin (from the comic "Calvin and Hobbes") touching the "Opposite Pole", or as one sees the sun at night by its reflection from the moon. Or I shall do it like Valentin following Flambeau: that is, by following "the train of the unreasonable". I shall stop at odd things in the text, things others might stride past, and look at them by the light of the moon. So, let us begin, with the help of God.

Take, for example, the opening words of GKC's Orthodoxy:
This book is meant to be a companion to Heretics, and to put the positive side in addition to the negative. Many critics complained of the book called Heretics because it merely criticised current philosophies without offering any alternative philosophy. This book is an attempt to answer the challenge. It is unavoidably affirmative and therefore unavoidably autobiographical.
[GKC, Orthodoxy CW1:209]
First, we see that this book almost presumes that you have already examined GKC's earlier book, Heretics, in which he skewers some great names of his time - some still known, others forgotten except for their appearance within it. For example, the great playwright, George Bernard Shaw:
I am not concerned with Mr. Bernard Shaw as one of the most brilliant and one of the most honest men alive; I am concerned with him as a Heretic - that is to say, a man whose philosophy is quite solid, quite
coherent, and quite wrong.
[GKC, Heretics CW1:46]
Chesterton is not being a 21st century (or better, a 19th century) journalist, intent on throwing mud, or ink (since the streets have now been paved). He is being something far more amazing: a thirteenth century scholastic. He is aiming, not at the person, but at that person's ideas. GKC says GBS's philosophy (his ideas) are wrong - an important distinction.

In the same way, then, in Orthodoxy GKC is about to talk about some MORE ideas. But this time, those ideas which are RIGHT where those in his other volume were wrong - or perhaps I should be more precise to say these ideas are TRUE where the others are FALSE. (But we are not going to see an epistemological analysis here; do it yourself if you are that interested!)

It is important to note the strange humility here. GKC claims that the ideas we are about to see are "affirmative" - they state a truth. He immediately links this with himself - he uses that power-word "Therefore" and shows that (1) he is NOT setting forth a text on mathematics, which can be asserted by adherence to the learned rules; (2) he is not setting forth a text on "natural science" - on physics or such studies, which can be established by repetition of the experience of the matter being considered; (3) he is not setting forth a text on "theological science" which is a matter of contemplation (if not literal inspiration). He is not going to resort to an appeal to authority, which might turn into a fistfight. Nor is he doing the usual kind of writing which comes under the general head of Liberal Arts, which is usually just a presenting of excerpts from other writers on a given topic, and a reconsideration of the relevance or the accuracy of their work. (This may be just another form of the appeal to authority, which explains why so many lit'ry folk have black eyes. Hee hee.) All these things are good and worthy in their place, and GKC talks about all of them elsewhere, and almost always with respect.

No, here, GKC is trying to do something very difficult. He is going to tell us something about what HE believes, and how his thought got him to that particular belief. He is not, in the formal sense, "proving" something. He is giving an exposition of his own thought. It is therefore both affirmative and autobiographical.

Let us advance, just slightly, into the paragraph, skipping the mention of Newman - or I shall soon fill your hard disk with curiosities. Perhaps someday someone will explore the relation between Newman and Chesterton - it will be useful as well as inspiring. But let us go on, as there is one other blazing jewel to explore today:
It is the purpose of the writer to attempt an explanation, not of whether the Christian Faith can be believed, but of how he personally has come to believe it. The book is therefore arranged upon the positive principle of a riddle and its answer.
[GKC, Orthodoxy CW1:209]
People wonder about the link from GKC to JRRT - that is from the Master of Paradox to the Master of Hobbits and the Subcreator of Middle Earth, J.R.R. Tolkien. There are many points to explore (and topics for other days), and here is another point of contact. GKC sees the essential question of truth as a riddle. (remember Bilbo and Gollum?)

GKC had already begun pondering the marvellous Book of Job in the Bible - he wrote an introduction to it in 1907 - he begins it so: "The Book of Job is among the other Old Testament Books both a philosophical riddle and a historical riddle." [In GKC as M.C.] Even before that, in 1901, he knew it: "Every great literature has always been allegorical - allegorical of some view of the whole universe. The 'Iliad' is only great because all life is a battle, the 'Odyssey' because all life is a journey, the Book of Job because all life is a riddle." ["A Defence of Nonsense" in The Defendant] For Bilbo and Gollum, the Riddle game was considered "sacred" and "of immense antiquity"... it would be all too easy to explore this, and delay the issue at hand again. But I shall resist the Ring, the Ring-Maker, and all his works...

The riddle form, the question and answer, the challenge and response, the joke and the punchline... are these just the eastbound and westbound lanes of the turnpike, the systole and diastole, the input and output, the morning and evening terminators of the intellect? Or are they something more?

GKC means to find out. And we, please God, shall follow him as he explains his own study of his own experience, his own thought - and his own discovery.

Remember, the country of England is claimed to have been discovered by Gilbert Keith Chesterton. Yes, indeed. He claimed it himself. (We'll get to that line in a future episode.) Let us not be bothered by the dull history that others discovered it before him. Let us have the adventure, like Bilbo, and set off down the Road - which is also called the Way.

--Dr. Thursday.

PS. Come close to the screen, I have a secret to tell. I heard it as a secret; it was so written by a priest in a very rare newspaper. Here it is:

"One day while we were studying in Roma, we heard it whispered that the supreme joke of eternity consists of two parts - a question and an answer, like all the classic aphorisms - the two parts of course being the Old and New Testaments." [from "Humor and Its Basis in Reason" by Fr. A. Thomas, O.P. in Something Good to Read Vol. CXIV No. 230 (Feb. 11, 1998)]

So the next time someone asks you the silly old question about "Why did the Chicken Cross the Road" you will understand what the joke really is. And like GKC, you will feel the universe shift into rightness, even as it appears upside down! You will hear the song of the angels at Bethlehem, the cries at Calvary, the strange sounds of that Paschal Sunday which we now know are "Alleluias" - and the Great Noise which is the whisper of the Spirit. It's an adventure.

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