Friday, September 19, 2008

Question on a passage from Orthodoxy from a reader

From Tim, in my In Box:
Dear Ms. Brown,

I have just finished Orthodoxy with a reading group and a question has emerged that I cannot resolve. I was wondering if you would know the answer or would be willing to post this to your site to see if there is anyone who can be of help. I am pretty new to blogging. Here is the question:

In Section VI (The Paradoxes of Christianity) of Orthodoxy, there is a paragraph that I am having difficulty understanding. It is the second to the last paragraph which begins "Last and most important, it is exactly this which explains what is so inexplicable to all the modern critics of the history of Christianity. I mean the monstrous wars about small points of theology, the earthquakes of emotion about a gesture or a word. . . ."

In the context of the chapter, this paragraph continues a discussion of the tension or equilibrium of "balancing one emphasis against another emphasis." One way of reading this passage appears to be that Chesterton attempted to respond to those who criticized the use of murder and torture in the name of the church by saying that these events in church history were necessary in order to protect sound doctrine. The paragraph ends "Doctrines had to be defined within strict limits, even in order that man might enjoy general human liberties. The Church had to be careful, if only that the world might be careless." According to Chesterton, what was at stake were "the best best statutes in Europe," dances, Christmas trees, and Easter eggs. Surely Chesterton is not suggesting that murder and torture were necessary tools in order to maintain this equilibrium and preserve statutes, dances, Christmas trees, and Easter eggs. Such a reading appears to me to be inconsistent with the book as a whole. It would also lack biblical justification. is this a misreading of the passage? What am I missing? I appreciate any thoughts you can provide me.

Thank you in advance for your help.
And my response:
Dear Timothy,
What I have to say in response, I can only hope will sound Chestertonian.

First, we have to understand that murder and torture are wrong, and Chesterton believed that. What Chesterton is talking about is not murder or torture, but war. And war is another thing altogether. Wars must be fought (and he was not a pacifist) because men must fight for what they believe in, or their way of life will be usurped by the invading army and its beliefs. War is not the same as murder, even though people are killed in the process; there are "just war" arguments, and war is sometimes necessary; and especially when an army of men with different beliefs conquers a land and forces their beliefs on the inhabitants, the inhabitants are justified in fighting back for their own possessions, their land, their beliefs. And, as Chesterton believed, every war is a war of religion.

Recall Chesterton's distinction between suicide and martyrdom. He would make the same distinction between murder, and taking a life in a battle for one's country, or one's home. Both end in the end of someone's life, but how it happens is quite different.

The best example I can think of to tell you what Chesterton means when he says that "monstrous wars about small points of theology" are fought is what happened in 1054 with the major schism between the east and the west. It was basically a war of one word, sometimes referred to as the filioque. This is a war and a schism lasting for a thousand years, which was pretty much started because of one word in the Nicene Creed. But, as Chesterton sees it, it is still right, despite the disunity it caused (which Jesus prayed, that we may all be ONE and not disunity, so we know it is wrong to be split, yet we must split if one party is wrong about a point of Truth), it is still right to fight over this one word, because if there is Truth, one must fight for it. If we stand for something, we must stand for Truth, and if we do, we must be willing to fight for it.

No one can justify murder and torture, and Chesterton would certainly agree about that. He would not defend murder, nor torture. But, he would defend a man's right to fight for the Truth, and that is what he is attempting to say here, to the best of my knowledge.
Tim asked that I might post this, for anyone else having trouble with this particular point, so here it is.


  1. I've been trying to find out if the position of the Orthodox Catholics (no connection to Orthodoxy, of course) is now considered to be a heresy by the Roman Catholic Church, or if it is simply considered to be a different, legitimate kind of difference. The best answer I could get from one of my Orthodox friends was that he didn't know, and Roman sources are giving me conflicting answers. I suppose that if it was a legitimate difference, there would have been no schism, but the Orthodox seceded from Rome, not Rome from them.

    P.S. Don't let the "Liberal" in my blogger name throw you off. If it does, you are not truly Chestertonain.

  2. I don't know if Chesterton is even addressing the question whether violence in the name of religion is right. I think he is explaining what he calls "the paradox of parallel passions": the idea that Christianity is not rationalist faith that tries to comply with an artificial rational consistency, but a dialectical faith that goes right--and wrong--in two directions at once, just like the world itself.

    This is why its critics always get it wrong. One minute they are accusing it of being too pacifist, and the next to warlike; one minute it concerns itself too much with heaven, and the next too much with earth.

    Earlier in the book he talks about how, on first glance, the world looks perfectly symmetrical, but on a closer view, one discovers that it has strange imperfections. Chesterton argues that Christian belief is not necessarily internally consistent; it is, rather, consistent with reality. Reality, being fundamentally mysterious, does not conform to what we might expect. Christianity, mirroring reality, has the same characteristics which to a rationalist look like imperfections, but to a realist, make perfect sense.

    This is illustrated by his analogy of a lock and a key. The strangeness of the world (the lock) is perfectly in alignment with the strangeness of the key (Christianity). And when we find the key that fits the lock, it can be no coincidence.

    I think the point Tim is referring to is in the context of this broader discussion.

  3. Thank you, Martin, for adding this thoughtful commentary to the conversation.

  4. As a clarification, Mr. Cothran, do you imply that Christianity might be wrong, or not internally consistent, or think that Chesterton thought this? This is what your comment seems to mean. I can easily see how even Christians could percieve it to be so, but, in all seriousness, we can't believe that it actually is that way and remain Christian, for then we would be saying that we believed in Christianity, and also took it to be partly false.

  5. Hey Old Fashioned Blogger. Chesterton writes about this a lot, especially in The Ball and the Cross. What he means when he says it's "inconsistent" is that it has paradox. I could try and explain this, but Chesterton does it better:
    "Those who look at the matter most superficially regard paradox as something which belongs to jesting and light journalism. Paradox of this kind is to be found in the saying of the dandy, in the decadent comedy, "Life is much too important to be taken
    seriously." Those who look at the matter a little more deeply or
    delicately see that paradox is a thing which especially belongs
    to all religions. Paradox of this kind is to be found in such a
    saying as "The meek shall inherit the earth." But those who see
    and feel the fundamental fact of the matter know that paradox is
    a thing which belongs not to religion only, but to all vivid and
    violent practical crises of human living. This kind of paradox
    may be clearly perceived by anybody who happens to be hanging in mid-space, clinging to one arm of the Cross of St. Paul's."

  6. Old Fashioned Liberal,

    No, I don't think Chesterton was saying that Christianity is wrong. My point was that the question of whether Christianity was wrong on the point of violence was not what Chesterton was talking about in the passage the reader was asking about. I tried to show why.

    Chesterton was merely arguing that where Christianity, as an explanation of the world, appears irregular, it is because the irregularity matches the apparent irregularity of the world. He is arguing against human rationalism, which would impose more regularity on reality than is actually there.

    In this sense, Christianity (which is rational, but not rationalistic) conforms to reality to a greater degree than its critics.

  7. Old Fashioned Liberal,,M1

    You might be interested in reading chapter 3 of "Common Sense 101" The link above provides the chapter in it's entirety as well as a lot of the rest of the book. You can locate the chapter on pages 40-52. Here Dale Ahlquist, President of the American Chesterton Society, examine Chesterton's thoughts on "paradox". It's very interesting and I think it will help you a lot.


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