Though I had been raised within the church and had spent considerable time with Plato, Augustine, Aquinas and Calvin, it wasn’t until I read Chesterton’s Orthodoxy
that I realized Christianity could be so much fun.
Though I agreed with his critical diagnosis of the age that he presented in Heretics,
only when I read ‘The Ethics of Elfland’ did I become entranced with the sheer wonder and joy at the heart of his spiritual vision. The chapter is a pivotal one in Orthodoxy
: it transitions from his denunciation of his time’s impoverished outlook and its sources to his explanation of the fundamental grounds or basis for the truth of the Christian faith.
Rather than appeal to arguments, though, Chesterton turns to fairy stories. Embedded within the tales he learned in the nursery are his “ultimate attitudes towards life,” the “soils for the seeds of doctrine.” His approach is not quite anti-rationalist—but it is thoroughgoingly aesthetic. He will have nothing of the Nietzschean commitment to willing for its own sake, and yet his depiction of the world he inhabits teeters on undercutting the rationality of the world in favor of an extreme emphasis on divine action. We are entranced, he observes, that the bush produces a rose rather than a lemon. More famously, the sun comes up every morning, because God has the endurance of a six year old, who incessantly repeats ‘do it again.’ The contingency of creation’s order is a marvelous wonder: it might all be otherwise, precisely because God is behind it all, making an ongoing decision to keep it the same. Chesterton doesn’t hollow out nature or its regularity, and with it, reason. But he comes close: it is as fideistic a moment as I know of in his (admittedly large, mostly still unknown to me!) corpus. And yes, using “large corpus” to speak of Chesterton’s work is the sort of wry allusion to his mammoth girth that I like to think he’d appreciate.
That is all by way of setup, though, to my reflections on a single phrase at the end of Chesterton’s depiction that I’d never noticed before. In the final paragraph of the chapter, Chesterton helpfully distills the attitudes he had described. In the first place, he felt the world was magic, that it simply could not explain itself. So much, I think, I have articulated above. But then he goes on, and says this:
“Second, I came to feel as if magic must have a meaning, and meaning must have some one to mean it. There was something personal in the world, as in a work of art; whatever it meant it meant violently.”
Chesterton is regarded in many circles as a very insightful wit. He might be a prophetic voice, yes, but a subtle thinker he is not. Yet this is just the sort of moment that makes me think he really knows what he’s about, and that Orthodoxy is a masterfully crafted book. Among all the adverbs Chesterton could have reached for—and he had many at hand—he used “violently.” It’s an extraordinarily striking term, especially in this context. The meaning of creation is not distilled by its contingency—rather, its personalist origin is so forceful that it cannot be escaped. The personal dimension of the world intrudes upon us, whether we wish it to or not: while it may come as a welcome guest, it also may not.
In this very sentence, I think Chesterton pits himself against nearly the whole of modernity. In his analysis of the modern philosopher Baruch Spinoza’s thought
, Leo Strauss suggests (if memory serves) that modernity is particularly troubled by the fear of violence, and especially the violence of punishment. One way to avoid that fear is to empty the cosmos of its meaning by reducing it to a mechanistic, lifeless place. If the world really is an independent, self-sufficient place, then any personal dimension within it might very well reduce to a violent imposition on our self-seeking.
No wonder, then, that Chesterton turns to violent imagery to describe both the entrance of Christian orthodoxy in the world and our Saviour Himself. Christianity, he writes, “came in startlingly with a sword, and clove one thing from another.” It divided the crime from the criminal, and it divided humanity from God. The “Son of God came not with peace but with a sundering sword.” Real love, even, “has always ended in bloodshed.” The Father has a sword to separate brother and brother, “so that they should love each other at last.” Christianity asserts “with violence that a man had not only to look inwards, but to look outwards, to behold with astonishment and enthusiasm a divine company and a divine captain.” As an intrusion of authority in an anti-authoritarian age, how could it feel like anything besides violence?
And finally, this about our Lord and Savior:
“The diction used about Christ has been, and perhaps wisely, sweet and submissive. But the diction used by Christ is quite curiously gigantesque; it is full of camels leaping through needles and mountains hurled into the sea. Morally it is equally terrific; he called himself a sword of slaughter, and told men to buy swords if they sold their coats for them. That he used other even wilder words on the side of non-resistance greatly increases the mystery; but it also, if anything, rather increases the violence.”
Chesterton can be read as an anti-modern reactionary, as the last of the medievals. And that isn’t necessarily wrong. But that sells him short: he is thoroughly modern medieval, a thinker who accepts the categories of his age as salient and then demonstrates how Christianity subverts and transfigures them. If violence is among the central fears of our era, the antidote involves embracing it rather than running from it—and in so doing seeing how orthodoxy is the terrible violence of love.