I’ve been writing a series of posts on the intellectual attraction I’ve felt to G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, and some Christian theology generally. There will be a major update in that series tomorrow, but, in the meantime, here’s an overview of my biggest problem with Chesterton.
In my life as a debater, there’s a particular rhetorical trick that I live in fear of. Picture this:
Armed with knowledge of your opponent’s principles, you construct a reductio ad absurdum argument. Careful to leave your opponent no avenue of escape, you make sure that the chain of reasoning from the premises to the untenable conclusion is adamantine. Once he makes the argument that slots into the first step of your deduction, you spring your rhetorical bear trap.<
And then you watch in horror as your opponent pulls a Br’er Rabbit.
Your interlocutor are delighted that you finally understand. In fact, you might have gone farther! What you thought of as an absurdum is in fact only another step towards the transcendent vistas visible from the Cliffs of Insanity! This bear trap would really be improved with more spikes and a tigher hinge!
This is tends to be my experience when reading Chesterton.
Chesterton loves paradox. For just one of the many quotes backing this up from Orthodoxy, see below:
“As we have taken the circle as the symbol of reason and madness we may well take the cross as the symbol at once mystery and of health. Buddhism is centripetal but Christianity is centrifugal: it breaks out. For the circle is perfect and infinite in its but it is fixed for ever in its size; it can never be larger or smaller. But the cross, though it has at its heart a collision and a contradiction, can extend its four arms for ever altering its shape. Because it has a paradox in its centre it can grow without changing The circle returns upon itself and is bound. The cross opens its arms to the four winds, it is a signpost for free travellers.”
Chesterton’s Christianity rests on paradox. His theology gives him a framework that requires some tenets of his belief to remain unexplained except by divine revelation, and then he takes these mysteries as his foundation. Or, as he would put it,
“The morbid logician seeks to make everything lucid, and succeeds in making everything mysterious. The mystic allows one thing to be mysterious, and everything else becomes lucid.”
I can’t help but rebel at this idea. There’s no way to disprove or question his paradoxical precepts, since he will be the first to admit he doesn’t understand them, but he has found them to be self-validating. Once he accepts them, everything else in his life just seems to work, and the more he commits to these ideas, the easier it becomes for him to live as a good man.
I’d like to mock his epistemology, but I know I’m guilty of all the same tricks. Aren’t I a scientist who can’t help but use the language of dualism when I talk about human beings? Aren’t I an atheist who argues not only that I should behave well, but that I ought to reforge my character so that I am the kind of person who naturally serves the Good. And don’t I have no legitimate reason to capitalize that ‘g’ in Good or to talk about morality as a transcendent property at all?
Like Chesterton, I find myself unable to adequately defend these ideas except by saying that once I admit them to my metaphysics, everything else slots into place and starts working. Without them I don’t have any language to talk about oughts and duty and character, and, lacking that language, I don’t have any reason to live or to act or to love.
If someone has an out, I’d love to hear it, but for now, I’m stuck in the same brier patch that Chesterton loved.