Finding My Way to Orthodoxy

Finding My Way to Orthodoxy November 22, 2012

“Have you ever read this?”. These were the words I remember him saying to me. Scott was a third-year medical student. For six weeks, we had worked together on an inpatient internal medicine rotation where I served as his senior resident. The role of a resident is to mentor the medical students who are still quite wet behind the ears. On starting the internal medicine rotation, medical students have recently emerged from the crypt-like classrooms where for eight hours a day they were forced to binge on an endless parade of facts only to purge them on demand for their relentless academic overseers. As such, life on a hospital rotation brings the medical student back into contact with “the living”. It is a time of reinforcement of the reason why you went into medicine in the first place. When I was a medical student, I appreciated the wise, thoughtful, and witty mentors I had in my supervising residents and staff physicians. Likewise, I have always wanted to provide my medical students with a similar degree of wit and wisdom. And six weeks in the trenches of a busy hospital rotation gives you a chance to bond with your students pretty deeply. As a result, once or twice during the rotation, we would find ourselves in the basement of a seedy peanut bar known as Williams’ Pub discussing various issues and blowing of steam. It was here that Scott handed me a book and again asked, “Have you ever read this?”

Orthodoxy. That was the title of the bent-up, two-toned blue paperback in his hand before me. “No. I haven’t,” I replied. I recall reading a few witty quotes from its author, G.K. Chesterton, at one point in my life. But nothing further. “Read it. And keep it. I think you’ll like it,” he said. And then we went on to other topics over peanuts and beer. The origin of this gift came in response to a casual conversation he and I had about a book I had been reading. Without naming the book, it was essentially a popular hit-job on the Pope. As such, I was engrossed with it (not yet Catholic at the time). And yet this bright, polite, and compliant medical student made it clear to me that the book had major flaws in its research, was overtly biased, and was celebrated for gratuitously taking potshots at a figure all to easily assailed by the modern secular media. Let me say, that this kind of response gave me pause. Scott was smart and even-keeled. He had great judgment and was no firebrand or radical. And yet, he was clearly passionate about this. The more we talked, the more apparent it was that he was clearly well-versed on this topic. Scott was Catholic and a St. John’s University graduate. I was Protestant and now very intrigued…especially now that I had a book called Orthodoxy in my hand.

In 1905, a young British man named Gilbert Keith Chesterton wrote a book called Heretics. At the tender age of thirty-one, Chesterton, an art school drop-out and a fledgling book reviewer, embarked on an unlikely endeavor. With perspicacity and playfulness, he was going to reason why the intellectual bright lights of his day were simply wrong. George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells, Henrik Ibsen, Rudyard Kipling – none would be spared Chesterton’s critique. But as Maisie Ward, Chesterton’s publisher and biographer, would write:

“Gilbert was not really concerned in this book to bang his contemporaries about so much as to study their mistakes and so discover what was wrong with modern thought.”

And Chesterton himself would state in the introduction to Heretics:

“[I am not concerned with any of these men as a brilliant artist or a vivid personality, but] as a Heretic – that is to say a man whose view of things has the hardihood to differ from mine…as a man whose philosophy is quite solid, quite coherent, and quite wrong.”

In spite of Chesterton’s good-natured and wry humor, his booked pricked a number of egos. After all, a young, relatively unaccomplished upstart was challenging not only the prevailing opinion-makers of his day, but also the dominant “enlightened” worldview. Criticisms rained down upon him:

“[It is] unbecoming to spend most of his time criticizing his contemporaries.”

“His sense of mental perspective is an extremely deficient one.”

G.K. Chesterton, lacking any type of malice, received this criticism with good nature and humility. And yet, there was one criticism that prompted him to action – one criticism which he felt was justified and worthy of an answer. Chesterton explains:

“The only possible excuse for this book [Orthodoxy] is that it is an answer to a challenge…When sometime ago I published a series of hasty but sincere papers, under the name of “Heretics”, several critics for whose intellect I have a warm respect (I may mention specially Mr. G.S. Street) said that it was all very well for me to tell everybody to affirm his cosmic theory, but that I had carefully avoided supporting my precepts with examples. ‘I will begin to worry about my philosophy,’ said Mr. Street, ‘when Mr. Chesterton has given us his.'”

And so, in response to a sharp criticism, G.K. Chesterton wrote Orthodoxy in 1908. He would describe it as:

“[Not] an ecclesiastical treatise but a sort of slovenly autobiography.”

This book would articulate G.K. Chesterton’s worldview. It starts with some of the general propositions accepted and adopted by society as “conventional wisdom”. Then, picking up where he left off in Heretics, he begins to make a case that brings us from the general worldview of determinism, scientism, and nihilism to a specific world of freewill, wonder, and salvation. Chesterton, nominally a high-church Anglican at this time (thanks largely to the influence of his wife, Frances), was effectively articulating a Catholic worldview in this 1908 book which he would officially adopt upon his conversion in 1922. IN 1908, he was a Catholic…he just didn’t know it yet.

“Have you ever read this?” Scott asked me, “Read it. And keep it. I think you’ll like it.” Well, a year or so later on a beach in Mexico, I finally read Orthodoxy. And I completely DIDN’T get it. I thought Chesterton was an overrated, rambling, tangential writer. Furthermore, I was dismayed that Scott would find this man so wise, and Catholic circles would deem this book one of the greatest works of Christian/Catholic apologetics in history. Surely, I was right and they were wrong… Right?

Well, after attending a few conferences of the American Chesterton Society (under the enthusiastic leadership of Dale Ahlquist), reading Maisie Ward’s biography on Chesterton (a classic – see my Book Review on this at, and consuming innumerable articles and several other Chesterton books, I re-read Orthodoxy. Four years had passed since I previously dismissed the book. And to be perfectly frank, I was utterly dumbstruck at how wrong I was. The deep insights, playful paradoxes, and compelling wisdom that I flatly missed were stunning. Chesterton wasn’t lacking, I was. To paraphrase a wonderful admonition on reading Shakespeare, “When you are reading Chesterton, Chesterton’s not on trial – YOU are.” The late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, editor of First Things magazine and a bright thinker, made me feel in good company when he had this to say about reading G.K. Chesterton:

“I try not to read too much Chesterton, or at least not too much at one sitting. He has a way of insinuating himself into a writer’s manner, leading either to pretension or despair. To try to write like him makes one look silly, and knowing that you can’t write like him is very depressing.”

So what is it about Orthodoxy that makes it so profound? What can I now say to others who might struggle as I once did with the unique style and substance that is specific to G.K. Chesterton? Chesterton’s story is a journey. Whereas Heretics affirmed to  Chesterton who he was NOT, Orthodoxy affirmed who he was. And isn’t this the journey we are all on? We try to discern and avoid that which repels while hewing to that which attracts. One of the most profound descriptions Chesterton gives was instrumental in my own conversion to Catholicism. It is about his rejection of the conventional wisdom of the day (as outlined in Heretics) and adopting, what he perceived as, a new and novel worldview. Chesterton felt this new and novel worldview was unique to him and worthy of warm self-congratulation. But, then he realized:

“I am the man who with the utmost daring discovered what had been discovered before…I did, like other solemn little boys, try to be in advance of the age. Like them I tried to be some ten minutes in advance of the truth. And I found that I was eighteen hundred years behind it…I have kept my truths: but I have discovered, not that they were not truths, but simply that they were not mine. When I fancied that I stood alone I was really in the ridiculous position of being backed up by all Christendom. It may be, Heaven forgive me, that I did try to be original; but I only succeeded in inventing all by myself an inferior copy of the existing traditions of civilized religion…I did try to found a heresy of my own; and when I had put the last touches to it, I discovered that it was orthodoxy.”

By identifying what he didn’t believe in, and better understanding what he did believe in, Chesterton, aided by Providence and good common sense, arrived in the arms of  “Orthodoxy”, the Truth of the Church, Christianity. Orthodoxy tells the story of how he got there. And what a story it is.

“Have you ever read this?…Read it. And keep it. I think you’ll like it.” I have, Scott. And I will again. Thank you. Thank you very much.

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