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Chesterton’s Journey to Orthodoxy

Chesterton and the Romance of Orthodoxy: The Making of GKC 1874-1908

By William Oddie

Publisher: Oxford University Press

Pages: 401 pages

Price: $50

Review Author: Anne Barbeau Gardiner

Anne Barbeau Gardiner, a Contributing Editor of the NOR, is Professor Emerita of English at John Jay College of the City University of New York. She has published on Dryden, Milton, and Swift, as well as on Catholics of the seventeenth century.

In Chesterton and the Romance of Orthodoxy, William Oddie retraces G.K. Chesterton’s journey from heresy to orthodoxy. It’s hard to believe, but Chesterton was raised a Unitarian and, in 1896, at age 22, still didn’t believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ. Yet only a few years later, at age 29, he confessed his belief in Christianity in public. And in 1908, at age 34, he published Orthodoxy, a work about “the nature of his faith and the origins of his own beliefs,” a work clearly in “the Catholic tradition — rather than some version of basic or ‘mere’ Christianity.” It would be fourteen years before he entered the Catholic Church, but at this point he had already “completed the intellectual and spiritual armoury with which he was to wage a one-man anti-modernist counter-revolution for the rest of his life.”

This book is a milestone in Chesterton studies, which are still in their infancy. Oddie displays an impressive mastery not just of GKC’s printed works, but also of his manuscripts in the British Library, catalogued by R.A. Christophers and first published in 2001. This catalog, Od­die remarks, has established a new foundation for all future GKC scholarship.

Chesterton’s childhood (1874-1883) was a happy one, filled with the “white light of wonder,” but it was George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin, a fairytale about faith, that made the deepest impression on him. This tale, in which a princess in a castle is attacked from below by goblins and uses a magic thread as her guide, made “all experience a fairy-tale” and gave Chesterton a vision of things that his conversion later confirmed.

At St. Paul’s School (1883-1892) he was found to be “unusually unreceptive to instruction.” Yet there he made lifelong friends and founded the Junior Debating Club and its journal, The Debater, to which he was the “most prolific contributor.” In 1892 he won a school prize for an anti-Catholic poem on the supposed failure of St. Francis Xavier’s mission to the Indies. Half of the twelve poems he published in The Debater were about religion and were of the same bias. When Ches­terton’s family attended Sunday services, they went to hear the Rev. Stopford Brooke preach a religion of love unhampered by creeds, dogmas, and Church authority — all of which Brooke denounced as the roots of intolerance and superstition.

Yet, strange to say, side by side with the anti-popery he had sucked in with his mother’s milk, Chesterton developed a devotion to the Virgin Mary and an admiration for the Middle Ages that would last all his life. In 1892, at age 18, he wrote in defense of Dante and of the belief in the communion of saints. The next year, in “Ave Maria,” his last published poem in The Debater, he addressed the Middle Ages as “O dead worlds of valour and faith, O brave hearts that strove hard to be pure,” and invoked the Virgin as “thou blessed among women, great pureness and motherhood hail!” The emphasis on purity is notable here. His friends later recalled that GKC was an “exemplar” of purity for them. When the club and journal ended in 1893, so did GKC’s “happy and extraordinarily creative boyhood.”

In the next part of his odyssey (1892-1894), GKC wrestled with the devil at the Slade School of Art. The enemy appeared to him in the form of the “decadent” movement — a morally subversive aestheticism that put the highest value on subjective experience and wallowed in pessimism. This movement also fostered “homoerotic sexual behavior,” which GKC said twisted “even decent sin to shapes not to be named.” In his revulsion at the turpitude around him, he came close to a nervous breakdown, but he learned from this that it was necessary to engage in combat with the devil. Later he recalled that, at the time, “huge devils hid the stars.”

And so Chesterton’s turn to orthodoxy was triggered by “a vision of positive evil.” As he put it, “I dug quite low enough to discover the devil…. Perhaps, when I eventually emerged as a sort of theorist, and was described as an Optimist, it was because I was one of the few people in that world of diabolism who really believed in devils.” In “The Diabolist,” a story he wrote later about his time at Slade, he remarked that he was “becoming orthodox” because he had arrived at “the old belief that heresy is worse than sin.”

In these “silent years,” he wrote a lot in his notebooks but published nothing. He was observing the world around him, “the creation of that liberal philosophy in which he had been trained,” and he perceived that this philosophy was powerless against evil. He regained his joy when he embraced the doctrine of creation, along with the gratitude it inspired. He now saw that the purpose of life was “to dig for this submerged sunrise of wonder; so that a man might suddenly understand that he was alive, and be happy.”

From 1894 to late 1896 he continued to regard Jesus Christ as simply the “perfection of Mankind.” His anti-popery continued, a component of his religious liberalism and the French republican tradition he had embraced. But at the end of 1896, Oddie finds a great turning point in the manuscripts — “an affirmation that this Son of Man, though indeed the greatest of all Mankind, was also something very much more.” By this time, Chesterton had met his future wife, Frances, a woman raised in the school of an Anglo-Catholic convent. Soon after they met, he began to shift toward orthodoxy. When they were engaged in 1898, he wrote: “Here ends my previous existence. Take it: it led me to you.” They married in 1901, and, though unable to have children, they enjoyed an enduring relationship “of the mind as much as of the heart.”

In 1900 GKC became part of an Anglo-Catholic clerical group that included Charles Gore, later bishop of Birmingham and founder of Pusey House, and Henry Scott Holland, founder (in 1889) of the Christian Social Union. That year he also met Hilaire Belloc and was impressed by his “dazzling abilities as a public speaker” and “original reflections on his­tory and character.” In this year, he privately embraced not only the dogma of Christ’s divinity, but also the belief in miracles. He spoke of the “error of dogmatising against dog­ma.” When his book reviews for The Speaker were collected and published at the end of 1901, one critic attacked him for his use of paradox. GKC replied that paradox could be equated with common sense because “there really is a strand of contradiction running through the universe,” for example, that goodness involves the power to do evil.

The year 1903 was a landmark year for Chesterton. For the first time, he “publicly, persistently, and sometimes aggressively confessed his faith.” Taking the role of “a committed apologist,” he engaged in a “pitched battle” about Christianity with the founder and editor of The Clarion newspaper, Robert Blatch­ford. In an essay titled “The Return of the Angels,” which Oddie considers a key document for understanding GKC’s intellectual and spiritual journey, he wrote a “personal manifesto” about “his former loss of faith in, and his commitment to, the Christian religion.” He defended the faith as “a hypothesis which, once tested, can become a means of perception, making sense of what was previously obscure.” Since faith is a way of seeing, the only thing to argue about is what is visible to a man who is blind and to a man who can see. When they refuse to experience faith, rationalists refuse to “test it.”

By the time this controversy ended in 1904, Chesterton had defended creation, Christ’s divinity, the Incarnation, free will, original sin, and miracles. He already saw Protestantism “as being in a kind of alliance with the unbelief of Huxley and Blatch­ford.” There are also hints that he believed in the sacraments. Although his defense of Christianity seemed lighthearted, it would later prove “massively influential over such intellectual heavyweights as C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.” GKC had now realized “not only the extent to which disbelief in the Christian religion had become endemic in English culture; but, much closer to home, he had come to understand how much he had now isolated himself from the presuppositions of nearly everyone in the literary and journalistic world of which he was now a recognized part.” He had committed the unpardonable sin in that age of having declared that something could be “absolutely true.”

In 1905, in a chapter of his book Heretics titled “The Importance of Being Orthodox,” Chesterton wrote that while modern educators tried to implement religious liberty without defining the nature of religion and liberty, “the men who killed each other about the orthodoxy of the Homo­ousion [i.e., the doctrine that Jesus was ‘of one substance with the Father’] were far more sensible…. For the Christian dogmatists were trying to establish a reign of holiness, and trying to get defined, first of all, what was really holy.”

Finally, in 1908, Chesterton reached the apex of his spiritual ascent. He published Orthodoxy, a work inviting comparison to John Henry Newman’s Apologia pro Vita Sua; a work designed to show “that Christian dogma is the very opposite of a constriction of the human spirit, [and] to set the Christian creeds flying in the wind like great banners above a conquering army of liberation.” In this work, consisting of an “intensely visual sequence of almost cinematic images,” GKC plays the part of Everyman: “Only a mind whose horizons were so unbounded, a mind, too, so entirely and instinctively prompted by natural humility, could so naturally and so convincingly have assumed the role of Everyman.” Here he argues that Christian doctrine is not forced on reality, but is the key that unlocks “life’s real meaning” and leads to truths like original sin: “There had come into my mind a vague and vast impression that in some way all good was a remnant to be stored and held sacred out of some primordial ruin. Man had saved his good as Crusoe saved his goods: he had saved them from a wreck.”

In the chapter “Paradoxes of Christianity,” we come to “the intellectual and dramatic summit of the book.” Here Chesterton explains how truth is “cumulative,” and “spiritual certitude is a matter of the accumulation of inferences rather than of direct rational proof.” He tells us about the thrilling romance of orthodoxy, how through two millennia of history the Church kept a dynamic “equipoise” between opposites. She couldn’t “swerve a hair’s breadth on some things if she was to continue her great and daring experiment of the irregular equilibrium. Once let one idea become less powerful and some other idea would become too powerful.” There had never been “anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy. It was sanity: and to be sane is more dramatic than to be mad.” It is easy to be a madman, a heretic, or a modernist: “It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands.” He now envisioned the chariot of the Church flying through the centuries, “the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect.” Orthodoxy had never been “a static principle denying growth,” but rather “a dynamic principle defending sanity.”

Also in the year 1908 GKC wrote “The House of Christmas,” one more poem expressing his devotion to the Virgin Mary. His antipathy to Rome was now gone, for as he observed in Orthodoxy, “the very word ‘romance’ has in it the mystery and ancient meaning of Rome.”

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