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Wednesday, June 26, 2013

G.K. Chesterton's Philosophy of Paradox

G. K. Chesterton

Chris Hauser — The Dartmouth Apologia

Within its long history, Christianity has been accused of almost every kind of vice imaginable. Strangely enough, its critics—sometimes even the same critic—have attacked it for contradictory reasons. Some detractors, in particular Epicureans and Materialists, have decried it for its unworldliness and pessimistic outlook on the material world. Other disparagers—those with a more cynical point of view, such as the Stoics or Existentialists—have condemned Christianity for blinding the people, shielding their eyes from the true bleakness of the world by giving false promises of divine mercy and a glorious afterlife. Hell, it is said, is a doctrine breeding despair; but Heaven, they say with equal vehemence, is a doctrine breeding false hope.It is with this criticism that G.K. Chesterton begins his explanation of his “philosophy of paradox” in the sixth chapter of Orthodoxy, his excellent book of wit and wisdom.1 As Chesterton points out, it might be easily overlooked if this were the only set of inconsistent charges but indeed there hardly seems to be an accusation against Christianity whose opposite has not also been leveled against the religion. It has been accused of being too pacifistic, “an attempt to make a man like a sheep,” as a result of Gospel phrases like “turn the other cheek” and “love your enemy.”2 And yet the bloodshed of the Crusades and the intolerance for heresy have earned this meek, sheep-minded religion a reputation for violence and aggression.3 “Or again,” Chesterton writes, “Christianity was reproached with its naked and hungry habits; with its sackcloth and dried peas. But the next minute Christianity was being reproached with its pomp and its ritualism; its shrines of porphyry and its robes of gold. It was abused for being too plain and for being too coloured.”4 The accusations run on and on, extending from an unwarranted destruction of the family to an irrational insistence on the family, from an unnatural praise of celibacy to an overly natural demand for children.5 It would seem that Christianity is as full of paradoxes as it is of parables.

The result of all these contradictory charges is that everything about Christianity seems to be not just wrong, but wrong in opposite ways and for opposite reasons. When a young Chesterton reflected on the picture of Christianity painted by its critics, he began to think that they did not understand how evil Christianity really must be if their contradictory criticisms were all correct. He was forced to reevaluate just how bad Christianity was: “It must be understood that I did not conclude hastily that the accusations were false or the accusers fools. I simply deduced that Christianity must be something even weirder and wickeder than they made out.”6

However, the more Chesterton reflected on this, the more he found this conclusion to be unsatisfactory. For the striking thing about Christianity was that though its critics collectively accused it of every possible evil, individually most of them were willing to admit that certain ethical principles or teachings were very valuable and beneficial to the welfare of humanity. Chesterton decided that the critics had no special insight into Christianity, for they had no explanation for its apparently endless evil:

I found in my rationalist teachers no explanation of such exceptional corruption. Christianity (theoretically speaking) was in their eyes only one of the ordinary myths and errors of mortals. They gave me no key to this twisted and unnatural badness. Such a paradox of evil rose to stature of the supernatural. It was, indeed, almost as supernatural as the infallibility of the Pope. An historic institution, which never went right, is really quite as much of a miracle as an institution that cannot go wrong.7

Read it all here.

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