Thoughts on “The Paradoxes of Christianity” by G.K. Chesterton

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Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, Hubert van Eyck (d. 1426)

 

” …whenever we feel there is something odd in Christian theology, we shall generally find that there is something odd in the truth.”[1]

In the sixth chapter of his book Orthodoxy, Chesterton notes that it wasn’t the work of Christian apologists that made him reconsider Christianity but reading its atheist detractors.  He writes:

“I never read a line of Christian apologetics. I read as little as I can of them now. It was Huxley and Herbert Spencer and Bradlaugh who brought me back to orthodox theology. They sowed in my mind my first wild doubts of doubt. Our grandmothers were quite right when they said that Tom Paine and the free-thinkers unsettled the mind. They do. They unsettled mine horribly. The rationalist made me question whether reason was of any use whatever; and when I had finished Herbert Spencer I had got as far as doubting (for the first time) whether evolution had occurred at all. As I laid down the last of Colonel Ingersoll’s atheistic lectures the dreadful thought broke across my mind, ‘Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian.’ I was in a desperate way.”[2]

Another curious thing that compelled him to consider Christianity more seriously was the contradictory reasons its detractors gave for finding fault in it.  As an example (and one of about nine he cites in this chapter), he writes that Christianity was at once charged with being too pessimistic and too optimistic.  Again, it was supposedly oppressive towards women by promoting marriage while simultaneously being sneered at for having more woman than men in its ranks.

These are just a few examples, but from the sum total, Chesterton surmised that it must be an amazing creed to be so consistently rejected for such obviously contradictory reasons.  For him, it was not only merely wrong but it must be “very wrong indeed!”[3]

Chesterton had a strong suspicion that these diametrically opposed faults might be more a function of these critics than of Christianity itself.  Still, there must be something unusual about Christianity, he thought.  He discovered that where it appeared odd, reality or the truth was odd, too.  He concluded that Christianity guessed “the hidden eccentricities of life” and combined them such that they were neither diluted nor allowed to run wild.[4]

“Christian doctrine detected the oddities of life. It not only discovered the law, but it foresaw the exceptions. Those underrate Christianity who say that it discovered mercy; anyone might discover mercy. In fact, everyone did. But to discover a plan for being merciful and also severe — that was to anticipate a strange need of human nature. For no one wants to be forgiven for a big sin as if it were a little one. Any one might say that we should be neither quite miserable nor quite happy. But to find out how far one may be quite miserable without making it impossible to be quite happy — that was a discovery in psychology. Any one might say, ‘Neither swagger nor grovel’; and it would have been a limit. But to say, ‘Here you can swagger and there you can grovel’ — that was an emancipation.”[5]

This gets me thinking about the limits of theology and philosophy.  C.S. Lewis said that such abstractions, though important, can only take us so far.  We invariably run up against paradox at some point.  Yet, as Chesterton points out, the church is rightly concerned with getting as close as we can to true doctrine for though it might be “a matter of an inch .. an inch is everything when you are balancing” life’s inherent paradoxes.[6]

But, here again, we run up against another paradox for Paul, the great resister of the early, heretical Judaizers, tells the church to “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.”

This reminds me of a friend’s commentary on philosophy in the recent blog post, “Epistemological Tweets”.  In many ways, we are like little birds making our comfortable nests in the letters of a sign that are truly far beyond our comprehension.  And yet we meet the most striking of all paradoxes: God became flesh, and simple belief in Him and our measly and weak obedience is all He requires of us.

In the end, Chesterton writes, “we must remember the difficult definition of Christianity already given; Christianity is a superhuman paradox whereby two opposite passions may blaze beside each other. The one explanation of the Gospel language that does explain it is that it is the survey of one who from some supernatural height beholds some more startling synthesis.”[7]

One such area where Christianity reconciles competing realities occurs with respect to what Blaise Pascal called man’s “greatness” and his “wretchedness.”  Chesterton writes:

“In one way Man was to be haughtier than he had ever been before; in another way, he was to be humbler than he had ever been before. In so far as I am Man I am the chief of creatures. In so far as I am a man I am the chief of sinners. All humility that had meant pessimism, that had meant man taking a vague or mean view of his whole destiny — all that was to go. We were to hear no more the wail of Ecclesiastes that humanity had no pre-eminence over the brute, or the awful cry of Homer that man was only the saddest of all the beasts of the field. Man was a statue of God walking about the garden. Man had pre-eminence over all the brutes; man was only sad because he was not a beast, but a broken god. The Greek had spoken of men creeping on the earth, as if clinging to it. Now Man was to tread on the earth as if to subdue it. Christianity thus held a thought of the dignity of man that could only be expressed in crowns rayed like the sun and fans of peacock plumage. Yet at the same time it could hold a thought about the abject smallness of man that could only be expressed in fasting and fantastic submission, in the gray ashes of St. Dominic and the white snows of St. Bernard. When one came to think of one’s self, there was vista and void enough for any amount of bleak abnegation and bitter truth. There the realistic gentleman could let himself go — as long as he let himself go at himself. There was an open playground for the happy pessimist. Let him say anything against himself short of blaspheming the original aim of his being; let him call himself a fool and even a damned fool (though that is Calvinistic); but he must not say that fools are not worth saving. He must not say that a man, qua man, can be valueless. Here, again, in short, Christianity got over the difficulty of combining furious opposites, by keeping them both, and keeping them both furious. The Church was positive on both points. One can hardly think too little of one’s self. One can hardly think too much of one’s soul.”[8]

You can read more from this fascinating chapter (and book) here:  http://www.leaderu.com/cyber/books/orthodoxy/ch6.html

In the end, the greatest of all Christian paradoxes is portrayed in our Lord, the God-man, the Lion of Judah, the Lamb that was led to slaughter, and the humble and meek Shepherd Who has twelve legions of angels at His command.  Chesterton notes that Jesus is often accused of being weak and ineffectual.  Yet when he investigated these claims in the text of the New Testament, this “super-human paradox” confronted him on every page.  He writes,

“There I found an account, not in the least of a person with his hair parted in the middle or his hands clasped in appeal, but of an extraordinary being with lips of thunder and acts of lurid decision, flinging down tables, casting out devils, passing with the wild secrecy of the wind from mountain isolation to a sort of dreadful demagogy; a being who often acted like an angry god— and always like a god. Christ had even a literary style of his own, not to be found, I think, elsewhere; it consists of an almost furious use of the a fortiori. His “how much more” is piled one upon another like castle upon castle in the clouds. 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. We cannot even explain it by calling such a being insane; for insanity is usually along one consistent channel. The maniac is generally a monomaniac. Here we must remember the difficult definition of Christianity already given; Christianity is a superhuman paradox whereby two opposite passions may blaze beside each other. The one explanation of the Gospel language that does explain it, is that it is the survey of one who from some supernatural height beholds some more”[9]

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Notes:

[1] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, (Peabody, MA:  Hendrickson Publishers Marketing, 2006), 79.

[2] Ibid., 80-81.

[3] Ibid., 85.

[4] Ibid., 94.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 95.

[7] Ibid., 142-143.

[8] Ibid., 90.

[9] Ibid., 142-143.

 

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