Orthodoxy at a Hundred
Wood, Ralph C., First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life
G.K. Chesterton's most renowned book is a hundred years old. Orthodoxy was first published in London by John Lane Press in 1908, and it has never gone out of print--with more than two dozen publishers now offering editions of the book. Graham Greene once described it as "among the great books of the age." Etienne Gilson declared that Chesterton had a philosophical mind of the first rank. Hugh Kenner said that the only twentieth-century author with whom Chesterton could be compared is James Joyce. And Dorothy Day was inspired to return to Christianity mainly by reading Orthodoxy. Indeed, we might say that the last century belongs to Chesterton--for in that now one-hundred-year-old book, Orthodoxy, he remarkably prophesied the ailments of both modernism and postmodernism, while adeptly commending Christianity as their double cure.
Born in 1874 to Anglican parents who were functional Unitarians, Chesterton soon saw that their acculturated kind of Christianity would not suffice as an answer to the ills of the modern world. Largely under the influence of Frances Blogg, the high church Anglican who eventually became his wife, Chesterton gradually came to identify himself as a Christian. Indeed, he began to use Catholic as a synonym for Christianity. Partly in deference to Frances, however, Chesterton was not received into the Roman Catholic Church until 1922, when he was forty-eight, fourteen years before his death in 1936.
Chesterton regarded his conversion as a progressive and not a reactionary decision--not a nostalgic, backward-gazing act. The central argument of Orthodoxy is that Christianity finally answered his pressing questions. It challenged him to push ahead toward the consummation of all things: "The only corner where [people] in any sense look forward is the little continent where Christ has His Church."
Though sometimes a crank and often a curmudgeon, Chesterton never turned in revulsion against the disorders of his own age. On the contrary, he sought to redress them by means of a feisty and witty, punning and alliterating kind of journalism. In a torrent of essays published in the Illustrated London News and many other newspapers--they would eventually number more than fourteen hundred--Chesterton thundered against all manner of evil, mainly the maladies that afflicted the poor: the wage slavery that wedded workers to their jobs, the prohibitionism that robbed the destitute of convivial relief from drudgery, the nanny state that wanted to manage even the cleanliness of the needy, the eugenics programs that would keep the mentally deficient from marrying. He even devised a scheme, called distributism, for reallocating land.
Many of Chesterton's books are collections of these newspaper essays: Tremendous Trifles, What's Wrong With the World, Heretics, The Defendant, Alarms and Discursions, Fancies versus Fads, All Things Considered, and so on. He also wrote remarkable studies of such nineteenth-century figures as Dickens and Browning and Blake as well as biographical accounts of Francis of Assisi and Thomas Aquinas. In addition, he authored a clutch of small novels and short-story collections: The Man Who Was Thursday, The Club of Queer Trades, Manalive, The Flying Inn, The Napoleon of Notting Hill. And there are, of course, the perennially popular Father Brown stories.
Yet except for The Everlasting Man (1925) and a couple of late works such as The Well and the Shallows (1935), Chesterton rarely devoted himself to straightforward theological writing. He sought to come at things indirectly, slyly suggesting or else thunderously pronouncing about matters whose religious import was often more implicit than overt.
Orthodoxy is the notable exception to his usual pattern of writing. It is not an anthology but a carefully argued and deceptively complex work whose title indicates that its moral concerns are also theological. It is a subtle account, in fact, of his own conversion, as he moved gradually from the claims of reason to those of faith. …