G. K. Chesterton’s Heretics and the Importance of Creeds: An in Depth Review

 

IMG_1598I first encountered G. K. Chesterton midway through my sophomore year of high school, through his classic book Orthodoxy, which instantly became, and remains to this day, one of the greatest books I’ve ever read, on any subject. With Chesterton, the adage really is true for me that I would be willing to “read his grocery lists,” as it were. If he knows nothing else, Chesterton knows words. He knows their strength and influence. He knows poetry, imagery, language. Chesterton has a way with words that is so striking, and at times so overwhelmingly beautiful in their profundity and image creating power, that they make you wonder how a mere man could possibly have written them. But at the same time, his words are neither over exaggerated nor flippant, neither melodramatic nor superficial, but, in their verbal dexterity, reveal such plain truths and simple facts, that one wonders how any man could possibly not have written them in his own thoughts, how any man could possibly have missed it. Chesterton, above all, reveals common sense like a rising sun through a cloud of misty darkness. Chesterton delighted in paradoxes, because he knew that paradoxes are the signature of truth. Chesterton showed fairy tales to be as obviously true as truisms, because most often, fairy tales are truisms. Chesterton made banalities seem as bright and exciting as a newborn star, because Chesterton knew that the facts easiest to overlook and forget are the facts that are so common that no conscious thought is given to them at all. And that was the whole intellectual power of Chesterton: he gave thought to those ideas and assumptions which are very often left untouched by the mind; he gave words, and stunningly magnificent words at that, to the unspeakable truths which we all know, which we all hold in our hearts but which seem to us so delicate and indefinable that we never thought them possible to express, until Chesterton does so.  When I read Chesterton, I never feel as if I am being given new information from an external source; rather, I feel as though a hazy veil has been lifted from my own heart and mind, and the thoughts and feelings I had inside me all along are finally given form and freedom. Chesterton writes with a kind of mystical wonder at the world, at life and reality, that makes even the drabbest of subjects dazzle and sparkle like drops of rain in a beam of sun. And if it seems to you superfluous and irrelevant that I have taken the first four hundred words of a book review to stand in awe of that book’s author, it is only because I could do nothing less. Chesterton is a gigantic figure in my life and in my mind. I cannot separate a review of Chesterton’s work from Chesterton himself.

But now to the book itself. Chesterton mentioned at the beginning of Orthodoxy that he wrote Orthodoxy as a response to a challenge, which challenge itself was delivered in response to the book of our current interest, naturally titled Heretics. Having read Orthodoxy multiple times, and having meant to read Heretics for several years now, it was with much excitement that I finally reached it on my list.

Heretics, however, was not quite what I expected. Not at all, really. It is a very different sort of book than Orthodoxy, despite the fact that they are meant to be read together, and the latter followed directly from the former. Orthodoxy is essentially a positive argument, built from the ground up. Heretics, at first sight, doesn’t really even seem to be an argument at all. Or at least, not one single argument.  Orthodoxy builds a creedal tower from the ground up and works in a straight line; Heretics plunders and breaks down intellectual fortresses and works in something of a circle. Orthodoxy is an explanation and defense of a person’s worldview; Heretics is the denouncing of many different people’s world views. Orthodoxy, when read through, feels like a complete work, like something whole and united and connected; each chapter flows from the previous one. Heretics feels much more detached, and the chapters are largely unconnected, much more like separate, independent essays than chapters. Chesterton himself admits this, referring to Heretics as “a series of hasty but sincere papers” (Chesterton, Orthodoxy). Read what he writes in the Preface of Orthodoxy: 

“This book is meant to be a companion to “Heretics,” and to put the positive side in addition to the negative. Many critics complained of the book called “Heretics,” because it merely criticised current philosophies without offering any alternative philosophy.

This book is an attempt to answer the challenge…The writer regards [this book] as amounting to a convincing creed…” (Chesterton, Orthodoxy pg 1).

I have spent so much space discussing the writer of a book, and the sequel to a book, without yet mentioning too much of the book itself, because these former things are essential to understanding the book itself; or at least, these former things were in my mind the way that I myself came about understanding the book itself. Heretics was written first, but I happened by chance to read Orthodoxy first, and in many ways I think this was better. If I hadn’t read Orthodoxy first, I wouldn’t have known Chesterton’s philosophy. If I hadn’t known Chesterton’s philosophy, I would’ve missed the subtle significance of Heretics. In some ways, a man can tear down every creed but his own, and it still might tell us nothing abut his own creed. But that is only true in a superficial way, and that is the whole point and essence of the book Heretics. Chesterton’s critics, to whom he refers in the quote above, were wrong that he “merely criticised current philosophies without offering any alternative” (Chesterton). Because it is precisely in the whole act of refuting other philosophies that he establishes his own. At once he both criticizes the competing world views and defends his own. In one swift motion he strikes with his sharp rhetorical sword at all the heretics surrounding him, but only because he is standing firm on the foundation of his own orthodoxy. And if I hadn’t already been familiar with this orthodoxy, I would’ve entirely overlooked it amongst the littered corpses of the conquered heretics. In short, it is simply false that Chesterton fails to offer us an alternative philosophy; the whole book Heretics just is his philosophy, painted in clear and poignant strokes between each and every line, and each and every word. In that sense, it might even be the case that the book Orthodoxy is a redundancy, although certainly not an unnecessary one.

But if it is true that both Orthodoxy and Heretics are “amounting to a convincing creed,” then Orthodoxy is the pinnacle of that creed, and Heretics is its base. Or, rather, Orthodoxy is as a tree, growing from the solid trunk and spreading out into all the various branches of doctrine and theological details; Heretics, however, is the roots of this grand tree. Orthodoxy is a declaration of belief in Christianity (in particular, the Christianity consisting of the basic commitment to the Apostle’s Creed, and more broadly, to Roman Catholicism). Orthodoxy is a specific creed; but Heretics is much more fundamental than that. In Heretics, Chesterton defends the creed that creeds are necessary; and even more fundamentally, the creed that there are creeds, that creeds exist. It may seem somewhat obvious that all men have creeds of some sort. But once again, it is often that most obvious fact which is easiest to ignore. In the Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading version of the book, Steven Schroeder writes in the introduction:

“For Chesterton, Truth matters, and that is the basis for a good argument. In this, he is well aware of the use of the Greek term behind the English “heretic” to describe one who makes a choice or takes a position; and he joins the ranks of heretics who embrace their heresies as orthodoxies, as positions that are true.” (Schroeder, Heretics pg viii).

This remark really is a fantastic summary of the sentiment behind Heretics. Notice the comment that “the basis for a good argument” is the fact that “Truth matters.” And this really is the basis for Chesterton’s entire argument. In some ways, that statement just is the entirety of Chesterton’s argument, applied to different cases.

I should here say something about what Heretics is and isn’t. Heretics is not a historical or theological summary of the traditional “heresies” officially denounced by the Catholic church. Nor is this book strictly a condemnation of other religions or world views which differ from the Christian faith. Chesterton did not write this book as a polemic against atheists, or as an argument for why one should hold Christian claims as true and Muslim or Buddhist claims as false. That is much more the direct focus of Orthodoxy. Chesterton wrote Heretics much more as an analysis of his contemporary intellectual climate. Each chapter can be viewed as an independent essay, aimed at responding to a certain trend or position or advocate of a position in the society around him. To take just a single example, the ninth chapter of the book is entitled “The Moods of Mr. George Moore,” and its topic of conversation is a writer contemporary to Chesterton named George Moore, who rejected Catholicism for a number of reasons which Chesterton responds to in the present chapter. This is a good representation of the spirit of the work as a whole; for in it, Chesterton does not defend the position that Catholicism is true. Rather, Chesterton simply argues that Mr. George Moore was wrong, and specifically, that his rejection of Catholicism was for reasons which are false. In doing so, Chesterton digs past all the facades and verbiage that Moore actually used, and gets to the very heart of what Moore actually meant; and then responds to that, and in so doing, refutes both the words and the meanings behind them.

But I am getting ahead of myself. I mentioned earlier that Heretics argues in a kind of circle. That is most evidently clear in looking at the first and last chapters. They are titled, respectively: “Introductory Remarks on the Importance of Orthodoxy” and “Concluding Remarks on the Importance of Orthodoxy.” As this clearly shows, the only reason Chesterton has any power to take on the “heretics” of his day, is because he has a clear understanding, and commitment to, his own philosophy upon which he stands, and the end towards which this philosophy is directed, which is orthodoxy. Here is just a sparse selection of quotes from the first chapter:

“Nothing more strangely indicates an enormous and silent evil of modern society than the extraordinary use which is made nowadays of the word “orthodox.” In former days the heretic was proud of not being a heretic…The man was proud of being orthodox, was proud of being right. If he stood alone in a howling wilderness he was more than a man; he was a church. He was the center of the universe; it was round him that the stars swung. All the tortures torn out of forgotten hells could not make him admit that he was heretical. But a few modern phrases have made him boast of it…The word “heresy” not only no longer means being wrong; it practically means being clear-headed and courageous. The word “orthodoxy” not only no longer means being right; it practically means being wrong. All this can mean one thing, and one thing only. It means that people care less for whether they are philosophically right. For obviously a man ought to confess himself crazy before he confesses himself heretical…there is one thing infinitely more absurd and unpractical than burning a man for his philosophy. This is the habit of saying that his philosophy does not matter, and this is done universally in the twentieth century…” (Chesterton, Heretics pp. 1-2).

In short, in Chesterton’s time, and continuing very much up to our own time, society as a whole has lost its creeds, and in doing so it has lost its mind. This is not to say that modern society has no creeds; in fact it is to say just the opposite. It is to say that modern society, and modern man, like all societies and all men, have their creeds; but, for the most part, they do not know their creeds, and do not seem to care to know their creeds. According to Chesterton, the modern sentiment is that “everything matters–except everything” (pg 2). He quotes Mr. Bernard Shaw’s epigram that “the golden rule is that there is no golden rule” (2). I have seen this very much in my own personal experience. You can talk to your peers about anything–movies, sports, food, events–but as soon as you try to talk to them about Everything, about their belief in God, or their view of the doctrine of original sin, suddenly they will cease to talk at all. Why? Because in our minds, we have turned creeds into “opinions,” and have given this a negative connotation. We say, “it is just your opinion that humans are more valuable than monkeys,” which in effect means, “I don’t really care what you think about the ontological status of humans in relation to other animals,” which in effect means, “it doesn’t really matter what your view of the ontological status of humans in relation to other animals is.” Of course, the logical conclusion of this is that, if it doesn’t matter what someone else’s view on a “cosmic” matter is, it surely cannot matter what your own view is either. It is my creed that the earth and stars exist. It is my opinion that my creed is true, and it is only my opinion because it is my creed; because I believe it to be true. If it is your creed and opinion that the earth and stars do not exist, it is only so because you believe your creed and opinion to be the true creed and opinion, as opposed to mine. But if my creed does not matter, then your creed surely cannot matter; because my creed is a declaration of truth, and your creed is a declaration of truth, and truth must prevail. Either there are an earth and stars or there are not; we may argue this till we’re blue in the face. But the one thing we cannot do is say “it doesn’t matter whether or not there are an earth and stars.” If my creed does not matter, it can only be because truth itself does not matter. But if truth itself does not matter, no creeds matter. If truth matters, all creeds matter, and all creeds are to be taken seriously, and to be judged as either orthodox or heretical.

This is, at heart, what Chesterton does in Heretics: he takes the creeds of his contemporaries seriously. He takes them seriously because they are creeds, and he examines them carefully because they are opposed to his own creeds. And it is only because he takes them seriously, and examines them carefully, that he can, with the greatest sincerity and respect, and with the utmost confidence and certainty; proclaim them to be heretics. Thus Chesterton can say, with his splendid wit, of Mr. Rudyard Kipling, that he is “a Heretic–that is to say, a man whose view of things has the hardihood to differ from mine” (7). Thus he can say of Mr. Bernard Shaw that he is “a Heretic–that is to say, a man whose philosophy is quite solid, quite coherent, and quite wrong” (7).

Chesterton, in Heretics, responds to writers and poets, artists and philosophers, journalists and politicians. And in so doing, he shows that all men, no matter their position or personality, no matter their place or time in the world, have creeds; and that all creeds, no matter to whom they belong, are subject to analysis and criticism, because all creeds can be judged solely by the arbiter of truth itself; and finally, that all truth sheds light on all creeds, that the creeds that correspond to truth fill all areas and topics of life, and are available to all people. A Christian cannot be a Christian in his theology and an atheist in his politics. A materialist cannot be a materialist in his philosophy and a theist or supernaturalist in his art. A socialist cannot write socialism in his laws and sing democracy in his songs. Our creeds are all encompassing, and all consuming. And that is why they’re so signifiant. That is why the most fatal position in the world is a blind ignorance to one’s own creeds. A blind reluctance to any and all creeds will always become a blind acceptance to any and all creeds. A man who does not know his own philosophy will always succumb to the philosophies of other men. That is why creeds are so perilous, so dangerous. But it is exactly because they are so dangerous that they are so vitally important. Creeds are the most dangerous thing in the world; creeds are the greatest thing in the world.

And the whole creed of the book Heretics is that “the most practical and important thing about a man is still his view of the universe” (3). If you do not care about a man’s creeds, it can only be because you do not care about the man himself. This is what Chesterton asserts in his first chapter, and concludes in his final chapter, and what he spends all the chapters in between explaining, defending, and exemplifying. Each chapter is the examination and analysis of a certain creed or set of creeds, belonging to an individual, group of individuals, or even a society as a whole. And each chapter succeeds, in my opinion, with delicate precision and profound insight, in showing that all its subjects of scrutiny really are heretics, for the simple but monumental fact that they are wrong. And in doing so, Chesterton lays the ground work and paves the way to pointing towards the great truth, the great orthodoxy in whose shadow all feeble heresies lie, the Christian faith.

 

 

Sources

Sources for quotations listed in the order in which the quotations appear above:

Chesterton, G. K. Orthodoxy. 1908. Nashville: Sam Torode Book Arts, 2008. Print.

Schroeder, Steven. Introduction. Heretics. By G. K. Chesterton. 1905. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2007. Print.

Chesterton, G. K. Heretics. 1905. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2007. Print

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