Archive for March, 2008


March 31, 2008

Normally, the feast of the Annunciation falls on March 25, but this year, because that date was within the Octave of Easter, it has been transferred to today. No word yet on whether Christmas will also be transferred.

The Annunciation - Sandro Botticelli

Ave Maria Gratia Plena

Was this His coming! I had hoped to see
A scene of wondrous glory, as was told
Of some great God who in a rain of gold
Broke open bars and fell on Danae:
Or a dread vision as when Semele
Sickening for love and unappeased desire
Prayed to see God’s clear body, and the fire
Caught her brown limbs and slew her utterly:
With such bad dreams I sought this holy place,
And now with wondering eyes and heart I stand
Before this supreme mystery of Love:
A kneeling girl with passionless pale face,
An angel with a lily in his hand,
And over both the white wings of a Dove.

— Oscar Wilde

A god descends

March 30, 2008

Philosophical Fragments (1844)
Johannes Climacus [Søren Kierkegaard] (Princeton, 1985)
123 p. First reading.

“Can virtue be taught?” was a question to which Socrates returned again and again. He answered with a qualified negative: a teacher may provide the occasion for learning, but learning itself is a form of recollection of truths already known from the soul’s pre-existence. Socrates therefore viewed himself as a mid-wife, bringing to birth knowledge sunk deep within each soul’s forgetfulness. He does not give the learner anything, but only elicits from them something they already possess, though unawares. On this view, Socrates himself tends to disappear, for the fact that his questioning was the occasion for coming to truth can be of only poetic, not intrinsic, interest; it might have been someone else. So too the moment at which one came to truth is of only historical, not intrinsic, significance; it might have happened just as well under other circumstances.

In Philosophical Fragments, Kierkegaard, writing as Johannes Climacus, explores the consequences of answering Socrates’ question in the affirmative. Though Johannes writes only as a philosopher — if a self-professedly indolent one “without any claim to being a part of the scientific-scholarly endeavor in which one acquires legitimacy” — not as a Christian, for he has not yet attained to knowledge of God, but is only following ideas wherever they lead, attempting to understand what it would mean for “a historical point of departure to be given for an eternal consciousness”, he nevertheless sketches a picture that bears more than a passing resemblance to the Christian economy of salvation: consciousness of sin, grace, faith, and even the Incarnation find a place in his account of non-Socratic knowledge. It is a remarkable piece of imaginative engagement with the psychological significance of Christian faith.

He begins by supposing that time — the moment at which one passes from untruth to truth — is significant. If so, then beforehand one must not know the truth. But even that is not enough, for if one was prepared to receive the truth, if one was anticipating it, then one would already, in a sense, possess it. No, if the moment is truly to be significant, one must not even know that one does not know the truth; one must be in untruth. Even more than that, the learner must be unable to move himself from untruth to truth by any act of will, for if he could do so then he would, by definition, be willing to know truth, but he cannot will what he does not know. It is not only his intellect, but also his will that needs to be enlightened. His epistemological problem is deeply involved with an existential problem.

The teacher, then, if the encounter with him is to be truly irreplaceable, if he is to be a means and not just an occasion, must supply not only the truth but also the condition for understanding it. The teacher must reveal to the follower that he is in untruth, thereby preparing him to receive the truth itself. He must do for the follower what the follower cannot do for himself. A teacher who gives in this way assumes with respect to the learner the status of a god. He cannot be forgotten, his role in bringing the follower to truth can never be eliminated or glossed over or replaced, because the moment of his aid is decisive. Johannes develops such a teacher’s character under the titles saviour, deliverer, reconciler, and judge.

Unlike in the Socratic case, this teacher and learner do not exist in a reciprocal relation. Socrates could say, with truth, that he learned just as much from the learner as the learner learned from Socrates. In our case, however, there is a decided asymmetry between the two. The god gives; the follower receives. The god, moreover, is not moved by need — for what need could the god have of one who languishes in untruth? — but rather by love. Love is both the motive and the goal of this encounter.

Yet this raises a problem. It appears that this love that moves the god must be unhappy, for how can genuine love unite two who are so unequally matched? How is the god to give his gift without thereby placing the follower in an intolerable, because overwhelming, debt? How can he bring the learner into a state of equality while still leaving room for love to be reciprocated out of freedom rather than fear? “Who grasps the contradiction of this sorrow: not to disclose itself is the death of love; to disclose itself is the death of the beloved.” Could he somehow elevate the learner? No, for the inequality will not be forgotten, and will always be an impediment to the weaker party, and therefore to love. Unity may only be brought about by the descent of the god, who in earnest love wills to be the equal of the beloved, emptying himself, and taking the form of a slave, for in order to the teacher of all — even the lowest! — he must make himself the lowest.

It is in the pursuit of this theme of the descent of the god that Kierkegaard introduces his famous parable of the king and the maiden, a beautiful and sensitive allegory of the Incarnation of Christ. This parable alone makes Philosophical Fragments worth reading.

Though the god descends, yet the encounter with him retains its transforming power, for he still intends to reveal the follower’s untruth to himself. When he does so, in what Johannes calls the moment, the result is not self-knowledge (as it was with Socrates) but confusion: the learner awakens to his own untruth, but he has not yet received the truth. The god, who had seemed so lowly, has by his gift revealed himself as divine in relation to the learner, but the divine is other than the human, and how may the god be both highest and lowest at once? The follower therefore experiences the revelation as a paradox that confounds his understanding. “In order for the teacher to be able to give the condition, he must be the god, and in order to put the learner in possession of it, he must be man.” If the encounter between the understanding and the paradox is unhappy, the result is offense. But if they are in harmony, the result is a special happiness. Johannes postpones giving this happiness a name, but I will not: he calls it faith.

What is the teacher’s intention in all this? Is it not to show the learner to himself? Or, what amounts to the same thing, to reveal his love for the learner? For the truth about the learner is that he is beloved of the god. This truth, however, could be taught by no-one else — this was why the god had to descend — but this means that “the god’s presence is not incidental to his teaching, but is essential. The presence of the god in human form — indeed, in the lowly form of a servant — is precisely the teaching.” The knowledge gained by the learner, therefore, is unlike that gained in other circumstances, for it remains always and necessarily involved with the teacher. Unlike the case of Socrates, wherein one could leave Socrates still in possession of the knowledge one had gained with his help, in this case the knowledge, this faith, is always involved with the person of the teacher. “The object of faith becomes not the teaching but the teacher.”

This line of argument, however, appears to create a deep problem, for the teacher, though his ambitions are universal, cannot be present to every person, nor can he live forever. His efforts, therefore, will be undone by time. The contemporary follower has a chance, but those who come later do not. To be sure, the contemporary may teach those who arrive only after the teacher has gone, but then that relation, of man to man, is back to being Socratic. The contemporary follower appears to have a decisive advantage.

But is it really so? After all, what sort of advantage is contemporaneity supposed to grant? Is it that the contemporary sees the teacher in the flesh, and hears him speak? Is it that he looked into his eyes, and witnessed his distinctive stride, and saw where his sandal had left a mark in the sand? In other words, should we consider the contemporary’s advantage to lie in his having more historical knowledge than those who came after? Of course not! The knowledge necessary for faith is not helped by precise historical knowledge. Even seeing the god in the flesh is not enough — if one sees him in the flesh only.

What if we turn the question around: maybe the advantage belongs to the follower at second-hand, for he has the advantage of seeing the consequences of the god’s sojourn among men, sees its influence spreading through time. But this sort of knowledge is just another sort of historical knowledge, not faith. We must remember that the object of faith is not historical fact, but the teacher himself.

The remedy can only be this: “the report of the contemporaries becomes the occasion for everyone coming later to become a follower — by receiving the condition, please note, from the god himself.” The historical aspect is supplied, for the contemporary, by a direct encounter, and, for the follower at second-hand, by the report of the contemporary. But in both cases the decisive moment, the unmasking of untruth and the gift of the possibility of faith, is a direct gift of the god. In this sense, “There is no follower at second hand.”

At this point, Johannes brings his analysis to a close. He remarks, of course, that his ideas bear a distinct resemblance to Christianity, “the only historical phenomenon that despite the historical — indeed, precisely by means of the historical — has wanted to be the single individual’s point of departure for his eternal consciousness, has wanted to interest him otherwise than merely historically, has wanted to base his happiness on his relation to something historical”, but this resemblance is accidental, for he has simply been following his own whimsical idea to its conclusion.

That whimsical idea, remember, was to answer the Socratic question non-Socratically. On the last page of the book, however, he seems to call his own consistency into question — or does he?

The Moral

This project indisputably goes beyond the Socratic, as is apparent at every point. Whether it is therefore more true than the Socratic is an altogether different question, one that cannot be decided in the same breath, inasmuch as a new organ has been assumed here: faith; and a new presupposition: the consciousness of sin; and a new decision: the moment; and a new teacher: the god in time. Without these, I really would not have dared to present myself for inspection before that ironist who has been admired for millenia, whom I approach with as much ardent enthusiasm as anyone. But to go beyond Socrates when one nevertheless says essentially the same as he, only not nearly so well — that, at least, is not Socratic.

Confound it all.


This is a potent little book, full of rich ideas, most of which I have only touched on, and several of which I have left untouched. As I said earlier, I think its chief merit is its imaginative engagement with the possibility and meaning of Incarnation, as embodied especially in the parable of the king and the maiden, but, when read from a Christian perspective, it raises many probing questions: What is the nature of faith? What does it mean to encounter Christ personally? What is the value of historical knowledge about Christ? What is the Church, and what is her role in history? Why does Christian experience have the shape and characteristics that it does?

It must be said, also, that aspects of the argument Johannes develops are quite unclear. This was especially true, in my judgment, of the role of paradox in faith, for which the trail of argument was frequently lost beneath thickets of thorns. I have done my best to reconstruct something plausible. For the time being, I remember that Philosophical Fragments is a prelude to Johannes Climacus’ major work, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, in which, perhaps, these ideas will be developed with greater clarity.

[The decisive moment]
If a child who has received the gift of a little money – enough to be able to buy either a good book, for example, or one toy, for both cost the same – buys the toy, can he use the same money to buy the book? By no means, for now the money has been spent. But he may go to the bookseller and ask him if he will exchange the book for the toy. Suppose the bookseller answers: My dear child, your toy is worthless; it is certainly true that when you still had the money you could have bought the book just as well as the toy, but the awkward thing about a toy is that once it is purchased it has lost all value. Would not the child think: This is very strange indeed. And so it was also once, when man could buy freedom or unfreedom for the same price, and this price was the free choice of the soul and the surrender of the choice. He chose unfreedom, but if he then were to approach the god and ask whether he could make an exchange, the answer presumably would be: Undeniably there was a time when you could have bought what you wanted, but the curious thing about unfreedom is that once it is purchased it has no value whatsoever, even though one pays the same price for it. I wonder if such a person would not say: This is very strange indeed. Or if two hostile armies faced each other, and there came a knight whom both sides invited to join; but he chose the one side, was defeated and taken prisoner. As prisoner he was brought before the conqueror and was foolish enough to offer him his services on the conditions originally offered. I wonder if the conqueror would not say to him: My dear fellow, you are my prisoner now; true enough, at one time you could have chosen differently, but now everything is changed. Would this not be strange indeed! If it were otherwise, if the moment did not have decisive significance, then the child, after all, must indeed have bought the book and merely have been ignorant of it, mistakenly thinking that he had bought the toy; the prisoner, after all, must have fought on the other side, but had not been seen because of the fog, and had really sided with the one whose prisoner he now imagined himself to be. – “The depraved person and the virtuous person presumably do not have power over their moral condition, but in the beginning they did have the power to become one or the other, just as the person who throws a stone has power over it before he throws it but not when he has thrown it” (Aristotle). Otherwise the throwing would become an illusion, and the person throwing, despite all his throwing, would keep the stone in his hand, since the stone, like the skeptics’ “flying arrow,” did not fly.

(Omitted) Memorial of St. John Climacus

March 30, 2008

If today were not Sunday, it would be the memorial of St. John Climacus (c.525-606). He was a monk of the Monastery of St. Catherine at the foot of Mount Sinai. During his life he had a reputation as a wise man, and he wrote a book, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, that remains popular to this day. It was, in fact, the first book to be printed in the New World (Mexico, 1532). I myself have not read it, but I would like to do so. It seems to consist of aphorisms and advice on the inner life:

Forgetting offences is a sign of sincere repentance. If you keep the memory of them, you may believe you have repented but you are like someone running in his sleep.

Love, unchangeable tranquility, and our adoption as children of God are different from each other only in name. As light, fire and flame are present in the selfsame operation, so are these three manifestations of the Spirit.

The Ladder of Divine Ascent

“John Climacus”, or “Johannes Climacus” is also one of the pseudonyms used by Søren Kierkegaard. I am not sure why he chose this name, but I expect it was not an accident. This “John Climacus” is not a saint, nor even a Christian, but he did write several of the most important philosophical texts in Kierkegaard’s corpus, including Philosophical Fragments and Concluding Unscientific Postscript. Many of the leading ideas that one associates with Kierkegaard — the absurd, the leap, subjectivity — came from the pen of “John Climacus”.

As it happens, I recently finished reading Philosophical Fragments, and I have written some thoughts about it. Today seems a good opportunity to post those. I’ll do that now.

Two cows

March 28, 2008

The folks over at the Shrine of the Holy Whapping are frequently nutty, in an endearing way, but even by their standards this is pretty bizarre. Still, I laughed, and I expect you will too. The entry for the Augustinians is my favourite:

Augustinian: Posthumously, two cows claim you as their owner. One of them burns down the northern half of the barnyard.

If you’re wondering why these charisms are set forth in terms of two cows, the answer is to be found in an obscure passage by the Angelic Doctor.

Walker Percy and his books

March 27, 2008

Not the books he wrote, but the books he owned. A few months ago I wrote about an interesting project at LibraryThing in which users were cataloguing the personal library of Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States. That effort spawned a number of other projects to catalogue the books of famous dead people, and recently, I see, the library of Walker Percy was added.

Percy is one of my favourite writers. He was from the American south, living for most of his life in Louisiana. An early career as a medical doctor was abandoned for a life of writing, but the spirit of the diagnostician remained in his work. Under the influence of existentialism and Christianity (he converted to Catholicism in 1947), he wrote cunning novelistic examinations of the spiritual maladies of modern men. My favourite of his books are The Moviegoer, which won the National Book Award in 1962, and Lost in the Cosmos, a faux self-help book admixed with a hefty dose of semiotic theory. Percy’s writing is always funny, sharp, and finely wrought.

His personal library can be browsed at LibraryThing, and it makes for interesting viewing if one admires the man. One expects to find Dostoyevsky, Kierkegaard, and Faulker, but I was a little surprised to see Henry James and G.K. Chesterton so well represented. The overlap of my library with his includes just 152 volumes, or 6% of his collection (10% of mine).

If you’d like to know more about Percy, the Walker Percy Project is probably the best resource around. For a taste, try his essay “Bourbon“, excerpted from Signposts in a Strange Land. Here is a short video of him accepting the University of Notre Dame’s Laetare Medal in 1989 (He begins speaking at the 4 minute mark). He died in 1990.

Percy is not the only dead person to have his personal library added to LibraryThing. Recent subjects have included John Adams, W.H. Auden, Marie Antoinette, and Ezra Pound, among others.

Easter motet

March 24, 2008

Every year, St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto hosts a distinguished lecturer in their “Christianity and the Arts” series. This year the lecturer is James MacMillan, one of the world’s finest living composers, speaking on the topic “The Catholic Composer Today“. How I would love to be there.

MacMillan is a terrific composer. He first achieved international attention with his percussion concerto Veni, Veni Emmanuel in 1992, and has since gone on to write arresting and beautiful music in many genres: symphonies, concerti, and choral music, both liturgical and otherwise. His opera, The Sacrifice, based on one of the tales in the Mabinogion, premiered just last year at the Welsh National Opera.

Here is a performance of his motet Christus vincit, composed in 1994 for St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. The choir is the Vancouver-based Musica Intima. They’re awfully good.

Christus vincit
Christus regnat
Christus imperat

Easter Sunday, 2008

March 23, 2008

Noli Me Tangere - Beato Angelico

Rise heart; thy Lord is risen. Sing his praise
Without delayes,
Who takes thee by the hand, that thou likewise
With him mayst rise:
That, as his death calcined thee to dust,
His life may make thee gold, and much more, just.

Awake, my lute, and struggle for thy part
With all thy art.
The crosse taught all wood to resound his name,
Who bore the same.
His stretched sinews taught all strings, what key
Is best to celebrate this most high day.

Consort both heart and lute, and twist a song
Pleasant and long:
Or, since all musick is but three parts vied
And multiplied,
O let thy blessed Spirit bear a part,
And make up our defects with his sweet art.

I got me flowers to straw thy way;
I got me boughs off many a tree:
But thou wast up by break of day,
And brought’st thy sweets along with thee.

The Sunne arising in the East,
Though he give light, & th’ East perfume;
If they should offer to contest
With thy arising, they presume.

Can there be any day but this,
Though many sunnes to shine endeavour?
We count three hundred, but we misse:
There is but one, and that one ever.

– George Herbert (1633)

Good Friday, 2008

March 21, 2008

Crucifixion icon


Music by Sheryngham (fl.c.1500). Sung by Ars Nova Copenhagen, directed by Paul Hillier [Dacapo 8.226050].

‘Ah, gentle Jesu!’
Who is that, that doth me call?
‘I, a sinner, that oft doth fall.’
What would’st thou have?
‘Mercy, Lord, of thee I crave.’
Why, lov’st thou me?
‘Yea, my Maker I call thee.’
Then leave thy sin, or I nill thee,
And think on this lesson that now I teach thee.

‘Ah, I will, I will, gentle Jesu.’

Upon the cross nailed I was for thee,
Suffered death to pay thy ransom;
Forsake thy sin, man, for the love of me
Be repentant, make plain confession;
To contrite hearts I do remission;
Be not despaired, for I am not vengeable;
Gain’ ghostly en’mies think on my passion;
Why art thou froward, sith I am merciable?

‘Ah, gentle Jesu!’

I had on Peter and Mawdlen pity;
Forthi contrite of thy contrition;
Saint Thomas of Indes incrudelity
He put his hands deep in my side a-down.
Roll up this matter; grave it in thy reason!
Sith I am kind, why art thou unstable?
My blood best triacle for thy transgression;
Be thou not froward, sith I am merciable!
‘Ah, gentle Jesu!’

Lord, on all sinful, here kneeling on knee,
Thy death remembering of humble affection,
O Jesu, grant of thy benignity
That thy five wells plenteous offusion,
Called thy five wounds by computation,
May wash us all from surfeits reprovable.
Now for thy mother’s meek mediation,
At her request be to us merciable.
‘Ah, gentle Jesu!’

Holy Thursday, 2008

March 20, 2008

Last Supper icon

Today is Holy Thursday, the first day of the Easter Triduum. It is called Maundy Thursday in England, from mandatum, meaning “mandate” or “commandment”. It was on this night, the night in which he was betrayed, that Christ washed the feet of his disciples and gave them the mandatum to “love one another, as I have loved you”. And so, tonight, notwithstanding peculiar deviations, Christians around the world reenact the foot-washing ceremony, and remind ourselves of that commandment, and, of course, of how far we fall short of faithfulness to it.

It is also the night on which we recall, with a particularly intense focus, the Last Supper, at which Christ instituted the Eucharistic celebration, giving himself, in a mysterious way, under the forms of bread and wine, the signs of friendship and joy. It was the Passover, the most traditional of Jewish ritual meals, yet by his words and actions he initiated a new rite, one which has echoed through history, and which continues to be celebrated, throughout the world, in every hour of every day.

I will admit to a certain astonishment at the devotion which the Eucharist inspires. I know that I ought not to be surprised, for it is a central, sacred mystery of the faith, yet I am.  This astonishment is akin to the amazement I feel at the love of men and women: I understand well enough why a man loves a woman, but when I meet the affection also coming the other way, I am struck with wonderment. You too know this joy? So with devotion to the Eucharist: it is not that I do not (in some sense) understand it, for I myself experience it, but I continue to be surprised when I see it also manifest in others. You also have received this gift?   In both cases, there is not much to be done, but to accept the gift as readily as one can, and give thanks.

And so, on this night, as we enter these high holy days, I try, in my middling way, to give thanks. This year, especially, I give thanks for two good friends who will be received into the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil, and I am full of gratitude as I remember my own reception, which was not so very long ago. This, my friends, is a very great gift indeed.


By way of marking this great night, here is an incandescent performance of the beautiful motet Ave verum corpus. The text is attributed to Pope Innocent VI (d.1362), and this musical setting, by William Byrd, dates from 1610.  The piece is sung by the Winchester Cathedral Choir under the direction of David Hill [Hyperion 66837]:

Ave verum corpus, natum de Maria Virgine,
Vere passum, immolatum in cruce pro homine:
Cuius latus perforatum, Unda fluxit sanguine.
Esto nobis praegustatum in mortis examine:
O dulcis, O pie, O Jesu fili Mariae,
Miserere mei. Amen.

Hail true body, born of the Virgin Mary.
Truly suffering, was sacrificed on the cross for mankind,
From whose pierced side flowed blood,
Be for us a foretaste in the final judgment.
O sweet, O merciful, O Jesus, Son of Mary,
Have mercy on me. Amen.

A truth-telling thing

March 20, 2008

Orthodoxy ( 1908 )
G.K. Chesterton (Harold Shaw, 1994)
186 p. Third reading.

I am the man who with the utmost daring discovered what had been discovered before.

Spiritual autobiographies are as varied as the voices that speak them, for perhaps no genre of literature is more intensely personal: St. Augustine is passionate and lyrical, Teresa of Avila is frank and cluttered; John Henry Newman is eloquent and poised. There has never been anyone quite like Chesterton, so we should not be surprised to find that there is no book quite like Orthodoxy.

The book came on the heels of Heretics, in which he had critiqued all and sundry of his contemporaries for their false beliefs and inadequate rules of life. Someone suggested that, instead of saying what he thought wrong, Chesterton really ought to tell everyone what he thought right. Professing himself “only too ready to write books upon the feeblest provocation”, he set to work.

Orthodoxy is one of Chesterton’s most tightly argued books (which doesn’t prevent its still being generously sprawling and digressive) in which he describes, step by step, how he came to his own principles for living, only to discover, to his astonishment, that they bore an uncanny resemblance to orthodox Christianity:

The whole history of my Utopia has the same amusing sadness. I was always rushing out of my architectural study with plans for a new turret only to find it sitting up there in the sunlight, shining, and a thousand years old. For me, in the ancient and partly in the modern sense, God answered the prayer, “Prevent us, O Lord, in all our doings.”

Chesterton’s basic intuitions were these: the world requires an explanation, for it is not logically necessary that it be as it is; the world is like a work of art, and has a meaning; we ought to be thankful for the gift of life; we should feel at home in the universe while still being astonished by its beauties and by the mystery of being itself. “We need so to view the world as to combine an idea of wonder and an idea of welcome.” We must be able to affirm that the world is good, yet still retain the capacity for action and reform of its evils. All sanity is balanced, and any sane philosophy must be the same.

He found modernity profoundly out of sympathy with his intuitions. The materialists assert necessity, the illusion of freedom of the will, and the meaninglessness of nature. Optimists, wanting to see the good in things, are too inclined to whitewash and excuse even the bad, while pessimists fail in that primary loyalty which we ought to give to life itself. Above all he found the ideas and explanations current among his secular contemporaries far too simple to be adequate. Most people had one leading idea — progress, necessity, pragmatism, the goodness of man, the blackness of existence — but nothing to balance it. He found among them a veritable passion for a complete and simple explanation, but to secure it they were willing to overlook many — too many — things. “We have at once the sense of it covering everything and the sense of it leaving everything out.” It is not that they were unreasonable, but that they were too reasonable. Chesterton compares this way of thinking to a species of insanity: “The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.” Such explanations are characterized by “a logical completeness and a spiritual contraction”. They are, perhaps, self-consistent, but they are small. A man may not live inside them.

Rather than optimism or pessimism, Chesterton felt that our basic attitude towards life ought to be more like patriotism. We must not idolize the world, for then we excuse its faults, or should we settle for a stoic acceptance of evil, for then we have no motive for reform. We should love the world enough to fight for it, or, in cases where it is corrupt, to fight against it. There was a profound difference in his view between a suicide and a martyr, for the former kills himself to quench the world, while the latter dies for love of it. It came as a shock to him to remember that the Church made precisely the same distinction between the suicide and the martyr. It was the first point of correspondence he saw between his own thoughts and those of Christian tradition.

A second conjunction arose when he thought of the Christian doctrine of Creation. God made the world as something separate from himself, as an artist makes something. He also did what an artist cannot do: he gave it the freedom to be itself and develop in its own way. The world was made good, but has since gone awry. Consequently, the world is to be loved, but reformed. We should not look inward with resignation, but act outwardly, with confidence and love. We should wonder at the world, for it is an expression of the freedom and goodness of the Creator, and we should feel welcome in it, for we too are part of the picture. In all this, Chesterton saw point after point of harmony with his own thought. In its proclamation of the original goodness of being, original sin, the preeminence of mind and freedom, final judgement, the possibility of failure and ultimate damnation, and fixed moral standards, he saw in orthodoxy “the natural fountain of revolution and reform”.

Moreover, Christianity avoids the trap of being overly simple. In fact, it is quite complex, and one indication of that complexity is the many, and sometimes contradictory, criticisms made of it. It is alleged to be gloomy and depressing, and also superficially happy and naive; or it is weak and effeminate, but also blood-thirsty and war-like; or it is sexually repressive, and also encourages far too many children; or it is devoted to a sickly poverty and ascetism, and also bloated with ritual pomp and circumstance. That the Church could generate such a variety of inconsistent complaints was certainly odd, and the thought crossed Chesterton’s mind that perhaps it was the Church that was sane, while we, in various ways, were not. And the more he thought about it, the more plausible it seemed:

…it was certainly odd that the modern world charged Christianity at once with bodily austerity and with artistic pomp. But then it was also odd, very odd, that the modern world itself combined extreme bodily luxury with an extreme absence of artistic pomp. The modern man thought Becket’s robes too rich and his meals too poor. But then the modern man was really exceptional in history; no man before ever ate such elaborate dinners in such ugly clothes.

In fact, the Christian world-view is subtle and balanced, but, he says, its balance is of a particular kind. “Paganism declared that virtue was in a balance; Christianity declared it was in a conflict: the collision of two passions apparently opposite.” Christianity achieves its balance not by compromise, but by encouraging everything human to thrive: it is “love and wrath both burning”. It teaches us not to settle for partial goods but to hunger and thirst after complete fulfillment, and not to shrug at our sins but to repent with ashes on our heads. A balance of such dynamic forces is necessarily a delicate balance, and this accounts for the Church’s sometimes stern proscriptions, for it knows that if certain passions or principles are given reign at the expense of others, the balance will be upset. These proscriptions, therefore, are at the service of a larger liberty, and the balancing act is part of the romance of orthodoxy.

In his closing pages, Chesterton takes up one last question from his sceptical reader: even if it is true that one finds sanity and strength in elements of the Christian creed, why be a Christian? Why not simply take the parts that appeal and leave the rest? In answer, Chesterton first notes that he is a rationalist, and likes to have reasons to support his intuitions. But his primary reason for accepting the authority of the Church is that “the Christian Church in its practical relation to my soul is a living teacher, not a dead one… It has not merely told this truth or that truth, but has revealed itself as a truth-telling thing.” The large truth told by this truth-telling thing is that in this world, where all is a mixture of joy and sorrow, it is joy that is primary, and sorrow a sad interlude. This is in contrast to the modern view, in which our lives strive for a certain amount of earthly happiness, but float over a dark abyss that will eventually swallow them. As in the pagan world, modernity’s universe is cold and ruthless at its heart. Such a world can never satisfy us; the Christian gospel revives a world that fits our deeper intuitions:

Man is more himself, man is more manlike, when joy is the fundamental thing in him, and grief the superficial. Melancholy should be an innocent interlude, a tender and fugitive frame of mind; praise should be the permanent pulsation of the soul. Pessimism is at best an emotional half-holiday; joy is the uproarious labour by which all things live.

Nothing I have written here can do justice to the sheer energy and wit of this book, nor can I possibly mention all of the intriguing suggestions and half-pertinent excursions it contains. It is a perceptively written book, and if it were neater and more sober it would be more famous than it is, but, for better or worse, Chesterton was not able to resist infusing his writing with the extra energy of humour. If you have not yet read it, then this, its centenary year, would be a fine opportunity.


Orthodoxy is swarming with memorable images and ideas, and I will be reproducing many excerpts at The Hebdomadal Chesterton over the coming months. Here, however, are a few shorter gems:

[Interpreting nature]
A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.

[A recipe for sanity]
The whole secret of mysticism is this: that man can understand everything by the help of what he does not understand. The morbid logician seeks to make everything lucid, and succeeds in making everything mysterious. The mystic allows one thing to be mysterious, and everything else becomes lucid.

It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death.

[A complex creed]
When once one believes in a creed, one is proud of its complexity, as scientists are proud of the complexity of science. It shows how rich it is in discoveries. If it is right at all, it is a compliment to say that it’s elaborately right. A stick might fit a hole or a stone a hollow by accident. But a key and a lock are both complex. And if a key fits a lock, you know it is the right key.

[“Liberal” Christianity]
The man of the nineteenth century did not disbelieve in the Resurrection because his liberal Christianity allowed him to doubt it. He disbelieved in it because his very strict materialism did not allow him to believe it.

[Disordered humility]
But what we suffer from to-day is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed…The old humility was a spur that prevented a man from stopping; not a nail in his boot that prevented him from going on. For the old humility made a man doubtful about his efforts, which might make him work harder. But the new humility makes a man doubtful about his aims, which will make him stop working altogether.

[Cultivating simplicity of spirit]
Oscar Wilde said that sunsets were not valued because we could not pay for sunsets. But Oscar Wilde was wrong; we can pay for sunsets. We can pay for them by not being Oscar Wilde.