G.K. Chesterton wrote that the Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; rather it has been found difficult and left untried. This undoubtedly is true for many in our modern era of rampant religious indifferentism.
But one exception is Chesterton himself. He wasn’t interested in running away from hard truths. Nor was he interested in merely finding the truth. He was interested in living truths no matter how hard—and that is exactly what he did.
In the beginning Chesterton rejected Christianity for the sake of finding the truth, the one blanket philosophy that could explain everything as everything is, because he did not believe Christianity or any other modern worldview to be completely it. He was after the “master key” of philosophies, for he was certain no one had yet found it.
Eventually he knitted together a philosophy that appeared to be wholly true and sane and sensible, only to discover that his discovered philosophy of sanity was, in fact, not his. “When I fancied that I stood alone I was really in the ridiculous position of being backed up by all Christendom,” he wrote. “I tried to be some ten minutes in advance of the truth. And I found that I was eighteen hundred years behind it.”
Indeed orthodoxy or “right doctrine” turned out to be, unexpectedly, the very religion he had rejected at the start. It turns out he needed to leave home in order to discover it—or re-discover it; and it is precisely this paradox that Chesterton sets up to be his starting point in his classic spiritual autobiography Orthodoxy.
I can relate to this roundabout way of discovering where the pillar of truth lies, this sense of leaving church in order to re-discover the Church. As a fallen away Catholic, absence made my heart grow firmer—indeed harder—towards the Church; but in the long run the cliché did ring true and absence did make the heart grow fonder. Fairness was the key that unlocked my mind and imagination to the piercing truths of Christianity. And all the while Mother Church, like the father of the Prodigal Son, waited patiently for my return home.
Chesterton, who experienced his own bout of agnosticism, reflected in The Catholic Church and Conversion:
“It is impossible to be just to the Catholic Church. The moment a man ceases to pull against it he feels a tug towards it. The moment he ceases to shout it down he begins to listen to it with pleasure. The moment he tries to be fair to it he begins to be fond of it.”
Chesterton did not have a graduate degree. He was not in the strict and academic sense a philosopher or theologian. But in the words of Boston College philosopher Peter Kreeft, “He was a genius.” Kreeft marvels at Chesterton’s therapeutic effect on his readers’ common sense: “He sees things as they are. He reverses our habit of standing on our head.” In other words, Chesterton is a sort of doctor of sanity whose writing helps others to live in the real world. So whether or not you want to call Chesterton a philosopher, you can’t help but call him a “lover of wisdom.”
After finishing his education as a youngster, Chesterton attended art school. His career in journalism would eventually take off after that but, although he was always a journalist by trade, he remained an artist at heart. It is thus no small wonder that Chesterton had the ability to simultaneously capture the head and the heart of so many of his readers. The secret to sanity, he believed, was a life painted rich by imagination and curiosity.
He writes at the onset of Orthodoxy:
“The thing I do not propose to prove, the thing I propose to take as common ground between myself and any average reader, is this desirability of an active and imaginative life, picturesque and full of poetical curiosity…”
The imagination is the picture-making faculty of the intellect that allows us to “see” the forms or representations of logically coherent things (you cannot, for example, imagine a four-sided triangle). C.S. Lewis made an important distinction between man’s reason which is his “organ of truth,” and the imagination which is his “organ of meaning” (the word “cat” means a lot more to you if you’ve actually seen a cat and retained its form in your mind).
The innate desire of man to be fully alive both in reason and imagination is what Chesterton takes for granted; and it was the unrivaled ability of Christianity to mobilize his reason and imagination that he was drawn to it. True orthodoxy begins with seeing the natural world through a supernatural lens; or as Frank Sheed says, to be sane is to see the what really is, and to see what really is means to see what the Church sees.
What does the Church see? She sees a natural world, ordered and intelligible, created as though it knew man was coming. She also sees a world that didn’t have to be, a world that moves and is held in place by the breath and mind of an infinite God. In a clump of cells she sees a person; and in every person she sees an immortal soul. In a homeless man she sees Christ. In every religious sister she sees a bride of the King. In a man in a mitre she sees a successor of the apostles of God. And when the world sees bread and laughs in jest, she sees the risen Lord of All.
Boredom is impossible when you’re looking through the eyes of the Church.
Chesterton came to see that the Church sees the extraordinary in the ordinary; or you might say through the ordinary. And he came to see that in the Church he could make sense of his simultaneous sense of being both home and abroad. And this ability to see the extraordinary and unexpected everywhere—to see orthodoxy within paradoxy—is what he defended as true sanity in Orthodoxy:
“We need so to view the world as to combine an idea of wonder and an idea of welcome. We need to be happy in this wonderland without once being merely comfortable. It is this achievement of my creed that I shall chiefly pursue in these pages.”
Thus confesses Chesterton: “I did try to found a heresy of my own; and when I had put the last touches to it, I discovered that it was orthodoxy.”
What did Chesterton see in the Church? Exactly what he saw through the Church—pure brilliance.