Reading Chesterton by Rebekah Valerius

“I’m beginning to suspect that nobody understands G.K. Chesterton,” a friend recently remarked. “They just like quoting him when convenient.” I had to laugh at this for I am guilty as charged. Chesterton both confounds and delights me, and I am confident that I have quoted him on numerous occasions without really understanding his meaning. He had a way with words that makes the temptation to repeat him too hard to resist! It is when he confounds me that I enjoy his writing the most. He challenges me to slow down and think. Most of all, he teaches me about the joy of existence; that existence itself is good, something so quickly forgotten in the toils of daily life. Continue reading “Reading Chesterton by Rebekah Valerius”

G.K. Chesterton: Modern (1874–1936)

ORTHODOXY

THE ETHICS OF ELFLAND

When the business man rebukes the idealism of his office-boy, it is commonly in some such speech as this: “Ah, yes, when one is young, one has these ideals in the abstract and these castles in the air; but in middle age they all break up like clouds, and one comes down to a belief in practical politics, to using the machinery one has and getting on with the world as it is.” Thus, at least, venerable and philanthropic old men now in their honoured graves used to talk to me when I was a boy. But since then I have grown up and have discovered that these philanthropic old men were telling lies. What has really happened is exactly the opposite of what they said would happen. They said that I should lose my ideals and begin to believe in the methods of practical politicians. Now, I have not lost my ideals in the least; my faith in fundamentals is exactly what it always was. What I have lost is my old childlike faith in practical politics. I am still as much concerned as ever about the Battle of Armageddon; but I am not so much concerned about the General Election. As a babe I leapt up on my mother’s knee at the mere mention of it. No; the vision is always solid and reliable. The vision is always a fact. It is the reality that is often a fraud. As much as I ever did, more than I ever did, I believe in Liberalism. But there was a rosy time of innocence when I believed in Liberals.


Rick WilcoxThe term “bigger than life” is now cliché but it is in no way ironic when applied to G.K. Chesterton.  It begins with his stature (6’4” and over 300 pounds), but even that great frame is dwarfed by his intellect and imagination.  His writings seem endless, and every sentence is packed with wit and nuance with a saturation that makes skimming impossible.  His masterpiece was simply titled Orthodoxy.

John Mark Reynolds said this in his book, The Great Books Reader:

Chesterton was not a great philosopher like Aquinas or a sublime poet like Dante. His fiction lacks the polish of Austen or the passion of either of the Brontë sisters. He’s decidedly second-rate compared to Plato or Shakespeare, but that’s an amazing thing to be.

Chesterton is here as our ambassador to the Great Conversation. He’s bright enough to sit at the High Table with the Masters and witty enough to explain them to us who sit below.

In the meantime, his work is a delight.

Rare is the man or woman who reads Homer for fun, but once you start reading Chesterton it’s hard to stop. He could explain Shakespeare or Aquinas in new ways so interesting that scholars would pause to consider and amateurs would learn. Chesterton sometimes got details wrong, yet he often captured the essential nature of a writer or problem.

Chesterton does not argue so much as live on a page . . . and he is always jolly. Reading Chesterton is simply jollification, and nobody in this book does “jolly” better. As a result, G. K. Chesterton is a genius we can enjoy and an eccentric who can see what less wild men might miss.

Does study bring you joy?

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John 1:1

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

 

 

John Mark Reynolds is the president of The Saint Constantine School, a school that aspires to preschool through college education. He is also a philosopher, administrator, and joyous curmudgeon. Reynolds was the founder and first director of the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University. He was provost at Houston Baptist University where he was instrumental in starting the graduate Apologetics program and a cinema and new media arts major. John Mark blogs at Eidos on the Patheos Evangelical platform and has written for First Things and the Washington Post. He is an owner of the Green Bay Packers.

 

D I G  D E E P E R


On Orthodoxy

Dale Ahlquist

When people read Orthodoxy for the first time, they generally discover that their pens run out of ink from underlining almost every sentence in the book. The relentless and irresistible quotable quotes also make for a rather disjointed reading experience. So they finish the book and, in spite of it being almost entirely underlined, they wonder, What was that about, anyway? Then they reread the book and are quite bewildered to discover it is an entirely different work, giving them the odd sensation of reading it for the first time, in spite of the obvious evidence of their very own underlinings from the previous read. The third time is generally the charm, as Chesterton’s thesis suddenly bursts through his dazzling rhetoric and imaginative arguments.

Fresh is a fitting word. Orthodoxy is a lively, creative, and unique approach to defending the Christian faith. Yet Chesterton insists that it is not a book of apologetics; he claims it’s simply his account of how he came to embrace Christianity for himself. His journey, however, is not typical, for he did not study the arguments in favor of but rather the arguments against Christianity. He did not study classic Christian philosophy but rather a variety of modern anti-Christian philosophies. He thought he was forming a new heresy, but when he put on the finishing touches, he found it was orthodoxy. He thought he’d come up with a new religion and was embarrassed to discover that someone else had come up with it almost two thousand years earlier.

The heart of the book is found, first, in the coherent morality of fairy tales, or the “Ethics of Elfland,” where logic is still logical and still capable of teaching science a few lessons. Then he hands us the surprising and seemingly contradictory truths of the faith, the “Paradoxes of Christianity,” where logic gets put to the test.

It is a theme throughout Chesterton’s writings that faith does not contradict reason, but reason often appears to contradict itself. Reason requires faith as a starting point. As he says elsewhere, “You cannot prove your first statement. Otherwise it would not be your first statement.”

And, a lush portrait of the faith, which always has attracted both the strongest of devotion and the fiercest of opposition wherever it appears, is known as the “Romance of Orthodoxy.”

———

In preceding chapters, Chesterton has examined the narrowness of modern philosophies, each “sharpened to a narrow point,” ending in madness, or what he calls “the clean well-lit prison of one idea.” In chapters following he will show how in art, literature, politics, and worship, Christianity not only provides satisfaction but sanity.

Chesterton is defending not only the Christian church but also the essence of Western society, a product of Hebrew monotheism, Greek philosophy, and Roman civilization, all brought together when Christ steps onto history’s stage. Chesterton draws a striking contrast between East and West, summed up in differences between the circle and the cross, the symbols representing Buddhism and Christianity.

The circle is centripetal, spinning inward toward madness and self-destruction, like a snake eating its own tail; the cross is centrifugal, spreading its arms to the four winds, “a signpost for free travelers.”
The other principle Chesterton defends in Orthodoxy is the value of solid tradition against the flakiness of fads and fashions. The modern world is obsessed with being modern. Therefore, old things that were carefully created for a purpose are suddenly discarded thoughtlessly with no sense of their importance. Then, of course, the new things that replace them are quickly discarded as well.

Thus, the modern world is a mess. Chesterton saw it coming. He also saw the solution. As with any prophet, his warnings are timely, but so are his exhortations. He is encouraging, not discouraging. We know he’s right when he tells us we must hate the world enough to change it, yet love it enough to think it worth changing.

Dale Ahlquist is the president and co-founder of the American Chesterton Society and one of the world’s leading experts on G. K. Chesterton. He created and hosts the EWTN television series G. K. Chesterton: The Apostle of Common Sense, publishes Gilbert Magazine, and is a frequent guest lecturer at various universities.

John Mark Reynolds, The Great Books Reader: Excerpts and Essays on the Most Influential Books in Western Civilization (Grand Rapids, MI: Bethany House, 2011).

René Descartes: Early Modern (1596–1650)

Meditationes_de_prima_philosophia_1641

MEDITATIONS

Meditation One

Of the Things of Which We May Doubt

1. Several years have now elapsed since I first became aware that I had accepted, even from my youth, many false opinions for true, and that consequently what I afterward based on such principles was highly doubtful; and from that time I was convinced of the necessity of undertaking once in my life to rid myself of all the opinions I had adopted, and of commencing anew the work of building from the foundation, if I desired to establish a firm and abiding superstructure in the sciences. But as this enterprise appeared to me to be one of great magnitude, I waited until I had attained an age so mature as to leave me no hope that at any stage of life more advanced I should be better able to execute my design. On this account, I have delayed so long that I should henceforth consider I was doing wrong were I still to consume in deliberation any of the time that now remains for action. To-day, then, since I have opportunely freed my mind from all cares [and am happily disturbed by no passions], and since I am in the secure possession of leisure in a peaceable retirement, I will at length apply myself earnestly and freely to the general overthrow of all my former opinions.

2. But, to this end, it will not be necessary for me to show that the whole of these are false—a point, perhaps, which I shall never reach; but as even now my reason convinces me that I ought not the less carefully to withhold belief from what is not entirely certain and indubitable, than from what is manifestly false, it will be sufficient to justify the rejection of the whole if I shall find in each some ground for doubt. Nor for this purpose will it be necessary even to deal with each belief individually, which would be truly an endless labor; but, as the removal from below of the foundation necessarily involves the downfall of the whole edifice, I will at once approach the criticism of the principles on which all my former beliefs rested.

3. All that I have, up to this moment, accepted as possessed of the highest truth and certainty, I received either from or through the senses. I observed, however, that these sometimes misled us; and it is the part of prudence not to place absolute confidence in that by which we have even once been deceived.


A hundred years ago G.K. Chesterton wrote that man’s reliance on human reason alone had wrongly created an inverse juxtaposition of cognitive humility and individual dogmatism. In plain talk, this means truth must be held with loose hands because it can never fully be known, but people should boldly stand firm as their own moral authority. Nonsense.

As Chesterton rightly said

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.

Rather than relaying on that which is reasonable to a limited human mind, Chesterton says “The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt—the Divine Reason.”

John Mark Reynolds said this in his book, The Great Books Reader:

Modernity gone wrong has isolated humanity and made human reason autonomous of (and dismissive toward) revelation. Descartes may not have made these errors himself, but the tendencies are there in his writings. The world he helped create also developed disrespect for human experience: if an idea could not be “proven,” then it was disreputable. The more chaotic elements of postmodern thought have been a natural counter-reaction.

Read his work critically, but not overly critically. If one wishes to abandon the modern, one cannot take for granted that one will continue to enjoy all of the good it has produced. One thing is certain: René Descartes is admirably clear, persuasive, and faithful in suggesting the direction he believes we should take.

Is Christianity reasonable?

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John 1:1

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

 

 

John Mark Reynolds is the president of The Saint Constantine School, a school that aspires to preschool through college education. He is also a philosopher, administrator, and joyous curmudgeon. Reynolds was the founder and first director of the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University. He was provost at Houston Baptist University where he was instrumental in starting the graduate Apologetics program and a cinema and new media arts major. John Mark blogs at Eidos on the Patheos Evangelical platform and has written for First Things and the Washington Post. He is an owner of the Green Bay Packers.

 

D I G  D E E P E R


The Beauty of This Immense Light

THE PLACE OF GOD IN THE MEDITATIONS

Thomas Ward

The Meditations of René Descartes is probably the most widely read philosophical text in the Western world. Not only is it rich and challenging, but it’s also a work of literary brilliance. Not since Augustine’s Confessions had there been a philosophical work so personal.

Written in the first-person singular, in a nontechnical idiom (for the most part), any reader can approach the work and begin immediately to grapple with weighty problems. But its brilliance as a piece of literature is most clearly evident in the way its ideas are reinforced through its literary form. In a first-person meditation, Descartes is articulating a philosophical position that places the individual thinker—the meditator—at the logical foundations of philosophical inquiry.

Descartes reserves a prominent role for God in his philosophy, but it might seem that the pride of place is actually reserved for the individual thinker attempting to reason his way out of his solitude, with God introduced merely to ensure that the reconstruction of knowledge can proceed. Indeed, the subsequent philosophical tradition has tended to characterize Descartes’s philosophy in just this way, with him as a reluctant theist. Many echo the sentiments of his contemporary Blaise Pascal, who said, “I cannot forgive Descartes; in all his philosophy he did his best to dispense with God.”

Like the Confessions, however, Meditations is a God-infused book. Most readers these days overlook this fact, tending to write off the more theological aspects and to focus on the meditator’s skeptical arguments and subjective outlook. This is unfair. A proper appreciation of Descartes demands we take his theological thought seriously.

———

So, how does God enter the philosophical picture? Descartes’s fundamental philosophical goal was to discover an absolutely certain foundation of knowledge, and he thought he’d made this discovery in one three-word Latin sentence:

Cogito, ergo sum; I think, therefore I am.

(Roughly the same thought is expressed in different terms in the Meditations; this version is found in Principles of Philosophy.) The idea is that you cannot doubt your own existence, because the act of doubting presupposes that there’s something doing the doubting—the doubter.

Dissatisfied with what he’d been taught at school, Descartes set out to question everything, rejecting each belief that wasn’t certain. In the First Meditation, he walks us through a gauntlet of skeptical arguments, offering reasons for doubting our beliefs in even the most ordinary and obvious things: that there’s a physical world, that you have a body, that other people exist, that God exists, and that 2 + 2 = 4. By the close, it seems skepticism has swept everything aside, that there is nothing but “inextricable darkness.”

However, in the Second Meditation, Descartes realizes there is one thing that simply cannot be doubted: that he exists.

From this single foundation of certainty, Descartes attempts a reconstruction of all our knowledge of the world and of God. Certain at least that he is, he wonders how, if he were the only existing thing, he should have an idea of a supremely perfect, infinite Being.

He first reasons that there is no way he himself could be the source of his idea of God, that God Himself must be and must have given Descartes the idea of Himself; in his beautiful portrayal, the idea of God is “the mark of the craftsman stamped on his work.”

So, Descartes’s world has gone from one to two; first him alone in the darkness, and now him together with God. From here he reflects on God’s nature, in particular His goodness. He reasons it would be inconsistent with God’s goodness that nearly all his beliefs should be utterly false; God, he says, is not a deceiver.

If we’re sufficiently careful in our pursuit of knowledge, then, we can be assured we will reach it. With this argument, Descartes reopens the door to the external world. If we restrict ourselves to believing only those things that we can “clearly and distinctly” perceive, we will not err in our judgment.

———

Perhaps now we can see, minimally, why Pascal’s critique may not be sufficiently charitable. There definitely is a sense in which the self comes before God in Descartes’s system, but there is equally, and arguably more importantly, a sense in which God is before everything else. Let me explain.

For Descartes, the knowledge of oneself comes before the knowledge of God. I don’t mean “before” in a temporal sense, the way we might think of a child gaining self-awareness before she becomes aware of God. I do mean that in an explanation of the justification of our beliefs, knowledge of God (and of the world God has created) follows knowledge of oneself.

In the course of writing Descartes not only uses the Cogito, ergo sum argument to support his other beliefs, he also discovers some of the external conditions that make possible the activity of meditating in the first place. Most significantly, he discovers that his existence and activity must be sustained from moment to moment by God’s continual conservation. Thus, for Descartes, the existence of oneself comes after the existence of God.

We might say that Descartes set out alone to discover God but learned that God was with him in the search.

Thomas Ward is currently a doctoral candidate in UCLA’s Department of Philosophy and holds an MPhil from the University of Oxford.

John Mark Reynolds, The Great Books Reader: Excerpts and Essays on the Most Influential Books in Western Civilization (Grand Rapids, MI: Bethany House, 2011).