Faith and Paradox: G.K. Chesterton’s Philosophy of Christian Paradox

Within its long history, Christianity has been accused of almost every kind of vice imaginable. Strangely enough, its critics—sometimes even the same critic—have attacked it for contradictory reasons. Some detractors, in particular Epicureans and Materialists, have decried it for its unworldliness and pessimistic outlook on the material world. Other disparagers—those with a more cynical point of view, such as the Stoics or Existentialists—have condemned Christianity for blinding the people, shielding their eyes from the true bleakness of the world by giving false promises of divine mercy and a glorious afterlife. Hell, it is said, is a doctrine breeding despair; but Heaven, they say with equal vehemence, is a doctrine breeding false hope.

It is with this criticism that G.K. Chesterton begins his explanation of his “philosophy of paradox” in the sixth chapter of Orthodoxy, his excellent book of wit and wisdom.1 As Chesterton points out, it might be easily overlooked if this were the only set of inconsistent charges but indeed there hardly seems to be an accusation against Christianity whose opposite has not also been leveled against the religion. It has been accused of being too pacifistic, “an attempt to make a man like a sheep,” as a result of Gospel phrases like “turn the other cheek” and “love your enemy.”2 And yet the bloodshed of the Crusades and the intolerance for heresy have earned this meek, sheep-minded religion a reputation for violence and aggression.3 “Or again,” Chesterton writes, “Christianity was reproached with its naked and hungry habits; with its sackcloth and dried peas. But the next minute Christianity was being reproached with its pomp and its ritualism; its shrines of porphyry and its robes of gold. It was abused for being too plain and for being too coloured.”4 The accusations run on and on, extending from an unwarranted destruction of the family to an irrational insistence on the family, from an unnatural praise of celibacy to an overly natural demand for children.5 It would seem that Christianity is as full of paradoxes as it is of parables.

The result of all these contradictory charges is that everything about Christianity seems to be not just wrong, but wrong in opposite ways and for opposite reasons. When a young Chesterton reflected on the picture of Christianity painted by its critics, he began to think that they did not understand how evil Christianity really must be if their contradictory criticisms were all correct. He was forced to reevaluate just how bad Christianity was: “It must be understood that I did not conclude hastily that the accusations were false or the accusers fools. I simply deduced that Christianity must be something even weirder and wickeder than they made out.”6

However, the more Chesterton reflected on this, the more he found this conclusion to be unsatisfactory. For the striking thing about Christianity was that though its critics collectively accused it of every possible evil, individually most of them were willing to admit that certain ethical principles or teachings were very valuable and beneficial to the welfare of humanity. Chesterton decided that the critics had no special insight into Christianity, for they had no explanation for its apparently endless evil:

I found in my rationalist teachers no explanation of such exceptional corruption. Christianity (theoretically speaking) was in their eyes only one of the ordinary myths and errors of mortals. They gave me no key to this twisted and unnatural badness. Such a paradox of evil rose to stature of the supernatural. It was, indeed, almost as supernatural as the infallibility of the Pope. An historic institution, which never went right, is really quite as much of a miracle as an institution that cannot go wrong.7

Once he realized that the critics had no real explanation to offer him, Chesterton began to think for himself about how he could make sense of the faith that those critics regarded as “supernaturally evil”:

There had suddenly come into my mind another explanation. Suppose we heard an unknown man spoken of by many men. Suppose we were puzzled to hear that some men said he was too tall and some too short; some objected to his fatness, some lamented his leanness; some thought him too dark, and some too fair. One explanation… would be that he might be an odd shape. But there is another explanation. He might be the right shape.8

This is precisely the response given by Christianity to the critic: there’s not something wrong with Christianity but with the critic, or rather with the critic’s philosophy. Paradox is indeed at the heart of Christianity, for it is precisely the paradoxical shape of its doctrines that allows it to offer answers to deep moral and philosophical problems. For example, the theological paradox of Original Sin illumines the answer to the moral dilemma of balancing pride with humility. Original Sin is the doctrine stating that mankind’s nature has been corrupted as a result of its willful disobedience to God, represented biblically in the Genesis story of Adam and Eve and the Fall of Man.9 In describing Original Sin, Chesterton writes, “The primary paradox of Christianity is that the ordinary condition of man is not his sane or sensible condition; that the normal itself is an abnormality. That is the inmost philosophy of the Fall… That whatever I am, I am not myself.”10 Instead of establishing a virtue of modesty that somehow splits the gap of pride and humility, this doctrine of normal abnormality enables humans to simultaneously experience the glory of the highest pride and the awe of the meekest humility. Conversely, Chesterton illustrates the “diluteness” of the pagan or agnostic philosopher’s balance between pride and humility:11

The average pagan, like the average agnostic, would merely say that he was content with himself, but so insolently self-satisfied, that there were many better and many worse… This proper pride does not lift the heart like the tongue of trumpets; you cannot go glad in crimson and gold for this. On the other hand, this mild rationalist modesty does not cleanse the soul with fire and make it clear like crystal; it does not (like a strict and searching humility) make a man as a little child, who can sit at the feet of the grass. It does not make him look up and see marvels… Thus it loses both the poetry of being proud and the poetry of being humble.12

Christianity brought something new into the equation, a solution to this dilemma of pride and humility. Thus, in combining the doctrine of the Fall with the promises of the Incarnated Christ, Christianity uncovered a new balance, one that would allow both passions of Pride and Humility to blaze side-by-side:

In so far as I am Man I am the chief of creatures. In so far as I am a man I am the chief of sinners. All humility that had meant pessimism, that had meant man taking a vague or mean view of his whole destiny—all that was to go. We were to hear no more the wail of Ecclesiastes that humanity had no preeminence over the brute, or the awful cry of Homer that man was only the saddest of all the beasts of the field. Man was a statue of God walking about the garden. Man had preeminence over all the brutes; man was only sad because he was not a beast, but a broken god.13

This understanding of man’s dignity, illumined by the combined doctrines of his immortal soul and his sinful nature, further unlocks Christianity’s paradoxical mixture of optimism and pessimism. In describing his own discovery of this paradox, Chesterton writes,

I had often called myself an optimist, to avoid the too evident blasphemy of pessimism. But all the optimism of the age had been false and disheartening for this reason, that it had always been trying to prove that we fit in to the world. The Christian optimism is based on the fact that we do not fit in to the world… The modern philosopher had told me again and again that I was in the right place, and I had still felt depressed even in acquiescence. But I had heard that I was in the wrong place, and my soul sang for joy, like a bird in spring… I knew now why grass had always seemed to me as queer as the green beard of a giant, and why I could feel homesick at home.14

Hence, the Christian pessimistic optimism satisfies the intuition of the pessimist because it acknowledges the evil of the world brought on by the Fall. It satisfies the intuition of the optimist because it acknowledges that Creation and Man, in their deepest senses, truly are good. In other words, Christianity reduces neither passion—not that of optimism nor that of pessimism—but rather allows both to shine with the greatest intensity, for both are now able to operate in accord with the truth.

Lastly, there is the paradox of caritas, or love. This virtue, considered to be the greatest of the theological virtues,15 answers the dilemma posed by the paradox of justice and mercy. The pagan position, a position echoed in much of today’s political rhetoric, was one of justice: as Chesterton writes, “A sensible pagan would say that there were some people one could forgive, and some one couldn’t: a slave who stole wine could be laughed at; a slave who betrayed his benefactor could be killed, and cursed even after he was killed.”16 While the degree of punishment has indeed been moderated since Roman times, the following general principle is held by modern citizens just as it was by Roman ones: “In so far as the act was pardonable, the man was pardonable.”17 What has changed is not the principle but the definition of “pardonable” and the overall fairness of the judicial process.

On the other side is the stance of mercy, of “pardoning unpardonable acts.”18 Many people have also adopted this kind of stance towards punishment, especially those philosophically committed to denying free will. There are many famed adherents to this position, including the philosopher Bertrand Russell:19 these individuals have fallen for the all too tempting appeal of “tolerance” and will “explain sin as merely a developmental flaw, a psychological weakness, a mistake, or the necessary consequence of an inadequate social structure, etc.”20 This position, too, is unsatisfactory, for it leaves no room for the very idea of pardonability, guilt, or any real rightness or wrongness. As Chesterton writes,

It [the determinist stance] leaves no place for a pure horror of injustice, such as that which is a great beauty in the innocent. And it [the justice stance] leaves no place for a mere tenderness for men as men, such as is the whole fascination of the charitable. Christianity came in here as before. It came in startlingly with a sword, and clove one thing from another. It divided the crime from the criminal. The criminal we must forgive unto seventy times seven. The crime we must not forgive at all… We must be much more angry with the theft than before, and yet much kinder to thieves than before.”21

Once again, Christianity gives a solution to a riddle, not by “pardoning unpardonable acts” in the name of mercy, nor by executing criminals in the name of justice, but by “loving unlovable people” in the name of Christ, thereby preserving the fullness of mercy and the fullness of justice.22 George Macdonald, a Christian author writing a few decades before Chesterton, once wrote, “Man is not made for justice from his fellows, but for love, which is greater than justice, and by including supersedes justice… Justice to be justice must be much more than justice.”23 Love includes both justice and mercy, a true balance without any kind of dilution, and is thereby able to produce true justice and real mercy.

It is precisely because Christianity is able to solve the greatest paradoxes of our existence by theological paradoxes of its own that Chesterton embraced it. Christianity to him is not about “this truth or that truth” but is a wholly “truth-telling thing”—indeed, the only philosophy that “has again and again said the thing that does not seem to be true, but is true.”24

Chesterton found that what the early Christian claimed was true: they were carrying around a key.25 It is the key to human existence and the philosophical puzzles that characterize it. The critic fails to understand this because he fails to appreciate the problems that Christianity is trying to solve, and it is this confusion that has driven much of the criticism of Christianity. Before criticizing something, one really ought to figure out what exactly that thing is and what it was meant for—for how can one criticize something when one does not understand its purpose? It is only when we become truly acquainted with the puzzles and the questions that present themselves to natural reason, when we ask ourselves, for example, how it is that justice and mercy could ever come together, that we begin to appreciate the wisdom that Christianity offers. More important than getting the right answers is asking the right questions. Chesterton argues that when we do get a good understanding of the questions before us, we come to realize that the answer might not be an abstract concept at all, but a person who walked the earth two thousand years ago.

1G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (Moody Publishers: Chicago, 2009) 130.

2Ibid. 132.

3Ibid. 132.

4Ibid. 135.

5Ibid. 135.

6Russell lecture

7Chesterton 131.

8Ibid. 136.

9Ibid. 136-7.

10Catechism of the Catholic Church. Entries 397-401.

11Chesterton 235.

12Ibid. 142.

13Ibid.

14Ibid. 142-3.

15Ibid. 121-2.

161 Corinthians 13:13.

17Chesterton 144.

18Ibid.

19Ibid.

20Catechism of the Catholic Church. Entry 387.

21Chesterton 144. Note that Chesterton’s comment about forgiving “unto seventy times seventy” is made in reference to Jesus’ words in “The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant” (Matthew 18:21-35).

22Ibid.

23George MacDonald: An Anthology Ed. C. S. Lewis (New York: Macmillan, [1947] 1974) from James V. Schall. Roman Catholic Political Philosophy (Lexington Books: Oxford, 2004).

24Ibid. 233.

25G. K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man (Ignatius Press: San Francisco, 2008) 214.

Chris Hauser ’14 is from Barrington, Illinois. He is a History major at Dartmouth.

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