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Book 7

  1. Matheson, Richard — I Am Legend (161 pages)
  2. McCarthy, Cormac — No Country for Old Men (307 pages)
  3. Dexter, Gary — Why Not Catch 21?: The Stories Behind the Titles (213 pages)
  4. Ryman, Geoff — 253 (366 pages)
  5. Wyndham, John — The Day of the Triffids (267 pages)
  6. Kurkov, Andrey — Death and the Penguin (228 pages)
  7. Chesterton, G.K. — Orthodoxy (183 pages)

Page count: 1725.

I didn't do particularly well with my Lenten resolutions this year. One of them was to read at least one religious book. I chose Chesterton's Orthodoxy. One might legitimately question whether this counts as a religious book. (As I said to Father Kevin last night, I would have been better off with Teresa's autobiography.) And I read the last ten pages after the Easter Vigil Mass, so technically I didn't finish during Lent either. I can't even say that I tried my best, for I've been reading several other things concurrently.

So here I am, having finished one of the most famous books categorized as Christian Apologetics and finding that it contains very little that is apologetics or much even that is Christian. If it explains anything, it gives insight into the twists and turns of the Chestertonian mind.

Chesterton's premise is that Christianity is the only feasible and satisfying (note I didn't say reasonable) system for describing our world. He describes how he conducted his search for answers from the perspective of a sceptic and agnostic and kept being led to Christianity. He "discovers" his own metaphysical model, he says, only to find that it had already been discovered a thousand [sic] years before.

I suppose I should be thrilled whenever someone finds his way to Christ, however he got there. But I don't feel Chesterton's path is particularly safe. For one (and I could stop at this one), Christianity is about faith. If we could prove the existence of God, it would somewhat defeat the purpose. I think Chesterton acknowledges this—no, I know he does—yet he persists in showing how he reached his "faith" threw logical deductions.

Two, he spends considerable effort debunking (successfully) other schools of thought, such as materialism, rationalism, fatalism, et cetera-ism. He calls some of them quite reasonable and sound, but points out that they are missing something. The analogy he makes repeatedly is to the madman, for a madman's logic is faultless but a madman's worldview is prohibitively narrow. The problem is that ruling out all other schools of thought as inadequate doesn't by default prove Christian thought correct.

Finally, many of Chesterton's assumptions are faulty and/or dated. His "axioms" aren't at all axiomatic. That anyone would take for granted some of the points he expects us to take for granted implies a sort of intellectual gullibility on the reader's part. Or laziness. Or wishful thinking. Indeed, I think one of the reasons this book is so popular amongst Christians is that Chesterton arrives at the same place we do. We generally agree with his conclusions; therefore, we're all too willing to ignore or excuse the manner in which he bullied his way there from faulty or unsupported premises.

Having said all that, I do appreciate the zeal with which Chesterton delved into his task. This was, mostly, an enjoyable and insightful read. Some of the analogies and metaphors he uses are priceless. And he does point out some "truths" about Christianity (and about attacks on Christianity) that are most enlightening and worth pondering. It's just that, as spiritual autobiography, Orthodoxy falls short of the standard set by others such as Merton and Day and, I'm sure, Teresa.


( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 23rd, 2008 03:34 am (UTC)
If he successfully debunks so many other schools of thought, I imagine that his own methods could also be used to debunk Christianity, except from what you say, he approaches that one a very different way.

Indeed, sounds like it'd be a frustrating read for a thoughtful, devout person such as yourself.

Happy Easter!
Mar. 23rd, 2008 03:43 am (UTC)
"Debunk" was a poor choice of words on my part. That's what I get for writing when half asleep!

More accurate would be to say that he points out the logical inconsistencies of other schools of thought (not of religion) which are used to attack the validity of religious thought. Then he turns right around and uses Christianity's seeming contradictions to "prove" how Christianity avoids these inconsistencies. But of course, his methods could be used against him, especially given the number of his basic axiomatic assumptions which seem flawed.

It wasn't a frustrating read, though, partly because Chesterton's style is so irreverant and light-hearted that one wonders how seriously he took himself and can excuse a lot.
Mar. 23rd, 2008 03:28 pm (UTC)
Okay, I'm going to stir the fire a bit. Why should religion be all about faith? Why should *Christianity* be all about faith?

It seems rather convenient to me, particularly since "back in the day" it wasn't about faith. Why should things change? Or is it simply that the "back in the day" god-like miracles could be explained away by current science?

It just seems suspicious that as humans get better at explaining things in the world that God would change from an evidence based role in our lives to a faith based role.
Mar. 23rd, 2008 04:14 pm (UTC)
Well, the only answer to the question, "Why should *Christianity* be all about faith?" is that it simply is. The Christian religion is by definition about faith. As for back in the day, there is no historical "back in the day" as you conceive it. Christianity, even when Christ was alive and performing miracles, has always been about faith. I'm not sure what revisionist accounts of Christian history led you to the idea that Christianity might at any point have been evidence-based, but the overwhelming evidence does not support that idea.

Now, there certainly have been philosophies of religion that attempt to make rational and logical arguments or proofs for God and about various religious precepts, but that has always been recognized as a separate and distinct arena. The philosophies attempt to explain and prove what cannot be adequately explained and can certainly never be proven, but the religion always precedes those philosophies.

Or is it that you take the occurrence of miracles to be proof? Then that would suggest that miracles no longer happen. Both ideas are simply preposterous!

First, for every unusual event that has taken place, there is no shortage of attempts to explain it away by means of known phenomenon. And if no satisfactory explanation can be found, it is only the person of faith who says, "That is a miracle"; the sceptic will rather say, "We don't know what the cause is, though its source may indeed be supernatural," and the rationalist will say, "We don't know what the cause is, but there must be a perfectly reasonable and rational cause." And if all were, in some miraculous moment of agreement, to accept the event as a miracle, what does the miracle prove? The existence of a Christian Trinitarian God? Of a unitarian god from one of the various strictly monotheistic religions? Of a Hindu pantheon? Of a vast alien superintelligence? The mere existence of miracles proves nothing.

And if you mean to say that miracles used to happen (or so credulous people thought because I've so read) but no longer do—well, I don't think you'll find a single person of faith to agree with you there. Miracles happen all the time, today as in the past. We simply live in a world where the sceptics or the rationalists are too quick to put their spin on unexplainable events, a world where believers are marginalized and labelled crazy if they insist on the truth of miracles.

And have we really gotten better at explaining things…outside the arena of science? Perhaps I am wrong, but my reading in various genres and traditions suggests not, that if anything we might be better at obfuscating than explaining.

You're right about one thing: Why should things change? If something was true before, it should be true now. If something was wrong 1000 years ago, I should think it wrong now. Religion cannot be morally relativistic; and it is not, or it would not have survived so long.

If you read Hebrew and Christian Scripture, you will notice a preponderance of emphasis on faith, hope, and love. I cannot comment on other religions for the obvious reason that I am not as familiar with them as with my own. But as regards Christianity, the question, "Why should *Christianity* be all about faith?" is as meaningless as the question, "Why should vegetarianism be about eating vegetables?"

Oy, I am starting to sound like Chesterton or C.S. Lewis! I am sorry, but I have read to much Christian apologetics to fall into the trap you set for me.
Mar. 23rd, 2008 09:11 pm (UTC)
I simple meant that the bible (and other religious texts) are rife with miracles and god and human interaction. Where did all of that interaction go? Catholicism was no different, accepting the miracles that Jesus performed and those of the saints. Look at the miracles of early saints compared to those of modern day sainthood. The bar seems to be rather lower these days!

I am spiritual myself. But I'm not sure that I would take any *religion* on faith.
Mar. 23rd, 2008 10:07 pm (UTC)
I went back and read in more detail your posting. You did address some of these points. My only comment your observation that cynics are explaining away things that they can't yet prove as simply things they don't understand yet, and the faithful explaining them as evidence of god simply may mean that the faithful don't really want to believe that randomness IS part of science. Sometimes the stars do align. Human minds and hearts are tricky things- people give positive and negative randomness unequal weights believing thusly that the power of god is evidenced because they don't accept that they are just as common.

(again, playing devil's advocate- god may be very well be hiding behind that 10th standard deviation)
Mar. 24th, 2008 05:27 am (UTC)
Again, this idea of evidence — who uses miracles as the existence of God? Rather, it should be the other way around. We have faith in the existence of God (amongst other things), and thus if anything the existence of God is evidence that miracles are miracles and not simply unexplained phenomenon. I will repeat that miracles prove nothing. Religious belief (and not belief in religion, to address a subtle point from your previous comment) is based on faith, not on a preponderance of evidence. This is one of the places where I feel Chesterton strayed, by trying to create (flimsy) evidence. If one could construct some sort of proof from evidence, the whole point of religion would vanish in a puff of smoke. There's just no two ways around this: Religious belief is by definition faith-based.
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