Monday, March 29, 2010

Did I accomplish my Lenten Goal?

Well, we're not done yet, but I think it is safe to say that I did not finish reading all 6 books that I set out to read. I did finally finish G.K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy, and what an interesting read that was!!

This was my second or third time trying to read this book. Those first few times I never made it very far, probably not even past chapter one. Mostly that was my own fault. This is not a book you can set down and expect to pick up later and understand what is going on. This is philosophy, and it is seemingly "everywhere." But this time, I stuck with it. Whenever I didn't understand something I just kept going. It was important for me this time to just try and get the big picture.

I think I accomplished that. Towards the end of my reading of this book, my husband started reading it again. He informed me that upon a second reading he feels like he understands better because he knows what the overall goal is. Personally, I'm still a bit fuzzy on the overall goal.

But I got some good basic things out of this book. Essentially Chesterton wrote this (around 1908, by the way) in response to something someone had written about him. The purpose of the book is to show how he came to believe that there is a God and that the Catholic Church is the one true church.

But how he goes about doing this is what I find so confusing. From discussing "maniacs" to elves and fairy tales, I kept wondering what this had to do with the Church. But by chapter 6, it started to fall into place ... a little bit. I could sort of see by then how these weird tangents actually came together to form the foundation for his argument that Christianity has to be right. I think I might need to read the book at least two more times to truly understand everything.

But understanding everything was not my goal. I wanted to be able to get something out of it and have a basic understanding of Chesterton's thoughts. That was really all I could hope for without taking a class on him or something.

What I did get were some great sound bites. Chesterton really has a great way with words. And it was amazing how tangential something could sound until he actually did make a point. Then it was like light bulbs going off!! I marked many interesting passages, several too long to quote here, but I do want to share a few of the briefer ones.

Like I said above, chapter 6 was when things really started making sense to me. This chapter, titled "The Paradoxes of Christianity" really got into what we call in the Catholic Church the "Great Both/And." Chesterton never comes out and calls it that, but it was obvious to me that this is what he was talking about. He starts this chapter by telling his readers that it is his purpose here "to show that whenever we feel there is something odd in Christian theology, we shall generally find that there is something odd in the truth" (p. 88). He goes on to explain, "this is why the faith has that elaboration of doctrines and details which so much distresses those who admire Christianity without believing in it" (p.89). Only in Christianity do we find people who can "pardon unpardonable acts, or love unlovable people." It is also the strength of Christianity that they adopted and kept the good things that were found in the pagan cultures they grew up around. I like how he describes this by saying that "Christianity got over the difficulty of combining furious opposites by keeping them both, and keeping them both furious" (p. 101). I can't think of a better way of describing the Great "Both/And" of the Church.

It is also in chapter six where Chesterton finally starts describing his own conversion. As a great man of words he eloquently states "the more I considered Christianity, the more I found that while it had established a rule and order, the chief aim of that order was to give room for good things to run wild" (p.102). I love that description of the order of the Church existing to allow for the good of our society to run free and wild. We often think of order as being constraining, and yet the Church teaches us that we are more free when we have doctrines and an order around us that when there is just anarchy.

The last bit I'll share from this section is also only possible from such a one as Chesterton: "It is easy to be a madman: it is easy to be a heretic. It is always easy to let the age have its head; the difficult thing is to keep one's own" (p. 107). This is as applicable today as at any time in history and will continue to be applicable in the ages to come.

From this point forward Chesterton delves more deeply into the Christian principles and his own conversion and acceptance of them, as well as his reasons for believing in the Catholic Church as the one true Church. His philosophical paths are at times hard to follow for the casual reader, but not entirely out of reach. Despite this casual reader being a little fuzzy on the path I was being taken down, I still felt like I came away with something to think about.

One thing I thought of often while I read was that I often hear people accuse believers that they are blindly following something they've been taught and they don't think. The implication is always that thinking people have no reason to believe in God or to follow a church. Chesterton brings that theory crashing down. He is one who has obviously thought about this quite deeply. I, as a believer in God and follower of the Catholic Church, have also thought long and hard about what I believe in and why. But I am not Chesterton and don't want to be. We each have our gifts and the fact that this man has been able to explain them so well that people are still reading him 100 years later because of his way of writing and philosophizing means that there is something there in that Catholic Church. I don't need to think as he does, I only need to know what I know and know that others have been able to make even better arguments to support my beliefs.

In closing, one last fun quote from Chesterton (because he can always provide some fun amidst his deep words): "Catholic doctrine and discipline may be walls; but they are the walls of a playground. Christianity is the only frame which has preserved the pleasure of Paganism" (p. 152).

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