Chesterton begins his brilliant book on how he came to believe Christianity is true with a humorous parable about an English man who sets out by yacht to discover a new world and, through a slight miscalculation, lands back in England, believing he has discovered “a new island in the south seas.” Such a man we would call a fool, he insists.
Later, with a turn and honesty characteristic of the book, Chesterton writes, “I am [that] man who, with the utmost daring, discovered what had been discovered before.” Of course Chesterton is not speaking of a new world here but of old beliefs he names “Orthodoxy.” What Chesterton is getting at is that in his search for new truth, he discovered an 1800 year-old story that answered his hardest questions and deepest doubts.
Chesterton continues, “I am the fool of this story and no rebel can hurl me from my throne.”
But I beg to differ. If I cannot cast him down, I can at least stand shaking beside him. Chesterton’s story is mine. I too have acted the fool believing what I am learning has just magically appeared on my library shelf bound in first edition beauty.
For example, over the last several years I had come to believe I discovered the Trinity, God Three in One, is not best understood by metaphors using eggs that are three in one, yolks, whites, and shells, nor water which is able to be gas, solid, and liquid but rather that God in his trinitarian Being is relational, an eternal expression of community. It is not a metaphor but a reality. Being created in God’s image, humans are communitarian beings too. Why do humans only live and thrive together? Chesterton asks. Because the Trinity is “society,” not meaning high society or culture but togetherness.
Further I was stunned and delighted to discover that long before giants such as Eugene H. Peterson, Madeline L’Engle, Donald Miller, and even midgets like myself, recently came to talk about life as story, Chesterton did so. Why does man have free will? he wonders. Because a story is not a story without a choice, the inciting incident. And every choice is in itself a story.
But Chesterton and I are not alone in this foolish re-discovery of old truth. It is the story of us all. And Chesterton tells his–of how he came to believe–in such poetic, fun, witty, honest, and challenging images, ideas, and language that many, if not all, of us can relate and join him on his yacht of discovery. Fools all.
The story of the yacht man is not just one of foolishness, however. For Chesterton it illustrates the enigma of humans yearning to set sail and return home in the same breath. One of the beautiful truths Christianity showed Chesterton is that it holds us “astonished” and “at home” all at the same time. This both/and he calls riddle/answer is the format he uses to address the questions about faith he faced. We need, he says to believe something that is at once “strange and secure,” combining an “idea of wonder and an idea of welcome.” The same rule is necessary in order for one to rebel or follow. All men are born upside-down, he says. Christianity puts us right side up with our feet on the ground. It answers these both/and questions.
But above all, I too am the fool of this story because, though professors, friends, colleagues, and even enemies have raved about this marvelous book, I have only just now discovered “Orthodoxy,” a mere 105 years after its publication. I am sorry for that.
But “Orthodoxy” did not simply let me explore old truths as if new. It inspired me as a writer. Oh, to turn a phrase as does Chesterton and see the words weeping or laughing or cajoling as they dance on the page. To write such, I might be able to say, “It is finished.”
For me reading Chesterton’s true, fearless, poetic, and rhythmic prose is like watching that rare sunset containing all the life and colors of a day drop below my beloved snow-capped Rocky Mountains. I’ve seen the words before, but not like this.
Listen to his last paragraph:
“The tremendous figure [Jesus], which fills the gospels, towers in this respect, as in every other, above all the thinkers whoever thought themselves tall.
“His pathos was natural, almost casual. The Stoics, ancient and modern, were proud of concealing their tears. He never concealed his tears. He showed them plainly on his open face. . . .
“Yet he concealed something.
“Solemn supermen and imperial diplomatists are proud of restraining their anger. He never restrained his anger. He flung furniture down the front steps of the temple. . . .
“Yet he restrained something.
“I say it with reverence. There was in that shattering personality a thread that must be called shyness. There was something he hid from all men when he went up a mountain to pray. There was something that he covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth.
“And I have sometimes fancied that it was his mirth.”
As I read that last sentence and smiled, my wife Dee Dee walked up to me.
Ironic, that at that moment, I apparently could not contain mine.