Finding My Way to OrthodoxyTOD WORNER
Orthodoxy. That was the title of the bent-up, two-toned blue paperback in his hand before me.
When I was a medical student, I appreciated the wise, thoughtful, and witty mentors I had in my supervising residents and staff physicians. Likewise, I have always wanted to provide my medical students with a similar degree of wit and wisdom. And six weeks in the trenches of a busy hospital rotation gives you a chance to bond with your students pretty deeply. As a result, once or twice during the rotation, we would find ourselves in the basement of a seedy peanut bar known as Williams' Pub discussing various issues and blowing of steam. It was here that Scott handed me a book and again asked, "Have you ever read this?"
Orthodoxy. That was the title of the bent-up, two-toned blue paperback in his hand before me. "No. I haven't," I replied. I recall reading a few witty quotes from its author, G.K. Chesterton, at one point in my life. But nothing further. "Read it. And keep it. I think you'll like it," he said. And then we went on to other topics over peanuts and beer.
The origin of this gift came in response to a casual conversation he and I had about a book I had been reading. Without naming the book, it was essentially a popular hit-job on the Pope. As such, I was engrossed with it (not yet Catholic at the time). And yet this bright, polite, and compliant medical student made it clear to me that the book had major flaws in its research, was overtly biased, and was celebrated for gratuitously taking potshots at a figure all to easily assailed by the modern secular media. Let me say, that this kind of response gave me pause. Scott was smart and even-keeled. He had great judgment and was no firebrand or radical. And yet, he was clearly passionate about this. The more we talked, the more apparent it was that he was clearly well-versed on this topic. Scott was Catholic and a St. John's University graduate. I was Protestant and now very intrigued…especially now that I had a book called Orthodoxy in my hand.
And Chesterton himself would state in the introduction to Heretics:
In spite of Chesterton's good-natured and wry humor, his book pricked a number of egos. After all, a young, relatively unaccomplished upstart was challenging not only the prevailing opinion-makers of his day, but also the dominant "enlightened" worldview. Criticisms rained down upon him:
G.K. Chesterton, lacking any type of malice, received this criticism with good nature and humility. And yet, there was one criticism that prompted him to action — one criticism which he felt was justified and worthy of an answer. Chesterton explains:
And so, in response to a sharp criticism, G.K. Chesterton wrote Orthodoxy in 1908. He would describe it as:
This book would articulate G.K. Chesterton's worldview. It starts with some of the general propositions accepted and adopted by society as "conventional wisdom". Then, picking up where he left off in Heretics, he begins to make a case that brings us from the general worldview of determinism, scientism, and nihilism to a specific world of freewill, wonder, and salvation. Chesterton, nominally a high-church Anglican at this time (thanks largely to the influence of his wife, Frances), was effectively articulating a Catholic worldview in this 1908 book which he would officially adopt upon his conversion in 1922. IN 1908, he was a Catholic…he just didn't know it yet.
Well, after attending a few conferences of the American Chesterton Society (under the enthusiastic leadership of Dale Ahlquist), reading Maisie Ward's biography on Chesterton (a classic — see my Book Review on this here), and consuming innumerable articles and several other Chesterton books, I re-read Orthodoxy. Four years had passed since I previously dismissed the book. And to be perfectly frank, I was utterly dumbstruck at how wrong I was. The deep insights, playful paradoxes, and compelling wisdom that I flatly missed were stunning. Chesterton wasn't lacking, I was. To paraphrase a wonderful admonition on reading Shakespeare, "When you are reading Chesterton, Chesterton's not on trial — YOU are." The late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, editor of First Things magazine and a bright thinker, made me feel in good company when he had this to say about reading G.K. Chesterton:
So what is it about Orthodoxy that makes it so profound? What can I now say to others who might struggle as I once did with the unique style and substance that is specific to G.K. Chesterton? Chesterton's story is a journey. Whereas Heretics affirmed to Chesterton who he was NOT, Orthodoxy affirmed who he was. And isn't this the journey we are all on? We try to discern and avoid that which repels while hewing to that which attracts. One of the most profound descriptions Chesterton gives was instrumental in my own conversion to Catholicism. It is about his rejection of the conventional wisdom of the day (as outlined in Heretics) and adopting, what he perceived as, a new and novel worldview. Chesterton felt this new and novel worldview was unique to him and worthy of warm self-congratulation. But, then he realized:
By identifying what he didn't believe in, and better understanding what he did believe in, Chesterton, aided by Providence and good common sense, arrived in the arms of "Orthodoxy", the Truth of the Church, Christianity. Orthodoxy tells the story of how he got there. And what a story it is.
"Have you ever read this?…Read it. And keep it. I think you'll like it." I have, Scott. And I will again. Thank you. Thank you very much.
Tod Worner. "Finding My Way to Orthodoxy." A Catholic Thinker (November 24, 2012).
Reprinted with permission from the author, Tod Worner.
THE AUTHORTod Worner is a practicing internal medicine physician in Minneapolis who converted to Catholicism in 2009. He writes regularly at "A Catholic Thinker" (www.acatholicthinker.wordpress.com & www.todworner.wordpress.com) and tweets @thinkercatholic. Tod has spoken nationally on Chesterton & Churchill and actively teaches Catholic youth where he has developed a curriculum for advanced catechesis beyond confirmation. He anticipates a book on this catechesis in the next two years.
Copyright © 2012 Tod Worner
Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.