I read romances during church.
Or so GK Chesterton writes in his book Orthodoxy, (see my previous post for a overview). When my congregation recites the Apostles’ Creed, we are declaring what Chesterton calls “the best root of energy and sound ethics…’orthodoxy’.” Christian Orthodoxy, he believes, is the root and fount of romance.
Before elaborating on Chesterton’s connection between orthodoxy and romance, I should poke deeper into what Chesterton means by ‘romance’. When he says ‘romance’, he doesn’t mean dinner and a sunset stroll on the beach. Romance is the profound excitement and wonder that springs from being in love—not only sexual love, but in Chesterton’s case, a deep love for earth that is rooted in our love for God: a longing for God that inspires a love of ‘earthy’ things.
Romance is chosen: commitments take intentionality and work. And yet romance is also an accident: thus the phrase ‘love happens’. To a degree, we really do “fall” in love. Chesterton compares the experience to “dropping into poetry.” It is fostered by our freely willed behaviors, and certainly requires consent, but there is no equation for romance, no test tubes bubbling with liquid love. Chesterton rightly acknowledges that romance is both mysterious and absolutely compelling:
The riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of man.
So then we return to the original question: What does Chesterton mean when he says ‘orthodoxy’—which he says “means the Apostles’ Creed”—is romantic?
Romance has elements that make it romance. Consider orthodoxy in light of other particulars: what makes patriotism, marriage, and orthodoxy examples of romance? What do they have in common?
All contain the paradox of being accidental and chosen. We don’t choose the country we were born into or the person we find ourselves in love with. Also, we don’t choose that God the Father “created the heavens and the earth,” that Jesus was incarnated, crucified and resurrected to the right hand of the Father or that the Holy Spirit has established a holy catholic church that promises fellowship, forgiveness and resurrection to eternal life. In other words, we didn’t choose the truths of orthodoxy.
But we do choose to believe them. The beloved accepts the lover’s proposal on the strength of invisible love, has enough affection for her country to question its faults without questioning its existence or has faith in the creed’s unseen truths.
Love is not comprehended, and it isn’t controlled. We can’t prove love—there is no geometric or modus ponens proof. Yet somehow, in a wild and mysterious way, human beings continually find love so certain that we will live (and sometimes die) for a romance. I’ve yet to see a person live or die for a proof.
Orthodoxy takes us outside ourselves and, in so doing–in seeing how small we are in the cosmic scope of God and His creation–we also find our highest significance:
It has been often said, very truely, that religion is the thing that makes the ordinary man feel extraordinary; it is an equally important truth that religion is the thing that makes the extraordinary man feel ordinary. (Chesterton)
The romance of orthodoxy lies in the God that the Creed pronounces—one that Chesterton finds mysterious and transcendent, but also imminent and certain, the foundation of existence. That is not to say Christianity is without evidence…Chesterton just does not believe that experimental evidence is sufficiently persuasive. People need more than logic:
I will not pretend that this curt discussion is my real reason for accepting Christianity… I have another far more solid and central ground… And that is this: that the Christian Church in its practical relation to my soul is a living teacher, not a dead one.
The Christian Church lives in Jesus, and in turn, offers the “huge and ragged and romantic rock” of orthodoxy, comprised of powerful and perilous doctrines surpassing understanding, but requiring that we accept the thrilling adventure. We say ‘I do’ in response to a living God, Instructor of the joy of Creation, tragedy of crucifixion and final cosmic comedy of resurrection and eternal life. ‘