G. K. Chesterton’s “Adventures in Pursuit of the Obvious”

In the beginning of his 1908 book, Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton compared himself to an English adventurer who set out by sea to discover new land, and thought he did just that—until he discovered that he had accidentally returned to England.

In addition to feeling embarrassed by his mistake, the sailor would also feel fortunate, Chesterton speculated, to have experienced both the adventure of discovery and the comfort of the familiar:

“What could be more delightful than to have in the same few minutes all the fascinating terrors of going abroad combined with all the humane security of coming home again? What could be better than to have all the fun of discovering South Africa without the disgusting necessity of landing there? What could be more glorious than to brace one’s self up to discover New South Wales and then realize, with a gush of happy tears, that it was really old South Wales. This at least seems to me the main problem for philosophers, and is in a manner the main problem of this book. How can we contrive to be at once astonished at the world and yet at home in it?”

In Orthodoxy, Chesterton aimed to show how Christianity had solved this problem and could provide for us what he called a “life of practical romance”:

“…we need this life of practical romance; the combination of something that is strange with something that is secure. We need so to view the world as to combine an idea of wonder and an idea of welcome. We need to be happy in this wonderland without once being merely comfortable.”

Chesterton wrote Orthodoxy as an account of what he called his “elephantine adventures in pursuit of the obvious.” Determined to think for himself, he reached conclusions that confirmed for him the truth of the Christian faith:

“When I fancied that I stood alone I was really in the ridiculous position of being backed up by all Christendom. It may be, Heaven forgive me, that I did try to be original; but I only succeeded in inventing all by myself an inferior copy of the existing traditions of civilized religion. The man from the yacht thought he was the first to find England; I thought I was the first to find Europe. I did try to found a heresy of my own; and when I had put the last touches to it, I discovered that it was orthodoxy.”

I remember, as a kid, playing with my electric keyboard and discovering a secret formula, certain notes that always sound good when played together. I soon learned that there were things called “chord progressions,” and that the one I had discovered was the most basic one that all musicians knew about.

Exploration and discovery are thrilling, but not every adventurer is fortunate enough to return home. I’ve known people who have studied the Bible and found a new revelation that turned out to be an ancient heresy. I’ve also seen people discover a truth that had been taught by others before them. Yet it is more precious to them because they found it for themselves.

The good news is that we can have both the new and the familiar. We can benefit from the wisdom of the ages and also taste the powers of the age to come. We can think for ourselves and also humbly listen to others who went before us and thought for themselves. We can love tradition enough to fight for it, and we can love it enough to challenge it.