In Bridging the Great Divide, Father Barron expounds upon G.K. Chesterton's reflection on "The Paradoxes of Christianity," demonstrating how the Church often places "opposites side by side and allows them to coexist in all of their purity, power, and intensity."
“Recently, I was perusing one of Chesterton’s most popular books, Orthodoxy, and my attention was drawn to chapter 6, “The Paradoxes of Christianity.” In this section of the book, Chesterton recalls his puzzlement when he read the critiques of Christianity that came from so many different quarters. On the one hand, Christianity—especially Catholicism—was criticized for being too worldly, too caught up in wealth, property, pomp, and ceremony. Where, for instance, was the spirit of the carpenter of Nazareth in the expensive theatrical display of the Vatican? On the other hand, Christianity was reviled for its excessive spiritualism, its indifference to the concrete concerns of the world, its tendency to pine after the “things of heaven.” Similarly, some critics complained that Christianity, with its stress on sin, penitence, and punishment, was excessively pessimistic, while others held that, given its emphasis on the love of God, the intervention of the saints, and the promise of eternal life, it was ridiculously optimistic. Finally, certain enemies of the faith maintained, probably with Joan of Arc and the Crusades in mind, that Christianity was bloodthirsty and warlike, while others held, probably with Francis in mind, that it was too pacific and nonviolent. What puzzled Chesterton, of course, was not that the Church had its critics, but that its critics were so varied, so at odds with one another, so mutually exclusive. Whatever this Christianity was, he concluded, it must be something strangely shaped indeed to inspire such a wildly divergent army of enemies.
Then, it occurred to him that perhaps it was not Christianity that was misshapen, but rather its critics. Perhaps it was they who, from their various eccentric points of view, saw the rightly shaped Christianity as distorted: ‘Suppose we heard an unknown man spoken of by many men. Suppose we were puzzled to hear that some men said he was too tall and some too short; some objected to his fatness, some lamented his leanness; some thought him too dark and some too fair. One explanation… would be that he might be an odd shape. But there is another explanation. He might be the right shape.’ It could be the case, in short, that ‘it is Christianity that is sane and all its critics that are mad—in various ways.’ It is the sheer depth and breadth of the Church, the complexity and multifacetedness of it, which narrow-minded enemies cannot grasp. Christianity, Chesterton surmised, was perhaps, too capacious to be easily comprehended.
However—and here is Chesterton’s main point—it does not seem that Christianity is merely ‘sensible,’ standing as it were in the middle, taking the elements of both extremes. It does not seem to be the case that the Church is somewhat worldly and somewhat otherworldly, to some degree life affirming and to some degree life denying, a little optimistic and a little pessimistic. On the contrary, there seems to be, everywhere in the life of the Church, a quality of frenzy, excess, enthusiasm: Francis of Assisi was ‘a more shouting optimist that Walt Whitman’ and St. Jerome, ‘in denouncing all evil, could paint the world blacker than Schopenhauer.’ One Christian saint could be more starkly ascetical that the severest Stoic, another Christian saint could celebrate life more ecstatically that a priest of Dionysus. In defending the celibacy of the clergy, the Church could be ‘ferociously against having children,’ and, in holding up marriage and family, it could be, at the same time, ‘ferociously for having children.’ The Church consistently and poetically placed the opposites side by side and allowed them to coexist in all of their purity, power, and intensity; Christianity encouraged the lamb and the lion to lie down together, without ever forcing the lion to become lamblike or the lamb lionlike. Chesterton offers us a wonderful image: The Church ‘has always had a healthy hatred of pink. It hates that combination of two colours which is the feeble expedient of the philosophers. It hates that evolution of black into white which is tantamount to a dirty gray.’
Like Paul Tillich, the great Protestant theologian of the last century, Chesterton feels that moderation is a pagan not a Christian virtue. To stand blandly in the middle is to miss the thrill and the romance of Christianity, to overlook that strange event which stands at the heart of the Church and which separates it from any mythology or philosophy that preceded it. It is to overlook the Incarnation."
Robert Barron. Bridging the Great Divide, Rowman & Littlefield: Maryland, 2004. Pg. 5-6.