Aug 22, 2013
neil

GK Chesterton on how we travel the world to avoid life not discover it

If we love to read some authors because they confirm our opinions we learn to appreciate others because they change them.  A good writer might just change our minds. GK Chesterton (1874-1936) was such a man.  A brilliant mind and a prolific writer I discovered that he wrote around 80 books, several hundred poems, some 200 short stories, 4000 essays, and several plays. He was a literary and social critic, historian, playwright, novelist, Catholic theologian and apologist, debater, and mystery writer.

Over the summer I’ve been reading his book Heretics . One of the reasons he was so good at getting  around my defences was through his appeal to paradox. He works to show you how they very thing you seek is not found in the way you seek it. In fact, he warns, seek it in the wrong place and you lose it altogether.

The following extracts from his essay On Certain Modern Writers and the Institution of the Family is an example of just how powerfully paradox works as a literary device. Subverting our assumptions, we find our views challenged and our minds changed. A whole new way of looking at things not only opens up but begins to become attractive to us.

The argument is simply this: if we really want to live life how do we do it? Chesterton asks where do we really experience life; is it in moving to the big city? Is it in travelling the world? Is life found in seeking after all kinds of new opportunities and experiences? Or might we find that the truth is found in deliberately pursuing just the opposite? Is life actually found in learning to love those who live right alongside us? Might we see more of the world by staying just where we are?

In a culture where we are desperately concerned not to miss out Chesterton argues we miss out when we fail to invest our live in a meaningful  community.

1. Where life is really lived

The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world. He knows much more of the fierce varieties and uncompromising divergences of men. The reason is obvious. In a large community we can choose our companions. In a small community our companions are chosen for us.

2. Why large societies are about life-avoidance

A big society exists in order to form cliques. A big society is a society for the promotion of narrowness. It is a machinery for the purpose of guarding the solitary and sensitive individual from all experience of the bitter and bracing human compromises. It is, in the most literal sense of the words, a society for the prevention of Christian knowledge.

3. Life is discovered not in seeing places but in loving people

If we were tomorrow morning snowed up in the street in which we live, we should step suddenly into a much larger and much wilder world than we have ever known. And it is the whole effort of the typically modern person to escape from the street in which he lives. First he invents modern hygiene and goes to Margate. Then he invents modern culture and goes to Florence. Then he invents modern imperialism and goes to Timbuctoo. He goes to the fantastic borders of the earth. He pretends to shoot tigers. He almost rides on a camel. And in all this he is still essentially fleeing from the street in which he was born; and of this flight he is always ready with his own explanation. He says he is fleeing from his street because it is dull; he is lying. He is really fleeing from his street because it is a great deal too exciting. It is exciting because it is exacting; it is exacting because it is alive. He can visit Venice because to him the Venetians are only Venetians; the people in his own street are men. He can stare at the Chinese because for him the Chinese are a passive thing to be stared at; if he stares at the old lady in the next garden, she becomes active. He is forced to flee, in short, from the too stimulating society of his equals — of free men, perverse, personal, deliberately different from himself. The street in Brixton is too glowing and overpowering. He has to soothe and quiet himself among tigers and vultures, camels and crocodiles.

4. What God is trying to teach us through community

We make our friends; we make our enemies; but God makes our next-door neighbour. . . we have to love our neighbour because he is there — a much more alarming reason for a much more serious operation. He is the sample of humanity which is actually given us. Precisely because he may be anybody he is everybody. He is a symbol because he is an accident.

All of Chesterton’s arguments, powerfully and persuasively made I’m sure you’ll agree, serve to challenge our view of church. For example, is church a place to visit or a community to learn from? Do we like our large churches because that way we can avoid people? We can decide who to love and when we don’t want to love others, especially those who differ from us, we can easily ignore them? Is a large church a decision not to grow-up through sharing in the joys and sorrows of our Christian brother and sister?

On holiday on Sunday in a small family church when one couple shared the news that the wife had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer Chesterton’s observations were confirmed in an instant. The news would impact every member of that church family who by virtue of their community life shared  life together, week in and week out.

2 Comments

  • Fantastic article Neil, thanks.

  • Thanks for sharing Zach . Great article ! This is why our small “Family of God” church is so special to us.

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