“A sad saint is a sad sort of saint.” —St. Frances de Sales
“I don’t believe in God, but I sure do miss Him.” -Julian Barnes
Last month I started trying to introduce readers to one of the best books I’ve read in years. It’s by the often-quoted Chesterton, and it’s one of his best works. The book is called “Orthodoxy” and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
I think Christians today are very guilty of what C.S. Lewis calls chronological snobbery, we assume that if anything was written earlier than last week it probably isn’t relevant to today, but reading this 80 year old book I found it was as if he was responding to the latest blogs.
I’ve already read 2 other Chesterton books, and have bought a few more, it’s hard for me to describe how deeply I resonate with Chesterton’s writing and specifically the way he sees the world as bathed in the glory and joy of God.
The Rush of Life
Remember Chesterton is writing in a time of great scientific revolution, and far from being anti-intellectual, Chesteton seems to embrace the pursuit of truth, but adamantly refuses one that tries to shut God out of the world He made and sustains. Chesterton prophetically looks ahead at trajectory that a secular society is leading toward and the dis-enchantment that comes when we reduce the stars to balls of gas and people to accidents.
His beef isn’t against the idea of evolution, his strongest disagreement is with the assumption that God isn’t involved in something because we think we can figure out how it works.
All the towering materialism which dominates the modern mind rests ultimately upon one assumption; a false assumption. It is supposed that if a thing goes on repeating itself it is probably dead; a piece of clockwork. People feel that if the universe was personal it would vary; if the sun were alive it would dance.. It might be true that the sun rises regularly because he never gets tired of rising. His routine might be due, not to a lifelessness, but to a rush of life.
Chesterton’s most important word to his day needs to be repeated constantly in this one. Just because we can understand something doesn’t mean we know what causes it and sustains it. In some of Chesterton’s most famous words:
It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we. The repetition in Nature may not be a mere recurrence; it may be a theatrical encore. Heaven may encore the bird who laid an egg.
An Enchanted, Magical, Joy-Filled World
Do you see how different this way of seeing our universe is? So many of the stories and movies that we entertain ourselves with today our filled with a kind of modern malaise. God is dead, we killed him and now we are left to try and make meaning out of our lives all by ourselves.
From the movie Garden State to the great American Novelist David Foster Wallace to Jonathan Franzen’s acclaimed book “Freedom” we are telling more and more stories about what it means to live a life without God, which is to live a life without magic.
And yet there is a sense that our world is haunted with the presence of a God who is still there, and who still holds the universe together with great joy.
Chesterton makes a point that is incredibly important to me as a preacher and pastor. He points out that for well over a thousand years humanity was miserable in the small bits of life like health and comfort, while insanely happy about their general position in relationship with the Universe. But today, humanity is entirely happy (or believes they should be) with the small bits of life, while mostly in despair about the bigger things.
Then Chesterton says this:
Man is more himself, man is more manlike, when joy is the fundamental thing in him, and grief the superficial.
This is what Chesterton closes his book with, and what he says haunts him, and ever since I read it, it’s haunted me too.
He closes his great book, with a picture of what orthodox Jesus is like.
Great men throughout history have thought they needed to stand above others. Great leaders have always tried to build their name by diminishing others. But not Jesus. Unlike other would be great men Jesus doesn’t try to tower over people, his pathos was casual…yet he towers over all “great” men.
Throughout history, there was the idea that truly great men don’t cry. Stoics had this idea that one should fight to conceal their tears…don’t let the world see you bleed. Jesus weeps openly, over common things like the sight of a city, or a friend who’s sick.
Throughout history we’ve been told that great men conceal their negative emotions. Diplomats, after all, must restrain their anger. Jesus doesn’t do that either. He throws furniture around in the Temple filled with religious people and then asks them how they will escape the wrath of God.
But Chesterton says there was one thing that Jesus did restrain. It was something so hard to hold back that Jesus had to go spend time alone away from the crowds. It was what drove him to spend time isolated on mountains. It was the one thing that “was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth.”
It was His Joy.