Thursday, May 21, 2009

For the Love of Earth

In his chapter "The Flag of the World" in Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton remarks that when he was a boy he was con-stantly told that there were two kinds of men in the world, the optimist and the pessimist. "The optimist," he writes, "thought everything good except the pessimist, and the pessimist thought everything bad, except himself."
Chesterton came to conclude that there is a "deep mistake" in categorizing people in this way, for before one can criticize or accept some aspect of the culture he must come to terms with his "primary loyalty" to the world as a whole. "My acceptance of the universe," he says, "is not optimism, it is more like patriotism." Thus the problem with the pessimist is not that he is overly-critical, but that he does not love what he criticizes. And likewise, the problem with the optimist is that he will defend the indefensible with the jingoistic battly cry of "My cosmos, right or wrong."

The way of escape from these two options is in what Chesterton describes as an irrational loyalty to the world, not because is great or even good, but because it is ours.

We do not want joy and anger to neutralize each other and produce a surly content-ment; we want a fiercer delight and a fiercer discontent.... Can [the ordinary man] hate the world enough to change it, and yet love it enough to think it worth changing? ... Is he enough of a pagan to die for the world, and enough of a Christian to die to it?
It is only the "irrational optimist" who can successfully smash the whole universe for the sake of itself, and love the city enough to set it on fire.

Again, Chesterton displays a unique and provocative ability to bring together seemingly disparate ideas (which is what the core doctrine of the Christian faith is all about, when you think about it). I have to think that the late Rich Mullins had been reading Gilbert's work when he penned the line, "Nobody tells you when you get born here how much you'll come to love it, and how you'll never belong here."

While evangelicalism does a pretty good job of making sure we don't love the world too much, Chesterton challenges us to beware of what happens when we love it too little.