G.K. Chesterton on the paradox of Christian exile
Religion & Liberty Online

G.K. Chesterton on the paradox of Christian exile

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In Episode 1 of For the Life of the World, Stephen Grabill and Evan Koons lay the groundwork for viewing Christian cultural engagement through the lens of exile. “We are strangers in a strange land,” Grabill explains, and yet “we are meant to make something of the world.”

As Koons recently expounded over at Q Ideas, Christians have long struggled with the idea of being “in but not of the world,” resorting to a range of faulty attitudes and approaches, whether it be fortification, domination, or accommodation.

In his famous work, Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton writes of his own struggle in this area, describing the difficulty he endured in reconciling this with that. In chapter five (“The Flag of the World”), he ponders the peculiar tension between pessimism and optimism in the Christian life — a feature that perplexed him throughout much of his life. “Christianity was accused, at one and the same time, of being too optimistic about the universe and of being too pessimistic about the world,” he writes.

These distinct accusations continued to compete throughout his intellectual and spiritual development, and as they did, Chesterton continued to be confounded by the paradox. “On this system one could fight all the forces of existence without deserting the flag of existence,” he writes. “One could be at peace with the universe and yet at war with the world. St. George could still fight the dragon, however big the monster bulked in the cosmos, though he were bigger than the mighty cities or bigger than the everlasting hills.”

Then, one day, it all made sense.

Then followed an experience impossible to describe. It was as if I had been blundering about since my birth with two huge and unmanageable machines, of different shapes and without apparent connection—the world and the Christian tradition. I had found this hole in the world: the fact that one must somehow find a way of loving the world without trusting it; somehow one must love the world without being worldly. I found this projecting feature of Christian theology, like a sort of hard spike, the dogmatic insistence that God was personal, and had made a world separate from Himself. The spike of dogma fitted exactly into the hole in the world—it had evidently been meant to go there—and then the strange thing began to happen….When once these two parts of the two machines had come together, one after another, all the other parts fitted and fell in with an eerie exactitude.

Chesterton realized that though the world is in need of something, and though we ought to yearn for healing and restoration for that very same world, our hope is not to be found in the world itself, and Christianity cannot and will not thrive, nor will the nations flourish, if it pretends otherwise.

Indeed, the death, destruction, and dysfunction that surrounds us exists and is furthered primarily because it rejects that basic reality:

All the optimism of the age had been false and disheartening for this reason, that it had always been trying to prove that we fit in to the world. The Christian optimism is based on the fact that we do not fit in to the world. I had tried to be happy by telling myself that man is an animal, like any other which sought its meat from God. But now I really was happy, for I had learnt that man is a monstrosity. I had been right in feeling all things as odd, for I myself was at once worse and better than all things. The optimist’s pleasure was prosaic, for it dwelt on the naturalness of everything; the Christian pleasure was poetic, for it dwelt on the unnaturalness of everything in the light of the supernatural. The modern philosopher had told me again and again that I was in the right place, and I had still felt depressed even in acquiescence. But I had heard that I was in the wrong place, and my soul sang for joy, like a bird in spring. The knowledge found out and illuminated forgotten chambers in the dark house of infancy. I knew now why grass had always seemed to me as queer as the green beard of a giant, and why I could feel homesick at home.

But what of this tension we are called to ride and wrangle? What of the experience of being in the world but not of it — of feeling homesick at home, of serving one’s captors freely and generously? What does such a position mean for our stewardship across all spheres of life? Why, as Chesterton continued to ask himself, do Christians care to transform a world that is not their ultimate home?

As Chesterton concludes, our call to stewardship and cultural engagement relies not on notions of pessimism or optimism, but on a confidence in and commitment to God’s plans and purposes. Through this orientation, ours is “a matter of primary loyalty,” of “cosmic patriotism.” For God so loved the world, he gave.

We, too, are created and called to love, and thus, to give:

The world is not a lodging-house at Brighton, which we are to leave because it is miserable. It is the fortress of our family, with the flag flying on the turret, and the more miserable it is the less we should leave it. The point is not that this world is too sad to love or too glad not to love; the point is that when you do love a thing, its gladness is a reason for loving it, and its sadness a reason for loving it more.

From such love, then, we are called to action that is no less transcendent in its source and aim. As Koons goes on to discover in the remaining episodes of FLOW, although our position of exile is one that deals directly within and throughout the messiness of our fallen world, it is one that is distinctly and mysteriously propelled by and driven toward the gifts of God, the blood of Jesus, and the witness of the Holy Spirit.

We are called to love, to serve, to sacrifice, and to obey, and to do so as broken people in a world filled with others like us, struggling within and across an imperfect web of broken relationships. Here, in our role as exiles, we can hope and trust in the good news and redemptive work of Jesus Christ, and only here can we point the way home.

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Joseph Sunde

Joseph Sunde's work has appeared in venues such as the Foundation for Economic Education, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work, as well as on PowerBlog. He resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with his wife and four children.