Thursday, August 04, 2016

"If the world is good, we are revolutionaries..."

I recently signed up for an e-book service where they send me daily notification of good e-book deals. Most of them I ignore (except to jot down titles that look interesting enough for me to try to get from the library) but the free deals are often interesting, because it turns out they are mostly for older books.

That's how I've begun to read G.K. Chesterton's book of essays entitled The Defendant. I haven't gotten very far yet. In fact, all I've read is the preface to the "new" edition, which was apparently a new edition back in Chesterton's day, since he wrote the preface. Chesterton may be one of the few writers who could catch my attention ~ and be quote worthy! ~ in a preface.

He did this not once but twice. The first time was a rather profound line he penned while making the humorous observation that the reissue of the book might be necessary because people had "completely forgotten" the essays from their original publication and thus could read them again with some profit because it would be like they were reading them for the first time.  He joked that great writers like Balzac and Shakespeare might not mind being forgotten if it meant that people would ultimately re-discover and re-read their works. Then he adds: "It is a monotonous memory which keeps us in the main from seeing things as splendid as they are." By which I think he means we sometimes simply forget how splendid something is and thus cease to see its grandeur or beauty, perhaps because we grow too used to ordinary splendors. Which I guess does give us the joy of re-discovering them!

The second part of the preface that I found thought-provoking was toward the end, when he was mentioning how a critic had taken him to task for an overly optimistic view in the essays. Then he wrote the following:

"At first sight it would seem that the pessimist encourages improvement. But in reality it is a singular truth that the era in which pessimism has been cried from the housetops is also that in which almost all reform has stagnated and fallen into decay. The reason of this is not difficult to discover. No man ever did, and no man ever can, create or desire to make a bad thing good or an ugly thing beautiful.  There must be some germ of good to be loved, some fragment of beauty to be admired...The cause which is blocking all progress today is the subtle skepticism which whispers in a million ears that things are not good enough to be worth improving. If the world is good we are revolutionaries, if the world is evil we must be conservatives."

And he goes on to add that his essays "seek to remind men that things must be loved first and improved afterwards."

I thought first of the political truth of those statements today, when we are seeing the demise of a major party that has succumbed to a dark and pessimistic vision. And then I thought of the theological ramifications of what Chesterton says. Because it struck me at first that God is better at improvement (and revolutionary visions and actions that lead to improvement) than we human beings are. It struck me at first that while Chesterton says that no man can make a bad thing good or an ugly thing beautiful, God can, and that in some ways that is the very picture of what he does for us in providing salvation.

But on second or third thought, Chesterton's reasoning strikes me as a beautifully catholic sentiment. While I appreciate and even subscribe to (in some measure) the reformed notion of depraved humanity, I believe that the image of God in us is bent and broken but not totally obliterated, and that God loves us, remembering that we are made very good, and it is his love that makes us beautiful. He doesn't demand that we clean ourselves up first before we come to him, somehow trying to improve ourselves or make ourselves worthy before he will love and save and shape us into what we're meant to be. We come to him damaged and broken, unable to fix ourselves, yes. However, surely there is  "some germ of good" or "some fragment of beauty" left in us. God remembers that we are but dust, but he also remembers that he created us very good, and made us to know, love, and serve him, to live in ways that bring him glory. In other words, he sees beyond what we are, not just to what we once were, but to what we will one day be. And it's that's kind of radical vision we need if we're to begin to find ways to love in tandem with his love and to love our world back (and forward) into wholeness.

Because let's face it, part of the reason we often despair over the brokenness of our world is not because it's so broken and ugly we can't stand it, but because we've seen enough glimpses of its goodness and beauty that we long to see more and more of them. That vision of goodness and beauty drives us forward in ways getting stuck in despair never can.

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