Category Archives: Discussion
I have just finished listening to What’s Wrong With the World? by G. K. Chesterton. This is actually my second reading of this book. I have learned a few things since the last time I read it a couple years ago and have come to see things in a different light. GKC speaks from a Catholic point of view and last time I read the book I was seriously considering returning to the Catholic Church. I needed a sense of continuity in my life I suppose, and also a spiritual home. I thought the Catholic Church might fulfill both purposes. I liked that it was rich in tradition, music, and history and it might have the right balance of structure and space to support my spiritual needs.
That was in 2014. In 2015 I decided against the idea. I can’t say this is my final decision. Until this life ends there is always the possibility I will change my mind. I sometimes wish I could just commit to an idea and stay with it. To paraphrase Emily Dickinson, I wish my soul could select its society and shut the door. My soul seems to like to hang out with a society for a while and then sneak out the back door that it always leaves ajar.
In reading What’s Wrong I realized I pretty much still agree with GKC’s version of the Catholic point of view. But maybe GKC’s version of the Catholic point of view does exactly jibe with the point of view the Church has expressed through the last few centuries. GKC thinks the Church accommodates the moral needs of human nature and is a good institution for broad spiritual guidance. This is the ideal, but it seems to me the Church has too often gotten wrapped up in protecting itself as an institution and has not always stood for the rights of the individual vs the state. It has sometimes been an agent of the state and of state-sponsored violence when it should have been a voice for non-violence and love. That’s one of the reasons I decided against committing to it again.
GKC disagrees with Leo Tolstoy’s assertion that violence is always wrong, at least if you profess to be a follower of Christ. GKC seems to accept that violence is sometimes needed to protect what is good and part of being human is the desire to protect what is good. There are huge problems with admitting the necessity of certain categories of violence, but this is not the post to go into that. Obviously the world agrees that violence is a necessity for the human race. I think I agree that we humans do want to protect what is good but more often we want to protect what we think is our own, which, as far as most of us are concerned, is exactly the same as what is good. GKC would agree, but he thinks we need to get clear on what should and should not be our own.
What is wrong with the world, according the GKC, is that everybody needs to have a very specific something of our own – a house with a door and a small patch of earth, perhaps three acres. In early 20th century England, a small segment of the population had taken over all the property and the vast majority of souls were left to scramble and scrape to get by on scanty mine or factory wages. Instead of a house with a few acres they had to live in slums, the workhouse, or the streets. In this series of 49 essays GKC talks about what led to this state of affairs and why it is so difficult to fix.
GKC is always funny and charming but in this book I actually perceive some anger coming through, such as when he talks about a certain law that required girls of poor families to cut their hair short to control lice. Why, he asks, do we not address the conditions that lead to little girls living in lice-infested conditions rather then demanding that children adapt their hair to the conditions? Parliament, he says, would not dare to demand such a demeaning thing of children of the rich.
Chesterton was a proponent of distributionism, a social theory that was neither socialism or capitalism. It said that everyone who wanted to should be able to own a private home and a little land. It advocated distribution of land but not by force – rather landowners should be encouraged to bequeath their land to the poor upon their death. Not sure if the idea ever took off.
GKC skewers socialism of the type that tells people they do not want what they want, the type of socialism that tries to engineer society to benefit the state. The exploitation of people for the benefit of industrial profit fairs no better. These interests are represented in the book by two hypocrite politicians named Hudge and Gudge who, as it turns out are really working together, against the interests of poor “Jones”, the ordinary man who simply wants to live a peaceful life in a home of his own.
This quote, I think, expresses the heart of the book’s message:
“Whether we can give every English man a free home of his own or not, at least we should desire it; and he desires it. For the moment we speak of what he wants, not what he expects to get. He wants, for instance, a separate house; he does not want a semi-detached house. He may be forced in the commercial race to share one wall with another man. Similarly he may be forced in a three-legged race to share one leg with another man; but it is not so that he pictures himself in his dreams of elegance and liberty. Again, he does not desire a flat. He can eat and sleep and praise God in a flat; He can eat and sleep and praise God in a railway train. But a railway train is not a house, because it is a house on wheels. And a flat is not a house, because it is a house on stilts. An idea of earthy contact and foundation, as well as an idea of separation and independence, is a part of this instructive human picture.
I take, then, this one institution as a test. As every normal man desires a woman, and children born of woman, every normal man desires a house to put them into. He does not merely want a roof above him and a chair beneath him; he wants an objective and visible kingdom; a fire at which he can cook what food he likes, a door he can open to what friends he chooses. This is the normal appetite of men; I do not say there are not exceptions.”
What’s Wrong With the World was first published in 1910 so I am sure some readers will have problems with Chesterton’s discussions of women and the suffrage movement. It seems absolutely stone-age when you read of a time when women were still fighting for the right to vote. But it’s also interesting to enter into new insights about that time. The State and its doings were not always considered all that important to the mass of the population. Chesterton discusses the importance of the private home to men, women, and children and why its importance ought not to be superseded in importance by the demands of either the government or commercial industry.
Note: I have long since made the decision not to be offended by points of view popular in the past that are widely considered insensitive now. I just don’t want anything (such as anger) to stand in the way of gleaning what wisdom the past has to offer. Attitudes have changed dramatically in the past few decades, mostly for the better. Heck, I wouldn’t even want to be women in the 1960s, especially after watching Mad Men, but it was what it was, and I want to be free to seek understanding of the world wherever and whenever it can be found.
A question occurs to me. Why do I feel compelled to read social theories from 1910? In this book GKC actually provides an pretty good answer to that question – the question of why we might want to look to the past for answers to current problems. I may need to talk about that topic in the next post.
First of all Merry Christmas or Happy Whatever Holiday you are celebrating.
It may not look like it from the outside, but internally 2015 has been quite a wild ride for me, a year of faith exploration that has taken me in directions I did not expect. On this eve of the day we celebrate the birth of the founder of my faith, I sit down and take stock of where my faith has actually landed. More than ever I believe the birth of Jesus ushered in a new era for humankind, but my understanding on what that means has changed and expanded.
Of course this all this understanding has to do with reading. Books are always my lights through the dark forest of life. I think it started with reading a classic I’d been putting off for a while: A Confession by Leo Tolstoy. That was in March and that book affected my so profoundly that I can hardly believe it has been less than a year since I read it. Some people think it is just a description of Tolstoy’s personal mid-life crisis, but for me it cracked open the secret door in the wardrobe and sent me blinking into a vast new world. It led me to read several of Tolstoy’s subsequent works: Resurrection, his final novel, What I Believe, and The Kingdom of God is Within You. Each had an equally mind-expanding effect on me that I have barely begun to process.
Jesus did indeed teach us exactly how to usher in a world of peace and good will. The most concise summary of his teaching is the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew Chapter 5. His life and further teaching support what he told the crowd at that time. From his reading of the Sermon on the Mount Tolstoy (in What I Believe) derived five new commandments of Christ:
- “Be at peace with all men, and never consider your anger as just. Never look upon any man as worthless or a fool, neither call him such. Not only shall you never think yourself justified in your anger, but also you shall never consider your brother’s anger as causeless; and therefore, if there is one who is angry with you, even if it is without cause, go and be reconciled to him before praying. Endeavor to destroy all enmity between yourself and others, that their enmity may not grow and destroy you.” Matthew 5:21-26
- “Take no pleasure in concupiscence; let each man, if he is not a eunuch, have a wife and each woman a husband; let a man have but one wife, and woman one husband, and let them never under any pretext whatever dissolve their union.” Matthew 5:32
- “Never take an oath under any circumstances. Every oath is extorted from men for evil.” Matthew 5: 33-37
- “Never resist evil by violence; never return violence for violence. If anyone strikes your, bear it; it anyone takes away what is yours, let him have it; if anyone makes you labor, do so; if anyone wants to have what you consider to be your own, give it up to him.” Matthew 5: 38-42
- “Never consider men of another nation as your enemies; look upon all men as you do toward your fellow-country men; therefore you shall not kill those whom you call your enemies; love all and do good to all.” Matthew 5:43-48
So far the human race never actually tried to do what Jesus taught, at least on a large scale. Of course there were pockets of those who got it – especially in the early Christian era but also among certain groups in later history. Throughout history there have been individual who tried to live accordingly, some with success. These people have always stood out as extraordinary and were often recognized as saints.
Going to church and singing hymns of praise are good things. These activities preserve the great hope and pass the tradition to the next generation. They may even make us better people. But as long as we keep returning violence for violence, or (and here’s the real rub) keep participating in systems that operate based on fear and violence, peace on earth will remain a hope and a dream.
Following Christ’s teaching begins with the individual. You cannot make other people do it, at least not if you want to follow the spirit of Christ. Force of any kind cannot lead to peace on on earth or even peace in your own home. Each person who sees the truth must simply follow Christ’s teaching to the best of their ability.
We must not even judge the Christian Church for all its faults. Judgment of anyone other than ourselves is not part of the new way. Humankind has not been ready for the radical change in structure and mindset inherent in Christ’s revolutionary approach to living on earth. Maybe the time is now and or maybe we will struggle on in our fear and violence based systems for a few more centuries, but as time goes on it will become more and more apparent that humanity must recognize the way of peace or perish.
I have written several posts on different sections of What I Believe. You can find these posts in the main menu of this blog. This year I will be adding to these posts.