Chapter 5: The Flag of the World
In chapter five, Chesterton realizes that Christianity is the answer to the riddle of the world. It comes as a surprise to him, but it is a relief as well. He opens the chapter with wondering if it is an apt description to divide the world into optimists and pessimists. He decides it is not.
Chesterton observes that a better description of man’s situation in the world is that of the patriot. We are citizens of the world and must fight under its flag. We do not have a choice in this matter, for we cannot choose against being a citizen of the world. It doesn’t do much good to simply complain about the awful state of the world and so seek its destruction. We, like the patriot, are motivated to make our homeland better. We have a stake in its success. We have a sort of national pride in being a part of humanity just as a patriot is proud of his nation, even when his government fails him. In fact, a true patriot, according to Chesterton, seeks reform to transform his nation, if need be, in order to preserve it. Likewise, we live under the flag of the world. We cannot merely be pessimistic for we need our world to succeed.
In patriotism, men unite in seeking to preserve something important: their city or their religion. He writes,
“They fought for the shrine, and found they had become courageous. They did not cultivate cleanliness. They purified themselves for the altar, and found that they were clean.”Morality is not so much the aim as it is the result. In fact, Chesterton suggests that men banded together in social contract not to preserve kindness and order among themselves, but to work together to protect their holy place.
The issue of patriotism is a contentious one in America today. Are you a patriot if you condemn your nation’s foreign policy? Is it treason or is it patriotism? Chesterton would say it is patriotism.
“A man who says that no patriot should attack the Boer War until it is over is not worth answering intelligently; he is saying that no good son should warn his mother off a cliff until she has fallen over it.”And yet, the critic is not completely off the hook.
“But there is an anti-patriot who honestly angers honest men, and the explanation of him is, I think, what I have suggested: he is the uncandid candid friend; the man who says, ‘I am sorry to say we are ruined,’ and is not sorry at all. And he may be said, without rhetoric, to be a traitor; for he is using that ugly knowledge that was allowed him to strengthen the army to discourage people from joining it.”
But what, you wonder, does this have to do with Christianity? Chesterton is using the concept of patriotism as a parallel in understanding the predicament of our place in the world.
“We must say there is a primal loyalty to life: the only question is, shall it be a natural or a supernatural loyalty? If you like to put it so, shall it be reasonable or an unreasonable loyalty?”Chesterton is helping us see the puzzle of life, for we must see that puzzle before we are convinced that Christianity is the solution.
Only the man who loves the world unconditionally—without a reason—is willing to take the time to reform it. Think of the faithful wife, Chesterton suggests. She is “ready to defend [her man] through thick and thin” but privately will be “morbidly lucid about the thinness of his excuses or the thickness of his head. A man’s friend likes him, but leaves him as he is: his wife loves him and is always trying to turn him into somebody else.”
But what about these irrational optimists? Are they willing to die for the cause? And with this thought Chesterton turns to the suicide/martyrdom riddle.
Suicide, the taking of one’s own life, and martyrdom, the giving of one’s own life, are very similar. Some “free thinkers,” in fact, suggest that they are the same, according to Chesterton. Moderns were no longer willing to condemn suicide, Chesterton observes. And yet this doesn’t seem to ring true to Chesterton. He writes,
“The man who kills a man, kills a man. The man who kills himself, kills all men; as far as he is concerned, he wipes out the world. His act is worse (symbolically speaking) than any rape or dynamite outrage. For it destroys all buildings; it insults all women. The thief is satisfied with diamonds; but the suicide is not: that is his crime.”
“This was the first of the long train of enigmas with which Christianity entered the discussion…The Christian attitue to the martyr and the suicide was not a matter of degree…The Christian feeling evidently was not merely that the suicide was carrying martyrdom too far. The Christian feeling was furiously for one and furiously against the other: these two things that looked so much alike were at opposite ends of heaven and hell.”Chesterton wrestles with these matters until he slowly begins to realize that Christianity offers the best explanation.
“Here it was that I first found that my wandering feet were in some beaten track. Christianity also had felt this opposition of the martyr to the suicide: had it perhaps felt it for the same reason?”Next Chesterton addresses the attitude of “chronological snobbery,” something C.S. Lewis echoed in his writings.
“An imbecile habit has arisen in the modern controversy of saying that such and such a creed can be held in one age, but cannot be held in another…You might as well say that a certain philosophy can be believed on Mondays, but cannot be believed on Tuesdays…What a man can believe depends upon his philosophy, not upon the clock or the century.”Chesterton examines two belief systems: the Quaker and the Pantheist. This surprise pairing actually confronts two opposites, for the Quaker looks inward for truth and the Pantheist looks outward, but in doing so mistakes nature for a god. First, the Quaker.
“Of all conceivable forms of enlightenment, the worst is what these people call the Inner Light. Of all horrible religions, the most horrible is the worship of the god within.”But the Pantheist also hit a wall.
“A man loves Nature in the morning for her innocence and amiability, and at nightfall, if he is loving her still, it is for her darkness and her cruelty…Physical nature must not be made the direct object of obedience; it must be enjoyed, not worshipped.”Christian Theology Solves the Puzzle
And here Chesterton takes a great leap forward and concludes:
“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—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. I could hear bolt after bolt over all the machinery falling into its place with a kind of click of relief. Having got one part right, all the other parts were repeating that rectitude, as clock after clock strikes noon. Instinct after instinct was answered by doctrine after doctrine.”Chesterton has finally realized that Christianity holds the key to the dilemma.
“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.”
This is my first Chesterton book and I am beginning to see that he did indeed leave an imprint on the thinking of the 20th century, especially in the area of Christian apologetics. His was able to analyze the thinking of his own age and find its error. Even better, he clawed his way out of that erroneous thinking until he discovered the truth.
In chapter six, Chesterton gives Christianity a thorough examination, facing the objections against it to see if they have any validity.