The Self and Mankind

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The one defect in his splendid mental equipment is that he does not sufficiently allow for the stuff or material of men. In his new Utopia he says, for instance, that a chief point of the Utopia will be a disbelief in original sin. If he had begun with the human soul–that is, if he had begun on himself–he would have found original sin almost the first thing to be believed in. He would have found, to put the matter shortly, that a permanent possibility of selfishness arises from the mere fact of having a self, and not from any accidents of education or ill-treatment. And the weakness of all Utopias is this, that they take the greatest difficulty of man and assume it to be overcome, and then give an elaborate account of the overcoming of the smaller ones (Heretics, Ch.V).

The above exercpt is from G.K. Chesterton’s Heretics.  Here he critiques H.G. Wells and Wells’ idea of how mankind can all be stuffed together into one fairly homogenous utopian society where everyone gets along.  Chesterton asserts that man’s inclinations towards self-interest and sin are factors to consider.


Welcome To Boot Camp!

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Good morning Trainees!  I call you that because in a very real sense this life is boot camp – it is only training for the true glory not of warfare, but the glory of heaven.  Now, if you were to join up with any of the armed forces – army, navy, air force, marines – whichever…they would throw you into a barracks with some random people…and they create some pressure.  You see, pressure and stress, for as much as we try and avoid them – they teach us a lot about how we are doing.  So, the military will get these trainees to stand in formation and then appoint a leader to give the marching orders.  They get issued various simple pieces of equipment – some PT gear, a canteen, a hat, a locker that has to be kept in scrupulous order.  The point is: none of it has any real value in the real world.  They are told to go from the barracks to the mess hall – point A to point B – and yet everything they do is being watched and evaluated and they make mistakes.  That’s when you learn how to work together.  You see in the best of in the best of situations when the pressure ratchets up we can handle it.  It’s called grace under fire – we don’t shrink from responsibility and even cover for others.  That’s real leadership and it builds trust.  But, often enough fear takes over.  People blame others.  You find out really fast in that environment that even if it wasn’t your fault, it doesn’t help to point anybody else out – you’re doing push-ups anyway as a group and now you’re doing more for quibbling.  How do we handle the various things of this world – none of it is going to last.  Do we prize the things and the experiences and the money over people? 

            The story of the steward actually reminds me of a different story.  Do you remember the servant who begs for mercy for the 10,000 talents that he owes and he is forgiven?  The story is very sad, because he doesn’t emulate the master’s mercy when he comes upon someone who owes him.  Instead, even though the man only owes 100 denarius, he grabs him by the neck and demands that he pay everything back and puts him in prison when he can’t pay…and we know that then the same is demanded of this merciless man.  In a very different spin, today’s man does not expect any mercy from the master, but he still had a choice to make.  He could have tried to cover up his excesses – the fact that he wasted a lot of oil and wheat by fixing the books so that the servants beneath him would have to pay more.  He could have made it look like they just had bigger debts to pay and that was the reason for the shortfall in the stockrooms.  But instead, he knows he’s only going to be fired once, and so he says fine, I’ll make it look like I was an even lousier steward than I was.  I’ll give these guys beneath me a break so that they’ll owe me when my job is gone.  

            How wonderfully shrewd we are in looking out for ourselves in this life!  One Church Father wrote that “in worldly matters we are philosophers, in spiritual matters fools; in earthly things we are lynx-eyed (in other words we can see in the dark), but in heavenly things we are [as blind as] moles.”  Just like the dishonest steward – we will all be giving a report of our stewardship at some point to God – we don’t know when.  This life we must give back to Him.  

Humility with Proper Pomp

And this gay humility, this holding of ourselves lightly and yet ready for an infinity of unmerited triumphs, this secret is so simple that every one has supposed that it must be something quite sinister and mysterious. Humility is so practical a virtue that men think it must be a vice. Humility is so successful that it is mistaken for pride. It is mistaken for it all the more easily because it generally goes with a certain simple love of splendour which amounts to vanity. Humility will always, by preference, go clad in scarlet and gold; pride is that which refuses to let gold and scarlet impress it or please it too much. In a word, the failure of this virtue actually lies in its success; it is too successful as an investment to be believed in as a virtue. Humility is not merely too good for this world; it is too practical for this world; I had almost said it is too worldly for this world (Heretics, Ch. V).

In the above excerpt from G.K. Chesterton’s Heretics, Chesterton introduces a strange twist how we think of humility.  He remarks on how it is our pride that somehow keeps us from enjoying the more lovely things.  If we were simpler in our outlook (like children) we would rejoice in our successes, rather than try and shrug them off in false humility.


The Humility of Adventure!



The whole secret of the practical success of Christendom lies in the Christian humility, however imperfectly fulfilled. For with the removal of all question of merit or payment, the soul is suddenly released for incredible voyages. If we ask a sane man how much he merits, his mind shrinks instinctively and instantaneously. It is doubtful whether he merits six feet of earth. But if you ask him what he can conquer–he can conquer the stars. Thus comes the thing called Romance, a purely Christian product. A man cannot deserve adventures; he cannot earn dragons and hippogriffs. The mediaeval Europe which asserted humility gained Romance; the civilization which gained Romance has gained the habitable globe (Heretics, Ch. V).

The above excerpt is from G.K. Chesterton’s Heretics.  In it, he describes how a man who really lives humility is also in a way greedy (even rapacious – excessively greedy) to serve that which he finds himself humble before/in love with, and thus rings in the great adventure – for he is called forth on great missions of love.

Until We Know Nothing

The truth is, that all genuine appreciation rests on a certain mystery of humility and almost of darkness.  The man who said, “Blessed is he that expecteth nothing, for he shall not be disappointed,” put the eulogy quite inadequately and even falsely.  The truth “Blessed is he that expecteth nothing, for he shall be gloriously surprised.”  The man who expects nothing sees redder roses than common men can see, and greener grass, and a more startling sun.  Blessed is he that expecteth nothing, for he shall possess the cities and the mountains; blessed is the meek, for he shall inherit the earth.  Until we realize that things might not be we cannot realize that things are [emphasis added]. Until we see the background of darkness we cannot admire the light as a single and created thing.  As soon as we have seen that darkness, all light is lightening, sudden, blinding, and divine.  Until we picture nonentity we underrate the victory of God, and can realize none of the trophies of His ancient war.  It is one of the million wild jests of truth that we know nothing until we know nothing (Heretics, Ch. IV).

The excerpt above  is from G.K. Chesterton’s, Heretics.

The Evergreen Freshness of Love

I’ve got to be honest.  When I looked at our Gospel reading for this week – my thought was something like: I know the Prodigal Son is perhaps the most loved parable and the masterpiece of Mercy, but are we hearing it again so soon?  Really?

And then I thought…what if my attitude could have been part of the sinful attitude of the prodigal son?  I can just imagine the prodigal son at home, perhaps coming in late and getting lectured about it in the morning from his concerned father – and the son is tired of staying at home and tired of comparing himself to his older brother and so he splits.

Or perhaps the “I’m so tired of this routine” was part of the older son’s life.  Perhaps, when his brother comes back and he hears about it, he thinks, “Really! He’s getting off the hook again?  Of course, this happens every time.  The old man’s always been a sucker for his excuses.”  Same old story.

Truly though, this story has never ended for it is the story of mankind.  I think we could imagine our entire nation fitting into roles of these two sons, and ultimately this is good news because the Father never gets tired of His sons.

Now, if we told this story through the lens of our nation it might be easy to point out how at least part of our nation is living the life of the younger son – how we are more and more enslaved to the flesh and we are racking up huge financial debts that endanger the future not just of ourselves, but the inheritance of everybody.  Perhaps some of these people would say that others are wasting our environmental gifts.  Truly, everybody can get in taking some of the guilt.  As Isaiah puts it, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way…(Is 53:6)” 

If we look closely at the prodigal son, there are actually two departures.  The first departure is the one we think about where he actually leaves his father to live for himself.  The second is that he forgets who he is and his own value.  Remember that this story was told to the Pharisees, and they hear about this young man longing to eat with the swine.  He has become as a beast – and not even one of the clean ones.  Now, eventually our text says that he came “to his senses.”  Another translation says “he came to himself.”  There’s a theme throughout all of our readings of sin and finally losing one’s grip on reality – on what’s important in life in sin, and then repentance leading to joy.  We should be hopeful then.  We have seen the first stage take place.  The secularization of our country we could see as departing from the Father.  Today, we have people seemingly losing all touch with whatever is left of our inheritance as a nation – our own flag has been seen as divisive.  I return to an earlier point – that the prodigal son is not a parable that has been finished.  We are living it.  Every one of us is called to conversion and Isaiah continues in that quote by stating, “the Lord laid on Him the iniquity of us all” referring to Christ taking us on His shoulders.

Tomorrow/Today is September 11th.   On September 11, 2001 – we were attacked not as any single individual race, but as a nation.  Civilians, and firefighters and, yes, police of every color all bled together in the World Trade Center – and the only color that mattered was the redness of their blood.  They added fresh significance to the meaning of those stripes on our flag: men and women who have died like Christ to serve us all.   

We could point to our country and see those that are forgetting the goodness of America and the value of freedom and rightfully see in them the younger son.  But let us not forget our own need for repentance.  Many of us line up alongside the elder son.  We are patriotic.  We have not given into the same excesses.  You know this entire parable was actually addressed to the Pharisees and to any of us who fit the description.  This is not a reason to despair, but to receive the Word and change the story.  The elder son was out in the field, but he too had become a slave.  He was not working with joy, for he too had lost the perspective of love.  With the younger sons and daughters off who knows where – we cannot forgive them in person, but we can start in our hearts.  And we can join the Father in seeking them every evening, particularly in our prayers.

How do we avoid letting everything get stale through sin?  How do we rejoice in the joy of others coming back to the faith, rather than grind our teeth?  Share everything with the Father.  Sharing our thoughts, feelings, and desires with God through constant conversation with Him and confession when we do stray keeps our lives from spoiling.  Sharing everything with God teaches us that any gain to another is a gain to us – for it pleases our Father whom we love.  And if you think you long to be with God and will love being with Him, He is even more excited by the possibility of living in you.  If we are with the Father, our country is safe, for we have everything if we Him. 

Not only will what has become routine be refreshed, but this love makes us young in spirit, for one of the qualities of God is a childlike spirit.  Chesterton explains the significance: “Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”


The Boredom of Bernard

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The greater and stronger a man is the more he would be inclined to prostrate himself before a periwinkle.  That Mr. Shaw keeps a lifted head and a contemptuous face before the colossal panorama of empires and civilizations, this does not in itself convince one that he sees things as they are.  I should be most effectively convinced that he did if I found him staring with religious astonishment at his own feet. “What are those two beautiful and industrious beings,” I can imagine him murmuring to himself, “whom I see everywhere, serving me I know not why?  What fairy godmother bade them come trotting out of elfland when I was born?  What god of the borderland, what barbaric god of legs, must I propitiate with fire and wine, lest they run away with me (Heretics, Ch. IV)?

The above excerpt is from G.K. Chesterton’s book, Heretics.  Here Chesterton writes on one of his favorite themes – that of the extraordinary wonder that is the human being.  Bernard Shaw and perhaps everybody else becomes so numb to the goodness of life and even our own bodies.  Shaw had been busy imagining new ideals for what the human race should become along the lines of Nietzsche, and he had missed seeing the glory of what God has already made.

Man and Law

Code of Hammurabi: 1750 BC

“What is the good of telling a community that it has every liberty except the liberty to make laws?  The liberty to make laws is what constitutes a free people.  And what is the good of telling a man (or a philosopher) that he has every liberty except the liberty to make generalizations.  Making generalizations is what makes him a man (Heretics, Ch. IV).”

The above quote is from G.K. Chesterton’s book, Heretics.

Chesterton is taking Bernard Shaw to task over a kind of moral relativism in which Shaw sees ideals as seeing obscuring the individual and moral generalizations as oppressive.  On the contrary, Chesterton proclaims that the first impulse of mankind is to make rules and govern itself.

Unfashionably Steady

“Moreover, a man with a definite belief always appears bizarre, because he does not change with the world; he has climbed into a fixed star, and the earth whizzes below him like a zoetrope*.  Millions of mild black-coated men call themselves sane and sensible merely because they always catch the fashionable insanity, because they are hurried into madness after madness by the maelstrom of the world (Heretics, Chapter IV).”

The above quote is from Chesterton’s book, Heretics.

* zoetrope – a 19th-century optical toy consisting of a cylinder with a series of pictures on the inner surface that, when viewed through slits with the cylinder rotating, give an impression of continuous motion (Oxford Online Dictionary).