Friday, October 31, 2014

Chesterton on the Family

"When we step into the family, by the act of being born, we do step into a world which is incalculable, into a world which has its own strange laws, into a world which could do without us, into a world that we have not made. In other words, when we step into the family we step into a fairy-tale." ~Chesterton, Heretics

In Chapter XIV of his book Heretics, G.K. Chesterton takes modern writers to task for their take on the institution of the family. Many Evangelical Christians today might assume that on the basis of Chesterton's Christianity and their own antithetical stance toward modern views on the family they and Chesterton would be fitting bedfellows. On the contrary, Chesterton's brief essay should make the typical evangelical uncomfortable, and in just the right way.

He begins, as Chesterton so often does, by turning several ideas on their head. Some suppose that the family or the small community is too narrow, but Chesterton argues that it is actually broader than what most men choose to seek outside of the small community. Men naturally choose to avoid the unpleasantness of differences, and so seek society with those with whom they are most like. The small community destroys this possibility, because there are few who are alike, despite their general similarities. Brother Bill hates what I love, Cousin Kitty is just odd, and Uncle Bob has untidy political views. Neighbor Joe never "minds his own business," which is to say that he is minding his own business quite well, and is too full of life to be interested only in himself and wants to know more about me.

When a man is not free to choose his own clique, he is forced to learn to be in society, a society much broader and more potent than the small universe he would create for himself to serve his own predilections and myopic desires. The small community, and more particularly the family, requires submission to the Divine Will that is so inscrutable to our meagre rational powers and limited capacity for knowledge.

Chesterton does not, however, argue that the desire to be free from the overwhelming vivacity of the neighborhood is a bad thing. What he challenges is the notion that it is a noble thing, or even more acutely, that it is a source of strength. Nietzsche laments with beautiful language the commonness of the herd, but his desire to escape it does not show his great strength and vigor of life, but rather his great impotency and weakness to be immersed in life. The man who desires freedom from the neighborhood and considers it a virtue has a nihilistic bent, a being for death--that most narrow and empty slice of human existence toward which we all turn, but from which we will all be raised to new life (or second death, which is Hell itself).

Chesterton goes on to make a poetic plea for the romantic and interesting life of the neighborhood and the family--where one may be renewed by the endless novelty, variety, and surprise that awaits at every strange turn of human will in each other with whom one lives in that uncomfortable intimacy of the small community. What may be gained for oneself is not only romantic, however, but quite vivifying to the soul--for the being-for-self is by nature consumptive of resources, whereas the being-for-others is pouring forth of its resources. That doesn't sound vivifying, except when one adopts the Christ-like maxim that losing one's life is how it may be saved, that through sacrifice comes bounty, that by burying one's seed into the soil of other souls it may produce fruit pressed down, shaken, and multiplied a hundredfold. The exciting possibilities of such investment in other souls requires the faith that rests upon the limitless bounty of the God who has Created, sustains, and shall renew all that He has made; not the faith that rests upon the very limited resources of one's own finite soul.

When one meekly abandons himself to the Providence of the Father in Heaven, one opens himself to Good Surprises beyond anything he can imagine. All it takes is loving one's neighbor as oneself, which, if is not yet obvious to say, requires one live, truly live, amongst one's neighbors.

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