Thursday, January 14, 2016

Chesterton on Achieving Balance So Good Things Can Run Wild

Another observation by G.K. Chesterton that relates to the theme of the last two posts on freedom and self-control is his conclusion that the only way to give any good thing its full strength is to put it in tension with other good things that balance out or, more precisely, oppose its excesses. Let any one good thing have its full head of steam without any other virtues to hold it in tension, and it will turn into a monster. But if you put all the virtues to work counter-balancing each other, they can all run free together. Here is a very concise set of quotes from his spiritual autobiography Orthodoxy to show what he means. I posted a more lengthy excerpt a few years ago at this link. (n.b. for links to book titles (in italics), I've started using the Goodreads quotes pages for each title because you get the book information and you often also get a great selection of the best quoted passages.)

"Paganism declared that virtue was in a balance; Christianity declared it was in a conflict: the collision of two passions apparently opposite. Of course they were not really inconsistent; but they were such that it was hard to hold simultaneously.

"And the more I considered Christianity, the more I found that while it had established a rule and order, the chief aim of that order was to give room for good things to run wild.

"This was the big fact about Christian ethics; the discovery of the new balance. Paganism had been like a pillar of marble, upright because proportioned with symmetry. Christianity was like a huge and ragged and romantic rock, which, though it sways on its pedestal at a touch, yet, because its exaggerated excrescences exactly balance each other, is enthroned there for a thousand years.

"it is exactly this which explains what is so inexplicable to all the modern critics of the history of Christianity. I mean the monstrous wars about small points of theology, the earthquakes of emotion about a gesture or a word. It was only a matter of an inch; but an inch is everything when you are balancing. The Church could not afford to swerve a hair's breadth on some things if she was to continue her great and daring experiment of the irregular equilibrium. Once let one idea become less powerful and some other idea would become too powerful. It was no flock of sheep the Christian shepherd was leading, but a herd of bulls and tigers, of terrible ideals and devouring doctrines, each one of them strong enough to turn to a false religion and lay waste the world. Remember that the Church went in specifically for dangerous ideas; she was a lion tamer. The idea of birth through a Holy Spirit, of the death of a divine being, of the forgiveness of sins, or the fulfillment of prophecies, are ideas which, any one can see, need but a touch to turn them into something blasphemous or ferocious. ...if some small mistake were made in doctrine, huge blunders might be made in human happiness." Orthodoxy, pp. 99-107 (Ignatius Press edition; 1995).
For practical guidance in how to handle the good things of life without letting them get out of control and derail each other, the most groundbreaking and helpful recent work is Joe Rigney's The Things of Earth. You can listen to the lectures “The Whole Earth Is Full of His Glory” on which the book is based or download them for free at his faculty page here at Bethlehem College & Seminary.

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