G.K. Chesterton: Joy, Wonder, and Justice

I was recently asked by my boss in Kolkata to do a brief write-up about someone who had significantly influenced my thinking. When I get into a subject it tends to inflate, so two paragraphs got out of hand and turned into this blog post briefly outlining why an overweight, British, Catholic journalist with a magnificent mustache rides right towards the top of my list of people who have profoundly influenced both my faith and the groundwork my passion for seeking justice and pursuing beauty in a broken world.

G.K. Chesterton’s view of Christianity and the world, particularly as laid out in his work Orthodoxy, shatters any semblance of the mundane. It rekindles a spirit of adventure, of wonder, of unbridled joy and daring and mirth in a faith that is all too often perceived (or even lived out) as boring, grim, and joyless. His is a world where the ordinary is the most extraordinary thing of all – where splinters of the infinite burst through the cracks of a broken world in the beauty of nature and the mysteries and paradoxes of the universe. Joy and wonder are inevitable – and this extends to the story of Christianity.

Chesterton writes: “I had always felt life first as a story: and if there is a story there is a story-teller.” This resonates, as a writer who already views the world as a series of overlapping stories. For Chesterton, Christianity involves our finding the place for our own stories in the larger metanarrative Christ has set out through his kingdom redemption of the world. We are characters in an epic adventure, and that’s exciting.

Perhaps most influential of all however, for me at least, is Chesterton’s defense of a ‘divine discontentment.’ That is, even with all the joy and wonder and adventure, the Christian does not rest satisfied, because he can see that things are not yet set right. The world is simultaneously a wondrous place that points beyond itself to God and a horrible place full of darkness, oppression, and suffering.

“For our Titanic purposes of faith and revolution,” writes Chesterton, “what we need is not the cold acceptance of the world as a compromise, but some way in which we can heartily hate and heartily love it. We do not want joy and anger to neutralize each other and produce a surly contentment; we want a fiercer delight and a fiercer discontent…. No one doubts that an ordinary man can get on with this world: but we demand not strength enough to get on with it, but strength enough to get it on. Can he hate it enough to change it, and yet love it enough to think it worth changing? Can he look up at its colossal good without once feeling acquiescence? Can he look up at its colossal evil without once feeling despair? Can he, in short, be at once not only a pessimist and an optimist, but a fanatical pessimist and a fanatical optimist?”

Here then is Chesterton’s defense of social justice. Life, the world, mankind, is beautiful and horrific – and that tension demands action. We know how the story ends, we see clearly what the wonders of the world point to beyond themselves, and that gives us hope and allows us to dare greatly as characters in our own chapters of that same grander story: dare greatly to set the wrongs right, to take our places shoulder to shoulder with the oppressed and to cry out against the oppressor.

“[The Christian],” writes Chesterton: “must seek his life in a spirit of furious indifference to it; he must desire life like water and yet drink death like wine.” We must be simultaneously the most joyful and the most furiously thirsting and fighting for justice. Joy, wonder, and justice become inseparable.