Sunday, September 8, 2013

A Hopeful, Happy Contradiction

[In Christianity] Man was to be haughtier than he had ever been before; in another way he was to be humbler than he had ever been before. In so far as I am Man I am the chief of creatures. In so far as I am a man I am the chief of sinners.

All humility that had meant pessimism, that had meant man taking a vague or mean view of his whole destiny—all that was to go. We were to hear no more the wail of Ecclesiastes that humanity had no pre-eminence over the brute, or the awful cry of Homer that man only the saddest of beasts of the field. Man was a statue of God walking about the garden.

Man had pre-eminence over all the brutes; man was only sad because he was not a beast, but a broken god… Christianity thus held a thought of the dignity of man that could only be expressed in crowns rayed like the sun and fans of peacock plumage. Yet at the same time it could hold a thought about the abject smallness of man that could only be expressed in fasting and fantastic submission, in the gray ashes of St. Dominic and the white snows of St. Bernard.

When one came to think of one’s self, there was vista and void enough for any amount of bleak abnegation and bitter truth. There the realistic gentleman could let himself go—as long as he let himself go at himself… let him call himself a fool and even a dammed fool (although that is Calvinistic); but he must not say that fools are not worth saving.
GK Chesterton, Orthodoxy

Reflection – Chesterton at his best here – paradoxes bursting out all over the place in a jubilant, glorious, and somewhat repetitive mess of words. We are the best of creatures, and because we are the best of creatures, we are the worst of creatures. We have a sublime dignity ‘little less than a god’ (Ps 8) and because of that our degradation is lower than the beasts of the field.

In our times we seem to have this exactly reversed. Human beings are, in fact, just another type of animal, and it is again fashionable in popular culture to express loathsome contempt for the human species qua species. Meanwhile the cult of personal aggrandizement and egoism is strong as can be. You go, girl! A generalized contempt for people and an inflated vanity about the individual is a common mark of our time.

It is so much the reverse in Christianity. That in me which is truly awesome, fantastic, divine, worthy of profound reverence—that I share with every human being on the face of the earth. We are made in the image of God. What that means, we still 3000 years or so after those words were written hardly understand. But it sets the whole human race on a very lofty mountain top.

Meanwhile, that in me which is truly my own, my own true and unaided contribution to the world—well, that is enough to make me want to crawl under a rock and stay there. In short, and without getting into inappropriate public details, my sin. My virtues, my good deeds, my good efforts whatever they may be in a sense are mine, too, but (let’s be honest here) I’ve had so much help from God on the least of them that I can take no pride in them. But my sins, my cruelties, vanities, obscenities, selfishnesses—yeah, those are my bright ideas about how to put my own personal mark on the world. Lord have mercy on me.

But meanwhile, we are brilliant, shining, magnificent creatures of God reflecting his glory and his light. What a wonderful contradiction it all is – a housing of pure gold and crystal and diamond, and yet filled with all sorts of trash and filth, and yet somehow undiminished in essence. The modern notion of a contemptible human race oddly filled with superstars and ‘special’ people is a contradiction that ultimately leads to despair. What good is it to be the bestest and most specialest wonderfulest member of a species that is ultimately worthless?

Meanwhile the contradiction of Christianity—a bunch of sinners who are nonetheless made in God’s image and are glorious in this—is a hopeful, joyful, happy contradiction. Because, you see, the shared essence, that which we all really are, is something so good and beautiful, that my little moral problems or your little moral problems or the whole blinkin’ human race’s little moral problems actually pales in comparison. And there is great hope in all this—the whole action of God and of grace is to fix that broken statue, restore that divine image and likeness, elevate us back to our lofty glorious thrones as sons and daughters of the great king.

We are all of us princes and princesses who happen to have strayed into a pigsty and gotten a little muddy. But there is a way home, and that way is the merciful love of the Father, made available to us in Jesus Christ. And that is the deepest truth of our humanity.

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