Particularity: G. K. Chesterton’s antidote to modern spirituality

In G. K. Chesterton’s novel, Manalive, there is a passage where the central character, Innocent Smith, in a discussion with what seems to be an Emersonian Idealist of some sort, delivers the following summary of his own philosophy:

…if there be a house for me in heaven it will either have a green lamp-post and a hedge, or something quite as positive and personal as a green lamp post and a hedge. I mean that God bade me love one spot and serve it, and do all things however wild in praise of it, so that this one spot might be a witness against all the infinites and the sophistries, that Paradise is somewhere and not anywhere, is something and not anything. And I would not be so very much surprised if the house in heaven had a real green lamp-post after all.

taken from Manalive (2000), p.109, Dover Publications.

            Smith has been travelling around the world, visiting different places and meeting different people, with the intent of returning to his homestead and looking upon it with fresh eyes. He makes himself an exile from the things he loves most dearly, in order that he may recapture a sense of the sacredness of the small things that fill a man’s life. Prior to this concluding speech, he also states that ‘God has given us the love of special places, of a hearth and of a native land, for a good reason’ – the good reason being so that we do not worship Eternity, ‘the largest of the idols – the mightiest of the rivals of God.

What Chesterton seems to be saying here is that it is very easy for us to collapse into worship of a vague ‘life-force’, something akin to the élan vital that Bergson wrote about. In contrast to this, he recommends the cherishing of particular things, and a recognition of the positive reality of these. This message, whilst important to emphasise in Chesterton’s own time, when these ideas were being developed and expressed quite deliberately, is perhaps even more important to grasp for our own age, when the life-force spirituality has become an unspoken assumption of much contemporary thought.

Looking at recent censuses and polls on religious beliefs, and talking to friends and family about the same, the majority view I come across is not outright atheism (despite what some of the more vocal supporters of that philosophy would have us believe), but a vague, noncommittal belief in ‘some sort of life-force’ – often expressed (unconsciously) as a mixture of nature-worship and Brahmanism. There is a decreased lack of support for belief in a particular and personal God, whom we can know and have a relationship with. Ironically, this life-force or world-soul more often than not has many of the more attractive attributes of the Christian God – forgiveness, love, mercy, etc. This is yet another example of a post-Christian culture riding on the coattails of its Christian heritage: jettisoning the moral codes and traditions that have shaped its culture and law, whilst maintaining the ‘nice bits’ of that heritage despite having eroded their foundations.

Chesterton’s focus on particularity is a powerful imaginative counterpoint to this rather vague modern spirituality. In capturing the affection we have for the concrete items of our home, and (as he also expresses in the novel) the dearness we feel for particular persons, he taps into something we can all identify with, and so provides a good place from which to consider the nature of things on a bigger scale. In essence, he is saying that we know the things and people of this world are real because we love them, and deep down know we can never love a vaporous, impersonal life-force. The things of this world are real, and their realness reminds us that we can only know and love real things (and so real persons) when it comes to considering the heavenly realms as well. At our most fundamental level, we know that the rays of light and love and joy that shine through the particulars of the mundane are refractions of a greater light that shines from a source even more real than the world we live in.

Why then do so many of us subscribe to the vague, misty ‘god’ instead? I suppose the answer to that is also that deep down we know that only reality and personality can know us as we know we need to be known, and love us as we need to be loved. I.e.; if God is love, then God must be a Person – vague life forces cannot love, and we know it. How can an impersonal energy forgive us our sins and make us new? But this intuition, although we know it is the only true path to happiness and holiness, is also the path to exposure and judgement. If God is a Person, not only can He love us, but He can grieve over and judge our behaviour; to be forgiven of our sins implies that there are sins to be forgiven, and we do not want to acknowledge that there are such things as sins at all.

There is an ancient Eastern story, that has gone through various versions (Jain, Buddhist, Hindu, Sufi) and has now been appropriated by some modern Christian theologians (e.g.; John Hick) in an attempt to support a relativist and universalist worldview. The basic story is that a group of blind men feel different parts of an elephant in order to discover what it is like – one feels the tusk and says it is like a tree branch, one feels the tail and says it is like a rope, another feels its belly and says it is like a wall, etc. Thus human religious traditions are said to be the same with respect to our search for God – each grasps some aspects of the truth, but none can know God truly as He is. At the end of the day, we are left in the dark as to the true nature and essence of God.

A couple of years ago I heard a particularist interpretation of this parable – according to Christianity, the elephant in the story is Jesus Christ, and He would heal the blind men and introduce Himself! This sums up the difference between the two worldviews perfectly – God has made Himself known, in a particular man, Jesus of Nazareth. He has introduced Himself, and told us about Himself – what He is like, what the good life is, how we are meant to live to be fully human and alive to ourselves.

The tragedy today is that we choose to remain blind – having heard the good news that God has made Himself known, we repress our inbuilt desire to know the truth and strap blindfolds to our eyes, because we recognise that if we know what God is really like, this has implications for what we are meant to be like and how we are meant to live (c.f.; John 12:36-43). We ignore the reality of a personal God revealed in a particular man in a particular place, and the particularity of the Church that He left to continue His work, because it places limits on us. We prefer a vague spirituality that demands nothing and yet offers nothing.

            Saint Irenaeus famously said that ‘the glory of God is a human being fully alive’ and this is what Chesterton is saying in his novel. His character, Innocent Smith, really is a Man Alive, recognising the particularity of God and all He has given us, and the necessity of embracing this reality by entering into relationship with God through the gifts He has given. Believing in a vague spirituality, and an impersonal life-force, diminishes us, and to be fully alive ourselves we need to meet and know the God who has come down to us from the heavenly places, arms open wide, and who urges us to join in His life of freedom in self-giving love. ‘Paradise is somewhere and not anywhere, is something and not anything.

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One thought on “Particularity: G. K. Chesterton’s antidote to modern spirituality

  1. Pingback: The Meeting of Heaven and Earth: On Particularity and Familiar Things | Journey Towards Easter

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