He goes on, “It is rather like the reversal whereby a lover might say at first sight that a lady looked like a flower, and say afterwards that all flowers reminded him of his lady” (St. Francis of Assisi).
Given that this is a book about a saint, perhaps THE saint in the minds of many, Chesterton sounds as if he’s saying there is some discreet difference between a saint and the rest of us. In another blog sometime I’ll write about how Lutherans believe that all of us are saints and sinners at the same time, that sainthood isn’t something unattainably distinct from personhood, and how the saint part comes in is not at all by our own moral fortitude but entirely from the unconditional love of God, which we experience in bread, wine, water and words of forgiveness. Then I’ll write all about the transformative effect that realizing we are loved unconditionally tends to have on our lives. Catholics and Lutherans actually fought a lot on this point back in the day. It was a whole thing.
But I don't think old Chesterton is saying anything much different from what we Lutherans are saying. I actually don’t think, whether you’re a Catholic, a Lutheran, a post-denominational hipster, or a Vulcan, you can get much closer to the core of the Gospel message than what Chesterton is saying here. But be ready, in order to absorb the message, you need to be ready to paradox-ify or maybe even outright contradict all conventional notions of what the Christian faith is.
To put it as simply as possible, the popular conception is that Christian faith is primarily about keeping one’s eyes fixed up toward the sky. Maybe literally. Maybe not. But at some level, people who “accept” and people who “reject” the faith both usually assume that what the faith fundamentally is has to do with what’s going on in some distant ether, where things are more perfect, and beautiful, and interesting that down here on boring old earth.
Seems intuitive enough, right? “Christian.” “Religion.” “Heaven.” “Up.” “God.” “Supernatural.” “Omni-stuff.” “Divine.” "Clouds." "Cosmos." “Beyond.” At some point in our early childhood, we store all these things away in the same file in our brain, label it “churchy stuff”or whatever, and rarely examine them closely enough ever again to see if it’s true that the story that our Bible tells primarily has to do with what goes on in the sky.
But have a another honest look. You could make a good argument that standing around, staring up in the sky, and waiting for something impressively Godly to happen isn’t a particularly Jewish, Christian, or a Biblical way to live. It’s a generically human way to live. If you take Jesus' teachings into account, you could make a good argument that that’s almost the definition of sin: bloating your mind with pure and magnificent things, rather than tending your relationship with the needy brother or sister in your midst.
In fact, the couple times where the Jesus story actually gives us a taste of the great and glorious turn out to be misdirects. When Jesus takes his inner circle of disciples up a mountain, like the new Moses, to watch him be transfigured before their eyes, his radiant glory and holiness plain to see, Peter gets so excited about the whole thing, he says, why would we ever leave this place? Let’s build a camp and just live up here where things are bright and beautiful. Jesus’ response: Immediately lead them back down the mountain, back into the inglorious muck of real life, tell them not to share with anyone what they’ve seen, and remind them, my main purpose is not a clean and shiny transfiguration, it’s to “suffer many things and be treated with contempt” by people, for people, in solidarity with people (Mark 9:2-13).
In Acts, when Jesus has just ascended into heaven, and the disciples are left staring aimlessly at the sky, it says that two men in white robes stood beside them. These men are depicted as angels but, notably, angels standing with their feet planted firmly on terra firma rather than floating in the places where we’re used to looking for them. They say, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11).
Think about that. If you thought the whole point of the story was that anyone has, will, or should, ascend into heaven, the one time it happens in the story, a couple of angels lambast the people who are overly impressed by it and then say that the main thing about it all is not that he went up, but that he is coming back down.
It’s not a disciple thing to speculate safely about supernatural and distant things as a way of distracting ourselves from serving the world in which we actually live. It’s a generically human thing. When Paul walks into Athens, he says to the pagans there, “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious” (Acts: 17:22). Religion isn’t a God thing. It’s a human thing. What’s the main difference between these pagans and a disciple of Jesus Christ? The disciples have just spent most of the book of Acts feeding and healing people. It’s what Christians do. Whereas, these pagans “who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.” Speculative religion is what humans do when they haven’t heard the Good News.
What’s the point of an incarnation? what’s the point of a cross? what’s the point of Jesus swallowing a damn tilapia in the state of resurrection just to prove that it doesn’t fall right through him like Casper the Friendly Ghost? if not to turn our wandering eyes back down toward the Earth?
It’s like God knows that we like to focus on what’s up there as an escape from the challenges of loving each other down here.
This is what I believe Chesterton is expressing. It's not that most of us will never become St. Francis because of some qualitative barrier which we may never cross. It’s that most of us see something glorious and we think of God. The goal is to learn to see God in something plain.
It’s we who only love the attractive, the put together, and the grand, out beyond the unsightly, the broken, and the mundane. But not God. God so loved the world.
Cheers and Peace,
Jared Witt (Twitter: @realjaredwitt) is a pastor in the ELCA and, along with Aaron Schmalzle, is a Founding Director of Castle Church Brewing Community and Castle Church Faith Community. Checkout this blog weekly for reflections and updates or subscribe to our newsletter so that you never miss a thing.