I hope you have enjoyed our summer with G.K. Chesterton. As I have now completed my summer tutorial at Faulkner University, my studies are going to move in a different direction. Consequently, we’re going to move in a few different directions on this website as we go ahead, but I don’t think that we will ever leave him completely.
The final book I had to read for this tutorial is What’s Wrong with the World, and Chesterton got right down to the heart of the problem of what divided society in his day and continues to divide society in our day.
“This is the arresting and dominant fact about modern social discussion; that the quarrel is not merely about the difficulties, but about the aim.”
Chesterton uses the example of diseases and cures to illustrate this point.
“But exactly the whole difficulty in our public problems is that some men are aiming at cures which other men would regard as worse maladies; are offering ultimate conditions as states of health which others would uncompromisingly call states of disease.”
In the spirit of Chesterton’s example, consider our American healthcare system. Some people say that single-payer healthcare would be the solution to all of the problems we have. It is not that we necessarily disagree on the fact that our healthcare system is broken, but what some people see as the way to solve the problem is exactly what other people see as a worse problem. For some, the implementation of single-payer healthcare would not cure the problem but actually make it worse. Some people believe that the implementation of this type of government-centered solution to health care would create a dilemma that is even worse than the one where we find ourselves now. Therefore, we should not aim for that.
You can apply this illustration to just about any modern political issue, but Chesterton’s point is well taken. Naturally, if I view something as a disease, even if other people think that it is a great thing, I am not going to want to move towards that which I believe is bad. After all, if I have any type of conviction whatsoever, I should be willing to stand my ground and contend for that which I believe is good while opposing that which I believe is bad.
This leads to a great deal of tension though. If you and I are aiming in divergent directions, my cure is your disease, and your disease is my cure. In our modern-day condition of habitual gridlock, this is where we dig in our heels and end the discussion. We can’t believe that some people would be ignorant as to oppose that which we know is absolutely true. We conclude that they just don’t understand what is wrong with the world because they are in fact defending that which we believe would make the world a worse place.
Step 1: Don't Kill the Common Ground
Chesterton invites us to take a step back however and consider a more fundamental question that I believe is more productive for any dialogue that we have with people who we cannot see eye to eye with on principle.
“What is wrong is that we do not ask what is right.”
I find this approach to be refreshing because I do think when we come together with the intention of discovering that which is good and right, we began to build a vision for what we want. Naturally, there is going to be a great deal of disagreement, even in this exercise. After all, if you ask a pro-choice advocate what is right, he or she is going to say that access to abortions is right. Pro-life people will vehemently disagree with that vision of what is right.
Even in this situation though, there are some things that we can agree about. For example, I know pro-life and pro-choice people who agree that it is very important to provide support for particularly single mothers after the child is born. Naturally, these women have a lot on their plates, and helping to provide resources is something that I think we can agree is right. We may disagree a little bit on the means to achieving this end and the responsibility of private charity versus governmental programs to provide that support, but it is right to care for mothers.
Taking this perspective on what is right with the world will enable us to get things done. In this endeavor, pro-life people can see pro-choice people as allies in an endeavor to care for mothers. Yes, we still have disagreements, but we have taken the step towards that which is right. Sometimes, you have to take the victories where you can get them.
Another important issue facing our world is homelessness. Again, most people would agree that having no home is a problem and one that should be remedied if possible. The means by which that aim is achieved again differs based on the perceived responsibility of charity and government, but let’s aim towards things that you do that which is right. Let’s aim towards fixing homelessness.
That being said, this doesn’t avoid the problem of those more difficult questions. Yes, we should agree where we can. That is true. We should work together to solve problems that we realize are problems without a doubt. We shouldn’t let disagreements on other issues stop us from fixing the ones that we can work together on. That is definitely a plague in Washington, but I think it happens in our everyday lives as well. There may be someone I don’t like, and even if that person says something that is 100% true, I am going to disagree with it just because I don’t like that person. Be honest. We all know we have done that, so let’s not pretend that we are somehow above the debate that we see in our political system. Ours may be more insignificant in scale, but the problem is the same.
Step 2: Build a Vision Based on the Common Ground
There are those times when we sincerely disagree however. People in favor of abortion believe it is at a minimum morally permissible to kill children in the womb based on a decision made by the mother. People opposed to abortion believe it is morally wrong to kill children in the womb no matter what. Perhaps you think I’m generalizing here, but those are fundamentally the two main position. There is very little middle ground between these issues, so it is going to be very hard for us to find this unified vision that Chesterton suggests.
He very well may be right that the problem with the world is that we do not know what is right. I think he is accurate in that assessment. As a Christian, I believe that God’s way is the right way. There are plenty of people who would disagree with that and would conclude that God’s way is the wrong way. How do we then deal with these visions in conflict?
Chesterton makes a bold claim as to how we can argue persuasively for our perspective, and it is one that I think you may feel is somewhat out of place in contemporary America given his perspective on a more traditional role for the mother in the home, but don’t lose the forest for the trees in this passage I’m about to give you.
“Now the whole parable and purpose of these last pages, and indeed of all these pages, is this; to assert that we must instantly begin all over again, and begin at the other end. I begin with a little girl’s hair. That I know is a good thing at any rate. Whatever else is evil, the pride of a good mother in the beauty of her daughter is good. It is one of those adamantine tendernesses which are the touchstones of every age and race. If other things are against it, other things must go down. If landlords and laws and sciences are against it, landlords and laws and sciences must go down. With the red hair of one she-urchin in the gutter I will set fire to all modern civilization. Because a girl should have long hair, she should have clean hair; because she should have clean hair, she should not have an unclean home: because she should not have an unclean home, she should have a free and leisured mother; because she should have a free mother, she should not have an usurious landlord; because there should not be an usurious landlord, there should be a redistribution of property, because there should be a redistribution of property, there shall be a revolution. That little urchin with the gold-red hair, whom I have just watched toddling past my house, she shall not be lopped and lamed and altered; her hair shall not be cut short like a convict’s; no, all the kingdoms of the earth shall be hacked about and mutilated to suit her. She is the human and sacred image; all around her the social fabric shall sway and split and fall; the pillars of society shall be shaken, and the roofs of ages come rushing down; and not one hair of her head shall be harmed.”
It takes a great deal of thought, but Chesterton is making the claim that we can build our entire framework of that which is good by simply agreeing that one thing is good. In his example, he goes from the very simple and generally agreed to principle that it is a good thing for a mother to find her daughter beautiful all the way to the conclusion that we need a revolution in the world. You may disagree with this logic or some of the intermediate steps, but I think this is the process that we need to take as Christians when we try to help people make the world a better place and more conformed to that which God would have it to be.
There is something very significant to the fact that there are still some things that we can agree to as right or wrong in our society, and as Christians, if those things are consistent with God’s vision of that which is right, we have a hope to make our case. All it takes is one grain of truth, and if we have that, we can move in the right direction. Until our world entirely forgets that which is right and has no more desire to find anything true, there is hope.
Wrapping It Up
It is easy for people like me to become rather jaded. We see all of the insanity in the world around us, and we might feel like there’s nothing we can do to stem the tide. We wonder what is wrong with the world like GK Chesterton did, and we come to the conclusion that everything is so far gone there is no more hope.
However, I would like to propose that the battle is not done, and we do not have to surrender. I have outlined two main propositions in this article, and I think that they are what we need to do if we are going to move in the right direction.
First, we have to realize that there are things we can agree on. Let’s take those easy victories right from the beginning. We shouldn’t let our disagreements ruin the easy and obvious things that we should be working on together.
Second, we need to use those areas of agreement to build our cumulative case in areas of disagreement. Like Chesterton, we can start with something as simple as beauty and use that as a way to build towards a vision of what the world should be. Every worldview can do this, but as Christians, we are uniquely positioned with the Truth. Therefore, we do not need to fear this exercise. Rather, we can coherently show others why our worldview answers questions better and why God’s way of looking at the world is a better way than other worldviews. It provides more answers of a higher quality than any other understanding and the world.
In that way, we will indeed help people understand that which is right and properly align their aims. We can answer Chesterton’s question if that is where we focus.
 G.K. Chesterton, What's Wrong With The World (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1994), 2-3, Kindle Edition.
 Ibid., 2.
 Ibid., 3.
 Ibid., 126.