GKC – Comfort and Christianity; Orthodoxy Ch 02a   Leave a comment

GK Chesterton, I believe, embraced a particular kind of Catholic humility years before he converted to Catholicism. That brand of humility is one that I subscribed to, so I think I can describe it with some accuracy.

It is a kind of Christian stoicism. God is ultimately responsible for all my talents, all my abilities, and all my accomplishments. Since every good thing comes from God, it would be nonsensical to feel pride at my having done something well. If I do the best I can with what God has given me (a feat only possible with God’s help), it will be enough and God will take care of me in the end. The end means heaven, so this philosophy is theoretically at least as applicable starving to death alone in the woods as it is in everyday life. St. John of the Cross, the great mystic, reduced this humility to the admonition, “He must increase and I must decrease.”

The most notable effect this kind of humility had on my own personality is feeling uncomfortable around compliments. It’s not like I’m responsible for my own success, so why are are you praising me? But the subtler influence of this humility has been, I think, a great success. While I’m still really arrogant (just ask my wife), I am much less arrogant than I could have been. I still expect to be successful in most of what I try, but I am aware that I don’t deserve to be successful. It might not sound like much, but it has made a huge difference in my outlook.

Anyway, this kind of humility revels in being told to do more. I know I am not good enough, so I like (in general sense, if not always in specific cases) being told that I need to try harder and do more. I know I’m squandering some of my gifts, so when someone tells me not to be confident in myself (again in a general way), I find myself in pleased agreement. So the first time I read this chapter, I lapped it up.

“If you consulted your business experience instead of your ugly individualistic philosophy, you would know that believing in himself is one of the commonest signs of a rotter. Actors who can’t act believe in themselves; and debtors who won’t pay. It would be much truer to say that a man will certainly fail, because he believes in himself. Complete self-confidence is not merely a sin; complete self-confidence is a weakness. Believing utterly in one’s self is a hysterical and superstitious belief.”

This argument hit all my buttons. Pride is wrong. Over confidence leads to failure. Try harder. Do more. Though I did not recognize it, I imagine I even felt some smugness at the actors who couldn’t act and the debtors who couldn’t pay.

And I think, smug as I am, that I still need this message. I need to be reminded to do better, because when I’m not listing my own faults to myself, I wind up feeling smug about my own lack of pride. I am sitting comfortable and happy as one of the most academically successful people in the richest country in the world, and I should do more with my gifts. Chesterton, while he might not always do it well (and lording over debtors who can’t pay is really low), reminds me of my own fallibility.

But Chesterton’s admonition against pride reveals something else. It reveals something about Chesterton and something about Christianity. Chesterton does not need to say “God must increase.” He can ramble for pages and pages along the lines of “I must decrease” without ever mentioning God (or Fate or Inheritance or Karma) and I will read it and it will resonate. Chesterton can write it like that and I can read it like that because we are in the same position. Back in 1908 Chesterton was a comfortably wealthy and educated white male in the wealthiest country in the world. I find myself in the same position. And for people like us, “God must increase” is an intellectual conviction, not a deeply felt truth. I know that I am broken and often do wrong, but I don’t feel it. The extent to which I am convinced of my own faults is the extent to which I have argued for them.

The world, then and now, was largely controlled by wealthy white men for the service of wealthy white men. It is my world in a sense that is true for very few people, and I am at home in it.

Jesus came to serve the sick and the needy, the poor and oppressed, the tax collectors and prostitutes. The physician comes for the sick, not the healthy. Jesus comes with forgiveness for the condemned and condemnation for the powerful. Well, the world does not really condemn me, and my birth and education have given me power. And that is weird for me, because in that sense, Christianity is not for people like me.

In short, I am firmly convinced that God supports the downcast, the oppressed, and the marginalized; and Christ epitomized that by dying a despised criminal. I am not downcast, oppressed, or marginalized, so where does that leave me?

Well, I can tell you where I don’t want it to leave me. I don’t want it to leave me where it has left great swaths of American Christianity: with a persecution complex. American Christians are often wealthy, comfortable, and politically powerful. But the Bible talks at great length about persecution and rejection, so American Christians must be persecuted and rejected, right? It is this kind of attitude that leads to the spectacle of the Catholic Church suing a advocacy group for abuse victims and portraying itself as the one under attack. In evangelical circles, it leads to lawsuits over school prayers (can anyone imagine if a Muslim tried to pray at a graduation ceremony?).

The Catholic Church, at what I consider its best, developed the “preferential option for the poor.” In short, if you can go to bat for someone, go to bat for the little guy. Not being really marginalized myself, I must do everything I can to identify with those who are.

So I like (minus the actors and debtors bit) being told not to believe in myself. I think it is an excellent piece of advice… for me. But Chesterton is offering this opinion as a rule for everyone. Not really doubting his own worth, Chesterton has the luxury of calling confidence a sin. But not everyone is like us. Though I don’t really understand, there are people out there who do doubt their own inherent worth. There are people out there who are quite convinced that they deserve no better than hell. These are the people that Christianity was made for.

So, to these people, I say that Christianity was made for you, not the smug people who condemn you. You are light and salt and goodness, and Christ came to earth on your behalf far more than mine. Even if you doubt the reality of Christ, you can’t deny the reality of Christ’s saints. I’m not talking about the comfortable men who ate little and wrote a great deal. I am talking about all the people who devoted their lives to the service of the poor and downcast. You may not have met one, but they would have been glad to meet you. There is a goodness in the world that loves all, forgives all, and seeks to help all. That is what Christianity really means. You are loved.


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