“The Spice of Life” by G.K. Chesterton

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“ I am perfectly certain that all our world will end in despair, unless there is some way of making the mind itself, the ordinary thought we have at ordinary times, more healthy and more happy than they seem to be just now, to judge by most modern novels and poems.  You have to be happy in those quiet moments when you remember that you are alive; not in those noisy moments when you forget.  Unless we can learn again to enjoy life, we shall not long enjoy the spices of life.  ” 

~G.K. Chesterton

This short essay comes from one of the last radio broadcasts by G.K. Chesterton. It was published posthumously in a collection of the same title, The Spice of Life. With a strange but not uncharacteristic prescience, Chesterton appears to be handing off the baton to the next generation of culture shapers. He does so with a warning, though. Dale Ahlquist at The American Chesterton Society writes the following:

“It is Chesterton’s parting shot. He refers to none other than T.S. Eliot, who in many ways would be his successor as the great man of letters in the English language, who, though he shared many of Chesterton’s ideas and certainly admired him, nonetheless represents a change in outlook towards the modern world.”

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Darwin and the Darkling Plain of Doubt

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Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky (1817 – 1900) “Pushkin farewell to the sea”

“The one created thing which we cannot look at is the one thing in the light of which we look at everything. Like the sun at noonday, mysticism explains everything else by the blaze of its own victorious invisibility. Detached intellectualism is (in the exact sense of a popular phrase) all moonshine; for it is light without heat, and it is secondary light, reflected from a dead world.”

~ G.K. Chesterton, “Orthodoxy”[1]

On hearing the notion that Christianity is the enemy of science, G.K. Chesterton responded with the following: “It illustrates the precise fashion in which modern man has provided himself with an equally modern mythology.”[2] He noted that practically speaking, that mythology may exhibit “something of the power of a religion.” From science comes one of the great superstitions of our age, its power lying in the fact that it is seen as being anti-superstitious, even by its high priests. “The mere word ‘Science’ is already used as a sacred and mystical word in many matters of politics and ethics,” Chesterton continues, being used in all its abstractions “to threaten the most vital traditions of civilization—the family and the freedom of the citizen.”[3]

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“God Knows” by Minnie Louise Haskins

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“God Knows”

by Minnie Louise Haskins (1875-1957)

And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:
“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied:
“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”
So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night.
And He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East.

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Conclusion – The Medievals and Modernity

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“He understands everything, and everything does not seem worth understanding. His cosmos may be complete in every rivet and cog-wheel, but still his cosmos is smaller than our world.”[1]

I think I finally understand what G.K. Chesterton meant when he said that our modern world is topsy-turvy, that we are all born upside down when it comes to our cosmic perspective. It really has to do with the self-conscious way we look at the universe, from the smallest of things to the greatest. Of course, this self-consciousness began in the Garden, but it is particularly pronounced today. Lewis writes that our “whole attitude of the universe is inverted.”[2] “In modern, that is, in evolutionary, thought,” he writes, “Man stands at the top of a stair whose foot is lost in obscurity.”[3]

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Part Two: Medieval and Modern Suffering

The Agony in the Garden circa 1799-1800 by William Blake 1757-1827

Jesus’s Agony in the Garden by Blake

We moderns do not suffer well. At first glance, this might seem strange to our medieval ancestors since our living conditions are far superior to that of any other civilization in human history. Nevertheless, they would quickly discern that our relative wealth and security represent “only the surface of our lives.”[1] Below the busy-ness and sophistication, there is an emptiness as vast as the space of our cosmological models. Because of this, we feel our suffering more acutely. Despite the fact that their day-to-day lives were decidedly more difficult, our medieval ancestors would pity us. Chesterton wrote that because of our nearsightedness when it comes to the cosmos, we “have been forced to be gay about the little things, but sad about the big ones.”[2] Indeed, the little and big things have been cordoned off from one other in our world. As C.S. Lewis wrote, we have divided the two such that “on the one side [there is] a many-islanded sea of poetry and myth; on the other a glib and shallow ‘rationalism,’” that is ultimately meaningless.[3] In his book Faith, Hope and Poetry, Malcolm Guite writes that in our world, “the faculties of Imagination and Intuition, those very faculties that alone [are] capable of integrating, synthesising, and making sense of our atomized factual knowledge, [have been] relegated to a purely private and ‘subjective’ truth.”[4] Again, man is the measure in the modern mind, so this subjectivity is inevitable. Part of our task as apologists is to repair the fragmentation between our imaginations and our reason, to bind again what has been torn apart. As Holly Ordway writes in her book Apologetics and the Christian Imagination, our culture struggles “not with missing facts, but with missing meaning,” and this is difficult mental soil for the Gospel to take root.[5] This is where imaginative apologetics is indispensable for it seeks to bridge the gap between the two. Once again, we can look back to our medieval clerk to give us a way forward for in his mind no chasm existed. Therefore, as we scale the lonely peak of our modern age once again, leaving the medieval pageantry and joy behind, it is our task as ambassadors for our Golden King to tell our age about that valley below.  Two poems, in particular, can show us how the combination of imagination and reason provide a powerful antidote to our modern situation: Malcolm Guite’s “O Sapientia” and “O Clavis,” two among seven sonnets inspired by the medieval ‘O Antiphons’ that were written for the Advent season.

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Medieval Synthesis and Modern Fragmentation

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As in their moral lives, medieval scholars operated under the assumption that the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it (2 Cor. 3). Anglo-Saxons Christians loved unity and order. Perhaps the upheaval of the times, the rapidly rising, falling, and fragmenting of kingdoms and countries, stimulated a passion for order that might have otherwise been absent. Perhaps it was the presence of “huge masses of heterogeneous material,” fragments of a more civilized and advanced time that they inherited after the fall of Rome.[1] Regardless, they operated upon these principles of finding unity and order and this led them to become extraordinary synthesizers. In his book The Discarded Image, C.S. Lewis writes that “At his most characteristic, medieval man was … an organiser, a codifier, a builder of systems.”[2] He wanted “place for everything and everything in the right place.” From the “chance collection” of translations that had reached down through the centuries from Athens, they had “a corpus that frequently contradicted itself.”[3]  Yet instead of taking the modern route of accepting one authority at the expense of another, the medieval mind delighted in harmonizing the apparent contradictions – even between Christians and pagans.  All truth was God’s truth to them, even that which came from pagan cultures. Though the forces of fragmentation may be different in modern times, we can still learn from their ability to create harmony across disciplines. Indeed, the fragmentation of our moral lives extends into all areas of culture, including our academics, arts, and sciences. We set reason high “on the soul’s acropolis,” as C.S. Lewis writes in his poem “Reason,” consigning the imagination with her “dim exploring touch” to seemingly impassable depths.[4] As we enter a post-Christian era, we can learn from the medieval church’s ability to bring together all of the disciplines into “a complex unity that encompassed all of time and space,” leaving out nothing, thus revealing the grandeur of God.[5]

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