Homesick at Home: Chesterton on the Paradox of Exile
By Joseph Sunde
We are strangers in a strange land, and yet we are meant to make something of the world. How can this be, and what might it mean?
Christians have long struggled with the tension, and in his famous work, Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton writes of his own struggles. Recalling his initial encounter with Christianity, Chesterton admits to perplexing a bit over its peculiar blend of pessimism and optimism.
“On this system one could fight all the forces of existence without deserting the flag of existence,” he writes. “One could be at peace with the universe and yet at war with the world. St. George could still fight the dragon, however big the monster bulked in the cosmos, though he were bigger than the mighty cities or bigger than the everlasting hills.”
Then, one day, it all made sense:
“Then followed an experience impossible to describe. It was as if I had been blundering about since my birth with two huge and unmanageable machines, of different shapes and without apparent connection—the world and the Christian tradition. I had found this hole in the world: the fact that one must somehow find a way of loving the world without trusting it; somehow one must love the world without being worldly. I found this projecting feature of Christian theology, like a sort of hard spike, the dogmatic insistence that God was personal, and had made a world separate from Himself.
The Unnaturalness of Everything
Chesterton realized that though the world is in need of something, and though we ought to yearn for healing and restoration for that very same world, our hope is not to be found in the world itself, and Christianity cannot and will not thrive, nor will the nations flourish, if it pretends otherwise.
Indeed, the death, destruction, and dysfunction that surrounds us exists and is furthered primarily because it rejects that basic reality:
“All the optimism of the age had been false and disheartening for this reason, that it had always been trying to prove that we fit in to the world. The Christian optimism is based on the fact that we do not fit in to the world. I had tried to be happy by telling myself that man is an animal, like any other which sought its meat from God. But now I really was happy, for I had learnt that man is a monstrosity. I had been right in feeling all things as odd, for I myself was at once worse and better than all things. The optimist’s pleasure was prosaic, for it dwelt on the naturalness of everything; the Christian pleasure was poetic, for it dwelt on the unnaturalness of everything in the light of the supernatural.
The modern philosopher had told me again and again that I was in the right place, and I had still felt depressed even in acquiescence. But I had heard that I was in the wrong place, and my soul sang for joy, like a bird in spring. The knowledge found out and illuminated forgotten chambers in the dark house of infancy. I knew now why grass had always seemed to me as queer as the green beard of a giant, and why I could feel homesick at home.”
But what of this tension we are called to ride and wrangle? What of the experience of being in the world but not of it — of feeling homesick at home, of serving one’s captors freely and generously? What does such a position mean for our stewardship across all spheres of life? Why, as Chesterton continued to ask, do Christians care to transform a world that is not their ultimate home?
As Chesterton concludes, our call to stewardship and cultural engagement relies not on notions of pessimism or optimism, but on a confidence in and commitment to God’s plans and purposes. Through this, ours is “a matter of primary loyalty,” of “cosmic patriotism.” For God so loved the world, he gave.
We, too, are created and called to love, and thus, to give:
“The world is not a lodging-house at Brighton, which we are to leave because it is miserable. It is the fortress of our family, with the flag flying on the turret, and the more miserable it is the less we should leave it. The point is not that this world is too sad to love or too glad not to love; the point is that when you do love a thing, its gladness is a reason for loving it, and its sadness a reason for loving it more.”
From such love, then, we are called to action that is no less transcendent in its source and aim. Although our position of exile is one that deals directly within and throughout the messiness of our fallen world, it is one that is distinctly and mysteriously propelled by and driven toward the gifts of God, the blood of Jesus, and the witness of the Holy Spirit.
We are called to love, to serve, to sacrifice, and to obey. Here, in our role as exiles, we can hope and trust in the good news and redemptive work of Jesus Christ, and only then can we point the way to our true home.