Friday, November 13, 2020

The Irregular Equilibrium

Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton (ebook)

The real trouble with this world of ours is not that it is an unreasonable world, nor even that it is a reasonable one. The commonest kind of trouble is that it is nearly reasonable, but not quite. Life is not an illogicality; yet it is a trap for logicians. It looks just a little more mathematical and regular than it is; its exactitude is obvious, but its inexactitude is hidden; its wildness lies in wait.

A simple example: a man is two men, with the right side a duplicate of the left.  Everything, in all appearances, confirms this as reality.  Until one gets to the heart.  Had he guessed as to the heart’s location, or that there would only be one heart, the scientist would be something more than a pure logician or mathematician.

Now, this is exactly the claim which I have since come to propound for Christianity. Not merely that it deduces logical truths, but that when it suddenly becomes illogical, it has found, so to speak, an illogical truth. It not only goes right about things, but it goes wrong (if one may say so) exactly where the things go wrong.

It is this point that Chesterton will consider: when something is found to be odd in Christian theology, it is only because something is odd in the truth.  The complications of our modern world prove this out better than any problem of faith.  Just as a scientist is proud of the complications in his science, so might one be proud of the complications of his faith.

But science can be proven, faith cannot.  What Chesterton found is that the more rational the proof, the less believable the science:

Our grandmothers were quite right when they said that Tom Paine and the free-thinkers unsettled the mind. They do. They unsettled mine horribly. The rationalist made me question whether reason was of any use whatever….

I find this in the black hole offered by the most scientific rationalist: we don’t have free will in any sense, as we are nothing more than the result of random atoms smashing together randomly.  These “rationalists” use reason to prove that there is no point in humans having reason.  All we have is an illusion of free will.  Talk about unsettling the mind – if this is where sola reason must lead, you can have it.

Chesterton would read much about Christianity – from the point of view of non-Christians and anti-Christians.  The more he read, the more he came across the extraordinary: Christianity was blamed for vices of all sorts, attacked from all sides.  And this was the issue: it was attacked from all sides – attacked for numerous contradictory reasons.

For example, Christianity is attacked for instilling morbid fear and terror that prevents men from seeking joy and liberty; as well, it is attacked for comforting men in providence.  Next, it is attacked for making men too timid, not willing to fight at all; as well, it is attacked for making men warriors.  It is attacked for claiming to be the one true religion by men who claim that mankind was “one church from Plato to Emerson.”

Chesterton was not yet moved:

…I did not conclude that the attack on Christianity was all wrong. I only concluded that if Christianity was wrong, it was very wrong indeed. …The only explanation which immediately occurred to my mind was that Christianity did not come from heaven, but from hell. Really, if Jesus of Nazareth was not Christ, He must have been Antichrist.

As we know, Chesterton’s story didn’t end there.  To his mind came another explanation.  Regarding an unknown man, some describe him as too short, others too tall.  Instead of concluding something in error about the unknown man, what if instead this discrepancy says something of those describing him?

Perhaps (in short) this extraordinary thing is really the ordinary thing; at least the normal thing, the centre. Perhaps, after all, it is Christianity that is sane and all its critics that are mad—in various ways.

Was there something morbid, not in Christianity but in the accusers, that would explain these discrepancies?  And it was by asking himself this question that Chesterton found the key to unlock the door.  The restraint of Christians saddens the hedonist; the faith of Christians angers the pessimists.

But this was still not quite enough.  There was both meekness in Christians and fierceness in the crusaders.  Christianity did not offer some mean between the two – it offered both, at the top of their game.  Christianity offered Christ – not as a centaur, but as very God and very man (and I know that the dispute on the meaning here caused perhaps the earliest rupture in the official Church).

In other words, both characteristics are offered in full, not some mish-mash of the two.  There is nothing of Aristotle’s golden mean in this – a condition intermediate between two other states, one involving excess, and the other deficiency.  Instead of a golden mean, Christianity offered a paradox, and the paradox resulted in the necessity of an irregular equilibrium.

Paganism declared that virtue was in a balance; Christianity declared it was in a conflict: the collision of two passions apparently opposite.

Courage inherently includes a contradiction: a strong desire to live that takes on the readiness to die.  “He that will lose his life, the same shall he save it.”  A coward merely clings to life or merely waits for death. 

Modesty offers a balance between pride and prostration.  Being a mixture of the two, it loses the meaning of both.  Christianity saved both by exaggerating both:

It separated the two ideas and then exaggerated them both. In one way Man was to be haughtier than he had ever been before; in another way he was to be humbler than he had ever been before. In so far as I am Man I am the chief of creatures. In so far as I am a man I am the chief of sinners.

Christians think too little of themselves and too much of their souls.  Both present, both to extreme.  St. Francis could praise all good; St. Jerome could denounce all evil.  Both passions were free within Christianity.

The Church emphasizes celibacy, at the same time emphasizing the family.  The Church told some men to fight and others not to fight – understanding that it held both Supermen and Tolstoyans within its fold.  The Church kept either of these from ousting the other.  It also prevented these to blend into a useless gray.

When we consider the lion lying down with the lamb, we believe it is because the lion has become lamb-like.  This is not it at all.  Chesterton offers the real problem and the Church’s real intent:

Can the lion lie down with the lamb and still retain his royal ferocity? THAT is the problem the Church attempted; THAT is the miracle she achieved.

The Church didn’t discover mercy – many have discovered mercy.  The Church discovered a plan to be both merciful and severe, and to hold these in irregular equilibrium.  Europe was, for one-thousand years, both in unity and in a thousand polities – both characteristics in the extreme yet both existing simultaneously.

And this, to Chesterton, explains the violent disagreements within Christianity on the seemingly small points of theology:

It was only a matter of an inch; but an inch is everything when you are balancing. The Church could not afford to swerve a hair's breadth on some things if she was to continue her great and daring experiment of the irregular equilibrium.


By defining its main doctrine, the Church not only kept seemingly inconsistent things side by side, but, what was more, allowed them to break out in a sort of artistic violence otherwise possible only to anarchists.

And this is where we stand today, and it was Nietzsche who knew this was so.  The West is fighting for the extreme of Christian ethics without also holding the extreme of Christian salvation: the reality of original sin and the possibility of forgiveness.  The result of this bastardization of Christianity is anarchy, in the destructive sense of the word.

It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands.


  1. “Being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, he answered them, “The kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.””
    (Luke 17:20–21 ESV)

    “He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field, but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away...”
    (Matt. 13:24–25 ESV)

    You seem to think that Christianity is defined by the traditions and history of the Catholic Church? The most visible manifestations of Christianity throughout history have been perversions of it. The actions of the weeds rather than the wheat.

    “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.”
    (Matt. 11:12 ESV)

    “I know, O LORD, that the way of man is not in himself, that it is not in man who walks to direct his steps.”
    (Jer. 10:23 ESV)

    Man has neither the capacity or authority to rule over other men. Invariably he lacks the capacity to rule his own passions. For a Christian, accepting this is not anarchy, but monarchy.

    “And the LORD said to Samuel, “Obey the voice of the people in all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them.”
    (1 Sam. 8:7 ESV)

    Jesus came to undo this, but people still clamor for a king like the other nations have.

    Instances of men attempting to rule over men are always and everywhere expressions of Babylon. This is necessary outside the Kingdom of God. But:

    “And the devil took him up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, and said to him, “To you I will give all this authority and their glory, for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will.”
    (Luke 4:5–6 ESV)

    The devil has been given authority to appoint rulers in Babylon. All human kingdoms are iterations of Babylon.

    Many of the complaints of pagans about Christianity are justified. This is often because of the actions of weeds.

    “For, as it is written, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”
    (Rom. 2:24 ESV)

    Grace and peace

    1. "You seem to think that Christianity is defined by the traditions and history of the Catholic Church?"

      Yes. And no.

    2. Bionic, you have written a lot, and nearly all that is extremely helpful, but this pithy response of yours ("Yes. And no.") may be the greatest mic drop of your blogging career.

    3. It's such a complicated issue, even for the most learned scholars (which I am not) and we all come with our biases in any case. The question is unanswerable, at least not in fewer than 50,000 words.

  2. Perhaps I am mistaken, but Augustine also says "Yes. And no." regarding the identification of the City of God with the Church.

  3. My main problem with City of God idea is that it leads to equating Israel to the Church.

    But it is helpful in thinking about the nature and existence of the Kingdom of God.

  4. This is so interesting. I've been reading about the Cathars lately, and how they seemed to be able to maintain a consistency between word/principle and action/behaviour that was quite extraordinary. That's how they were able to basically "convert" the common people everywhere they were given an opportunity to live amongst them, I have few doubts that many of them were able to achieve a holiness and wisdom that led supporters to stick by them through all sorts of official threats and sanctions.

    This is so even as you and I (as Christian and Muslim) can agree their dualism was 100% wrong. What to make of this?

    I think it may relate to how, if the difference between Heaven and Earth (in Biblical, Chinese and Quranic terms) is made very clear, being able to stay at a certain level of "purity" is easier. When that difference is not so clear, and maybe Heaven starts to become conflated with the Eternal (which is before and created Heaven), there's much more room for Satan's whispers to exploit into hypocrisy.

    I don't think celibacy is impossible under monotheism, but I do suspect it is only really for a kind of spiritual elite (those slaves given 5 talents to take care of, rather than 2 or 1 say). Since we moderns can't handle in-born classes anymore, it becomes more difficult to navigate, and marriage as the blanket recommendation makes more and more sense.