Sometimes the problem with especially pertinent ideas is that they sound too simple. We read or hear the timeless ideal, whatever it is, and then all too quickly the largesse of its truth is lost to us. After all, it just makes so much sense, and is so simple! “Oh, yes, that is a most helpful truth,” we will say upon receiving it. Perhaps it contains too much truth for us to wrap our heads around? Many axiomatic statements are like that. They are just so replete that it takes a rather large aperture of mind to be able to actually suss out all their import.
In one of his more widely read books, What’s Wrong with the World, G. K. Chesterton makes a statement just three pages in: “What is wrong [with the world] is that we do not ask what is right.” So majestically large a proposition, isn’t it? It’s something like Heidegger’s question, “why is there something rather than nothing.” There is just so much truth in the statement that I don’t know where to start.
So for Chesterton, the first problem is to define what is right. Not necessarily what is wrong, but what is right. At first this sounds rather odd, not? It did to me. Isn’t that exactly the problem in our world—that we don’t talk enough about the troublesome issues? Whether injustice to humans, animals or the environment (thus the great attraction to social justice*), or problems in the community or church, it often seems that we need to spend more time discussing the problems. After all, it is easy to think that these problems are being ignored because they’re not being talked about enough, right? “The squeaky wheel gets the grease”! Not for G.K.
As Chesterton sees it, “we agree about the evil; it is about the good that we should tear each other’s eyes out.” Here is why he wants us to argue about the good (or the right): we all basically already agree about what is wrong. We agree that poverty should be dealt with; we agree that there are problems in the government (whichever country we live in); we agree that there are problems in the church (whichever one we attend); and we even probably agree that there is a problem with prostitution. In fact, Chesterton says that in being able to see such problems, we are unlike doctors. We all energetically nod in agreement “about the precise nature of the illness.” However—and herein lies the rub—we don’t agree about what is actually healthy.
“We all feel angry with an irreligious priesthood; but some of us would go mad with disgust at a really religious one,” says G.K. And with a little retrospect—and just consider the various flavours of theology we all adhere to—it’s a good point he makes about us not being in agreement about what kind of religion we want. “We all disapprove of prostitution; but we do not all approve of purity,” he rightly quips. Touché Mr. Chesterton, touché. (I am reminded that in another piece Chesterton humorously suggests that the day on which the Puritans finally left England should be marked as a national holiday.) Even in issues like social justice, we disagree over how to solve the problem. In general, we can all agree on the state of insanity, what we don’t agree on is what actual sanity looks like.
So, what is the solution? Being able to agree on what is right: thus his statement, “what is wrong is that we do not ask what is right.” Chesterton seems to think that only then will we agree on what the solution is and how it is to be implemented.
*Disclaimer: I actually detest the term “Social Justice” due to its confusing justice and mercy and rights and responsibilities. With that said, for the sake of convenience it is sometimes just easier to go with it.