GOSPEL MATTERS: Chesterton and Sanity

Dr Christine Wood, Director of the Office of Evangelisation & Catechesis

I recently had the experience of meeting a ‘true believer’, not in God, but in the bewitching issues of climate change. Now, I don’t deny the evidence of a changing climate, but what I noticed was a curious obsession about one idea. The conversation reminded me of G K Chesterton’s masterpiece, Orthodoxy, where he discusses the intellectual culture of his age. 

Chesterton comments that insanity is often marked by the dominance of reason and the exclusion of creativity and humour. Pure reason is inhuman. The madman’s mind moves in a perfect, but narrow, circle, and his explanation of the world is comprehensive, at least to him.

In Zen Buddhism, the circle, or ensō, symbolises enlightenment and the universe. Many Western sceptics and mystics have appropriated the circle as a symbol of eternity and materialist determinism. 

Chesterton took the circle as the “symbol of reason and madness” and contrasted it with the “cross as the symbol at once of mystery and of health”.

“Buddhism is centripetal, but Christianity is centrifugal: it breaks out,” he remarks. “For the circle is perfect and infinite in its nature; but it is fixed for ever in its size; it can never be larger or smaller. But the cross, though it has at its heart a collision and a contradiction, can extend its four arms for ever without altering its shape. Because it has a paradox in its centre it can grow without changing. The circle returns upon itself and is bound. The cross opens its arms to the four winds; it is a signpost for free travellers.”

It seems that the modern Western mind is complete, full of reason, and with little or no room for paradox, creativity, or even poetry. Accordingly, the chain of causality of everything can and must be explained scientifically and critically. 

Christianity, on the other hand, breaks free of this prison. Christ confronted Pilate’s reason by presenting him with the Truth — a truth that is foolishness to the world. 

Christ crucified is the wisdom and love of God. Yet, the madman has no room for such divine creativity, such poetry. It’s only in the resurrection of Christ that death has meaning; yet pure rationality will not entertain this delightful surprise.

We all recognise that we are captive to death. But it is the Christian who is not crushed by this reality for he follows the One who broke the chains of death and climbed out of the tomb. 

Let’s not stroll about in circles like madmen, but instead run free to the four corners of the earth with the extraordinary Gospel news of Jesus’ resurrection! Happy Easter!

Tags: Evangelisation and Catechesis, News