In a world that appears increasingly hostile to Christ and His Church, occasions for despair are legion. The descent into this unfortunate passion is expressed in various modes and degrees, ranging from apostasy to fortress mentality. Perhaps one of the most subtle and insidious of snares is an embittered antagonism. The psychology of the embittered antagonist is familiar enough: The world is his enemy. The world is consciously and stridently achieving its goals of undermining everything in, of, or pertaining to Christ and His Church. So, one comes to expect from the world only enmity, stupidity, and out-and-out hostility. The trenches become clearly defined and, though there be souls for the winning in no-man’s-land, the embittered antagonist finds himself thinking only about how he would like to tell off those in charge of the “enemy camp.” The front page of the newspaper provides him with ample opportunity for sighing and swearing.
One must ask, though, whether this response runs counter to the cause of Christ. If antagonism leaves no room for love, how will the culture be transformed? As Fr. Vincent McNabb puts it, “The world is waiting for those who love it … If you don’t love men, don’t preach to them – preach to yourself.” Fr. McNabb’s words are suffused with the conviction seemingly lost to the embittered antagonist: It is possible to love the world (be it ever so broken and confused) without being lost in it. The question remains: How then can we hope to navigate safely this evangelical peril? I think we can receive assistance from a time-honored source – the pen of G. K. Chesterton.
In his work, Orthodoxy, Chesterton describes the optimist and the pessimist, and his critique of the latter applies with equal force to our embittered antagonist: “Upon the whole, I came to the conclusion that […] the pessimist thought everything bad, except himself.” Beyond the mere witty quips describing these two camps, Chesterton comes down hard on the very polarized dichotomy itself. The error, he claims, lies in a mistaken notion of our being related to the world: “But this is a deep mistake in this alternative of the optimist and the pessimist. The assumption of it is that a man criticizes this world as if he were house-hunting, as if he were being shown over a new suite of apartments […] But no man is in that position. A man belongs to this world before he begins to ask if it is nice to belong to it […] To put shortly what seems the essential matter, he has a loyalty long before he has any admiration.”
What Chesterton describes as the sane alternative to optimism and pessimism (in which camp we find our embittered antagonist) is the patriot – the man who truly loves the world into which he was born. It is interesting to note, though, how this love is ordered. One cannot love something merely for what one hopes it could become, for that is mere ideology and idolatry. Rather, he continues, one must love the thing or person, as it stands, in all its drab and drossy vesture. One must love it simply because it is his – the way a mother loves her child, or (on a lower plane) the way a new driver loves his ’93 sun-bleached, rusted Corolla four-door (I speak from experience). It is only in this love that one discovers the motive force for transformation.
It is this love that the embittered antagonist fails to beget, and it is no wonder then that he does not gaze upon the world as “a bride bedecked with her jewels.” Antagonism does not generate transformative love, and must consequently be exorcised from the evangelical heart. Rather, in its place, I suggest that we beg for the gift of “patriotism.” By this grace, may we be more disposed to act as leaven in the world, in whatever manner the Lord might will.
Image: G. K. Chesterton, at his desk.