Chesterton on Finding Hope Beyond this World

The world wants hope. This claim is evident from the quotation above Ronald Reagan’s grave that reads, “I know in my heart that man is good, that what is right will eventually triumph,” to the well known campaign poster of Barack Obama that emphasizes that four-letter word, to every summer blockbuster of a superhero embodying that idea.[1] But from a materialistic perspective, there is no room for hope; humanity is left only with Ivan’s idea in The Brothers Karamazov that “there is no virtue if there is no immortality,” and the general premise of Friedrich Nietzsche that since there is no meaning in life, humans must create meaning for themselves.[2] In Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton presents an alternative to this unhopeful view of the world: he argues that Christianity—in all of its mystery, full of paradoxes—offers mankind a real, tangible, rational hope. Christianity alone, he claims, provides a possibility for progress by recognizing that humanity’s suffering is a result of the Fall and that man is utterly incapable of self perfection, but that perfection is found outside of man in a transcendent God.

Early in his book, Chesterton refutes the individual who places his entire confidence in himself, and more specifically, in his ability to reason. He writes, “Complete self-confidence is not merely a sin; complete self-confidence is a weakness,” and, “The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.”[3] Chesterton is not suggesting that reason is bad; he is addressing the type of thinkers who place their entire beliefs only on what they can conclude through observation and reason, leaving no space for faith. Furthermore, he asserts that it is “idle to talk always of the alternative of reason and faith. Reason is itself a matter of faith.”[4] In the process of reasoning, there must be faith in one’s ability to reason. When this faith is lacking, then one simply becomes a skeptic of reality. Consequently, anyone who is able to place faith in reason, should also be able to place faith in things outside of his or her own senses. Chesterton compares these two sorts of individuals—the one who has faith only in his senses and the one who has faith in his senses and things beyond his senses—to an endless ocean: “Poetry is sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea, and so make it finite.”[5] The person who struggles to find the answers to all of life’s mysteries will inevitably go insane because it is an impossible task; the person who recognizes the awe and wonder in life’s mysteries will find peace and can enjoy the sea in which he floats.

A central tenet of Christianity that requires faith in addition to reason revolves around the idea of human nature. Chesterton argues that Christianity, like revolutionaries suspicious of those in power, always maintained “that men were naturally backsliders; that human virtue tended of its own nature to rust or to rot,” except it calls this aspect of human nature “the doctrine of original sin” instead of “the doctrine of progress.”[6] This idea of original sin—of the sinful aspect in human nature—is quite evident in the behavior of humans of all times and places; it is what humanity hopes to overcome. However, faith is needed beyond reason to understand what Chesterton calls the “primary paradox of Christianity,” which is, “that the ordinary condition of man is not his sane or sensible condition; that the normal self is an abnormality.”[7] The idea that sin was at one time not a part of human nature, but that it came as a result of the Fall gives hope to humanity. If human nature had always been the same and if man had been sinful since the beginning of time, there could be no hope to overcome it in the future.

The hope in Christianity that sin can be overcome is not to be found by looking inward at man, but by looking outward toward God. Chesterton uses the example of a cross and a circle to illustrate a helpful point. He compares the cross to Christianity, saying, “though it has at its heart a collision and a contradiction, [it] can extend its four arms for ever without altering its shape;” in contrast, the circle that he uses to represent Buddhism “returns upon itself and is bound.”[8] This metaphor is similar to another distinction that Chesterton makes between the two religions. He writes, “The Buddhist is looking with a peculiar intentness inwards. The Christian is staring with a frantic intentness outwards.”[9] The Buddhist—to which could be added the pantheist, the nihilist, the materialist, and the one seeking redemption from sin through works—is confined to the size of the circle; but he cannot overcome his fallen nature through his fallen nature. In contrast, the Christian, by looking for hope outside of man, is as limitless as the shape of the cross. In Chesterton’s words, “Insisting that God is inside man, man is always inside himself. By insisting that God transcends man, man has transcended himself.”[10]

In the end, Christianity provides hope where the world cannot. It teaches that there is something beyond what we can reason. It teaches that despite our fallen nature, there is hope to be found outside of us. Although we have never experienced a world void of sin, we have hope that by God’s grace we one day will. This is a hope far greater than any optimism the world can offer, because as Chesterton points out, “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.”[11]


[1] Ronald Reagan, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, Simi Valley, CA.

[2] Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002), 70.

[3] Gilbert Keith Chesterton, Orthodoxy (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1995), 18, 24.

[4] Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 38.

[5] Ibid., 22.

[6] Ibid., 123.

[7] Ibid., 165.

[8] Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 33.

[9] Ibid., 138.

[10] Ibid., 142.

[11] Ibid., 85.