Picture a fat, middle-aged Englishman trying to stand on his head. This is not just any Englishman. This is your honest to goodness Edwardian Englishman in a tweed suit. With his wide-brimmed hat, a drooping mustache, walking stick and ridiculous pince nez he looks like an overblown Teddy Roosevelt. The porcine face puffs as he tries to plant his head on the ground, then the chubby feet, stuck into stout boots, try to kick up into the air. The fat man kicks once or twice, wobbles, then on the third try he’s up, feet waving and swaying for balance. His hat is squashed because he forgot to take it off. His tweed cape has fallen over his head. A button on his vest pops off with the exertion, then suddenly the pince nez fall off and he instinctively reaches for them, loses his balance and comes crashing to the ground.
All of this to test the fat man’s theory that, “it really is a fact that any scene such as a landscape can sometimes be more clearly and freshly seen if it is seen upside down.” The fat Englishman is named G.K. Chesterton, and he wrote those words about a skinny Italian called Francesco Bernardone otherwise known as Francis of Assisi. Francis was a sort of holy acrobat, a wandering minstrel, a chevalier of the spirit, one of those fools who not only see the world upside down, but turn the world upside down. In his fat English way Chesterton was a similar sort of clown, and his observation that the world is often more clearly seen upside down is revolutionary.
It’s revolutionary not because Chesterton is a jolly English Che Guevara, but because, when you stand on your head you revolve. Revolutions upset the status quo by challenging the majority view. This kind of rebellion is both frightening and admirable. Witness our feelings towards any adolescent with a safety-pin in his eyebrow, a surly expression and purple hair. The sort of revolution Chesterton advocates is subversive toward both sides—like a court jester who cracks jokes to those who are solemn, and assumes a funereal face for those who are fools.
For our lives to achieve their full potential, each one of us must go through a revolution. That is, we must learn to see things in a startling and fresh way. Such revolutions are exciting, but risky. There is much to gain, but there is also much to lose. Therefore, being cautious as cats, we usually choose to stay right side up and do everything we can to avoid a revolution. In this way even the most non-conformist of us are unbearably respectable. Although we realize this truth, we still resist anything that might turn our world upside-down. We prefer to plod on in our old habits and prejudices, because to launch out into something new is simply too frightening. We are like the seven-year-old who longs to ride the roller coaster, but can’t get up the nerve.
Sometimes the necessary revolution in life happens through education. Sometimes it happens through religion, but more often it comes to us as the result of some wonderful or disastrous event in life. We get a promotion or we get cancer. We hit the jackpot or we hit rock bottom. We fall in love or we fall off a ladder. Whether it comes through joy or sorrow, we have a sudden stupendous vision that turns our world upside down. Some people pursue this sudden insight and embark on a quest for meaning. They learn to hunger for those daily revelations that amount to daily revolutions. Most of us, however, get a brief glimpse of the Promised Land, then relapse into our usual cautious self, forever wary of that dangerous revolutionary who lurks within and who, for one delicious and dangerous moment, peeped over the parapet. We worry about that fellow, and sensing that the way of revolution is the way to lose everything, we step back
But sometimes there is more to be lost by not being a revolutionary. This is true for societies as well as individuals. Madam Guillotine reminds us that the time comes when those aristocrats who refuse to stand on their head, will lose their head. Therefore, although there is a clear risk in revolution, there may be a greater risk in resisting revolution. We think it would be terrible to change the way we are, then one day the truth dawns that it would be even more terrible if we were to stay just as we are. Suddenly Socrates’ words, “The unexamined life is not worth living,” hit us like a punch to the solar plexus. At that point standing on one’s head suddenly seems attractive, and sometimes we have just the jolt we need first to examine our lives, and then to re-make them. If we reach this point our whole life might start to go into an upward spiral rather than down the drain.
Personal revolutions can happen in any area of life. We may suddenly see our job, our marriage, or our waistline in a truthful way for the first time. There are some areas in our lives however, where it is most difficult to see things in a fresh way. These are the sacred places of our beliefs. Like ancient temples, these sanctuaries are built in stone, and like all holy places they are inviolable. On their walls are carved the arcane symbols and sacred tenets of the faith that must never be questioned, even if it is not understood. Religious people acknowledge that they have such sacred spaces in their lives. What is often misunderstood is that non-religious people also have holy places where no blasphemy or heresy is allowed.
Everyone has some sort of belief system. In other words, we have a pattern in our mind that enables us to make sense of the world. We believe in this pattern for by it we understand everything else. The pattern may be distorted and untrue. It may be conscious or unconscious, but it is there as sure as our heartbeat. Our beliefs may be developed into a complex and beautiful system of religious dogma and devotion or they may simply be the inchoate set of assumptions we have received from our parents, peers, teachers and the advertising industry. We may not be conscious of our beliefs, indeed we may deny that we have beliefs, but even the denial itself is a kind of belief. Indeed, it is arguable that unconscious beliefs exert a far stronger hold on us than the conscious ones. So, for example, we might consciously doubt the infallibility of a pope’s decisions, but we would never think to doubt our own. So all of us have sacred spaces. We all have beliefs, and we instinctively protect and defend those beliefs against every kind of revolutionary threat.
Now what troubles me about these sacred spaces is that most often they are comfortable. They are furnished with recliner chairs, and the most famous recliner chair is called the La-Z-Boy. I am suspicious of any belief system that makes the believer comfortable, because it is probably the construction of a lazy boy. I speak here from experience because I realize how lazy I am and how much I love my own comfort. I am aware how easily I believe things which may be ridiculous or dangerous simply because they make me feel better. Of course, a comfortable belief may be true, but if you think for a moment, isn’t a belief that makes the believer uncomfortable more likely to be true? An uncomfortable belief is more likely to be true because we wish it weren’t true. And if we wish something weren’t true it is less likely that we have made it up. This brings me back to the reason for a revolution. If we want to find out what is true, then we have to get out of the recliner chair and do some gymnastics. We have to stand on our heads and see the world in a fresh way.
This means we must not only acknowledge that we have beliefs, but we must find out what they are. This exercise is like lifting up a log and finding a world of living things underneath. Some of our discoveries will be delightful and some disgusting. Once we find our beliefs we must poke them to see if they are alive, rather like a boy pokes a dead snake just to make sure. Just as the boy pokes the grub to see if it is alive, so we have to examine our beliefs to see whether they are true or not. This requires some thinking, and that sounds like a boring chore. But why do we consider thinking to be a boring chore? Probably because we have been taught to use thinking to solve problems and answer questions. But what if we were to turn that around and use thinking not so much to solve problems, but create them, and not so much answer questions, but pose them? Then thinking begins to undermine the dull establishment rather than support it.
To my mind this is the essential task of religion and education, yet most religions and schools do exactly the opposite. Rather than posing the questions, they provide all the answers. Instead of creating problems they promote ready-made solutions. In fact they actually oppose people who ask awkward questions. That is one of the reasons why the religious teachers killed Jesus and Socrates. This institutional suppression of honest questions is the reason why so many people have no time for formal religion or education. They would rather work on a puzzle than be presented with an instant solution.
By standing on our head we pose fresh questions because we have looked at things in a fresh way. This questioning however, is not the same thing as total skepticism. We stand on our head because we are enthusiastic and inquisitive. We ask questions because we want answers. Skepticism, on the other hand, asks questions because it doesn’t believe there are answers and creates problems because it likes to be destructive. The difference is between the messy studio of an artist and the messy street of an anarchist.
This essay is an abridged version of the Introduction to The Quest for the Creed, by Fr. Longenecker.
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