Giovanni di Paolo di Grazia, “The Creation of the World and the Expulsion from Paradise,” 1445
The world in which we find ourselves is a miracle. The very fact that it exists is an astonishing mystery.
G. K. Chesterton once remarked that we don’t live in the best of all possible worlds but in the best of all impossible worlds. Such apparent optimism might seem a little glib, at best, or outrageously naïve at worst. Wouldn’t it be much more true to say that we are in the grip of vice-like evil, which is growing in power, and that, pace Chesterton, we are moving toward what seems to be the worst of all possible worlds, escape from which is the only impossible thing about it?
From Islamic barbarism, at one extreme, to unbridled hedonism, at the other, we seem to be on the brink of the abyss. Switching metaphors, we might see our civilization as being akin to an ocean liner, transformed into the proverbial ship of fools, which is moving dangerously close to the iceberg of narcissism. This iceberg looks “nice” enough on its glistening and glittering surface but, beneath the surface, its ugly underbelly brings death and destruction to any ship of civilization that strays too close to it. As for our own ship of fools, it seems to be careering heedlessly toward the iceberg, or, perhaps, might have already struck it with the devastating force that dooms the ship to sink ignominiously to the bottom. As it lists and lurches, taking in water at an alarming rate, the wise are already taking to the lifeboats, or the boats of life, seeking to conserve life itself from the forces of death.
Such is the situation in which we might perhaps see ourselves today.
In the midst of such a titanic struggle for survival, how can anyone say that we are living in the best of all worlds, possible or otherwise? Is Chesterton as mad as the Emperor Nero, fiddling with fantasy while Rome burns?
In order to answer these questions, we need to look a little closer at the questions themselves and ask some questions about the sort of people who ask them.
To intimate that we are living in a wicked world in which the power of darkness is destined to triumph is to skate fairly close to the thin ice of despair. To point the finger of scorn at those who see the world as being good, or as being impossibly good, is to point the finger of scorn at the Creator who made the world. To point the finger of scorn at our fellow passengers on the sinking ship for their stupidity in worshipping the iceberg of narcissism is to deny and defy the commandment that we love our neighbors — even if they are stupid! It is true, no doubt, that our neighbors are stupid. Narcissism is stupid. It is also true that our neighbors are not very neighborly toward us. Indeed it is true that our neighbors are probably our enemies. And yet, as Christians, we are called to love our neighbors even if they are our enemies. As we prepare to man the lifeboats, we should not look back in scorn at those clinging senselessly to the sinking ship, thumbing our noses at them with self-righteous glee as we see them drowning; on the contrary, we should be trying to persuade them to join us in the boats of life.
Looking a little closer at those who question the wisdom of those who proclaim, with Chesterton, that we live in the best of all impossible worlds, we can see that their questions lack the theological virtues of faith, hope and love. To see the power of evil as all-powerful and destined to triumph is to commit the deadly sin of despair, which is the absence of hope. To scorn those who see the world as good is to lack faith in the Maker of the world. To feel enmity toward our wayward brothers and sisters is a failure to love those whom we’re commanded to love.
Ultimately the best way to answer those who accuse Chesterton of naïveté is to return to his assertion that we live in the best of all impossible worlds. The world in which we find ourselves is a miracle. The very fact that it exists is an astonishing mystery. The very fact that we exist is also an astonishing mystery. The very existence of our neighbors, whether or not they are our enemies, should cause us to fall to our knees in gratitude at the mystery we see before us.
How does the smallest grain of dust exist? How did nothing become Something? One grain of dust should cause us to fall to our knees in wonder. And yet God gives us much more than a handful of dust. He gives us a leaf! We should fall to our knees in thanksgiving at the gift of a leaf! And yet, when I look out of the window, I see a forest of trees, a tsunami of green that towers over me! And that tidal wave of wonder is made of millions of leaves. Only one would be enough – and yet I have been given a gift of millions, all of which can be seen every day from my office window. I am truly a millionaire!
Above the trees, I see rolling clouds and a blue sky, and above them is the sun, by the light of which I see everything. And yet there is a light in me that is mightier than the sun. This can be seen from the fact that I can see the sun but the sun cannot see me. The sun is massive and mighty and has a physical power that is awe-inspiring but it is an inanimate object. It has no eyes or heart or mind. I am a soul, made in the image of the One who made me, who can look up at the sun and the moon and the stars, and the trees and my neighbors, and, like the One who made me, can see that they are good.
None of this is to deny the presence and the power of evil. The Lord of this world might be the prince of darkness and the father of lies, but the Lord who made this world is the Lord of the lord of the world. Above all shadows rides the sun, as Samwise Gamgee reminds us, and above the sun is the One who made the sun, the moon and the stars.
The test of all happiness is gratitude, said Chesterton. Those with gratitude, possessing a happiness beyond the power of kings and beyond the reach of the prince of darkness, give thanks for the best of all impossible worlds with which we are miraculously blessed.