In 1907, G.K. Chesterton wrote a parable, The Roots of the World, about a boy who grew up in a home with a garden of flowers and a small, insignificant plant that he very much wanted to pull up by the roots. All of the people of the house told him he should not tear up that plant, though he was free to pick the flowers and enjoy the garden. They gave him many reasons why he ought not to pull up that one thorny little plant with the small flower, but none of the reasons made any sense to the boy. He had a hankering to pull it up by its roots and be done with it. Since he himself could not see any good reason for leaving the plant alone, he resolved one night to finally uproot it the following day.
When he first pulled at the plant, the fireplace in his house crumbled, but the plant did not come up. On the second pull, the roof of the barn fell in. Perplexed but determined, he continued to pull. Castles and guard towers fell. The plant would not come out. He gathered his friends to help him. He employed elephants and steam engines. Whatever he did, the plant never came up, but more and more of the world was ruined and hosts of people died in the catastrophes that occurred. When the boy finally gave up, he realized two reasons that were never told to him for leaving the plant alone. First, it is not possible to tear it up. Second, he would ruin everything if he tried.
The moral of this story, says Chesterton, is that in trying to tear up traditional morality and Christianity by the roots, skeptics and secularists can only succeed in tearing down society around themselves. “Secularists have not succeeded in wrecking divine things; but secularists have succeeded in wrecking secular things.” At the foundation of human civilization lie values of honesty, charity, family, loyalty and shared responsibility. These values are based on the very nature of what it means to be a human being and the objective reality of a just and loving God. If God is removed, then the vast array of edifices that make up our society crumble in ruins. Remove God, and there is no intrinsic right and wrong. Justice, rights and duty become matters of personal preference that can be accepted or rejected as one pleases. All meaning, beauty, and goodness are mere illusions of an ape gone mad.
We live in an age when children are taught that we can make our own meaning; our nature is adjustable to our preferences and whims; matters of religion and morality are merely opinion, and we have the right to believe what we want and make our own truth; as long as we are not hurting anyone else, we can do whatever we want. All of this implies that there is no truth, no real meaning inherent in reality, no true good, and that there exists only a God of illusion. But the roots of the human person are God, goodness, meaning and family.
It is no surprise then, today, that we are witnessing the social evils we see. We should not be shocked when children find life meaningless when they have been sold philosophies that imply no true meaning. Hammer away at the foundation of society, and society will fall. William Barr said it well in his recent speech at Notre Dame where he warned the young boy of modern secularism to stop in his crusade to uproot that plant, the value of which he knows not. In his youthful impudence, though, he cannot recognize the cause of the destruction and seeks to bandage the wounds of depression, addiction, poverty and suicide with social programs rather than admitting the root cause, rather, the cause which is the action of tearing at the root. Indeed, our society has improved in many technological aspects, but man is corroding from within. We know more about the cosmos, but less about ourselves. The present crisis of social pathologies is primarily a crisis of truth.
Though the situation looks dire, there is a positive element to Chesterton’s story; it is the greatest possible element. It is a detail of the story that is supremely Christian: the plant never comes up by the roots. The gates of hell cannot prevail against the spark of God in the soul and the Church in the world. As the rest of the planet rages against the bonds that hold it together, cities may crumble, societies may be plunged into ruin, vast populations of mankind may do everything they can to denature themselves, calamity of one kind may follow calamity of another kind, all things secular may perish, but somehow, someway, as mysteriously as ever, Jesus Christ will still be king and the Church will live on. That precious little plant, so little esteemed by the boy in the garden, cannot be destroyed. Jesus Christ is King. Viva Cristo Rey!