Giles Fraser: Consider the bees, not the wasps

26 May 2010

IN G. K. Chesterton’s detective story “The Man with the Two Beards”, Fr Brown is taking tea with a detective who is investigating a series of jewel robberies. He is a little suspicious of Fr Brown’s seemingly old-fashioned views.

“Don’t you believe that crimino­logy is a science?” asks the detective.

“Do you believe hagiology [sic] is a science?” replies the good Roman Catholic priest.

The detective is puzzled. Fr Brown explains: “You see, the Dark Ages tried to make a science out of good people. But our own humane and enlightened age is only interested in a science about bad ones.”

This is classic Chesterton. We understand a great deal about what makes a bad person bad, but often far too little about what makes a good person good. Chesterton wrote of Ibsen: “While the eye that can perceive what are the wrong things increases with uncanny and devour­ing clarity, the eye which sees what things are right is growing mistier and mistier every moment.” As Fr Brown has it in the story: we are too interested in wasps, and not inter­ested enough in bees.

Let me set all this in context. Last Sunday was an almost perfect day for me. The sun shone. The cathedral choir were on top form. My children played happily in the courtyard. A group of us drank wine in the garden and chatted. And then we went off to the Lahore Kebab House in the evening — all bliss.

I don’t have Chesterton’s touch of making my happy day relate to human goodness. It sounds un­bearably smug, for which I apologise. But the message of Fr Brown’s bees is that true happiness and goodness are often related — and we mustn’t shirk from trying to describe that.

The problem is that we have become so adept at deconstructing any situation to find its kernel of selfishness that too often we fail to recognise what is good and right. The so-called “masters of suspicion” — Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud — have given us the intellectual tools to doubt and unravel things. But if we only ever look for wasps, it is only ever wasps that we shall find.

Christianity has the extra­ordinarily difficult task of trying to articulate a science of goodness in an age where everything is poked and attacked and denied. A century after Chesterton, it is worse than he could ever have feared. But Fr Brown sees the clues to something better, as he crouches down to examine the (soon-to-be-murdered man’s) beehive. “What a wondrous place the universe is. God gave it to us. He even gave us his little creatures to tell us what a joyous place it is. But we never listen.”

The Revd Dr Giles Fraser is Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral and Director of the St Paul’s Institute.

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