The Ball And The Cross, by (who else?) G. K. Chesterton, revolves around a lengthy duel between an Atheist and a Catholic. I say lengthy because the two combatants are continually prevented from completing their contest by some fantastic interruption - usually the police, but sometimes a motor-car accident or a rising tide. As an exasperated MacIan says in Chapter 9, "By the run of our luck we have never had time to be either friends or enemies. Something always jumped out of the bushes."
In Chesterton's typically anarchic style, they wind up being chased all over England by the law, while their escapades are cheered by the public and discussed enthusiastically in the newspapers. Eventually, the two antagonists have been through so much together that they become - somewhat against their will - a rather strange and extraordinary pair of friends, and begin to discover what they have in common and accept the missing pieces of their respective worldviews.
The ball and the cross are a bit of symbolism borrowed from the fixture adorning the top of St. Paul's Cathedral: the ball stands for the physical world, the cross for the scandalous paradox of righteousness and redemption. They are, in Chesterton's view, alike necessary in maintaining a stable and comprehensive worldview.
Near the beginning of the book, Chesterton colorfully describes the progression and inevitable self-destruction of the strictly scientific, anti-religious view of the world - the ball-without-the-cross:
"You begin by breaking up the Cross; but you end by breaking up the habitable world. We leave you saying that nobody ought to join the Church against his will. When we meet you again you are saying that no one has any will to join it with. We leave you saying that there is no such place as Eden. We find you saying that there is no such place as Ireland. You start by hating the irrational and you come to hate everything, for everything is irrational."*
If you reject the inherent reason of the unreasonable and think long enough and hard enough about an alternative, it is not particularly difficult to think yourself into the freedom of nothingness. It is as Chesterton says above in so many words: if you insist on abolishing the unexplainable, you will end up abolishing the universe, which has certain harmful consequences.
However, even as the world is vague and meaningless apart from the cross, so the cross is abstract and purposeless aside from the world. Clearly, while the cross originates outside and lasts beyond the world, the fact remains that the world is the only reason it exists at all. That's not a new idea - that's just John 3:16.
"I had a dream," said Turnbull, thickly and obscurely, "in which I saw the cross struck crooked and the ball secure--"
"I had a dream," said MacIan, "in which I saw the cross erect and the ball invisible. They were both dreams from hell. There must be some round earth to plant the cross upon. But here is the awful difference - that the round world will not consent even to continue round. The astronomers are always telling us that it is shaped like an orange, or like an egg, or like a German sausage. They beat the old world around like a bladder and thump it into a thousand shapeless shapes. Turnbull, we cannot trust the ball to be always a ball; we cannot trust reason to be reasonable. In the end the great terrestrial globe will go quite lop-sided, and only the cross will stand upright."**
The world, for the moment, anchors the cross. But the cross, in what it stands for, outlasts the world that it stands on. The cross is in the world, it is not of the world. This is a riddle and a mystery, and it will likely remain so until the stars fall. In spite of man's frantic search for the answer, he has remained, by and large, unsuccessful, with little to show for his weary quest but grim battlefields sanctioned with sophistry and drenched with blood. But there is hope, and Chesterton offers, in his farcical, fatherly way, the best answer we are likely to hear this side of heaven: not war, but wonder.
*G. K. Chesterton, The Ball And The Cross, (The Collected Works of G. K. Chesterton, Vol. VII (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004), 44)
Image courtesy of transparencedesign.ch
Image courtesy of transparencedesign.ch