Chesterton’s Fence: Understanding the Why of the Status Quo before Seeking Change

picket fence

The traveller sees what he sees; the tripper sees what he has come to see. —G. K. Chesterton (Autobiography)

G. K. Chesterton, the turn-of-the-20th-century English author, journalist, and Christian apologist, first came to my attention through quotations on travel taken from his writings. Along with the one above, there’s also

The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land. (—Tremendous Trifles)

and

They say travel broadens the mind; but you must have the mind. (—said by the character Gabriel Gale in “The Shadow and the Shark”)

While these aphorisms apply to travelers and “trippers,” they also are relevant to movers and shakers, those who relocate to other countries and cultures in order to make a difference there. In that vein, I’ve recently found another idea from Chesterton—often referred to as “Chesterton’s fence”—that can relate to the life of cross-cultural workers. Before explaining it, here’s a little background.

Chesterton, born in 1874, was well known in his day as an influential defender and explainer of the Christian faith. C. S. Lewis, a major Christian apologist in his own right, credits Chesterton for impacting his conversion from atheism. In his memoir, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life, Lewis writes that in reading Chesterton’s Everlasting Man, he “for the first time saw the whole Christian outline of history set out in a form that seemed to me to make sense.” And the prolific Christian author Philip Yancey writes that if he were stranded on a desert island and could have “only one book, apart from the Bible, I may well select Chesterton’s own spiritual autobiography, Orthodoxy.”

Chesterton began his faith as an Anglican, later converting to Roman Catholicism, with this conversion being the subject of his book The Thing: Why I Am a Catholic. It’s in this work that we find Chesterton’s fence. That concept in a nutshell is this:

When you come across something that you think needs to be changed, you should first find out why it is the way it is. Only after understanding why it came to be can you then follow through with the change.

Here it is again, this time in Chesterton’s words:

In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.

Chesterton aimed his warning at those of his day who would jettison the institution of the family, but it can also be applied to more-modern folks in cross-cultural contexts. Overseas workers are often in the business of “reformation,” helping people through personal and community change. That inevitably means coming across “fences” or “gates,” obstacles that we believe are hindering us or the people we want to serve. Throughout our history, Western workers have too often torn down these fences without the necessary contemplation. This has frequently produced negative effects, ranging from minor annoyances or irritations to major cultural offenses or physical, social, or spiritual harm. Even with the best intentions, our removal of obstacles, fixing of perceived problems, doing things the “best” way, and applying quick fixes can have unintended consequences.

“This principle,” says Chesterton, “applies to a thousand things, to trifles as well as true institutions, to convention as well as to conviction.” Those “thousand things” could range from painting a room a different color or changing a meeting time to overthrowing longstanding traditions or upending cultural norms.

Back in 2004, in Why the Rest Hates the West: Understanding the Roots of Global Rage, Christian historian Meic Pearse addressed the large-scale impact that years of heavy-handed, ill-advised change brought on by Western entities have had. He writes,

Very many, especially Third World, people have the sensation that everything they hold dear and sacred is being rolled over by an economic and cultural juggernaut that doesn’t even know it’s doing it . . . and wouldn’t understand why what it’s destroying is important or of value.

Gene Daniels, at Missio Nexus, responds to this passage in this way:

What bothers me most about this statement is not that it is generally true, but that it is often as true of Christian missionaries as it is of diplomats, generals, and international businesspeople. Of course, the gospel brings social and cultural changes to receptor societies; however, the careless and insensitive way missionaries often treat the things that others “hold dear and sacred” is disturbing. The rapid advance of Western culture, riding globalization as a wave, seems to have caused an epidemic of amnesia among Western missionaries, causing us to forget our roots.

Whether the changes we’re promoting are small or large, we first need to understand the origin of the status quo and what needs are being met by what’s currently in place. We also need to ponder possible outcomes and examine our motivations. And along the way we need to contemplate such broad (and sometimes competing) issues as ethnocentrism, colonialism, syncretism, contextualization, modernization, isolationism, and globalization. All of this requires investigating, asking questions, listening, partnering, and practicing patience and humility.

Chesterton goes on to further explain his metaphor:

This paradox rests on the most elementary common sense. The gate or fence did not grow there. It was not set up by somnambulists who built it in their sleep. It is highly improbable that it was put there by escaped lunatics who were for some reason loose in the street. Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good thing for somebody. And until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable. It is extremely probable that we have overlooked some whole aspect of the question, if something set up by human beings like ourselves seems to be entirely meaningless and mysterious. There are reformers who get over this difficulty by assuming that all their fathers were fools; but if that be so, we can only say that folly appears to be a hereditary disease. But the truth is that nobody has any business to destroy a social institution until he has really seen it as an historical institution. If he knows how it arose, and what purposes it was supposed to serve, he may really be able to say that they were bad purposes, or that they have since become bad purposes, or that they are purposes which are no longer served. But if he simply stares at the thing as a senseless monstrosity that has somehow sprung up in his path, it is he and not the traditionalist who is suffering from an illusion.

To be clear (as I said before), overseas workers are often agents of change. Some laws, some institutions, some practices, some mindsets should be replaced. Christian cross-cultural workers carry a transformative gospel. And while we shouldn’t mindlessly bulldoze everything that seems to stand in our way, neither should we propose that every fence should be left standing. After thoughtful, careful, sensitive consideration, some of them should come down. Sometimes there is a better way.

(C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life, Geoffrey Bles, 1955; Philip Yancey, Soul Survivor: How My Faith Survived the Church, Doubleday, 2001; G. K. Chesterton, The Thing: Why I Am a Catholic, Sheed & Ward, 1929; Meic Pearce, Why the Rest Hates the West: Understanding the Roots of Global Rage, InterVarsity Press, 2004; Gene Daniels, Decoupling Missionary Advance from Western Culture,” Missio Nexus, October 1, 2009)

[photo: “The Fence Line,” by Alan, used under a Creative Commons license]