Athanasius had to be against the world (contra mundum) to be for the world. Chesterton argues that Thomas Aquinas offered a much needed contradiction to the world of Chesterton’s day (perhaps ours as well):
The saint is a medicine because he is an antidote. Indeed that is why the saint is often a martyr; he is mistaken for a poison because he is an antidote. He will generally be found restoring the world to sanity by exaggerating whatever the world neglects, which is by no means always the same element in every age…he is not what the people want, but rather what the people need…Salt seasons and preserves beef, not because it is like beef; but because it is very unlike it. Christ did not tell his apostles that they were only the excellent people, or the only excellent people, but that they were the exceptional people; the permanently incongruous and incompatible people…It is because they were the exceptional people, that they must not lose their exceptional quality…
Therefore it is the paradox of history that each generation is converted by the saint who contradicts it most.
-G.K. Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas, pp. 5-6
I do not know if I have ever read a more beautiful expression of the particularity of Christianity than the paragraphs the above quotes are taken from. I couldn’t move on after reading it. I don’t know how many times I reread it before finally turning a page.
Two things come to mind as applications. First, read people who most contradict the world. It is fitting that Chesterton found such in Aquinas, who predated him by several hundred years. It was the reading of the old saints that gave him the needed perspective to be salt in his own day. Second, when you find those areas we can, and should, contradict the world in, then proclaim, and live, those points. Be incongruous to the world around you. Proclaim the antidote even if the culture sees it as poison. Light is like poison to darkness, but it is really the antidote for darkness.
How can we do it in our own day? The best attempt at an answer I’ve heard can be found HERE.