Saturday, March 29, 2008

Chesterton and the Discovery of Sin

For my money G.K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy is essential reading if we wish to understand the modern condition. Chesterton writes in a wonderfully light, humorous style that sometimes leads people to think he was not a serious writer; but he was deadly serious. Like Kierkegaard, Chesterton was not interested in merely scoring intellectual points but in a genuine communication of ideas. Both Kierkegaard and Chesterton used humor and indirection to lower the intellectual defenses of their readers; no serious idea is communicated in such a light manner, the reader supposes, and he finds himself listening to the idea before his prejudices have a chance to kick in.

At the heart of Chesterton's diagnosis of the modern world is the loss of the sense of sin:

In this remarkable situation it is plainly not now possible (with any hope of universal appeal) to start, as our fathers did, with the fact of sin. This very fact which was to them (and is to me) as plain as a pikestaff, is the very fact that has been specially diluted or denied. But though moderns deny the existence of sin, I do not think that they have yet denied the existence of a lunatic asylum. We all agree still that there is a collapse of the intellect as unmistakable as a falling house. Men deny hell, but not, as yet, Hanwell. (Ch.2)

Chesterton traces the loss of the sense of sin to the shattering of the structure of virtue that occurred with the birth of modernity and the collapse of Christendom. The virtues still exist, Chesterton tells us, but they have lost any order and "run wild." Modesty is one of the virtues that has become disordered:

But what we suffer from to-day is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction, where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert - himself. (Ch. 3)

One can imagine what Chesterton would make of the contemporary "self-esteem" movement. Any limits to the Almighty Ego seem to us to be intolerable affronts to our ego. But limitation is at the very essence of life and action:

Every act of will is an act of self-limitation. To desire action is to desire limitation. In that sense every act is an act of self-sacrifice. When you choose anything, you reject everything else. (Ch. 3)

This is essentially the same point Kierkegaard made in distinguishing between the aesthetic and the ethical stages of existence. The aesthetic man cannot bring himself to eliminate "possibility" in favor of "actuality." He cannot come to terms with the fact that to choose something, with any degree of decisiveness, is to reject all the alternatives. As to choose marriage to one woman is to reject all other women. Such decisive actions are almost impossible for contemporary man. We must "keep our options open." But both Chesterton and Kierkegaard understood that "keeping your options open" is false freedom. It is freedom without meaning or significance. Of what value is a gift if it may always be taken back? What value is the gift of self in marriage if the gift may, at any time, be taken back by the giver? Such a gift is really no gift at all. The modern man of freedom maintains his freedom at the cost of making the content of his freedom nothing worth doing. Freedom is really found in a few free acts of decisive and everlasting significance, not an endless series of trivial acts of no decisive significance.

We see here the connection between sin and freedom. It is through the sense and significance of sin that true freedom comes into being. The man without a sense of sin (that is, of the limitation inherent in temporal existence) is free in the sense that anything he does is no more nor less significant than anything else, so he may as well do anything and everything. But this is the freedom of the sub-atomic particle in Brownian motion. When sin comes into being, when what we do or do not do carries decisive and even eternal significance, then a free act bears a decisive distinction from other acts; it is an act that determines our destiny.

Essentially, the sense of sin raises the stakes in life, and this makes life thrilling. Chesterton felt that gratitude was a natural response to the human condition:

And the strongest emotion was that life was as precious as it was puzzling. It was an ecstasy because it was an adventure; it was an adventure because it was an opportunity. The goodness of the fairy tale was not affected by the fact that there might be more dragons than princesses; it was good to be in a fairy tale. The test of all happiness is gratitude; and I felt grateful, though I hardly knew to whom. Children are grateful when Santa Claus puts in their stockings gifts of toys or sweets. Could I not be grateful to Santa Claus when he put in my stockings the gift of two miraculous legs? We thank people for birthday presents of cigars and slippers. Can I thank no one for the birthday present of birth? (Ch. 4)

One of the clues that something is very wrong in the imaginative world of Harry Potter is that young Potter does not share this Chestertonian sense of gratitude. And why should he? Harry Potter is the greatest of Wizards, the most wonderful of them all, by right of nature. Potter is not a humble , ordinary child like Charlie Bucket in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, an average kid undergoing an extraordinary adventure. No, Potter's adventures are an expression of his own extraordinary nature; in fact, they are usually about his own extraordinary nature. Potter has no reason to be grateful; everyone else should be grateful that they have the privilege of encountering "the Harry Potter." The lack of a sense of gratitude is a consequence of the fact that there is no sense of sin in Harry Potter or his world; and that because there are really no limits in his world of the type found in traditional fairy tales:

Any one can see it who will simply read "Grimm's Fairy Tales" or the fine collections of Mr. Andrew Lang. For the pleasure of pedantry I will call it the Doctrine of Conditional Joy. Touchstone talked of much virtue in an "if"; according to elfin ethics all virtue is in an "if." The note of the fairy utterance is always, "You may live in a palace of gold and sapphire, if you do not say the word 'cow'"; or "You may live happily with the King's daughter, if you do not show her an onion." The vision always hangs on a veto. All the dizzy and colossal things conceded depend upon one small thing withheld. All the wild and whirling things that are let loose depend upon one thing that is forbidden... the true citizen of fairyland is obeying something that he does not understand at all. In the fairy tale an incomprehensible happiness rests upon an incomprehensible condition. A box is opened and all evils fly out. A word is forgotten, and cities perish. A lamp is lit, and love flies away. A flower is plucked, and human lives are forfeited. An apple is eaten, and the hope of God is gone. (Ch. 4)

The shattering of the virtues, especially our displacement of the virtue of humility, has led to the loss of the sense of sin and the inflation of the Almighty Ego; finally the Ego displaces God himself. The old fairy tale was a story of the ordinary man discovering the extraordinary nature of the greater world; the modern fairy tale (Harry Potter) is the Ego discovering the depths of its own extraordinariness. Nothing in Harry Potter's world is so extraordinary as Potter himself. Perhaps we haven't really lost our sense of sin but merely displaced it. Sin was once the transgression of divinely ordained limits, limits we might not understand but that carried penalties nonetheless. Now it is not us, but the world that sins when it has the temerity to set limits on our ego. I am with Chesterton in thinking that this modern worship of the self is the most horrible of religions:

Of all conceivable forms of enlightenment the worst is what these people call the Inner Light. Of all horrible religions the most horrible is the worship of the god within. Any one who knows any body knows how it would work; any one who knows any one from the Higher Thought Centre knows how it does work. That Jones shall worship the god within him turns out ultimately to mean that Jones shall worship Jones. Let Jones worship the sun or moon, anything rather than the Inner Light; let Jones worship cats or crocodiles, if he can find any in his street, but not the god within. Christianity came into the world firstly in order to assert with violence that man had not only to look inwards, but to look outwards, to behold with astonishment and enthusiasm a divine company and a divine captain. The only fun of being a Christian was that a man was not left alone with the Inner Light, but definitely recognized an outer light, fair as the sun, clear as the moon, terrible as an army with banners. (Ch. 5)

That phrase "... an outer light, fair as the sun, clear as moon, terrible as an army with banners" is one of my favorites in all of Chesterton's works. One of the things that comes through in Chesterton is the dreariness of the modern world and its freedom to do the trivial. The loss of the sense of sin drains the color from the world; with the reawakening of the sense of sin the world comes alive again as a place of adventure, danger, and hope; a world that is a story told by God but that is also partly told by us in our freedom, a story that may turn out well or badly in the deepest sense of those terms.

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