Thanks for Nothing

Praying woman

I spent the latter part of last week down with one of those nasty bugs which herald the changing of the seasons, so I decided to revisit an old post rather than writing a new article for today. I first published this piece almost exactly five years ago. –DV

It’s almost Thanksgiving, so you’ve probably been thinking more than usual about the things you have to be thankful for. Most of our lists will have roughly the same shape: gratitude for life and salvation, for friends and family, for work and leisure time, for troubles lifted and prayers answered. We’ll laugh and nod as we consider all the good that we and others have received, and we’ll feel a bit guilty for failing to be as grateful as we ought during the rest of the year when we don’t have a national holiday to help us remember, so we’ll resolve to be more aware of our blessings in the coming year. Even if some troubles weren’t lifted and some prayers went unanswered, we’ll try to focus on the good and give thanks for what we’ve been given. Yet in all this thanksgiving, we may well forget to give thanks for nothing.

Nothing is a gift we’ve all received at one time or another. It came to John the Baptist after he was arrested by Herod. The one about whom Jesus said, “among those born of women there is no one greater” lay in prison for months, stolen from his wilderness of river and desert to decay in a hole in the ground. He sent to the Messiah, the one of whom he’d prophesied, the one whom he’d baptized, and his only answer was “blessed is he who does not take offense at Me.” Nothing.

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The danger in the System

There has arisen in our time a most singular fancy: the fancy that when things go very wrong we need a practical man. It would be far truer to say, that when things go very wrong we need an unpractical man. Certainly, at least, we need a theorist. A practical man means a man accustomed to mere daily practice, to the way things commonly work. When things will not work,  you must have the thinker, the man who has some doctrine about why they work at all. It is wrong to fiddle while Rome is burning; but it is quite right to study the theory of hydraulics while Rome is burning… For the man of action there is nothing but idealism. —G.K. Chesterton

The idealist is an optimistic realist: A realist because he sees things as they are (hence his discontent), an optimist because he sees them as they might be, as they should be. Without idealists there could be no progress and no reform, for progress must be toward something and reformation demands a form. But of course one cannot get from A to B by wishing, so every good idealist must also have a System.

The System is the route from here to there, from status quo to what ought to be. “If only we…” then the ideal might be realized. Communism, courtship, and classical education are all Systems. The System takes the ideal and grounds it, explains how you and I can push toward it. And therein lies the danger, because Systems are much easier to hold onto than are ideals.

To follow an ideal requires imagination and will, conjuring up what is not yet and may never be. Far easier to hold onto the System, the concrete plan with steps and routines that can be accomplished today. And so we gradually lose the ideal in the System, becoming like the Texan who was told he could reach the Black Hills if he headed north and now battles polar bears as he makes his dogged way to South Dakota. It is hard to keep our eyes fixed on the horizon; they soon slip downwards and take up the easier task of merely making sure we continue to put one foot in front of the other.

It is for this failing that God rebuked Israel in Amos 5, beginning with one of the most chilling passages in Scripture:

Alas, you who are longing for the day of the Lord,
For what purpose will the day of the Lord be to you?
It will be darkness and not light;
As when a man flees from a lion
And a bear meets him,
Or goes home, leans his hand against the wall
And a snake bites him.
Will not the day of the Lord be darkness instead of light,
Even gloom with no brightness in it?
“I hate, I reject your festivals,
Nor do I delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer up to Me burnt offerings and your grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
And I will not even look at the peace offerings of your fatlings.
Take away from Me the noise of your songs;
I will not even listen to the sound of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters
And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

The Jews had not abandoned the elaborate system of festivals and solemn assemblies, burnt offerings, grain offerings, and peace offerings of fatlings, songs and music, by which the Lord commanded them to worship and serve him, but somehow in all that pile of worshiping and serving they had lost the Lord. The problem, of course, lay not in the system itself (which was good and necessary), but in allowing it to become the ideal.

This easy transmutation of means into end-in-itself is not confined to religious matters. We see it on a national scale as America fights to spread democracy throughout the world, forgetting that democracy is merely one good way of protecting the inalienable rights of the individual, without which it offers nothing but another flavor of tyranny. In my own field, increasing numbers of homeschooling parents seem to assume that simply schooling at home is a sufficient condition for educational success, as if the type of building in which a child is seated when a textbook is dumped in front of him is somehow determinative of his comprehension.

Even the best system will start to warp and distort if it becomes the focus, like an engine trying to power itself. To take an example mentioned earlier, the courtship system is founded on excellent ideals: involve family and community in the relationship, maintain physical and emotional purity, and of course seek God first in everything. And yet, one can’t help noticing a certain unhealthy mania in the way some families handle it, as if the key to an exceptional marriage is checking all the boxes on the courtship chart. We’ve all heard stories of girls who got cold feet at the last minute when they suddenly realized their fiancé would be marrying them, not their father. They had checklisted their way through the System so thoroughly that they forgot where it was taking them.

Ideals matter. Systems matter too, because they are the means by which ideals are realized. And in general, we spend more time thinking about systems than ideals, simply because they are more complicated since they must consider not only what should be but what is, and how to move from the one to the other. It is easy to become overly attached to the product of so much thought, prayer, and effort, but it is important that we hold our systems lightly, always remembering why we have them in the first place; motivated not by allegiance to the system, but by love for what the system seeks.

Passion, moderation, and virtue

Rereading G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy recently, I was struck by the essential distinction he draws between the balanced, moderate Aristotelian idea of virtue and that of Christianity. Discussing “the paradoxes of Christianity,” Chesterton writes,

Nevertheless it could not, I felt, be quite true that Christianity was merely sensible and stood in the middle. There was really an element in it of emphasis and even frenzy which had justified the secularists in their superficial criticism. It might be wise, I began more and more to think that it was wise, but it was not merely worldly wise; it was not merely temperate and respectable. Its fierce crusaders and meek saints might balance each other; still, the crusaders were very fierce and the saints were very meek, meek beyond all decency…

All sane men can see that sanity is some kind of equilibrium; that one may be mad and eat too much, or mad and eat too little… But granted that we have all to keep a balance, the real interest comes in with the question of how that balance can be kept. That was the problem with Paganism tried to solve; that was the problem which I think Christianity solved and solved in a very strange way…

Paganism declared that virtue was in balance; Christianity declared it was in conflict: the collision of two passions apparently opposite. Of course they were not really inconsistent; but they were such that it was hard to hold simultaneously.

The tempered, moderate virtue of the Greeks ends up respectable but lifeless.  Seeking, for example, the virtuous balance between pride and abasement, the Greek “would merely say that he was content with himself, but not insolently self-satisfied, that there were many better and many worse, that his deserts were limited, but he would see that he got them. In short, he would walk with his head in the air; but not necessarily with his nose in the air.” “This is a manly and rational position,” Chesterton agrees, but, “Being a mixture of two things, it is a dilution of two things; neither is present in its full strength or contributes its full color.”

This proper pride does not lift the heart like the tongue of trumpets; you cannot go clad in crimson and gold for this. On the other hand, this mild rationalist modesty does not cleanse the soul with fire and make it clear like crystal; it does not (like a strict and searching humility) make a man as a little child, who can sit at the feet of the grass… Thus it loses both the poetry of being proud and the poetry of being humble.

In contrast, Christianity manages to save both. “In so far as I am Man I am the chief of creatures. In so far as I am a man I am the chief of sinners… Christianity thus held a thought of the dignity of man that could only be expressed in crowns rayed like the sun and fans of peacock plumage. Yet at the same time it could hold a thought about the abject smallness of man that could only be expressed in fasting and fantastic submission, in the gray ashes of St. Dominic and the white snows of St. Bernard.”

Chesterton argues that this paradoxical wedding of extremes goes to the heart of Christianity; a religion which promises, after all, that “whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it,” and founded upon the Christ, who “was not a being apart from God and man, like an elf, nor yet a being half human and half not, like a centaur, but both things at once and both things thoroughly, very man and very God.”

In fact, this principle characterizes Christian ethics. Take, for example, man’s relationship with the natural world. On the one hand, a wondering joy, alternately exuberant and hushed, at the beauty of creation; on the other, a gritty hatred for the evil and wrong intermingled with the good. Or Augustine’s Just War theory, which holds that violence can be right and good… so long as it is motivated by love of our neighbor.

And what of romantic love? Commenting on Christ’s command to “hate” one’s own wife (Luke 14:26), C.S. Lewis writes in The Four Loves, “He says something that cracks like a whip about trampling them all under foot the moment they hold us back from following Him… To hate is to reject, to set one’s face against, to make no concession to, the Beloved when the Beloved utters, however sweetly and however pitiably, the suggestions of the Devil.” And yet, this submission to a higher love in no way diminishes the love that Scripture anticipates between man and wife. After all, they are told to love one another “as Christ loved the church;” an overwhelming idea even when considered only in light of his sacrifice on her behalf, which is itself a mere expression of the inexplicable delight which led prophets from Isaiah to John of Patmos to speak of Christ “rejoicing” in his bride. And of course, the vast majority of scriptural discussion of marriage takes the form, not of commands or propositions, but of a book of love poetry considered so inflammatory by colonial Americans that their youth were not allowed to read it until they reached adulthood!

Why does all of this matter? Two reasons. First, there is the obvious fact that a better understanding of our God and our faith is always valuable. Secondly, a renewed attention to that element within Christianity “of emphasis and even frenzy… the collision of passions” which Chesterton notes might serve as a corrective to the tendency within comfortable American Christianity to be exceptional largely for our dullness. This is not to suggest an artificial fanning of passion, but rather a simple recognition that, contra the intuitive, classical view, virtue is not necessarily found in moderation, in a Goldilocksian “not too hot and not too cold;” that the faith which Dorothy Sayers called “the most exciting drama that ever staggered the imagination of man” has not lost the spirit of the Creator who decided to stage a play, and spun a universe from nothing to serve as the set.

My four most formative books

It struck me recently that I can easily list the most formative books I’ve ever read. I was surprised to realize how significant a gulf exists between these four books and any other competitor. I’ve been interested, affected, and challenged by many other books, but when it comes to the formation of my basic worldview, there are no close competitors. (With the exception of Scripture itself, which ought to be awarded pride of place in the ranking, but which I’m excluding in the interest of brevity.) The following books are listed chronologically, based on the first time I read them.

Orthodoxy, by the inimitable G.K. Chesterton, a man who could say more with an offhand witticism than some authors manage in a whole book. Chesterton’s brilliant mind combined with a slightly madcap passion and deep appreciation for life to create an unusual apologetic that reminded me of the appellation “Happy Warrior,” a title that has always held a peculiar appeal for me since I first read it years ago in some forgotten article. On an intellectual level, his defense of his faith offered a more organic compliment to the formal arguments with which I was familiar. (I heartily recommend anything else written by Chesterton, in particular St. Thomas Aquinas: The Dumb Ox.)

Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis. Though written as an apologetic, this book has influenced my theology more than any work other than the Bible itself.

Iron John: A Book About Men, by Robert Bly. It’s a mythology-filled book by a non-Christian based on a Brothers Grimm fairy tale, and anyone who wonders why men aren’t showing up on Sunday morning needs to read it (and then go watch Fight Club).

Existentialism and Human Emotions, by Jean-Paul Sartre. Before I am stoned as an infidel for including one of the 20th Century’s foremost atheists on my list, allow me to offer a quote in my defense:

But when the existentialist writes about a coward, he says that this coward is responsible for his cowardice. He’s not like that because he has a cowardly heart or lung or brain; he’s not like that on account of his physiological make-up; but he’s like that because he has made himself a coward by his acts… [A frequent complaint is] as follows: “After all, these people are so spineless, how are you going to make heroes out of them?” This objection almost makes me laugh, for it assumes that people are born heroes. That’s what people really want to think. If you’re born cowardly, you may set your mind perfectly at rest; there’s nothing you can do about it; you’ll be cowardly all your life, whatever you may do. If you’re born a hero, you may set your mind just as much at rest; you’ll be a hero all your life; you’ll drink like a hero and eat like a hero. What the existentialist says is that the coward makes himself cowardly, that the hero makes himself heroic.

We are the product of our choices. When I choose to look at that pornographic popup ad, when I choose to gossip, when I choose to dwell on bitterness, I am creating the person I will be tomorrow. While Sartre’s atheism yields only a fumbling in the dark, pointless choices creating meaningless men, our choices are made with Jesus Christ as both means and end; but we are shaped by those choices nonetheless.