Friday, July 19, 2019

Orthodoxy Chapter 4 - The Ethics of Elf-land

Have you ever sat down for a moment and considered how thoroughly zany our world is? We live alongside striped, flying needle creature that vomit up delicious golden syrup when they’re not busy spreading flowers for us. We routinely annoy giant white mouth creatures into giving us beautiful shiny balls to wear around our necks. We think Geese are harmless, soft little creatures, in spite of the fact that they have teeth on their tongues. On their tongues, people. It often takes us hearing about a something like a flying fish to get us to pause and consider how strange it is that there are such things as fish at all. As Chesterton says, “ordinary things are more valuable than extraordinary things; nay, they are more extraordinary. Man is something more awful than men; something more strange… Death is more tragic even than death by starvation. Having a nose is more comic even than having a Norman nose.” That last line is especially true—the nose is such a strange thing that when considered in isolation, you can’t help wonder why you find the thing attractive on a person. But you do.

We don’t normally notice how odd the universe is because although we’re born into a world of wonder, we gradually become accustomed to it. We look for patterns, and once we find them we ignore them, lest we waste further brain power that could be better spent elsewhere. But fortunately we can be broken of this bad habit through the judicious use of fairy tales. Fairy tales give us fresh eyes, a perspective robust enough to understand what our world is really like. As Chesterton said, “this world is a wild and startling place, which might have been quite different, but which is quite delightful.”

Fairy tales have the ability to puncture through the mundane and bring the magical aspect of reality back into focus. They reorient our perspective and get us to think about the world as we ought to. “There is the chivalrous lesson of “Jack the Giant Killer’ that giants should be killed because they are gigantic. It is a manly mutiny against pride… There is the lesson of Cinderella which is the same as that of the Magnificat—Exlatavit Humiles… There is the great lesson of Beauty and the Beast; that a thing must be loved before it is loveable. There is the terrible allegory of Sleeping Beauty, which tells how the human creature was blessed with all birthday gifts, yet cursed with death; and how death also may perhaps be softened to a sleep.” But don’t misunderstand—it’s not any particular story that matters as much as the way of looking at life in general. Fairy tales stimulate the imagination and keep us humble.

Now before I quote Chesterton further, let me stop and explain again why fairy tales matter so much; let me remind you of the fact that Chesterton just spent the last two chapters making the case that fairy tales aren’t opposed to reason but are instead the antidote to the prison of reason. I think it’s right to take a detour here because we’re so conditioned to thinking that fairy tales are imaginative nonsense that we’ve progressed a long way down the wrong path without realizing it, and we need an oversized reminder to bring us back.

Remember that the skeptical, agnostic, rational man stands in contrast to the imaginative man. The rational man does not believe in anything behind our world; to him there is nothing outside of our universe animating it. “The materialist, like the madman, is in prison; in the prison of one thought.” And the problem is that sooner or later he’s going to put his arms around his situation and it’s going to crush him. If there is only this closed system in the end, then he’s in jail, and no amount of “the universe is a big place!” can get him away from the fact that he is bottled up. “The cosmos went on forever, but not in its wildest constellation could there be anything really interesting; anything, for instance, such as forgiveness or free will. The grandeur or infinity… added nothing to it. It was like telling a prisoner in the Reading gaol that he would be glad to hear that the gaol now covered half the country. The warder would have nothing to show the man except more and more long corridors of stone lit by ghastly lights and empty of all that is human.

Remember too that imagination (dragging with it the antidote of humility) produces a very different result. It produces freedom, and wonder, and delight—but not at the cost of reason. For imagination isn’t opposed to reason, but rather imagination teaches us the true value of reason by guarding it and keeping it from growing out of control. We know this because our imaginative fairy tales are chocked full of reason. In every magical world two and two always equal four, and try as you might you cannot imagine a world constructed differently. Shapes, numbers, and reason are things which must be regardless of the world, but the remaining details are not fixed. Reason dictates that “If Jack is the son of a miller, then a miller is the father of Jack.” and you can't argue with it. But imagination points out that there may be a world with no miller, or no Jack.

We can’t conceive of a world without the necessities of reason, but we can conceive of a world being different from our own. “If the apple hit Newton’s nose, Newton’s nose hit the apple. That is a true necessity: because we cannot conceive the one occurring without the other. But we can quite well conceive the apple not falling on his nose; we can fancy it flying ardently through the air to hit some other nose, of which it had a more definite dislike.
In our world there’s a force accelerating things toward the earth at 9.8m/s^2. That’s the way things happen here—but who’s to say it must be like that everywhere? Why couldn’t Earths core have been less dense and the apple have fallen slower? And if you really get down to it, why is an apple an inert edible piece of fruit and not a kind of flying, living ball with a grumpy disposition? Chesterton is trying to impress upon us the magnificent strangeness of this place. Why do eggs turn into birds? Why does our solar system spin through the cosmos in a helical shape like an electro-magnetic wave? “The only words that ever satisfied me as describing nature are the terms used in the fairy books, “charm,” “spell,” “enchantment.” They express the arbitrariness of the fact and its mystery.” It’s not the scientist who thinks fairy tales are nonsense who is rational, it’s the one who wonders at our existence. And fairy tales are helpful for restoring this wonder to where it belongs.

Because wonder is the thing which dies as we grow acclimated to our world, and is a thing most necessary to get back. “This elementary wonder, however, is not a mere fancy derived from the fairy tales; on the contrary, all the fire of the fairy tales is derived from this… when we are very young children we do not need fairy tales: we only need tales. Mere life is interesting enough. A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door…” God got here first, all fairy tales do is make us remember how we saw the world before we stopped thinking about things. “[Fairy tales] say that apples were gold only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found out they were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water.”

That last sentence perfectly sums up our plight, doesn’t it? That’s really the sad fact that as fallen human beings have become largely impervious to joy. When we are children we are young and full of life, and by degrees we begin to die and forget. Our imaginations shrivel as we become used to this world, no longer remembering what this place is truly like, until for a brief moment we’re touched by an impressive story, or a movie, or a piece of art, or a symphony, and we remember for that one beautiful and sad spell that we are no longer children, but that we are dying.

So the world is strange and delightful, but what’s more, it’s also conditional. Everything in it depends on doing or not doing something; everything can be gained or lost. And where else do we find this property of fate? In fairy tales. In fairy tales happiness is always based on conditions. “All virtue is in an ‘if’. The note of the fairy utterance is, ‘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… in the fairy tale 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.”


There’s an if in a fairy tale that we don’t think strange at all, no matter how stupid the if is. Why should we? But yet when God gives us an if in the real world we go berserk and trumpet how awful it is, how cruel and unjust and unrighteous the whole notion is. Laws!? Rules?! How dare He tell us what to do! But really, it’s His story, and therefore He gets to set whatever rules He wants without being challenged on them. “If the miller’s third son said to the fairy, ‘Explain why I must not stand on my head in the fairy palace,’ the other might fairly reply, ‘Well if it comes to that, explain the fairy palace.’” You may try to complain to God about your lot in life, but He may just as quickly turn the tables on you and ask how you’re able to think and talk to Him in the first place. As Chesterton says, “it seemed to me that existence was itself so very eccentric a legacy that I could not complain of not understanding the vision they limited.” For you can’t murmur against God without first acknowledging there is a God. And once you’ve admitted He’s God, you realize it makes no sense to complain about how unhappy you’ve made yourself to an all power, all knowing being who created you to enjoy Him. To open the door to imagination is to open it enough for humility as well, for you can’t get the one without the other.

Having convincingly made that the observation that our world looks suspiciously like a fairy tale, Chesterton then goes on to demolish the materialist notion that there is nothing behind our world holding it up, moment to moment. “First, I found the whole modern world talking scientific fatalism; saying that everything is as it must always have been, being unfolded without fault from the beginning.” 

We suppose that the universe is made up of fixed and impersonal laws, things like the charge of an electron, or the force of gravity which mean no matter how many times we drop an object, it falls to the earth. But does it stand to reason that because an object falls over and over again it is compelled to fall by a fixed law of nature to do so? No. Never. A thousand times no. In these natural patterns we do not see the operation of some dead and lifeless law, but the moving hand of an active God. Behind the “law” of gravity stands a God who moment to moment wills the “law” to come to pass. As Chesterton says (and here I’ll just quote him for a bit),
The repetition of nature seemed sometimes to be an excited repetition, like that of any angry schoolmaster saying the same thing over and over again. The grass seemed signaling to me with all its fingers at once; the crowded stars seemed bent upon being understood. The sun would make me see him if he rose a thousand times. The recurrences of the universe rose to the maddening rhythm of an incantation, and I began to see an idea. All the towering materialisms which dominates the modern mind rests ultimately upon one assumption; a false assumption. It is supposed that if a thing goes on repeating itself it is probably dead; a piece of clockwork. People feel that if the universe was personal it would vary; if the sun were alive it would dance… but variation in human affairs is generally brought into not by life, but by death; by the dying down or breaking off of their strength or desire. A man varies is movements because of some slight element of failure or fatigue. He gets into a bus because he is tired of walking; or he walks because he is tired of sitting still. But if his life and joy were so gigantic that he never tired of going to Islington, he might go to Isglington as regularly as the Thames goes to the Sheerness…
The sun rises because he never gets tired of rising. His routine might be due, not to a lifelessness, but to a rush of life. The thing I mean can be seen, for instance, in children, when they find some game or joke that they specially enjoy. A child kicks his legs rhythmically though excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say ‘Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is… it is possible God says every morning, ‘Do it again!’ to the sun; and every evening, ‘Do it again!’ to the moon… it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never gotten tired of making them… The repetition in Nature may not be a recurrence; it may be a theatrical encore.” Well then does Chesterton conclude of God, “He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.

There are patterns in our world not because our world is stone dead, but because moment to moment God by His providence and decisions is making life rush into them. Patterns repeat in our world because they are alive with the gigantic joy of their creator God who made a cosmic fairy tale and is insistent on telling His story in an inescapable way over and over again, not because we are an accidental conglomeration of dead, fixed, and impersonal forces.

So our world is a fairy tale that we’ve only grown accustomed to and forgotten how strange it is, and through smaller, simpler fairy tales (the kind we tell to our children) we’re remember to recognize this fact. We men have forgotten to be humble, but by becoming like little children we are able to enter the kingdom of heaven.

The take-aways of this truth are thus:

  1. If life is a gigantic fairy tale then godless naturalism is a dead end. “The world does not explain itself. It may be a miracle with a supernatural explanation; it may be a conjuring trick with a natural explanation. But the explanation of the conjuring trick, if it is to satisfy me, will have to be better than the natural explanation I have heard. The thing is magic, true or false.”
  2. If life is a gigantic fairy tale then there is someone telling the tale. “Magic must have a meaning, and meaning must have someone to mean it.
  3. That we are personal beings must mean we had a personal creator. “I had always vaguely felt facts to be miracles in the sense that they are wonderful: now I began to think them miracles in the stricter sense that they were WILFUL. I mean that they were, or might be, repeated exercises of some will. In short, I had always believed that the world involved magic: now I thought that perhaps it involved a magician… some purpose; and if there is a purpose, there is a person.
  4. If God is telling us a story then we should, like children, accept Him reading it to us. We ought to be thankful for the humongous variety of pleasures and things to enjoy in the world. “The proper form of thanks is some form of humility and restraint: we should thank God for beer and Burgundy by not drinking too much of them. We owed, also, an obedience to whatever made us.” Or in a more brilliant phrasing, “One might pay for extraordinary joy with ordinary morals. Oscar Wilde said that sunsets were not valued because we could not pay for sunsets. But Oscar Wilde was wrong; we can pay for sunsets. We can pay for them by not being Oscar Wilde.”
And all this Chesterton realized even before confessing the truth of Christianity, thus proving again that God’s fingerprint is stamped indelibly on conscience and nature.

What then can I say in response to this? Not only have I done a supremely poor job of summarizing this chapter, but I feel I have done violence to the very concept by even mentioning it. For it is a marvelous, life changing chapter. Read it again if you don’t believe me. Read it again even if you do. This chapter is absolutely wonderful and self-evidently correct. Accepting the truth of it is like having a dislocated shoulder set into place. And yet, even so I can’t help but feel that Chesterton has barely scratched the surface of how important this idea is, the clarity of his words notwithstanding. Ours is a wild and beautiful world, filled with all sorts of silly and stupid things. God said to Himself, “Let’s make a mammal that flies, but is also blind.”
“Let’s make a giant flower that blooms once a century, and when it does it smells like a corpse.”
“I know we gave creatures tongues to taste with and eyes to see with, but let’s just make this pit vipers see with its tongue for the fun of it.”
“Let’s make a duck billed platypus.” 

And above and beyond all this His animating statement was, “Let’s make the world do the same thing over and over again so there’s no way an obstinate mankind can refuse to accept My glory.” 






Next: Chapter 5 - The Flag of the World

Orthodoxy Chapter 3 - The Suicide of Thought


Before Chesterton can begin discussing the cure to modern reasoning he needs to first address why it needs curing in the first place. In this chapter he spends time laying out the case as to why our forerunners who thought in terms of fairy tales and imagination didn’t have the same problems we do, and why if we go on thinking in this “scientific” way we’ll be trapped in a self-imposed mental prison of madness forever.

The chapter is a bit long and narrow, and for that reason I’m going to skip the specifics he brings up about H.G. Wells, Shaw, Nietzsche, Renan, Tolstoy, John Davidson, or Tennyson, abstract everything to the next higher level, and be done with it. It’s going to be the difference between watching the play Oedipus Rex and hearing a lecture about it, because any attempt to translate something into a different medium immediately fails. The play deals with the idea that we are fallen and irrevocably broken (but that there’s value in perceiving this) though narrative, and a lecture on the same topic simply doesn't do the original justice. Unfortunately it’ll be the same way here. If I sound crude it’s because I’m not nearly as a good a writer as Chesterton, and if I sound modern that because I’m writing a hundred years later and picking up on where we’ve gone since then. But you’re reading his chapter too, so you’re not missing anything by me doing this.


Chesterton’s first point (and one that bears repeating) is that virtues uncoupled from a Christian framework go to seed and become corrupted. Our danger is not from being brought down from our vices as much as being swallowed by misplaced virtue. Pity gone to seed grows into indolence. Search for truth alone gives you cruelty. Intellectual humility run amok gets you intellectual suicide. “What we suffer from today is humility in the wrong place... A man was meant to be doubtful about himself but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed… the old humility made a man doubtful about his efforts, which might make him work harder. But the new humility makes a man doubtful about his aims, which will make him stop working altogether… we are on the road to producing a race of men too mentally modest to believe the multiplication table.” That thought forms the basis of the chapter, so I’ll say it again for effect: left to our own impulses and reasoning we take what is normally a good thing and commit intellectual suicide with it.

It was therefore to safeguard our minds that God gave us the rules of religion. He stamped His authority on the commandments and said, “By these thou shalt live,” because apart from boundaries our fallen thirst for power ruins us. We are created in the image of The Creator and so we desire to create, but because we are fallen and desire to flee from Him, our creations are designed to be safe places to flee to. Our finite reason and imagination must necessarily make a world smaller than the real one, and thus, we make jails for ourselves. Our reason first imprisons and then destroys us.

Consider the hypothesis of evolution. “Evolution is a good example of that modern intelligence which, if it destroys anything, destroys itself… it is an attack upon thought itself. If evolution destroys anything, it does not destroy religion but rationalism.” Evolution, the scientist says, selects traits for survivability for its creatures. But in selecting for success evolution does not select for truth, for truth is an outcome irrelevant to survival. To accept that we are the product of accidental and random events means we should never have figured out the truth of evolution to begin with. Or as Chesterton says, “You must sooner or later ask yourself the question, ‘Why should anything go right; even observation and deduction? Why should not good logic be as misleading as bad logic? They are both movements in the brain of a bewildered ape.” If we really believed in evolution, the epistemological ground would fall out from under us and we’d immediately be left with nothing to believe in. It’s the old philosophy of materialism and determinism in another package. If predetermined out of control atomic collisions make up everything—including our thoughts—then nothing matters or makes sense, not even these words. A fish doesn't know he's wet, although he's surrounded by water, the thought of 'wet' never occurs to him.

What about moral relativism, will that work? No. The instant you throw history under the bus in a progressive fit of virtue signaling you’ve given the game away. When you say those evil savages of yesteryear have nothing to teach to us today because they are evil and we are good, you fall into Nietzche’s trap. “Nietzsche started a nonsensical idea that men had once sought as good what we now call evil.” The problem? “If it were so, we could not now talk of surpassing or even falling short of them.” If the previous generation of men were afflicted with a condition that resulted in them not being able to tell the difference between good or evil, then why are we, their direct descendants, not afflicted with this same condition? If they couldn’t think straight, then how are we any different? How are we exempt from having our judgements invalidated by the same standard? If all human judgment is unreliable, then our own judgment is also unreliable. “The theory of a complete change of standards in human history does not merely deprive us of the pleasure of honoring our fathers; it deprives us of the more modern and aristocratic pleasure of despising them.” Relativism amounts to a policy of continual change, adopted merely for the sake of change, with no particular direction to change in to. It seeks that which is novel and exciting, but in end there is nothing more than monotonous, for there is nothing as monotonous as constant, unending change.

What about foregoing any rational thinking altogether and simply living for the moment? Can we just table figuring out an overarching rational principle against God and live in a pragmatic, do-what-works world of pleasure? Can't we simply close our eyes, pretend He doesn't exist, and banish the idea of God? No again. “One of those necessities is precisely a belief in objective truth. The pragmatist tells a man to think what he must think and never mind the absolute. But precisely one of the things that he must think is the absolute.”  Avoiding dealing with absolute truths is self-defeating, for the only way to pull it off is to declare that there is no absolute truth, except the absolute truth that there is no absolute truth. God has so made our world that there's no escaping the need for absolute truth, for He is the Truth, and there's no universe without Him.

"Well okay," reasons fallen man, "if constructing a barricade against God using reason is no good, then what about constructing it with something else? Can we build a defense based on our wills instead? Can we use that marvelous organ that enables us to drive toward our desires?" As Chesterton says, “At the beginning of this preliminary sketch I said that our mental ruin has been wrought by wild reason… now one school of thinkers has seen this… they see that reason destroys; but will, they say, creates. The ultimate authority they say, is in the will, not in reason. The supreme point is not why a man demands a thing, but the fact that he does demand it.” But a moment’s thought shows that this won’t work either. “Pure praise of volition ends in the same break up and blank as the mere pursuit of logic. Exactly as complete free thought involves the doubting of thought itself, so the acceptation of mere willing really paralyzes the will… to admire mere choice is to refuse to choose.

Why won’t will work as a building block? Because there’s really not much to the will in the final analysis, that’s why. Your will only helps you get what you desire—nothing more. It’s that invisible quality which says, “this, and not that.” “Every act of will is an act of self-limitation. To desire action is to desire limitation… when you choose anything you reject everything else. …When you marry one woman you give up all the others. … If you draw a giraffe you must draw him with a long neck. If, in your bold creative way, you hold yourself free to draw a giraffe with a short neck, you will really find you are not free to draw a giraffe… the moment you step into the world of facts you step into a world of limits… if a triangle breaks out of its three sides, its life comes to a lamentable end.” There is nothing in the will with which to construct with, the will only chooses from what it sees. And so by itself it does nothing to divert the universe from pressing in on us. If we turn our minds off and rely on will alone we allow God’s universe to supply us with facts, but for goodness sake, the whole point of rational insanity was to keep God’s universe out, not to let it in! If we switch to using will (which accepts God’s reality as a fundamental premise) then all we’ve done is taken a step backwards. Because if we accept God’s reality then we’ve come dangerously close to accepting the truth that our rebellion against Him merits punishment, and it’s this truth that we’re desperate to get away from and forget about to begin with.

So no matter what tool we try and use, there’s no escape of the mental prison for sinners, no evading the trap God has laid for us. All roads lead to Rome. All human philosophies set us “on the road to the emptiness of the asylum.” The second you walk away from God He takes away the light you are using to walk with. Trying to flee from Him with reason and you flee from reason. Either we must flee to God and accept His heaven or we will have hell.
Oh the depth of the riches, the wisdom of God! How true is His warning, “Do I not fill heaven and earth?” How utterly delightful His words. And this Chesterton regards as the unpleasant groundwork of his book. In the next chapter he is finally able to talk about what he wants to.




Orthodoxy Chapter 2 - The Maniac

Chesterton begins the meat of the book in the insane asylum, of all places. It’s a genius move really, because psychology, which is designed to help man better about himself was co-opted long ago to make him feel okay about his sin. And when psychology grew popular enough to replace Christianity as the dominant religion of America, the seat of our being passed from the soul to the mind, thus ensuring Chesterton’s argument would become inescapably relevant to us. As he says, “Men deny hell, but they do not deny Hanwell.”
And here I should add—yet—because we are now arriving at the place where we’re expected to believe a man is a woman, a dog is a cat, violent protests are peaceful, true reality is in the mind, etc. But even so, despite the fact that we’ve nearly been bludgeoned to death with the idea that reality is what we want it to be rather than what it is, Chesterton proves his point.


Lunatics are doomed not because they lack reason, but because they lack imagination. Contrary to the common popular dogma that madmen have no reason, its actually the case that madmen are quite rational, indeed, are overly rational. Their real problem is that they have no sense of wonder, but have trapped themselves a too-small prison that filters out everything else they can’t control or explain. “The madman’s explanation of a thing is always complete, and often in a purely rational sense satisfactory… his mind moves in a perfect but narrow circle… we should be chiefly concerned not so much to give him arguments as to give him air.” What’s wrong with the lunatic is not that his brain doesn’t work; it’s that his reason has dominated his sense of proportion.

This leads to the conclusion that we need to be using goodness, not reason, to cure him. “A man cannot think himself out of a mental evil; for it is actually the organ of thought that has become diseased, ungovernable, and, as it were, independent. He can only be saved by will or faith.” If you’re going to help the him you need to break into his small but orderly world with the bigness of creation. With fresh joy. With the truth that the vast cosmos of creation is the playground and he’s not even figured out how to use the slide yet. You must tell the man in the asylum who believes he is god that he is, in the words of the Hulk, a “puny god.”
And Chesterton is absolutely brilliant for pointing this out. You can’t help but read the chapter and be at once convinced that he’s put his finger on the problem of our age and called it out appropriately. But having said that, I want to immediately agree with its substance and yet at the same time point out a potential mistake with it. 

Chesterton believes that reason or knowledge constructs the prison, while poetry and imagination tear it down. “Poets do not go mad, but chess-players do. Mathematicians go mad, and cashiers; but creative artists very seldom… the poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.” But then he goes too far with it and tries to convince us that Cowpers Calvinism drove him mad while his poetry was the cure.

Sorry brother, I’m not buying that. There are enough poets who write crazy rambling manifestos and famous broken artists who are imaginative but mad (Dali anyone?) that make this point invalid beyond a first order approximation. Further, I don’t think much of the proposed cure of mysticism as having much merit in and of itself: “Mysticism keeps men sane. As long as you have mystery you have health; when you destroy mystery you create morbidity,” because it’s complete balderdash. Mystery in and of itself is no cure to anything, just an admission we don’t know something. To embrace paradox could equally mean to turn your brain off as it could mean to stare in awe at the vastness of the universe; to account all forms of ignorance and wonderful and valid is quite frankly a terrible idea. A baby’s ignorance is not equivalent to an adult who spends his life stubbornly committed to maintaining the tabula-raza.

So Chesterton does a bad job making the case that reason can put men into a prison and a not so great case that imagination can spring him from it. Nevertheless I believe he’s correctly put enough of his finger on both the problem and the cure. Imagination does fix madness. Not because imagination is the cure, but because it brings with it humility, and that undercuts the real problem of pride.

It’s pride that drives the philosopher or the materialist, or the social engineer, or lawyer (or whatever, nobody is immune) to madness. In their pride they say, “Ah yes, I understand perfectly. I am a genius in my field. I can explain it all” and with that they close down. The crime is not in trying to sort and understand the data—because everyone does that all the time—the problem is in ceasing to be a creature who does it. Children are wonderful examples of this. They spend their time learning the basics of how things work and trying to interact with the world to figure it out, but this learning doesn’t drive them to madness because they know themselves to be children. Or consider the Apostle Paul. When confronted by Festus with charge of madness he pointed out that his great learning didn’t make him insane—and why not? Because he knew himself to be a man and not a god. Likewise, the problem for a Calvinist is not that he believes in predestination, the problem is his speculating about things God has prohibited us from speculating about.
The distortion comes when you swallow the knowledge in the wrong way and it puffs you up rather than builds you up, which I believe Paul also gave a few words on. Believing yourself to be greater than you are is the point you put your arms around the world outside your mind and say “Thus far and no more. I have arrived”, which is the point you’ve sealed yourself off from what God wants to say to you, and teach you, and grow you into. His revelation goes on forever, and by opposing that, you oppose Him. So you’ve set yourself up against God, and to fight against Him you push His system away by retreating into your own system. Thus the world shrinks because the mind is forced to construct a safe place to hide from God by the will which hates God. In the end you go mad because while you believe yourself to be like God, you are not Him.

How would such a man escape such a prison? By letting go of the pride which drove him in there in the first place. As Chesterton councils such a one, “How sad it must be to be God… is there really no life fuller and no love more marvelous than yours; and is it really in your small and painful pity that all flesh must put its faith? How much happier you would be, how much more of you there would be, if the hammer of a higher God could smash your small cosmos, scattering the stars like spangles, and leave you in the open, free like other men to look up as well as down!
Awe smashes pride. Look at the size of the universe, and then at the universe inside each drop of pond water. Look at all the wonderful books in the nearest library which contain thousands or millions of stories. There is great beauty in the world, and if it breaks in even for a second to impose its colossal size upon the man his madness is cured. So to keep out God the nonbeliever has set about the business of rejecting the awe inspiring pleasure at every turn lest it smash his hideaway and leave him exposed to God. This is why devout atheism is such a bloodless and unhappy affair. As Aslan said, “Oh, Adam's son, how cleverly you defend yourself against all that might do you good!”

Awe, imagination, the unknown, the chance to grow, these are what spring a man from his cell. And the way Chesterton argues that is not to tell, but to show. His words are so delightful and brilliant, that it’s impossible not to like him. It positively makes you want to go on to the next chapter. So we will.

Next: Chapter III – The Suicide of Thought


Orthodoxy - An Introduction

At the end of his third missionary journey Paul warned the Ephesian church that “shortly after my departing grievous wolves will enter in among you, not sparing the flock, (Acts 20:29). Knowing that wolves were coming, Paul left Timothy in Ephesus (1 Tim 1:2-3) with the instructions to love humility (v15), to make sure people understand what the law is really about (v9), and to hold fast to the faith (v19). He wanted the church to achieve this by putting on prayer (2v1), female propriety (2v9), proper leadership (3), and by putting off legalism (3v3), destructive fables (3v7), and bad doctrines of Christ (3v10). Timothy was to lead them kindly and wisely (5), and to teach them the truth in love.

Did the plan to save the church work? Sort of. The Ephesians did reject the false teachers who claimed to be apostles, which was good. But they also went too far in their hardness and lost their love of Christ, which was catastrophic. Yes it was better for them to be hard and cold rather than soft and lukewarm, (because that gave them the sense to hate the deeds of the Nicolatians) but it was ultimately to no avail since the church isn’t built on what it rejects, but on the One whom it embraces.
You’ve probably seen the Ephesian effect for yourself, no doubt. You look at a church online and things seem okay, but when you arrive in person it’s a small affair, full of cold and ungrateful people, clinging to their dislike of error rather than their love of God. 

Or perhaps you've seen the opposite problem. You join a church and then later find out the people are much more of a social club than they are a serious group of sanctified believers, skipping Bible study because they're busy trying to figure out how to have their best life now. In both cases the problem is larger than the occasional quarrel or spotty attendance, it’s that they have a lack of imagination, a lack of humility, no sense of wonder, and no grateful delight in God. Their sin has poisoned not just part of their lives, but all of it.

The antidote to every error is Orthodox Christianity. We must see it be like blind men seeing for the first time. We must embrace it completely and let it purify our minds as well as our affections, and we must do this continually. And a big (and I mean a really huge) help in doing this is Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton. 

“Why else should I read it?” you ask. To which I say: I honestly have no idea. Aside from the fact that it would be good in general to work through this excellent book I am completely at a loss to make the case for it. As Chesterton astutely observed, “It is very had for a man to defend anything of which he is entirely convinced. It is comparatively easy when he is only partially convinced. He is partially convinced because he has found this or that proof of the thing, and he can expound it. But a man is not really convinced of a philosophic theory when he finds that something proves it. He is only really convinced when he finds that everything proves it. And the more converging reasons he finds pointing to this conviction, the more bewildered he is if asked to suddenly to sum them up. Thus, if one asked an ordinary intelligent man, on the spur of the moment, “why do you prefer civilization to savagery?” he would look wildly round at object after object, and would only be able to answer vaguely, “Why, there is that bookcase… and the coals in the coal-scuttle… and pianos… and policemen.” … That very multiplicity of proof makes reply impossible.”
I am so totally convinced of the essentiality of this book that I have no reason for you to read it at all. How could I? What shall I say? That it is a good book? It's a good book. That you will benefit from it? You will benefit from it. But that doesn't do it justice. I simply believe it to be one of those things that everyone in our age should read, like Knowing God by Packer or Basic Christianity by Stott. So let’s read it together.


Orthodoxy By G.K. Chesterton

Introduction - Why you should read this book with me
Chapter 1 - Omitted (this is a short preface)
Chapter 2 - The Maniac
Chapter 3 - The Suicide of Thought
Chapter 4 - The Ethics of Elf-Land
Chapter 5 - The Flag of the World
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9

https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/130 

The Chief Mistake of Baptist Theology in Sanctification


Be not righteous over much; neither make thyself over wise: why shouldest thou destroy thyself?”
Ecc 7:16

I hate to begin a blog post with caveats (because I’m a get-to-the-point kind of guy), but I think it’s important to say a few words before jumping into something as monumental as what my blog title promises.

  1. Despite how it may sound from reading the title, I have nothing against our generally-beardless baptistic brothers. What I want to do in this post is make an observation about their theology, not about them as people. People are often (by the grace of God) much better than their theology would otherwise make them to be, and I have no interest in talking about them as individuals. So let me say first and foremost that Baptists are wonderful people and we ought to have more of them, while Baptist theology is bad and we ought to have less of it.
  2. There are pure forms of Baptist theology which leads to a more strict adherence, and impure forms which... well its not that it encourages people to be less faithful, but let's just say it set its people on a different trajectory. Mega-churches may be baptistic, but very often they're holding to an impure or loose form of it, and my comments here won't speak to them. MacAurthur churches (led by Masters Seminary graduates) are also baptistic, but are largely exempt from these observations for different reasons. What I have in mind is a point of disagreement with the pure form of Baptist theology seen in 1689 confessional churches, and while that may rule out the great majority of Baptists at the outset, I still think it’s a very important point to make.
  3. I was a Reformed or Particular Baptist for a little over 10 years, and I have only recently dropped the Baptist label, with much sadness and reluctance. So when I speak about the problem of Baptist theology, I'm speaking from my own heart and the place I was not very long ago. These are the struggles of the people where I lived. I say this so you'll know I'm no theological partisan out to score points on behalf of the Truly Reformed.

There. Now that the pleasantries are concluded, let's jump right into it: pure form Baptist theology makes its adherents overly righteous, and this is in direct violation of the warning of Ecc 7:16. It makes its people work too hard to be holy, strive too often to be sanctified, and does not allow them to accept that sanctification is a result of faith in Christ, not of our own works. Real sanctification happens like flowers growing—it’s an organic abiding that produces good fruits—while Baptist theology makes it into a cruel and bloody struggle for goodness.

I doubt very many Baptists would say it like this. They'd say the Bible commands us to be sanctified, to engage in the process of becoming holy alongside Christ, and to work for what's goodwhich is true. But the problem is not what's said, it's what's left unsaid. Baptists have removed the central idea of Covenant as the foundational building block of sanctification and put something else in its place. But because Covenant means something like family the results are not good.

What that particular thing is, varies. Sometimes it’s total depravity. These are the churches that always pray for forgiveness as service open, then beg God again for mercy during the shepherds prayer, unconvinced He delights in them as His children. They know they're guilty sinners before a holy and angry God who will by no means pardon the wrongdoer, and they keenly feel their iniquity before Him. They understand intellectually that they’re saved of course, and they grasp that there’s a difference between them and those still under wrath, but there’s no substantial difference in this, because they don’t have a deep security when it comes right down to it; covenant isn’t the lens by which they understand things, depravity is.

You’ll know this is the church’s focus because it initially sounds like refreshing faithful preaching, but after awhile begins to wear you down, similar to traveling to a high mountain. The view is great, the air is clean, but eventually the wind picks up, the oxygen is thin, and it gets cold. The preacher continually “preaches you into hell” (that is, tells you of your sin to convict you of your awful state) so that he may then “preach you out of it” (that is, urge you to humble yourself before God and renew your faith). You then begin to doubt your salvation, but you feel guilty about being unhappy to hear another sermon because all the pastor is calling you to do is be holy, and holiness is a good thing, right? What’s happening to make you feel like you need to flee? The gracious covenant love of God isn’t reigning supreme. Instead depravity is at the center, and as a consequence, the church believes the way to holiness is to fight depravity with confession and requests for forgiveness.

That’s not always the main idea by which sanctification is understood either, however. Sometimes a church is overly focused on discipleship, for instance. In such places evangelism is paramount, and the main thing is to get people to commit to reading scripture, attend a small group, and help out in ministry opportunities or programs. Programs exist not to move toward an external goal, but to move the people at the church toward devotion, commitment, good habits, and eventually, love for God. For example, an ordinary church could buy a handful of robot vacuum cleaners and schedule the things to run themselves to pick up the mess, but the elders instead prefer to have people come down and vacuum manually. Why?  Because good habits make for better people. As Aslan said, "once the feet are put right the rest will follow."

This focus isn't really wrong in and of itself either, because it is generally true that getting people to serve the body of Christ preps them to accept Christ, and it’s definitely true that we are to be about the business of winning souls to Christ. But again, the chief idea which propels life forward here is not God, it's what we can do to see people saved. And that's a mistake.

It could be things other than depravity and devotion, I should add. It could be getting people to feel better about themselves, or having better self-esteem. It could be community, like the ordinary non-denominal Baptist churches in your local neighborhood. It could be knowledge, like the more Liberal Baptist churches, although this one is very rare. But regardless of what the idea is in particular, it displaces the covenant love of God from the center of life when it ought not to. We are sanctified by faith, for it is written, "the just shall live by faith." The underpinning of faith is the covenant love of God, which means it's not our own will power that draws us near to Christ, but the love God has for His family, the sure mercies He’s given to those who are unworthy. Let me say that again because it's important. Covenant brings with it the idea of family, which in turns strengthens the concept of God's gracious love, which naturally births humility in us. Familial love also brings with it the assurance of knowing that God will certainly work in us all that's necessary for our sanctification.

Lastly, beginning and ending sanctification with the idea of covenant gives that which the Baptist sought but continues to elude him: the strength and energy to accomplish sanctification alongside Christ. The Covenant love of God provides the ground for understanding that our work comes only after we've been saved. The imperatives follow the indicatives, as it was only those who were brought out of slavery that were asked to follow the 10 commandments, not vice versa. Those brought into the fold of God’s love were encouraged to in turn love the Lord their God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength--they weren’t accepted only after becoming holy.

The chief engine of sanctification is, therefore, the faithful loving-kindness of God. This is the keystone that holds the arch together, the fountainhead and source of its power. And that's why raising anything else into like prominence gets you into trouble, and why the solution is to embrace the covenant love of God in its fullness.

Credo vs Paedo Baptism: Pushback Part I

If you've been following this series you may have noticed my two Pastors commenting on my work.  Phil it might help those of us who fi...