Marble and Mud

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“Round us in antic order their crippled vices came—
Lust that had lost its laughter, fear that had lost its shame.
Like the white lock of Whistler, that lit our aimless gloom,
Men showed their own white feather as proudly as a plume.
Life was a fly that faded, and death a drone that stung;
The world was very old indeed when you and I were young.”

~ G.K. Chesterton

In his book, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, David Bentley Hart claims that “…we live in an age whose chief value has been determined, by overwhelming consensus, to be the inviolable liberty of personal volition, the right to decide for ourselves what we shall believe, want, need, own, or serve.”[1]  If there is something we worship in this post-Christian era (and worship we must, after all), it is the doctrine of absolute, unquestioned freedom.

“My rights!” we shout in the public square.  “Choice!” we cry in the heat of debate.  A mystical hush then silences our foes.  What are the good and perfect ends to which we were made?  To be free to choose, we chant in reply.  Yet we must ask if freedom alone can carry such a teleological burden, or does it end up being destroyed by the weight?

For the first time in human history we are living in mid-air, so to speak, for we no longer believe in the existence of grounding first principles.  Instead of a “transcendent standard of the good that has the power (or the right) to order our desires toward higher ends,” we get to pick and choose what we will “believe, want, need, own, or serve.”[2]  Hart writes that our modernist mindset is shaped by a shallow consumerism.  We shamelessly shop for values like we shop for breakfast cereal, all the while resisting every effort of what remains of “the specters of transcendent law or personal guilt to render us indecisive.”[3]

Modernity bows its solemn brow in worship to an understanding of freedom that is novel with respect to human history.  Pre-modern cultures understood freedom as something that operates within the confines of “certain inescapable channels” or first principles.  These acted to limit and moderate the good of human freedom and, odd as it may sound to our modern ears, as a result, enlarge it.[4]

Chesterton observed that our post-Christian world is “full of wild and wasted virtues” that have been severed from these first principles (and each other) and are thus roaming about “wildly,” inflicting “more terrible damage” than the vices they once held in check.[5]  Why?  Because, as C.S. Lewis notes, these lonely virtues tend to “swell to madness in their isolation.”[6]  We no longer believe in a transcendent moral order that binds them together in such a way that they can augment and temper one another.  Hart echoes this when he writes the following: “We select the standards or values we find appealing from a larger market of moral options and then try to arrange them into some sort of tasteful harmony.”[7] He writes that the modern era builds value systems in such a way that has become indistinguishable from interior decorating.”[8]

In the end, free-will is a great good, but without belief in a transcendent moral order to which it must conform, it ends up killing itself. The channels of “a God beyond” or “a stable human nature” give freedom its form and function.  This is yet another one of Chesterton’s “limitations that do in fact preserve and perpetuate an enlargement.”[9]  In our rejection of what we see as the “arbitrary authority” of religion and first principles, we end up killing our freedom to choose. Without such grounds, everything, even freedom itself, is nothing but the product of random atomic fluctuations. Hart notes that “if the will determines itself principally in and through the choices it makes, then it too, at some very deep level, must also be nothing: simply a pure movement of spontaneity, motive without motive, absolute potentiality, giving birth to itself.”[10]  In the end, there is no horizon to which it looks when it chooses.  Human will is, and was, and evermore will be.  It is moving towards itself, therefore its movement is an illusion, a mere trick of the brain.

For most of history, mankind more or less believed that “we are free when we achieve that end toward which our inmost nature is oriented from the first moment of existence, and whatever separates us from that end—even if it comes from our own wills—is a form of bondage.”[11]  Pre-moderns observed that true freedom consists not in the ability to choose alone, but in the ability to choose well, according to an objective standard independent of our personal desires. In other words, “we become free, that is, in something of the same way that (in Michelangelo’s image) the form is ‘liberated’ from the marble by the sculptor.”[12] The modern world has debunked the marble, therefore, all we are left with which to sculpt human nature is formless, worthless, and intractable mud.

 

Notes:

[1] David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, (Ann Arbor, MI: Sheridan Books, 2009), 21-2.

[2] Ibid., 22.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Chesterton, Orthodoxy, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2006), 25-6.

[6] C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1955),  56.

[7] David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, 23.

[8] Ibid., 24.

[9] G. K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man, (Tacoma, WA: Angelico Press, 2013), 79.

[10] David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, 22.

[11] Ibid., 24.

[12] Ibid., 25.

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