“The cross has at its heart a collision and a contradiction…”

Reading Chesterton after spending nearly two months immersed in books written by existentialists exceedingly refreshing. Nietzsche wrote in a somewhat lighthearted tone, but that only made his words all the more disturbing. The thing is, though, that this is a man who is arguing by reason, yet essentially insists that we all should believe in fairies. He both exhilarated me with his poetry and kept me skeptical.

I was reminded very much of reading The Little Prince, of realizing that I’ve become the kind of adult who sees a hat in a child’s drawing of an elephant eaten by a snake. Chesterton not only believes in fairy tales, but also believes that, to an extent, they are necessary for us — or perhaps not fairly tales specifically, but mysticism and mystery. The paradoxical nature of Christianity, or Christianity’s allowances for paradoxes, are a kind of mysticism to Chesterton.

Man is made with a need to wonder at things, Chesterton believes. That’s why fairy tales and adventure stories and romances exist in the first place. He also believes, however, that the thinkers or his time (he mentions Nietzsche in particular repeatedly, and I could add other names of my own to his list) aim to squelch wonder. They try to create answers for everything, to explain the entirety of the world and its workings, and in doing so they “attempt to cross an infinite sea and thus make it finite.”

Not only will thought projects like this make a man unhappy, because they allow no possibility for wonder, but they will drive him insane. The madman, he says, is not the man who has lost his reason, but the man who has lost everything but his reason. He tries to create explanations where there are none, and none will fit, thus leaving the completely reasonable man frustrated and miserable, yet thinking that that is how he is supposed to be.

Christianity, on the other hand, is full of paradoxes, and Chesterton has been romanced by how those paradoxes do not simply clash, but rather balance each other, and he claims it is the only ideology which does this. It allows man to believe both that all men die and that men can also be resurrected. It both explains the universe and leaves much about it unanswered. It allows both to have enough courage to undertake an adventure, but leaves us with just enough doubt to enjoy it.

I really love Chesterton’s picture of Christianity and explanation of how it is the most reasonable view for us, and he wooed me with his imagery. Where my Little Prince moments came in, however, was when he encouraged believing in things like elfland and fairyland or any other sort of fantastic things, and when I was struck by how simple he makes it all sound. I’m a bit of a child at heart, so I love the thought of believing in magic or believing in things that we don’t necessarily see as possible, but there’s no reason why they must be impossible. We live by a lot of “whys,” so the idea of embracing a few more “why nots” is charming to me, but I think I’m far too much of a pragmatist to really accept Chesterton’s propositions.

I don’t think I like that, though. I don’t like the feeling that I might very well be more comparable to Nietzsche, going mad as I try to explain away everything and insisting that everything has a rational cause, than like Chesterton, saying that well, perhaps there’s not reason for why daisies are all the same besides God never got tired of making them that way. Is it to my credit that I’m at least tickled by Chesterton’s ideas, even if I won’t go so far as to make them my own? Is it wrong for me to tend towards rationalism? Do I lack the childlike faith that Chesterton seems to have and that Christ encourages? When does healthy questioning, for Chesterton, cross the line into insanity? How can I be a journalist without crossing that line?


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Fear, ethics, and pawns

It had never occurred to me to question the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac the way Kierkegaard does. I had always seen it simply as an example of extreme trust in God’s wisdom and provision, not a clash between ethics and faith. Maybe I can learn the art of questioning things like this from Kierkegaard — of wrestling with how God works and how we are to respond to Him in a very honest way, without going to the extremes of blindly accepting or attacking what the Bible says out of doubt-born frustration.

Back to the ethics and faith question, however… I wonder a bit of Kierkegaard is imposing modern morals or ethics on that story. He questions how God could demand that a father murder his son, and I don’t mean to say that that’s an unfair question, but he gives no mention of how the ethics of that time might have been different. This was in Genesis, before God had given the Mosaic law that included “thou shalt not murder” (which is still different from “thou shalt not kill”), and killing itself was fairly commonplace then for the sake of sacrifices or punishment or what have you. I may, however, simply be making the faulty assumption that ‘ethics’ refers to values held by a society rather than by the individual. If Kierkegaard’s definition, however, refers to the values held by the individual, I’m not sure I understand how that’s different from personal morals. “Murder is wrong” seems like a fairly morally-governed stance.

Also, perhaps I’m oversimplifying, but I’m having trouble understanding exactly why Kierkegaard struggles so much. I respect and admire his boldness in confronting a difficult-to-grasp account from the Bible, but I feel like the conclusion he comes to that the universal —that is, God’s singular decree— supersedes the ethical —that is, the rules to which humanity, or at least the individual, usually adhere— is one that is fairly natural for me to come to. Why can He not give a command that is greater than the rules that He Himself gave us? Worded that way by itself, it sounds terrible, but I mean that regardless of how the command would have appeared to Abraham, God had a greater plan all along in which Isaac was spared.

As I type that, though, I think the tension is coming forth to me a bit more. I don’t know that I’m noticing the same tension between ethics and the universal that is Kierkegaard’s focus, but I’m caught thinking about the tension that this puts on God’s character. This is just one of several examples in which it seems that God is toying with someone He favors, in a way. There’s a passage in Exodus, for example, that always baffles me, because it says completely out of nowhere that God encountered Moses on the way back to Egypt and was about to kill him. He is only stopped when Moses’ wife circumcises their son, and there is no explanation given as to why God was about to kill Moses in the first place. This is in Job, too — Job endures everything that God allows Satan to afflict him with, and all God provides for an answer is “you are not God, so do not question God’s ways.”

What did God have to prove by asking Abraham to kill Isaac? Certainly God didn’t need the assurance — He is omniscient, so He already knew that. And if I had been Abraham, I think my faith might almost have been damaged by God asking me to do something that appeared to destroy a promise he had given me. God saved Isaac in the end, of course, but I feel like I still would have been more hurt that God would do such a thing in the first place when I had already proven myself faithful.

Things to mull over…

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Post-discussion: Freud

Are we happy?

Freud agrees with Christianity on one point, and perhaps this one alone: that most happiness is ephemeral. According to Freud, man can only find true happiness through the fulfillment of his instincts. Christians very nearly believe the same thing, but we believe that our inherent desires (for the sake of continuity, our instincts) are not for carnal pleasure, but for God. Unlike Freud, we don’t believe that this can be attained  in this lifetime, but we do believe that when we attain it, this will be true, everlasting happiness, which we call joy.

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Freud and the pursuit of happiness

Man, my friend Sigmund seems to believe, is in a fairly impossible position: by necessity, he lives within civilization (or maybe it would be more accurate to say that civilization surrounds him whether he likes it or not), but as far as I can tell, he doesn’t believe it’s ever possible for man to be truly happy within a civilization. The problem is that while man can’t be happy within civilization, he can’t really live without it either.

Civilization affords man security, according to Freud, both in the sense that he can be physically protected and that science helps him to subdue his human nature. This subduing keeps his natural aggression in check, which prevents him from acting violently against others and others against him, which provides some form of happiness. Or at least, it provides him with happiness as far as freedom from pain and displeasure, but this isn’t true, lasting happiness.

(Freud presents his idea of happiness by presenting sexual pleasure as the highest form of happiness one can experience, which, by my interpretation, is “true” happiness. He then says that the most natural thing for man to then do is to continue pursuing “happiness along the path on which [he] first encountered it.”)

The paradox exists because of the fact that the subduing of man’s aggression lessens his chances for being happy. Freud defines happiness as the fulfillment of man’s instincts — his drives, but he also says that civilization suppresses man’s drives. Man gains protection and security, which afford him the “happiness of quietness,” the happiness that is merely freedom from pain, but he is barred from fulfilling his aggressive and erotic instincts. According to Freud, civilization demands, for examples, that a man marry and sleep with only one woman, whereas his erotic nature would have him satiate his sexual desires with anyone he pleases.

Freud does also say, however, that there is not any one source of happiness (which is how he finds fault with Christianity, but we’ll come back to that later). Because of this, being part of a civilization does not eliminate a man’s chance for all happiness. What seems to be the case instead is that while living a primal life (outside of civilization), a man might be consistently happy, although chances are great that due to being unprotected, he might also be miserable. Within a civilization, however, man is more likely to escape misery and, while he may not experience a constant state of happiness, the happiness that he does experience will be augmented by his having been without it for a time.

As for Christianity — again, Freud remarks that the fullness of happiness cannot come from any one thing, at least not within a civilization where man’s instincts cannot be completely fulfilled. This is where Christianity fails, he believes, because it declares that the only source of true, lasting happiness is in God. When the Christian pursuing God does not find his desires met, Freud counts that as a failed path to happiness. The nonreligious man, he says, is then free to pursue another path, but the Christian is left to resign himself to the idea that it must not be God’s will for him to be happy.

I find myself wondering why he doesn’t believe that maybe happiness can come from a single source, but that that source ebbs and flows rather than providing constant happiness. It seems he thinks that a man must pursue only one route, and the first time he fails or encounters an obstacle, that’s an indication that he should move on. I also wonder whether he believes that it is better, given the different manifestations of happiness that he sees, for a man to live in a civilization or not. He analyzes how man finds happiness, but does not make any statements about which he believes is better. Maybe he has no scale of “betterness.” Maybe living within or outside of a civilization are two different routes to happiness, and it’s relative to each person whether he wants a lower-grade, lasting happiness that is sometimes tempered by pain, or greater, but briefer, experiences of happiness while limited by civilization’s rules.

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Post discussion: Nietzsche

Why would we rather be miserable because of the truth than happy because of lies?

Assuming “we” refers to Christians, the most obvious answer is because we subscribe to truth — the entirety of our ideology is founded on Jesus, who is himself truth incarnate, and we therefore believe that truth should be the thing that we value above all else, even above our own happiness. Furthermore, we recognize both that happiness and misery are both temporal, whereas truth is everlasting, and that the truth has a way of always making itself known eventually. It is less painful to learn the truth immediately than for later pain to be compounded by the realization of deceit.

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Arguing with Nietzsche

It’s quite possible that Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals left me more frustratedly perplexed than any other book I’ve ever read. For one thing, I feel like his argumentation isn’t thorough, or maybe that it doesn’t proceed in a logical order, and that makes me suspect I’m overlooking something important.


So what exactly makes me frustrated with his logic (or what I perceive as a lack thereof)? First of all, I’m wondering where he gets his evidence to support his claims regarding how morals were established by the earliest generations of man. Because the evolution (or devolution) of mankind’s morals from the first until now is the entire focus of Nietzsche’s philosophy, it seems that this would be something he’d discuss further. But instead, he only says that the definition of morals originated with the class systems, providing no specific examples or anecdotes.

Furthermore, Nietzsche seems to overlook religion in the earliest cultures. He speaks of the formation of morals and the formation of religion as though they are two separate, almost unrelated occurrences. Morals, according to him, are derived from the domination of the strong over the weak, with what benefits the strong being called “good,” and what harms the weak as “bad,” and this is unrelated to religion. It seems that he believes religion may have been established after morals were defined. He would have us believe that because of suffering, man developed a need for there to be a purpose to life and to his trials, for something to fill the emptiness that guilt made him believe existed in his soul, and thus invented God.

I have two burning questions for Nietzsche: first, how would he have us live? Secondly, what drove him to form this particular philosophy?

As to the first, I ask because I can’t tell whether he thinks that there is such a thing as right and wrong, but that civilization has grossly misinterpreted and distorted it, or whether he believes that there is no such thing as moral standards or boundaries. Certainly, he believes that there is no divine authority over us — that God is just a fabrication of the “blond beast” who wishes to justify his actions toward the weak or of the weak man who wishes meaning for his suffering. Assuming that there is no standard whatsoever, which I’m fairly certain is the more likely option, should man just do whatever he wishes and whatever he deems best for himself? What would a world like that look like? Would we all be violent barbarians, or could we act decently even without being governed by morals?

(A sidenote: I’m unsure whether Nietzsche thinks that there is no God, or whether God exists but doesn’t give a damn about humanity. I’m even less sure about which idea is more frightening.)

As to the second, I don’t have much of an answer, just more questions. I understand that Nietzsche was writing in the wake of Holocaust, during which time some of the very basest of human nature’s capabilities were exposed to the world. That seems to have affected Nietzsche profoundly, and I certainly can’t say that I blame him, since he lost four sisters to the concentration camps. It doesn’t seem in his writing that he even has the faintest flicker of desire to hope that there is meaning even in atrocity, and maybe even doubts the existence of goodness as we would define it. His utter hopelessness is heartbreaking and disturbing in and of itself, and all the more so because I’m not sure how I could respond to that. Anything I might say to counter him (for example, that the stronger man is one who has self-control, the ability to “not will”) he would retort by telling me I speak from the misguided sensibilities of the “blond beast.”

Why did he undertake to write this book? Did he embark on an honest search for truth that led him to these conclusions, or did he already have an agenda in mind? What is he trying to prove? The purposelessness of man? If so… what’s the point of even writing?

Nietzsche is a deeply unsettling read, not only because of the darkness of his ideas, but because no matter how strongly I believe that he’s wrong, I’m not sure how to argue against him.

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Post-discussion: Marx

Is Communism actually inevitable? (Answer must be no longer than 100 words.)

  • Marx’s Communism, despite how feasible and reasonable it may sound in theory, could never exist as a sustainable society unless all men became virtuous enough to content themselves with living according to Marx’s motto “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” — having one’s “needs” dictated by another, rather than earning wealth in proportion to his work. By nature, men are selfish, or at least ingrained with a sense of entitlement, and it seems unlikely that such a society could ever endure without being overthrown by those who feel cheated.

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