Blogging Orthodoxy continues with the next chapter :
Chapter 4: “The Ethics of Elfland”
If isolated from the rest of the book,“The Ethics of Elfland” is the chapter of Orthodoxy I wish more people would read. The chapter contains a revelry that’s hard to express and even harder to imagine from a book titled Orthodoxy. I’d like to think that no one can read the chapter without coming away moved by Chesterton’s awe of ordinary things. It is probably unlikely, in the modern age, that anyone will find awe in a book; but getting a sense of wonderment is the only reason anyone ever started reading books in the first place. It is not surprising then that Chesterton begins his exploration of wonder with the first books everyone first read: fairy tales.
To Chesterton the good life is one is lived like it were a fairy tale; as if all encounters were wondrous and all decisions were heroic. Fairy-tales are wonderous not simply because they contain strange things, but because, in them, we are reminded of what it is like to experience the world for the first time. In a fairy-tale anything can happen and there is both mystery and discovery. In fairy tale, while there may be stark dangers and hard odds nothing is ever hopeless. If life were like a fairy-tale it would not simply contain miracles, it would be miraculous.
When discussing Orthodoxy, skeptics frequently take issue with Chesterton’s belief in miracles. Chesterton’s much more interesting attitude towards the miraculous is rarely mentioned. It would be far more germane if it were. The attitude towards miracles (not their existence) is what truly separates the religious from the irreligious. Both atheists and theists agree that highly improbably extraordinary events occur. The religious person just sees the special event as entirely apart from the natural order while the atheist sees the event necessarily subsumed by it.
But Gilbert would like both parties to go one step further. The problem is not that the theist regards improbable events as sacred or that the atheist regards improbable events as ordinary. The problem is that neither consider ordinary events to be sacred. Modern people have convinced themselves, that because an event repeats, it cannot be special and therefore is lifeless. But why should we imagine that ordinary things are dead just because we have seen them frequently? We associate repetition with death and old age, but the association may derive from the tiredness and old age in ourselves.
A child never tires of repetition. As Chesterton points out, when a child sees something he likes, he will want it repeated, shouting “Do it Again!” until his parents are exhausted. God, like a child, may also never tire of repetition. What if the mundaneness we associate with ordinary life is simply our inability to appreciate the vitality of an ever youthful God? As Chesterton says:
It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”
Could the key to exaltation be so simple? Might we, with one decision, see things through God’s perspective and forever wash-away the drabness and drudgery of ordinary life?
I do not believe spiritual breakthroughs can be reached by reading philosophy, but what followed the group’s reading of “The Ethics of Elfland” seemed to come close. For a moment, all ethics became clear. Every moral action was profound and every personal obligation heroic. In the eyes of God no action could ever be boring. Monogamy was no longer challenging but a challenge to defy the stifling human urge to regard the familiar as mundane. Duty was no longer arduous but a defiant rebellion against the entropy of time. The words “Do it again” were quoted again and again throughout the night and the group finally broke with a feeling of comradely rare for philosophy discussion groups .
The next Sunday, I was unsurprised to hear our patron use Chesterton’s words in his Sunday homily about Christ’s teachings to become like children to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. I found it quite insightful. But, like most homilies, it fell on the tired ears of parishioners hearing yet another exhortation to be pious at 8 am in the morning. Even the members of the book group appeared much less affected than during the previous night’s discussion. Some things that seem revolutionary over books and beer never appear quite as real in the light of day. This certainly made me wonder if anyone could live as Chesterton describes, feeling constantly as though ordinary people and objects in the universe were special and romantic. Certainly Chesterton wasn’t the first to preach about the joy that can be found in every-day life. This is a common enough trope from any new age Guru.
But there is more to Orthodoxy than mere romanticism. Almost lost in Chesterton’s paen to the wonder of ordinary life is his assertion that ordinary miracles must be sacrificed for. The ordinary can be just as valuable as the extraordinary. But nothing will seem valuable unless we are grateful for it. The modern world is replete with spiritualists telling us to be happy about existence. Absent are spiritual leaders telling us to fast, pray, and feel thankful for existence. But we cannot glory without sacrifice. There is no way to make the ordinary part of the romantic fabric of our beings without first sacrificing our egos on the altar of everyday life.
It’s apropos that this blogpost falls on Thanksgiving, the only holiday still firmly moored to it’s roots secular piety. It’s no accident that, second only to Christmas, this holiday occupies a very special place in most people’s hearts. When we feel thankful we cease to take our lives for granted and begin again to see the universe as a wonderful and exciting place. It is only by being thankful that we become like children and feel young again.