Friday, November 28, 2008

Chesterton Reflection #4 - Vows and duty

I am continually amazed that our society lacks any sense of "vows". We are raised to believe that "I promise" is always contingent on changing information, and we dispense with everything from handshakes to blood oaths when we feel the slightest gust of fortune's winds. I suppose the place where this is obviously most true is marriage. Marriage, simply speaking, consists of a set of vows that one promises to live into. It is not meant to be a re-statement of the way things already are, in which case they would be called "articulations", but they instead create a new institution; they constitute a fundmanetally different identify than the couple had the day before. The ordain them into a certain office of a community, and enlist the community's support and oversight in helping the pair live into their covenant.

For the God of Christians and Jews, there is little worse than the breaking of a pact. It's not accidental that Dante put traitors in the lowest level of his Inferno, lower even than murderers and the like. It was God's very faithfulness to his covenant in spite of the people's actions that made him who He was. I often wonder why people take so many vows? If they realize that they cannot possibly live into them, it's nobler to simply opt out. Why be married if you do not believe in the marital vows that you are giving? Why be a Christian if you are crossing your fingers when uttering the creed?

It strikes me that vows are only formulated in difficult situations, and therefore should not be taken lightly. Why would we ever come up with a list of oaths and vows if we thought that an institution was going to be forever peachy? If marriage was supposed to be easy, if passion was always going to last, and if romantic mush frequently had the final say, then why would the church have ever felt the need to list out the particular hardships of the committment and forced members to sign on?

So again I am reminded of some anonymous pastor's sermon many years ago, which is forever etched in my shallow memory: "For Christians love is not an emotion, it's a committment."

Chesterton: "Whatever reason, it seemed and still seems to me that our attitude towards life can be better expressed in terms of a kind of military loyalty than in terms of criticism and approval. My acceptance of the universe is not optimism, it is more like patriotism. It is a matter of primary loyalty. The world is not a lodging-house at Brighton, which we are to leave because it is miserable. It is the fortress of our family, with the flag flying on the turret, and the more miserableit is the less we should leave it. [...] the point is that when you do love a thing, its gladness is a reason for loving it, and its sadness a reason for loving it more. All optimistic thoughts about England and all pessimistic thoughts about her are alike reasons for the English patriot. Similarly, optimist and pessimism are alike arguments for the cosmic patriot. [...] For decoration is not given to hide horrible things; but to decorate things already adorable. A mother does not give her child a blue bow because she is so ugly without it. A lover does not give a girl a necklace to hide her neck. If men loved Pimlico (a run-down suburb of London) as mothers love children, arbitrarily, because it is theirs, Pimlico in a year or two might be fairer than Florence. Some readers will say that this is mere fantasy. I answer that this is the actual history of mankind. This, as a fact, is how cities did grown great. Go back to the darkest roots of civilization and you will find then knotted round some sacred stone or encircling some sacred well. People first paid honour to a spot and afterwards gained glory for it. Men did not love Rome because she was great. She was great because they had loved her.

[...] The worst jingoes do not love England, but a theory of England. If we loved England for being an empire, we may over-rate the success with which we rule the Hindoos. But if we love it only for being a nation, we can face all events: for it would be a nation even if the Hindoos ruled us. Thus also only those will permit their patriotism to falsify history whose patriotism depends on history. A man who loves England for being English will not mind how she arose. But a man who loves England for being Anglo-Saxon may go against all facts for his fancy. He may end (like Carlyle and Freeman) by maintaining that the Norman Conquest was a SAxon Conquest. He may end in utter unreason - because he has a reason. A man who loves France for being military will palliate the army of 1870. But a man who loves France for being France will improve on the army of 1870, This is exactly what the French have done, and France is a good instance of the working paradox. Nowhere else is patriotism more purely abstract and arbitrary; and nowhere else is reform more drastic and sweeping. The more transcendental your patriotism, the more practical are your politics."


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