The Unreasonable Virtues

by Circle or Line

G.K. Chesterton:

The real difference between Paganism and Christianity is perfectly summed up in the difference between the pagan, or natural, virtues, and those three virtues of Christianity which the Church of Rome calls virtues of grace. The pagan, or rational, virtues are such things as justice and temperance, and Christianity has adopted them. The three mystical virtues which Christianity has not adopted, but invented, are faith, hope, and charity. Now much easy and foolish Christian rhetoric could easily be poured out upon those three words, but I desire to confine myself to the two facts which are evident about them. The first evident fact (in marked contrast to the delusion of the dancing pagan)–the first evident fact, I say, is that the pagan virtues, such as justice and temperance, are the sad virtues, and that the mystical virtues of faith, hope, and charity are the gay and exuberant virtues. And the second evident fact, which is even more evident, is the fact that the pagan virtues are the reasonable virtues, and that the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and charity are in their essence as unreasonable as they can be.

As the word “unreasonable” is open to misunderstanding, the matter may be more accurately put by saying that each one of these Christian or mystical virtues involves a paradox in its own nature, and that this is not true of any of the typically pagan or rationalist virtues. Justice consists in finding out a certain thing due to a certain man and giving it to him. Temperance consists in finding out the proper limit of a particular indulgence and adhering to that. But charity means pardoning what is unpardonable, or it is no virtue at all. Hope means hoping when things are hopeless, or it is no virtue at all. And faith means believing the incredible, or it is no virtue at all.

It is somewhat amusing, indeed, to notice the difference between the fate of these three paradoxes in the fashion of the modern mind. Charity is a fashionable virtue in our time; it is lit up by the gigantic firelight of Dickens. Hope is a fashionable virtue to-day; our attention has been arrested for it by the sudden and silver trumpet of Stevenson. But faith is unfashionable, and it is customary on every side to cast against it the fact that it is a paradox. Everybody mockingly repeats the famous childish definition that faith is “the power of believing that which we know to be untrue.” Yet it is not one atom more paradoxical than hope or charity. Charity is the power of defending that which we know to be indefensible. Hope is the power of being cheerful in circumstances which we know to be desperate. It is true that there is a state of hope which belongs to bright prospects and the morning; but that is not the virtue of hope. The virtue of hope exists only in earthquake and, eclipse. It is true that there is a thing crudely called charity, which means charity to the deserving poor; but charity to the deserving is not charity at all, but justice. It is the undeserving who require it, and the ideal either does not exist at all, or exists wholly for them. For practical purposes it is at the hopeless moment that we require the hopeful man, and the virtue either does not exist at all, or begins to exist at that moment. Exactly at the instant when hope ceases to be reasonable it begins to be useful. Now the old pagan world went perfectly straightforward until it discovered that going straightforward is an enormous mistake. It was nobly and beautifully reasonable, and discovered in its death-pang this lasting and valuable truth, a heritage for the ages, that reasonableness will not do. The pagan age was truly an Eden or golden age, in this essential sense, that it is not to be recovered. And it is not to be recovered in this sense again that, while we are certainly jollier than the pagans, and much more right than the pagans, there is not one of us who can, by the utmost stretch of energy, be so sensible as the pagans. That naked innocence of the intellect cannot be recovered by any man after Christianity; and for this excellent reason, that every man after Christianity knows it to be misleading. Let me take an example, the first that occurs to the mind, of this impossible plainness in the pagan point of view. The greatest tribute to Christianity in the modern world is Tennyson’s “Ulysses.” The poet reads into the story of Ulysses the conception of an incurable desire to wander. But the real Ulysses does not desire to wander at all. He desires to get home. He displays his heroic and unconquerable qualities in resisting the misfortunes which baulk him; but that is all. There is no love of adventure for its own sake; that is a Christian product. There is no love of Penelope for her own sake; that is a Christian product. Everything in that old world would appear to have been clean and obvious. A good man was a good man; a bad man was a bad man. For this reason they had no charity; for charity is a reverent agnosticism towards the complexity of the soul. For this reason they had no such thing as the art of fiction, the novel; for the novel is a creation of the mystical idea of charity. For them a pleasant landscape was pleasant, and an unpleasant landscape unpleasant. Hence they had no idea of romance; for romance consists in thinking a thing more delightful because it is dangerous; it is a Christian idea. In a word, we cannot reconstruct or even imagine the beautiful and astonishing pagan world. It was a world in which common sense was really common.

There is not only something in this of Chesterton’s usual triumphant ring of truth. There is a theological truth that needs to be explored. For if charity leads to forgiveness, and forgiveness pardons that which is unpardonable, then it can be said to be in some sense against the law. We forgive against, or in spite of, the law.

Now this is odd, since it draws attention to the relationship between law and grace. Or more accurately, that both law and mercy are works of God’s grace – but that there is some tension between them. As to how precisely the work of law is balanced with the work of mercy is not immediately clear. The answer you get will depend on who you ask.

The dogmatic answer is as follows:

1980 The Old Law is the first stage of revealed law. Its moral prescriptions are summed up in the Ten Commandments.

1981 The Law of Moses contains many truths naturally accessible to reason. God has revealed them because men did not read them in their hearts.

1982 The Old Law is a preparation for the Gospel.

1983 The New Law is the grace of the Holy Spirit received by faith in Christ, operating through charity. It finds expression above all in the Lord’s Sermon on the Mount and uses the sacraments to communicate grace to us.

1984 The Law of the Gospel fulfills and surpasses the Old Law and brings it to perfection: its promises, through the Beatitudes of the Kingdom of heaven; its commandments, by reforming the heart, the root of human acts.

1985 The New Law is a law of love, a law of grace, a law of freedom.

Now, I am inclined to believe that the fundamental good news of the New Testament is precisely the same as that of the Old Testament – that God loves me. Simple as that. And that as a result of that love, the Mosaic law was given to the people of God, after they were set free by God, to ensure that they would never again fall under the despotism of tyranny. The Law of Moses, in other words, “fulfills and surpasses” the law of Pharaoh. Sinai is no less “a law of love, a law of grace, a law of freedom” than the “New Law”. Indeed the Law of Moses itself was and remains the very heart of freedom.

How therefore can we understand the Old Law as merely a “first stage”, and how does Christ “fulfill and surpass” it? A long story obviously, and we will return to it. But for now:

First, I understand the “Old Law” to be “knowledge of sin”, or, in modern parlance, conscience.

Rom 3:20 For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the [old] law comes knowledge of sin.

Rom 7:7 What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the [old] law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.”

I also now suggest that according to this Old Law, this conscience, Christ died for my sins in exactly the same way that a foundation is a support for a house – whether or not we decide a house shall in fact be built on that foundation. The foundation is propitiatory sacrifice according to the Old Law, which satisfies the conscience.

However – the propitiation for sins (the “Old” Law) is merely the accident, the predicate, the vehicle, the sign, the Word, the outward appearance. But words reveal, they point to. This is what the Cross is – propitiation not as a thing in and for itself or its own ontological category, but a Word, something that is intended to reveal, a foundation built for the ontological category of something else. And so we come to Chesterton’s paradox, that that which is built on top of the foundation, the house, is forgiveness, the “New” Law, that which in some profound sense brazenly transgresses the foundation just as it rests upon it. And in forgiveness what remains of the “true” and “false”, “right” or “wrong” of the “Old” Law, the foundation? The inner substance, the subject, the essence (the “New” Law) is what is revealed by the body, the propitiatory sacrifice. The inner substance is that which propitiation, the body, points to, which is forgiveness, the very mind of God. The essence of God is this forgiveness. It has always been. “New Law” thus does not mean “replacement”, rather “more recently revealed.”

Thus the foundation is perfect and sufficient for the building of a house, regardless of whether or not a house in fact is built on it. Likewise the seed is a perfect and sufficient thing for the growth of the flower, regardless of whether a flower does come out of it or not.

Mat 13:19 “When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is the one on whom seed was sown beside the road.
Mat 13:20 “The one on whom seed was sown on the rocky places, this is the man who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy;
Mat 13:21 yet he has no firm root in himself, but is only temporary, and when affliction or persecution arises because of the word, immediately he falls away.
Mat 13:22 “And the one on whom seed was sown among the thorns, this is the man who hears the word, and the worry of the world and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful.

This “New Law”, this mind of God, has characteristics which are unique. For example, unlike a physical thing, we must give away that forgiveness to everyone we encounter in order to keep it and make it more abundant.

Mat 13:23 “And the one on whom seed was sown on the good soil, this is the man who hears the word and understands it; who indeed bears fruit and brings forth, some a hundredfold, some sixty, and some thirty.”

However, in a final paradox, we may also say that if we do not fully and completely receive and accept this essential reality of God, this mind of God which has been revealed to be forgiveness, not only with respect to ourselves but with respect to everyone we encounter, then we will not ourselves be forgiven.

Gal 6:7 for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap.

And so the circle of this paradox is complete.

Heb 3:7 Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says, “Today, if you hear his voice,
Heb 3:8 do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, on the day of testing in the wilderness,
Heb 3:9 where your fathers put me to the test and saw my works for forty years.
Heb 3:10 Therefore I was provoked with that generation, and said, ‘They always go astray in their heart; they have not known my ways.’
Heb 3:11 As I swore in my wrath, ‘They shall not enter my rest.'”
Heb 3:12 Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God.
Heb 3:13 But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.

Heb 4:11 Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience.
Heb 4:12 For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
Heb 4:13 And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.