Below is the podcast and text of my chapel address that I delivered at Grove City College on Thursday, April 23, 2015.
In his masterful essay, ‘The Ethics of Elfland’, G. K. Chesterton treats us to an extended meditation on a body of literature that was one of the most significant factors in his Christian conversion: the fairy tale. Because fairy tales awaken within us a remembrance of the wonder and awe that once filled our hearts when we first encountered the world around us, Chesterton concluded that fairy tales were revelatory of the fact that it is part of our nature as humans to be astonished and astounded. Chesterton writes:
… we all like astonishing tales because they touch the nerve of the ancient instinct of astonishment. This is proved by the fact that when we are very young children we do not need fairy tales: we only need tales. Mere life is interesting enough. A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door. Boys like romantic tales; but babies like realistic tales–because they find them romantic. In fact, a baby is about the only person, I should think, to whom a modern realistic novel could be read without boring him. This proves that even nursery tales only echo an almost pre-natal leap of interest and amazement. These tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water… We have all forgotten what we really are…. All that we call spirit and art and ecstasy only means that for one awful instant we remember that we forget.
Chesterton’s essay, however, is not interested in merely recounting the role of wonder in Christian conversion; rather, Chesterton very deliberately contrasts this defining role of wonder with its distinctive absence from the modern age. In his characteristic wit and insight, Chesterton actually goes so far as to identify the loss of wonder as the key characteristic of the modern age. He demonstrates this absence of astonishment by contrasting the world as seen through the eyes of a child, what he calls ‘Elfland’, and the world as seen through the spectacles of the modernist, what he calls the ‘Natural World’. Chesterton writes:
There are certain sequences or developments … which are, in the true sense of the word, reasonable. They are, in the true sense of the word, necessary. Such are mathematical and merely logical sequences. We in fairyland (who are the most reasonable of all creatures) admit that reason and that necessity. For instance, if the Ugly Sisters are older than Cinderella, it is … necessary that Cinderella is younger than the Ugly Sisters. There is no getting out of it. .. If Jack is the son of a miller, a miller is the father of Jack…. that is true rationalism, and fairyland is full of it. But as I put my head over the hedge of the elves and began to take notice of the natural world, I observed an extraordinary thing. I observed that learned men in spectacles were talking of the actual things that happened– dawn and death and so on–as if they were rational and inevitable. They talked as if the fact that trees bear fruit were just as necessary as the fact that two and one trees make three. But it is not. There is an enormous difference by the test of fairyland; which is the test of the imagination. You cannot imagine two and one not making three. But you can easily imagine trees not growing fruit; you can imagine them growing golden candlesticks or tigers hanging on by the tail…. We have always in our fairy tales kept this sharp distinction between the science of mental relations, in which there really are laws, and the science of physical facts, in which there are no laws, but only weird repetitions. We believe in bodily miracles, but not in mental impossibilities. We believe that a Bean-stalk climbed up to Heaven; but that does not at all confuse our convictions on the philosophical question of how many beans make five.
For Chesterton, there is nothing more destructive to wonder and astonishment than the idolatrous worship of facts. And this is because the modern notion of knowledge is rooted in rampant doubt and skepticism; one must, in good Cartesian fashion, doubt everything until one finds that which can no longer be doubted. And this modern conception of knowledge fosters a distinctively skeptical orientation toward the world, in that the modernist has the right to doubt anything unless it can be proven otherwise.
However, Chesterton noticed that, in Elfland, the orientation toward the world is radically different. We see this in what he calls the Doctrine of Conditional Joy. According to elfin ethics all virtue resides in an ‘if’: ‘You may live in a palace of gold and sapphire, if you do not say the word ‘cow’; or ‘You may go to the royal ball if you return by midnight’. Chesterton notes that nowhere in the ethics of Elfland is such a Doctrine of Conditional Joy ever challenged, questioned, or treated as unjust. If Cinderella were to have the audacity to interrogate, ‘How is it that I must leave the ball at twelve?’ her godmother might answer, ‘How is it that you are going there till twelve?’ You see, because the condition is never more eccentric than the gift, no less fantastic, no more inexplicable than the wonder of existence itself, the child never asks, ‘How come’? This is because the child has not been taught the ways of the modernist, the wondrous eyes have yet to be blinded by the spectacles of the skeptic.
Chesterton’s observations on the role of wonder in our orientation towards the world are not novel nor are they exceptional; they in fact echo the observations of the classical philosophers, for whom wonder was indeed indispensable in the pursuit of knowledge. For Plato, knowledge was rooted in what he considered a kind of intellectual eros, a cognitive desire to encounter the world as a reflection of divine life. According to Aristotle, wonder stimulates all thought and defines best why it is that we freely seek to know the world and its causes. In the words of humanities professor, Richard Harp: “The classical tradition regarded wonder as both the origin and permanent companion of all rational inquiry. Wonder … was … considered a truly rational movement of the mind towards fresh knowledge.”
In contrast to our infatuation with self-esteem, it was classically understood that wonder began with an admission of personal impoverishment, what the Greeks called aporia and the Latins pietas. This intellectual and spiritual vacuousness, this virtue of humility, can then be filled, and filled not merely with facts that correspond to purposeless natural or social processes of cause and effect, but with a knowledge of the world as it relates to that which is eternally true, good, and beautiful. For example, in the Timaeus, Plato proposed that the contemplation of the cosmos could lead the soul to God and hence transcend the cosmos, a concept echoed in Aristotle’s De Philosophia. This is because, for the classical tradition, the world and the cosmos were what we call in theology ‘diaphanous’, that is, all of creation is a temporal reflection of the eternal beauty of the divine. And it was the role of culture to provide substantial, palpable, material manifestations of divine reality embedded in the cosmic order. Hence philosophy, history, logic, dialectic, rhetoric, aesthetics, physics, epic, lyric, comedy, democracy (all Greek words!) were means by which one could tangibly encounter the divinely infused meaning and purpose embedded in the cosmic order.
This vision of the world gave birth to a particular kind of educational project known as paideia, which sought to initiate students into this culture by teaching them to reimagine the world as a temporal and spatial manifestation of the eternally true, good, and beautiful and hence cultivate a sense of their place in the cosmos. And because the world reflected an eternal dimension, the classical mind recognized, in the words of patristic scholar Andrew Louth, that true wisdom is beyond the grasp of the finite creature and is indeed the possession of the gods. Knowledge in its traditional sense begins in wonder and in fact ends in wonder, since one is penetrating more deeply into the mystery of reality. Hence the term philosophia: the ‘love of or desire for wisdom.’
For Christians, this love was fostered in worship, for it is the gathering of the people of God that our imaginations and senses were awakened to the restoration of Paradise in the transformative life, death, and resurrection of Christ. It is through this liturgical mediation that the congregant was invited to reimagine the world as an arena of divine redemption, which in turn directed the dispositions, inclinations, and desires of the human person toward the Kingdom of God in Christ. For example, worship took place in churches that were constructed classically facing east, with the ascent of our song paralleling the rising of the sun, and hence both cathedral and creation praised God together in anticipation of the new creation. In this sense, Word and Sacrament, prayer and praise, awakened the participant to the worship of the whole cosmos, a dynamic leading up into the inner life of God.
And hence, worship invites us to reimagine the world, in Chesterton’s words, as God’s theatrical encore of childlike wonder. Chesterton writes:
The thing I mean can be seen, for instance, in children, when they find some game or joke that they specially enjoy. … Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. 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.
For me, no one exemplifies this childlike wonder more than C. S. Lewis, for through his pen we see Narnia as a world that was diaphanous of something infinitely grander and greater. London was but a microcosmic manifestation of an infinitely grand city. England was but a reflection of a land the splendor of which no mind could conceive. Thus, Lewis finishes his chronicles with these words:
The things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.
It is thus the fairy tale that provides for us a picture of what education is really all about. True education guides us, it leads us, into an encounter with a world that is but the cover and title page of the eternal kingdom to which we have been called; a kingdom that requires all who would enter to become as a little child, born anew.
It was none other than St. Augustine who found this out, who, in his pre-Christian life, in the midst of pursuing the social ambition and economic success that a Graeco-Roman rhetorical education promised, ‘picked up and read’ a book by Cicero, the master of the liberal arts, and upon this literary encounter, something awakened within Augustine. He discovered something extraordinary about the human, that we yearn for a meaning and a purpose outside of ourselves; that we long for a beauty that awakens us from our self-centered slumbers; that our hearts ache for a life filled with wonder and awe. What makes us human is an insatiable desire to encounter the true, the good, and the beautiful in a life transformative way, a way that enables our souls to reach for and embrace a state of being than which none greater can possibly be thought, summed up in Augustine’s opening prayer in his Confessions: “Thou, O Lord, hast made us for thyself, and our hearts remain restless until they find their rest in thee.”
Our calling as students and professors is just this, to be drawn into Augustine’s discovery of this restlessness, this yearning for wonder and awe, which can only be satisfied by the echoes of a garden, the shade of a tree of life in the shape of a cross, the rivers of Eden restored in the waters of baptism, that take us to the all-sufficient self-replenishing source of life, the ultimate human encounter with the Incarnate Son of the living God. By discovering that what makes life worth living is not the meaning that we impart to an otherwise meaningless cosmos, but rather encountering a creation that awakens meaning and purpose for our lives, we discover a divine calling over our lives, and are thus able to carry out our vocations with the wisdom of a moral imagination, the discernment of virtue, and the freedom of a redeemed humanity, thereby embodying the wonder and awe of a new creation in the midst of the grey winter of this utilitarian and pragmatic age.
And so, as we go forth from this place, back to our libraries and lecture halls, back to our studies and examinations, as students and educators who are in but not of this world, let us always remember, in the midst of all our challenges and our discouragements, all of our successes and failures, all of our hopes and disappointments, let us always remember and never forget the wonder of all wonders: Christ is Risen! May we all live happily ever after.
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