“Catholic doctrine and discipline may be walls; but they are the walls of a playground,” wrote G.K. Chesterton in his 1908 book Orthodoxy. “Christianity is the only frame which has preserved the pleasure of Paganism.” Countercultural as Chesterton’s observations often are, perhaps none would be so quickly and derisively dismissed by the modern western world as this one. Western people today know almost nothing about Christianity. This is especially true amongst the privileged classes who have spent time in the university and have been taught to believe that they are too smart to fall for anything as daft as the idea that a man rose from the dead. If we modern westerners know anything, we know for sure that Christianity is a killjoy. Christianity exists to stamp out pleasure wherever pleasure can be found, whether in the bedroom, the classroom, or the barroom.
My Way or the Highway
Behind this false understanding of Christianity lies an unspoken view of the human person that says that what makes us truly human is absolute freedom to pursue maximum pleasure. “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” as the deist Thomas Jefferson wrote in the American Declaration of Independence. These are all we require to be fully actualized human beings. We need the freedom to live in peace so that we may explore what makes us happy, completely unfettered by other concerns. Once this understanding of what it means to be human is established, it is but a hop, skip, and a jump to concluding that religious doctrine is one of the greatest threats to human flourishing.
Doctrine is limiting by nature. Whenever we accept any particular doctrine, we have to let go of others. To accept that two plus two equals four means excluding the belief that it can equal five or three. We have no problem doing this with certain kinds of doctrine. We do not see the doctrines of mathematics or evolutionary biology as enemies of human progress, even though they apply the same level of restraint upon us as religious doctrines require. What concerns us is not the limitation of our freedom in any way but only the limitation of our freedom regarding our pursuit of pleasure. It makes not a whit of difference to our efforts to gratify our desires if we evolved from monkeys rather than goats or if we cannot evenly divide prime numbers. We are happy to accept those limitations. What we cannot endure is the idea that a teaching might affect how we spend our money, who we sleep with, how much we consume, what we seek out to entertain ourselves, or how we think about our responsibilities to other people. That kind of doctrine–and only that kind–is insufferable.
The Joy of Limits
And yet, Chesterton argues, it is the very limitation of our freedom offered by Christian doctrine that makes it possible for us to enjoy ourselves most fully:
We might fancy some children playing on the flat grassy top of some tall island in the sea. So long as there was a wall round the cliff’s edge they could fling themselves into every frantic game and make the place the noisiest of nurseries. But the walls were knocked down, leaving the naked peril of the precipice. They did not fall over; but when their friends returned to them they were all huddled in terror in the centre of the island; and their song had ceased.
Chesterton imagines Christian doctrine not as a set of shackles, but as a wall. It protects us from things that would destroy us by keeping those things on the outside so that we are free to play and frolic on the inside. As Christians, we can drink far more deeply from the great pleasures of life precisely because we have this wall around them that excludes those things which would kill us. We can afford to be less cautious inside the wall than we would be if we were stuck on the outside, never knowing which step would be our last.
Like any good wall, the wall of Catholic doctrine has more than one layer. It is built on a sure foundation, that of Christ Himself. He is the cornerstone. The doctrines of the Incarnation, the Atonement, the Resurrection, and the Trinity make up the strong base upon which all else is built. From there we get the middle stones, so crucial for maintaining structure. These are things like the doctrines of the Church and the Sacraments. It is only when we get to the very top that we find the stones that really seem to worry people, the doctrines about marriage and family, about temperament and sobriety, about responsibility and mercy. These are the stones that we would like to see crushed or tossed aside so that new pleasures may be allowed in. Some of us try to remove only these top stones but leave the rest, wanting to have it all, the stability of the wall and the enjoyment of unrestricted pleasure-seeking, but the piecemeal approach does not work. The stones all lock together. They form a whole. Even though these stones are at the top of the wall rather than the bottom, they cannot be removed without cracking the wall down to its foundation. Many people are starting to get this. That is why it is more common now than ever before for people to take a sledgehammer to the base in order to shake the top stones loose. If the Atonement and the Resurrection must fall in order for us to get what we want, so be it. Nothing can be allowed to stand in the way of progress.
How the Original Wall Fell
This is not a new problem. In fact, it is a very old one. God created a world of infinite delights and unimaginable pleasures. His restrictions were minimal. Only the two trees at the center of the garden were off limits. This is what Eve repeats back to the serpent when the serpent seems shocked that God would fence in their pleasure-seeking. The woman tells the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die'” (Genesis 3:2-3). The serpent assures her that this is not the case, that in fact they will become like God if they eat from the tree. The serpent’s coaxing justifies and reassures Eve, but it’s not why she eats. She eats because she “saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise” (Genesis 3:6). She eats because she sees a pleasure she does not currently have and she wants it. The wall that God built with His Word kept all the other pleasures of life safe by excluding only one. Eve reaches for that one excluded pleasure and loses all other pleasures in the process.
The Freedom of Good Doctrine
Doctrine can be oppressive if it is misapplied and wielded as a weapon. And if it is not true, doctrine is downright poisonous. But the true doctrine that comes to us from God through His Word given to His Church is not oppressive, even though it cuts down our options. Knowing that two plus two can only equal four also cuts down our options, but that narrowing does not oppress us. It sets us free by showing us that we can trust two plus two always to equal four, which allows us to build bridges, sew clothing, administer medicine, and calibrate our television remotes, all with accurate measurements. Similarly, the good wall of Catholic Christian doctrine sets us free, both in its stones at the bottom and its stones at the top, because it allows us to let go of paths that lead only to confusion and destruction. It allows us to discover the good life that is a needle in the haystack of human experience. It shows us that the good life is given to us as a gift in Christ. It protects us from the grasp of all destructive forces, even death, so that we can joyfully cultivate peace and hope. Every bite of chocolate, every dance with a pretty girl or handsome guy, and every rich and beautiful song becomes that much sweeter because the good wall is in place.
Photo above is by and (c) 2007 Derek Ramsey. It is being used here, unaltered, under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License version 1.2. For more info about this photo, please see its Wikimedia Commons page here.