books reading

Virtues Gone Mad

March 4, 2011

When a religious scheme is shattered (as Christianity was shattered at the Reformation), it is not merely the vices that are let loose. The vices are, indeed, let loose, and they wander and do damage. But the virtues are let loose also; the virtues wander more wildly, and the virtues do more terrible damage. The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone.

-G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy.

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  • Keren March 5, 2011 at 11:54 pm

    I am working through Chesterton’s book, “Orthodoxy,” and thus the quote. I have this blog set to automatically be imported to Facebook, and thus this was posted on my wall. This quote brought a question in a comment on Facebook, and I thought that the possibility of others questioning the first half of this quote here might warrant me posting the Facebook question and my response here. (I also should qualify that I do not endorse the entirety of Chesterton’s writings and beliefs, but have undoubtedly found his insight to be valuable.):

    FB Friend: “I’m not sure at all about this. Explain your take on this.”

    Me: “Perhaps, I should have included the remainder of that paragraph: “Thus, some scientists care for truth, but their truth is pitiless. And thus some humanitarians care for pity, but their pity–I am sorry to say–is often untruthful”

    In other words, the virtues he speaks of have been taken out of their original context and misapplied. Thus, it is far more harmful and deceiving, because it is not pure error. It is truth, mixed with error: truth, misapplied. But there are many more virtues than just truth and pity that seem to have gone mad in society today.

    We get a taste for this sort poison, and no longer realize we are swallowing poison.

    Take for instance, the recent Rod Bell headlines within our Christian circles. Whether or not this is what Rod Bell is writing in his new book: love, isolated from other virtues and taken to its extreme and “wandering alone” might tempt us to believe that God love will allow no one to go to hell because a loving God would not create a hell (universalism). But that is love isolated from God’s mercy, justice, and sovereignty, and also truth, for it is to call Christ a liar by what He clearly stated in John 8:24 (to name one of many Scriptures). It also minimizes and pollutes even the isolated virtue of love.

    In the United States (and certainly elsewhere), many are very much drawn to moralism, yet without the foundation for it: the whole of Scripture, the Gospel. We take the moralism and politicize and dogmatize our applications of it. We (speaking of our culture as a whole, not necessarily of you, me, or other believers in particular) have some of the “blocks,” but do not even know the foundation from which they came from. We think that we are motivated by the Bible, but often it is mere detached moralism which can thus lead to decisions, opinions, and religious schemes detached from (and even in opposition) to Scripture. We can simply slap on the label of “Biblical,” and gain instant approval and following.

    So, some argue that every individual deserves to have his/her own rights. This is built on the virtue of the Christian belief of imago dei: image of God and/or the virtue of free will. These are true virtues. Yet, that virtue gone mad claims that every woman has the right on whether or not she can choose to kill her unborn child. This explains why some can choose to both donate money to a foundation helping sickly children and financially support a local abortion clinic so that unwed mothers can have access to choice.

    Or, on a more individual level: we take the virtue of loyalty, and twist it to make an abusee remain silent about the truth. We take the virtue of separation from false teachers and separate it from love or misapply it to anyone who disagrees with us (and thus disconnect it from the equally commanded virtue of unity). We take the virtue of order and misapply it and say others must micromanage their infants or their spouse’s lives in harmful, damaging ways. We take the virtue of parental authority and misuse and abuse our children with it. We take the virtue of serving others and use it to make others think highly of us. We take these virtues and turn them into “respectable sins.” And that’s what makes them so deadly. For on the surface, they are respectable and they are “virtues.” It has become so ingrained as part of our culture that we are hesitant to look under the table and see it for what it truly is.

    Does that make sense?”

    FB Friend: “yes, I understand but I got hung up on ‘Christianity being shattered at the Reformation’, allowing vices and virtues to run free.”

    Me: “Ah. I am not exactly sure on Chesterton’s Reformation reference there (of what aspect of Christianity was being shattered at the Reformation). (Perhaps someone reading here more versed in his writings and life than I am can give insight). He did convert to Catholicism from Anglicism in 1922. (“Orthodoxy” was written in 1909, and presumably was written in England.)

    However, I think that the sentences on truth and pity following my original paragraph quoted lend insight that he was specifically pointing to the dangers of perceived virtues in benevolent secularism and gracious Humanism, which are culturally conditioned, emotionally dictated, and ultimately misguided. (Another example: A single-minded attachment to the virtue of hard work will do some great damage (when not balanced with other virtues the Scriptures give), though we know that Scripture does specifically and generally convey this to be a valuable virtue.) Mostly in this specific book, he appears to be condemning post-modernity and rationalism and their by-products.

    Perhaps his view of exactly what was shattered would differ from mine, but through common grace (and maybe other forms) his words are certainly applicable to me, an Evangelical Christian.

    (Oh, and I meant *Rob* Bell, not Rod Bell. 🙂 Though, it wouldn’t be the first time his name has been confused with another’s.)

    Thanks for bringing that up-helpful thinking. Perhaps I would have been better off to have left out his parenthetical statement. :)”

  • March 2011 Reading | Beauty in Every Place April 3, 2011 at 10:46 pm

    […] Orthodoxy is Chesterton’s 1908 addition to an earlier work, Heretics, and was also written in response, according to Chesterton, to Mr. G.S. Street. It is his self-acclaimed essay on how he came to believe the orthodoxy of the Christian faith (specifically, he converted to Catholicism later in life), tracing the path of his searching for the meaning of life and realizing the answer had been answered again and again throughout the history of the church. Much of this work and his accounting for his own thoughts is portrayed in metaphor, which I really enjoyed in this work. He also refers to many of his contemporaries and their specific practices/beliefs, which is an aspect that can be somewhat confusing if the reader is not aware of their backgrounds and the teachings tied to their names (such would be the case for myself, with most of the names). Although he attacks reformed theology, seems to view some races as being superior to others (although he repeatedly attacked evolutionary thought), and has other issues I disagree with, I found this book is very mentally and spiritually stimulating. Earlier this month, I mentioned a quote from this work here. […]