Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Notice Board of Father Brown

“Ah, yes, these modern infidels appeal to their reason; but who can look at those millions of worlds and not feel that there may well be wonderful universes above us where reason is utterly unreasonable?”

“No,” said the other priest; “reason is always reasonable, even in the last limbo, in the lost borderland of things. I know that people charge the Church with lowering reason, but it is just the other way. Alone on earth, the Church makes reason really supreme. Alone on earth, the Church affirms that God himself is bound by reason.”

The other priest raised his austere face to the spangled sky and said: “Yet who knows if in that infinite universe —?”

“Only infinite physically,” said the little priest, turning sharply in his seat, “not infinite in the sense of escaping from the laws of truth… Reason and justice grip the remotest and the loneliest star. Look at those stars. Don’t they look as if they were single diamonds and sapphires? Well, you can imagine any mad botany or geology you please. Think of forests of adamant with leaves of brilliants. Think the moon is a blue moon, a single elephantine sapphire. But don’t fancy that all that frantic astronomy would make the smallest difference to the reason and justice of conduct. On plains of opal, under cliffs cut out of pearl, you would still find a notice-board, ‘Thou shalt not steal…’”

[The other priest said], “Well, I think that other worlds may perhaps rise higher than our reason. The mystery of heaven is unfathomable, and I for one can only bow my head.”

Then, with brow yet bent and without changing by the faintest shade his attitude or voice, he added:

“Just hand over that sapphire cross of yours, will you? We’re all alone here, and I could pull you to pieces like a straw doll.”
GK Chesterton, The Blue Cross

Reflection – The other day I had a quote from GKC’s Fr. Brown stories, and it got me thinking that there’s quite a bit in those stories besides detecting—little moments scattered here and there of Chestertonian wisdom on the lips of his little round priest. So, and as a light change from the somewhat heavy material from Catherine Doherty lately, I thought I’d spend some days mining ‘The Wisdom of Fr. Brown’ for gems. I will try to do so without spoiling the stories for those who haven’t read them.

Here, for example, we have the astonishing (perhaps, to us) statement that God Himself is bound by reason. Furthermore, that the moral law flows from reason. And that therefore the moral law is cosmic and universal and admits of no exception.

It is telling, of course, that the ‘other priest’ (who of course is not a priest at all, but an impostor and thief) is advancing his metaphysical theories about universes above reason and bowing his head in piety before the unknowability of it all, not out of great humility and wise modesty before the mystery, but because he wants to steal the sapphire cross Fr. Brown is carrying.

So often the webs of theories we spin about relativism and the infinite plasticity of the moral law, its endless variation and the provincial and provisional nature of the commandments all boil down to that: we want to do what we want to do. We work up all sorts of ingenious arguments for why we cannot really know what is and what is not, what the mind of God is and what morality might mean in this infinite expanding universe… but really, it’s all in service of our being able to steal this, go to bed with that, lie about x, cheat about y, and so forth.

So Fr. Brown’s notice board ‘Thou shalt not steal’ at the foot of the pearl cliffs is a sharp, square little reminder that all of that is bosh. The moral law springs from the mind of God, who has been kind enough to allow us access to it through our own use of sacred reason (and many, many human beings have used their reason to fundamentally figure it out, at least the main lines of it, with remarkable agreement), and for those of us who may be either too thick or too lazy or too rebellious to use our reason thus (those who just want to take that sapphire cross no matter what) He has revealed it in His Scriptures and entrusted it to His Church, which has faithfully taught that law for 2000 years.

That is the notice board, not some artificial construct imposing some silly arbitrary rule upon us, but a sign telling us what we already know, or should know, but choose to forget or deny or ignore. The Ten Commandments and the moral teaching of the Church are the notice board for our rebellious and dense humanity, and their jurisdiction is universal.

1 comment:

  1. God is an objective being and God's laws are objective laws but human perception and interpretation is always relative and always subject to obstructions, desire and darkness. Therefore, mans ability to reason correctly is far from good let alone infinite. Even understanding a thing in itself ( a human capacity independent from reason) is relative, subject to the openness between the intelligent, sensitive being- and- the intelligibility of the sensible object. It is never so simple as reading in a book or even on a stone to find definitively what God considers and considers always to be morally right or wrong. I believe that at the heart of the ministry of Jesus Christ is the precisely is that He took the laws written in stone and re- inscribed them on the human heart.


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