The Intolerable Irony

Erik AndersonCommunity News

(Erik works alongside Kelly Soifer in the youth ministry.  He also attends Fuller Seminary, is engaged to be married to Karis Jolley, and likes to eat meat.)

No, G.K.  Chesterton (1874-1936) was not around long enough to aim his winsome wit at the postmodern era, or its pop-philosophy of moral relativism.  Surely he would have had a lot to say in response to, “What is true for you is not necessarily true for me,” (mainly because he had a lot to say about everything – rarely was he short on words), however, I have no quotation or quip of his where he addresses postmodernism directly.

But Chesterton wrote avidly, often surveying world history and anthropology, and had penetrating insights into the minds of ages past.  As King Solomon wrote in his book of Ecclesiastes, Nothing is new under the sun – and it seems that while Chesterton might have been writing about ancient civilizations, his comments have a lot to say to us today.
In The Everlasting Man – his historical and anthropological look at the world and comparative religion leading up to Christ – Chesterton insightfully describes the pre-Christ pagan and the tragedy of their cult mythology.  The pagan, according to Chesterton, “feels the presence of powers about which he guesses and invents.” However, deep down the pagan somehow knows that though his posture and actions are worthy of his devotion, the subject of his devotion is not.  That is, subconsciously, he knows what he is doing is a mockery, because the actions seem right and true, yet the god or idol is not and never was.
We therefore feel throughout the whole of paganism a curious double feeling of trust and distrust.  When the man makes the gesture of salutation and of sacrifice…he knows he is doing a worthy and a virile thing.  He knows he is doing one of the things for which a man was made.  His imaginative experiment is therefore justified…This mockery, in the more intense moments of the intellect, becomes the almost intolerable irony of Greek tragedy.

The intolerable irony Chesterton describes is the state of a person who feels deep down that the thing or she is doing is right and good, and yet knows at the same time that it is misguided and futile.  What tragedy indeed: to go about life sensing there is a purpose for which to live, and yet to settle for something that merely imitates the real thing, and to know subconsciously that you are merely settling for less.
This tragedy is getting played out yet again today in the wake of globalization and postmodern acceptance of all religions.  The Greek pantheon of gods has been replaced with the global pantheon of religions and “paths to God.” The Greeks who thought themselves quite enlightened would often incorporate the gods and myths of local conquered peoples into their greater pantheon of gods.  This is much like the “enlightened” of today who accept all new religions as another “path” to a generic and unknown god which they set alongside the other possible paths in an act of tolerance.

Most philosophers, however, can see the logical inconsistencies of moral relativism and the postmodern universalism (or is it pantheism?!?).  Can “all paths” really be true, or “all paths lead to God” if one of them actually claims to be true?  What happens when, out of tolerance, one accepts a religious system that at its base level is quite intolerant?

To believe that “all paths lead to God” is to believe inherently that the “path,” the pursuit, or the state of belief is an end in itself.  That is, the devotion is what is valuable, not the object of that devotion.

The moral relativist, therefore, must subconsciously know that though his pursuit or acknowledgement of truth is worthy, his relativism implicitly suggests that his truth most likely is false.  The postmodern pantheist (or pan-religionist) must subconsciously know that though his “path to God” possesses worth in the pursuit, the path does not, in fact, lead anywhere.  Intolerable irony indeed.

This is strikingly similar to the tragedy of Greek pagan mythologies.  Both the ancient pagan and the enlightened postmodern must know deep down that their actions are worthy of doing.  And yet they both know deep down that their god is either a farce or, at best, one name among many for an otherwise and altogether unknown and unknowable god.  Again, as Ecclesiastes puts it, Nothing is new under the sun!  More importantly, how tragic are the hearts of these people who know that they are lost yet out of insecurity or pride, pretend to hold a map.

The question for us, brothers and sisters, is do we – like Chesterton – grasp the intolerable irony of this global tragedy?  Do our hearts go out to those who do not yet realize that all paths – save for one – lead to destruction?  Are we willing and ready to engage with those who worship an unknown god and help them direct their worship to the one true God?

Are we willing to point those with high esteem for all paths to Him who is The Way – and those who think they tolerate all truths to Him who is The Truth?

In a world where there are so many who consider themselves religious, and see value in faith, it seems that we need to hear Him who says, Behold, the harvest is ready.  It is ready indeed!