Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Puritans, Pagans, and the Proper Place for Pleasure

It has been observed that there are three kinds of people in this world: those who can count, and those who can't.

G.K. Chesterton has a different take on how to classify people, arguing that there are two groups into which a large majority of mankind can be placed: puritans and pagans. The former tends to make innocent things seem guilty, while the latter tries to make guilty things seem innocent. Both are obsessed with the trivial, with puritanism displaying indignance, and paganism devotion, toward things that don't really matter. The problem with both, Chesterton argues, is that they lack the common sense needed to put pleasure in its proper place.

Chesterton drew an interesting parallel between the puritan and the gnostic. Both, he said, attempted to portray the physical world as evil. "Idolatry," he writes,
"... is committed, not merely by setting up false gods, but also by setting up false devils.... Sin is in a man's soul, not in his tools or toys."
His point was that the puritan-slash-gnostic avoidance of legitimate pleasure is merely a reaction against the pagan pursuit of it. The incarnation of the Son of God, Chesterton insists, avoids the pitfalls of a fear of the spiritual on the one hand and the physical on the other.

What Chesterton seems to be arguing for (though he wouldn't use these terms) is a kind of secular, worldly Christianity that does not merely hold its nose and begrudgingly make peace with the culture, but embraces it, and its legitimate pleasures, with open arms, thanksgiving, and wonder. "Drink," he urges the believer, "because you are happy, but never because you are miserable."

If you'll forgive the "emergent" po-mo rhetoric, it seems to me that a robust, embodied, world-affirming Christianity does more justice to both the incarnation of Christ and the imago Dei in man than does the world-flightiness of much of the American church, whether evangelical or Reformed.

Score "one" for the Catholics.