Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Time Machine

I've been re-reading G.K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy - his testimony of how he came to believe in Christianity - and was reminded of a recent discussion I had with a friend on the fluctuation of moral norms from one era to the next.

Indeed, I've had the same discussion with many people. "What's right for you isn't necessarily right for me," they say. Hogwash. Truth is always True, and no societal, cultural, situational circumstances can ever change it. We must follow after this Truth relentlessly and at the sacrifice of everything else in our lives. This is what drove me to become Catholic, even at the risk of alienating many friends and family.

This passage from Orthodoxy struck me most poignantly. Bear in mind that this book was published exactly 100 years ago:

An imbecile habit has arisen in modern controversy of saying that such and such a creed can be held in one age but cannot be held in another. Some dogma, we are told, was credible in the twelfth century, but is not credible in the twentieth. You might as well say that a certain philosophy can be believed on Mondays, but cannot be believed on Tuesdays. You might as well say of a view of the cosmos that it was suitable to half-past three, but not suitable to half-past four. What a man can believe depends upon his philosophy, not upon the clock or the century.

It's somewhat comforting to know that the lies of today are not actually of today, but are as old as man's rejection of the timeless Truth.

But I got to thinking: if indeed some moral code - such as the one governing sexual ethics, for instance - were indeed different in the 1800s than it is in the 2000s, what would happen were a modern sexual amoralist suddenly and quite accidentally hurled backwards through time? Would he submit to the rigid structure of temporal moral relativity and suddenly become the strictest adherent to chastity, in recognition of the dominant moral code of his new era of residence?

I rather think not. He has lived his whole life according to a certain standard and is not about to change simply because of the date on the calendar. Neither, incidentally, would I ever think of changing my standards simply because it's 2009.

And if you ask this man, trapped in Victorian culture, why he will not submit to Victorian morality, he will eventually confess that he believes that the standard by which he had lived is perfectly fine - and thus timeless.

It is at this point that his argument against Christian sexual purity begins to crumble, for when he acknowledges the existence of any timeless moral code (even his corrupted version of one) to which he must adhere in the face of overwhelming disapproval, he is drawing a line between right and wrong. Should he still retain possession of his sanity, he will insist that he is on the side of the right, and will thus try to win others over to his point of view - both for his own company and for the intrinsic human desire to reveal the known truth to everybody within one's sphere of influence (which is the definition of evangelization).

And if he is truly honest with himself, at some point he will be forced to ask himself why he believes what he believes. He cannot possibly honestly answer that he is following some higher power in his pursuit of loose living. It is then that he will inevitably have to answer, "Because I prefer this belief," or even "Because it is easier for me to adhere to this belief than to a harder belief." That confession reveals himself as the self-declared arbiter of right and wrong, which unpleasantly flies in the face of his recent realization that Truth must be timeless. For if Truth is indeed timeless and does not vary from age to age, how then can we claim that it can vary from person to person? And how can a lone man dare to say to the Truth, "You are inconvenient, and I therefore reject you"?

If, having started down this road of honest self-examination, he refuses to measure his own beliefs against the rule of Truth, he will most certainly go insane. But should his ability to reason remain intact, the process of discerning moral absolutes as revealed by Truth will inevitably lead him straight into the arms of Mother Church and the fullness of Christ.

Or, in the words of our Lord, "Seek, and you will find." My prayer is that all will seek.


  1. Orthodoxy was a good read. I find that a lot of Catholic books these days have the content but not the art. He was a good writer.

  2. Another book I want to read. So many books, not enough time ... sigh.


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