Have you ever tasted and seen the astounding joy of a swing set? Or felt the harrowing thrill of plunging down a tube slide? Unless it’s a blindingly bright day, semi-darkness swallows you for a few seconds as you spiral down and down, feeling the electricity building from your friction. Or, if it’s an open slide, you get a royal view of the park or your backyard before gliding gently to earth. Florence Joyner park had a towering open air spiral slide from the top of which you could survey most of the main playground like a king. Although it didn’t have walls or fences dividing it from the rest of the park, it was never hard to tell where the sand pits ended and the picnic area began. This is just like Christian ethics, according to Chesterton. Leave it to Chesterton to connect Christian doctrine and playgrounds:
“…the view that priests darken and embitter the world. I look at the world and simply discover that they don’t. Those countries in Europe which are still influenced by priests, are exactly the countries where there is still singing and dancing and coloured dresses and art in the open-air. Catholic doctrine and discipline may be walls; but they are the walls of a playground. Christianity is the only frame which has preserved the pleasure of Paganism. We might fancy some children playing on the flat grassy top of some tall island in the sea. So long as there was a wall round the cliff’s edge they could fling themselves into every frantic game and make the place the noisiest of nurseries. But the walls were knocked down, leaving the naked peril of the precipice. They did not fall over; but when their friends returned to them they were all huddled in terror in the centre of the island; and their song had ceased.” (145)
We Christians might be tempted to think of rules as roofs: they protect us from certain large rocks or cold rains that might befall us if we ventured out from under them. We Christians might be tempted to think of moral rectitude as shelter. We fear that if we broke the walls around Chesterton’s island, we would fall off the cliff to our demise. And the fear is justified. I won’t have casual sex outside of marriage to avoid STDs; I won’t get drunk so I don’t hurt anyone I love or kill my brain cells faster; I’ll be kind to my housemate so we can get along and live together easier. It seems that we generally understand sin to have consequences and thus might be tempted to avoid it like we would the flu––because it would be bad for us.
[A side note: I have been discouraged from sinning by many chapel talks and sermons for the reason that sin hurts people. Now I definitely do not want to hurt people, and avoiding the damages (foreseen or unforeseen) of sin to my own and others’ lives is even a good reason to flee from sin and fight it. But shouldn’t the main reason we seek to obey God and avoid sin––the main reason we want to live within the walls of the playground––be that we fear and love God for himself, not merely because we want to avoid the troublesome consequences accompanying sin? Are we merely trying to dodge sin to escape its dangerous results instead of seeking to be holy as he is holy? Christian morality is not primarily about avoiding pain, even the pain that goes along with sin––everyone is averse to pain. Only God’s people, however––whom he has redeemed and on whose hearts he has engraved a new and old commandment––seek to follow his rules because it is he who made them, seek to live within his playground because he made it for us. It’s about him, not avoiding pain.]
Sin hurts us––granted. But Chesterton says something more here: not only would we fall off the cliff if we broke down the wall, but our childlike delight of dance and song that the wall made possible would be lost––the wonderful magic of the playground would be shattered. And we, having realized it, would lose all eagerness for play, instead cowering in fear of the sharp fall of the cliff’s edge and the infinite horizon of water beyond. What would seem to give us greater freedom (the elimination of limitations) actually scares us. While we had walls, we had specificity and direction––just the right amount of freedom––quite as much as we could manage and enjoy. We hadn’t even yet explored all the possibilities of that playground when its walls were leveled and its delights scattered. Not only does breaking the walls and going beyond them (sin) hurt us, but the very desire to break those walls is contrary to our internal constitution. We are designed in such a way that when those walls are broken down, we no longer know what to do with ourselves. The impulse is inconsistent with our nature.
A recent Newsweek article discussed how the legal age for receiving euthanasia has been decreased (to 16-year-olds independently, 12-15-year-olds with parental consent) in the Netherlands:
‘Ross cites theologian Theo Boer of the Theological University in Kampen and in the Netherlands. He said, “I like autonomy very much. . . . But it seems to have overruled other values, like solidarity, patience, making the best of things. The risk now is that people no longer search for a way to endure their suffering. Killing yourself is the end of autonomy.”’
This story was one of the most disturbing and tragic news pieces I’ve heard. But it’s hard to argue with Boer’s assessment: if you pursue personal autonomy so ardently that you kill yourself, haven’t you lost the goal you were aiming for? When the focus shifts from enjoying the clearly delineated playground to wanting my own personal freedom on my own terms, I want to break through the walls of the playground at any cost––even the cost of losing my life over the cliff and, with it, any further opportunities for personal freedom.
The desire to break down the walls of Christian morality is ultimately self-contradictory––the thing I’m trying to gain by breaking them down is inappropriate to my nature and will ultimately destroy me. Human beings cannot enjoy unlimited personal autonomy because we are not unlimited or autonomous. What we can enjoy is a specific life limited by Christian morality. Since our lives are necessarily limited by our very nature, we will end up choosing specific limitations––and it just so happens that the ones delineated by Christianity are the most suited to our flourishing.
Something I’ve learned in one of my creative writing classes this semester is that writing poetry is not as much unlimited freestyle as I thought before––in fact, the best poems often have undergone not only serious revision but have also been formed by the most stringent restrictions. Intensely specific structure creates the circumstances in which a poet forms beautiful verse. It’s the same thing with morality. The moral constraints of Christianity should be seen not as burdensome but as freeing––not as the doldrums of a research paper but as the delight of poetry. Human flourishing, rich and pleasant life, takes place only within boundaries––the boundaries of moral law (in this case the law formed by the commandments of the LORD and of his Christ)––or as Chesterton might put it, under the mysterious ordinances of the king of elfland.