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Fairy Tales and Realpolitik

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In Orthodoxy G.K. Chesterton praises fairy tales not because they imagine an alternate world but because they marvel at the universe as it is. Materialists take for granted that apples fall from trees. Fairy tales wonder, because logically speaking the apple didn’t need to fall down. Why didn’t it fall up? Couldn’t the law of gravity break? Why didn’t it break?

He calls it “elementary wonder.”[1] Without explicitly connecting them, Chesterton makes a similar point in his following chapter on politics. If you want to improve the city you love, don’t try to find what’s lovable about it. Be shocked that your city is, be dazzled that you are there and not somewhere else. Then start your reform.

Chesterton wants people to see their primal loyalty not as embarrassing, irrational, or socially constructed, but as a primal love. When you fall in love, you can never quite explain why you love the person you do. Mothers love a child this way, “arbitrarily, because it is theirs.”[2] Anyone with a precise reason to love would be a terrible lover and a terrible mother.

It is hard to love this way. The United States is stuck in acedia.

Step 1: We look for a reason to love the U.S.

Step 2: It doesn’t show.

Step 3: We decide we must make it ourselves.

It is easier to seek reasons, but then all you’ll eventually love is the reasons. And what happens when they go? Americans are sad and discouraged that, though we want something to love, it’s not easy to find.

In both cases, we haven’t seen what’s more basically lovable about the United States, the marvel that it is. Wonder can be hard. We’re discouraged by no clear results in Step 2. Who has time to look hard for an answer? We’re Americans after all. So we act! Both the rush of executive orders and rash of spontaneous protests are the fruits of our acedia.

The political left says what’s lovable is tolerance, diversity, and love. The political right says it’s greatness. Our ideologies of diversity and greatness are part of our boredom. We’ve concocted them as mass-produced answers, cheaper to make than to address the real question of why we love our country. We have, as Simone Weil says, “wanted to be too active” and thus rushed to false solutions.[3] Instead of giving concrete solutions, our false practicality is leading us further and further from reality.

In Umberto Eco’s The Prague Cemetery, a man forging a conspiracy story jokes, “It is better not to fill the heads of government agents with too much information. All they want is clear, simple ideas, black and white, good and bad.”[4] We collectively don’t want too much information, that seems clear. Yet about ideas and policies, we’re not even asking for clear ideas. In fact, people are being pretty vague. It’s a good sign we’re rushing. For instance, after the election Jon Stewart claimed the U.S. was founded on multiculturalism. So that’s what that white, male, landowning, overwhelmingly Protestant body of lawyers stood for? Right.

On policy, candidates shot from the hip during the campaign. This continues—proposals from the Trump administration remain temporary and indefinite. Would Hillary Clinton have been any different? On ideas, no one seems quite sure what “great” is — it seems to be some form of economic stability. “Tolerance” is also nebulous—it tolerates only a narrow range of viewpoints. Outside of those parameters, it sets things on fire.

Is there a way to deal with our boredom and haste?

Chesterton can seem irrational on fairy tales and politics, drunk on loving wonder, low on reason. Yet throughout the two chapters he praises voters’ common sense and fairy tales’ steel consistency. The Church is similarly stuck between rational and irrational, yet makes a clear decision. For this reason, she’s the only place that can solve our muddled acedia.

Should she favor candidates and accept U.S. political categories? People seem to think the Catholic Church is politically liberal or conservative. It’s a claim people make for their own advantage, either to invoke Church support or demonize her. We could end that situation, but the Church insists on denying the standards society sets.

Plenty think the Church is a prude for not endorsing candidates—isn’t it obvious who to elect? Cynics, of course, always think they’re realists. Henri Nouwen has words for such cynics: “In belittling God’s joy, their darkness only calls forth more darkness.”[5]

Are we liberal or conservative? We belong to Jesus. Jesus who made not just the visible — what’s rational, political, strategic—but the invisible. The Church alone steps past this divide, even if not always gracefully. Jesus is the one who “has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility” (Eph 2:14, RSV). We are more than the ideas, issues, and illusions that keep us apart. We are, and that is reason enough to love one another.

He still does this at Mass. Two weeks after the inauguration, the week after the Women’s Marches, the prayers of the Church had something to say. They asked God to “keep your family safe” (Collect, Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time). They pleaded that “made one in Christ, we may joyfully bear fruit for the salvation of the world” (Prayer after Communion). Division distracts us from the mission. The mission is not just doing lots and lots of good things. It’s being good, noticing good. Not for our party, but for the salvation of the world.

America is at a crossroads. There are partial answers in many places. That’s not what we need. The Church is the only place that provides a comprehensive answer to confusion today. When everyone says they’re driven by love, the Church actually offers it.

The Church gets this crossroads, because we live there. Politics isn’t the only place that’s too reactionary. Our parishes and policy arms fail to anticipate neighborhood and societal problems. We’re always left scrambling. Yet day in and day out, parishes make it work. They reach out, connect people to resources, provide for people in need, counsel those on the edge of society and of self-destruction. One way or another, God has his way.

And despite everything we’ve done to keep him at bay, he continually offers himself through our hands. Whether we think about the words, we keep singing: “Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.” We sing this prayer together, on behalf of the world, begging God’s help not for “me” but for “us.” This Lamb, it seems more and more, is our only hope.

Featured Image: Nicholas Raymond, Red, White, and Blue (2014); CC-BY-3.0.

[1] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (New York: Barnes and Noble, 2008), 42.

[2] Ibid., 59.

[3] Simone Weil, “Reflections on the Right use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God.”

[4] Umberto Eco, The Prague Cemetery, tr. Richard Dixon (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011), 100.

[5] Henri J. Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son (New York: Image, 1994), 109.

Samuel Bellafiore

Samuel Bellafiore is a seminarian for the Diocese of Albany, NY, in second theology at Dunwoodie Seminary.