Friday, November 12, 2010

On the lunatic (pg.13-16) in Chesterton’s “Orthodoxy”

With Chesterton’s religiosity and Christian stance, one could say (and even I admittedly have to write this out to think it more clearly): there is a fine line between the madman and the devout religious man (a believer of an Abrahamic to be specific).

The lunatic’s scope of reality is small and he is at the centre of it. Everything causeless has cause and everything is full of meaning, according to Chesterton, too much meaning. The delusional madman sees himself, not as the observer but as the original cause of all the causes: the purpose of his reality (although we would say that “reality” is actually constructed delusion). Chesterton says to the madman: “if you only knew that these people cared nothing about you! How much larger your life would be if your self could become smaller in it” (16). He shrinks the individual, makes his grandiose self less important and less worthy of the attention the madman perceives.

The devout religious man’s “people” is God. God is concerned with the small movements of the believer, like the lunatic is concerned with the spy watching his every move. A sinful thought or not washing completely in wudu (the Islamic practice of ritually washing before daily prayers, with the recommendation of washing each area three times to be sure of complete purity), everything matters and little of what we think and do is without significance, or in the worst case, consequence. In the strictest mind of the believer, salvation and punishment could not be more self-focused.

However, to be clear, the believer’s reality is not as limited as the madman. He sees greatness and purpose outside of himself and his life, although his self importance somewhat remains. He is certainly not Jesus but he is important enough that every word is heard in thought and prayer by God and the details of his life and person are in a continual process of being recorded and erased (through sin and repentance/ forgiveness).

All of this seems somewhat mad, in the context of Chesterton’s lunatic, but we must remember the believer’s perception of the individual. All individuals are distinct, in that Suzie was created especially by God to be Suzie, with all of her unique Suzie-like qualities, but the importance of the individual’s struggle is lessened without degrading the actual individual (by “struggle” I refer to the apparent madness of God as a spy and the believer at centre of it all, struggling to avoid sin under the watchful eye). While Suzie is struggling and is at the very centre of that struggle, she is not unique in her situation. All individuals, in the mind of the believer, are involved in this reality and no individual or individual’s struggle is greater than any other: faith “leave[s] you in the open, free like other men to look up as well as down” (16).

For those who remain critical of religion: do we call the devoutly faithful partially mad? For the believers: where do we find the individual, ourselves, in the scheme of prayer, judgment and salvation and how much of “I” is too much or too little? It’s a hard process to reconcile or put finely in definitive terms. Since, for Chesterton, reason is what “breed[s] insanity” (12), I pose the question to him: to what extent does religion reason before it becomes lunacy?

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