This is an excerpt from Misfit Faith, chapter 6: “Too Good to be False (Or, Religion is a Fairy Tale)”
We all know the story of Cinderella: Oppressed and despised stepchild wants to join her stepsisters at the royal ball, but she can’t because she has nothing to wear (Hashtag, WhitePeopleProblems). So what happens? A fairy godmother magically appears and solves her issue, clothing her in an exquisite gown and furnishing her with a coach and driver. But then, the condition: She must leave the party no later than midnight, or else her dress will turn back into rags and her coach will turn back into a pumpkin.
Now can you imagine Cinderella objecting to the conditions under which her fairy godmother placed her? “Wait, what? I have to leave the dance by midnight? That’s kind of lame.” To this complaint her fairy godmother would probably respond, “Oh I’m sorry, is my magical spell too inconvenient for you? Would you rather not go at all and just be the filthy slave-girl you were when I showed up? Because how’s that working out for you?” (and then she would have muttered something under her breath about how kids these days are such entitled little shits).
No, the wonder of the arrangement makes the conditions deal with-able. Cinderella would never have balked at the restrictions placed upon her, because they were imposed by the same magic that created the context for them in the first place. The two things were linked, so to whine about one of them would have been both ironic and ungrateful.
There is a similar magic at play in our own lives as participants in the story God is telling. If we can de-sophisticate ourselves enough to recognize the sheer wonder of the everyday and ordinary, then the occasional restriction or expectation attached to those enjoyments will hardly seem harsh. Chesterton calls this “the doctrine of conditional joy,” and by that he means that fairy tales merely reflect the way the world actually works. So it’s not that God arbitrarily withholds his blessings until we jump through some random hoop he has set up for us (like a parent withholding dessert from a child until he finishes his vegetables, or a man not letting his dog eat the treat he placed on the ground until he gives it the verbal go-ahead). Rather, when there are certain conditions attached to, expectations concerning, or boundaries around some good thing, they are providing the actual context in which that blessing can be enjoyed. It’s not simply accidental or arbitrary, it’s real and built-in (meaning that’s just how the world sort of is).
The command to love your neighbor by sharing with him from the bounty of your own wealth is not some external condition attached to having wealth, it is the way in which that wealth can be enjoyably had. The capacity to enjoy the blessing is created by the condition itself, and if the latter is divorced from the former, well, it just mucks everything up.
Take sex, for example (there, got your attention back, didn’t I?). Many people see sex as nothing more than the mere scratching of a biological itch, and consider any restrictions on sex to be but forced and ad hoc societal conventions, hold-overs from a more puritanical past. Yet I can’t help but wonder whether such a person, far from truly loving and enjoying sex, has actually become numb to the wonder of it. Going back to my earlier point about being in awe of ordinary things, if sex were considered to be as magical a thing as attending the ball was for Cinderella, then it’s quite likely that the suggestion that it be enjoyed in the context of a committed and loving relationship would seem perfectly reasonable. Thus the feeling would not be “I have to have sex with someone I love?”, but, “I get to love someone, and have sex with them too?”
In other words, when we discover that the same magic that makes sex possible also creates the boundaries in which it is intended to happen, the boundary will seem less like an electric barbed-wire fence and more like the wall around a playground.
This is what monks and mystics call “asceticism,” a term that derives from the Latin word for “discipline” or “practice” (and was originally applied to athletes in training). The point of rules and restrictions was never to create some artificial and capricious circumstance whose only point was to add unnecessary hindrances to pleasure, but on the contrary, it was to train us for joy.
When it comes to having wealth, having sex, or having bourbon, the goal is not to rid ourselves of regulations but to discover the wonder and magic of such things, to the point where they are prized enough never to be squandered or considered common. And the way to ascribe value to a thing is to not overindulge, which is why you don’t chug mouthfuls of 23 year-old Pappy Van Winkle straight from the bottle unless you’re some classless and uncouth philistine. No, you sniff it first, then sip it, and roll it around on your tongue, tasting the nutty, caramel notes, and then you swallow.
It doesn’t take a genius with a doctorate in human psychology to know that the person who slams shot after shot of whiskey, or who bangs a different college co-ed every night, or who hordes material possessions, has long since stopped experiencing any true enjoyment from of these things. They have lost their charm and become disgraceful (dis-graceful, get it?). Thus pursuits that were once viewed with wonder are now, because of the sad spiral from use to over-use, mere coping mechanisms and occasions for abuse.
As Chesterton said, “We should thank God for beer and Burgundy by not drinking too much of them.” Elsewhere he chastised the notorious libertine Oscar Wilde for insisting that sunsets have no value since we cannot pay for them. Pish posh, Chesterton retorted: “We can pay for sunsets! We can pay for them by not being Oscar Wilde.”