Heretics – Chapter 7: Omar and the Sacred Vine

I am continuing my journey through G.K. Chesterton’s Heretics.

Is drinking inherently bad? There are some behaviors that do not immediately have negative effects, but there are also effects that can affect us in a negative way depending on our perspective of it.

Heresy exposed: Making sacraments medicine.

Summary of Chapter:

In this chapter Chesterton writes about the similarities of the drunk and the teetotaler. Neither of which he agreed with, but both who actually have the same perspective of drink: that it should be taken as a medicine.

“In these discussions it is almost always felt that one very wise and moderate position is to say that wine or such stuff should only be drunk as a medicine. With this I should venture to disagree with a peculiar ferocity. The one genuinely dangerous and immoral way of drinking wine is to drink it as a medicine. And for this reason, If a man drinks wine in order to obtain pleasure, he is trying to obtain something exceptional, something he does not expect every hour of the day, something which, unless he is a little insane, he will not try to get every hour of the day. But if a man drinks wine in order to obtain health, he is trying to get something natural; something, that is, that he ought not to be without; something that he may find it difficult to reconcile himself to being without”

While both sides disagree with the amount, they both see that the world is a terrible place and that the drink is a release. One says that the medicine should never be used (but still sees it as medicine) and the other says it should always be used. Here is the issue: if drink is a medicine then the effect it puts us in must be the healthy state and not just an enjoyable one. If the drink is a sacrament then it is taken to enjoy life and avoids the excess.

“The sound rule in the matter would appear to be like many other sound rules—a paradox. Drink because you are happy, but never because you are miserable. Never drink when you are wretched without it, or you will be like the grey-faced gin-drinker in the slum; but drink when you would be happy without it, and you will be like the laughing peasant of Italy. Never drink because you need it, for this is rational drinking, and the way to death and hell. But drink because you do not need it, for this is irrational drinking, and the ancient health of the world.”

The underlying issue is the worldview of the person. A worldview is the person’s way of viewing the world. Those who think that the world is a evil, boring, and boorish place chase after their entertainment which could be drink, media, television, video games, and any other assortment of pleasures that placate the soul and numb it out. These people are not happy and in fact just chase after pleasure. However, it is those that  look past the moment to the eternal that are the happy people and those are the ones who celebrate.

“The carpe diem religion is not the religion of happy people, but of very unhappy people. Great joy does, not gather the rosebuds while it may; its eyes are fixed on the immortal rose which Dante saw. Great joy has in it the sense of immortality; the very splendour of youth is the sense that it has all space to stretch its legs in. In all great comic literature, in “Tristram Shandy” or “Pickwick”, there is this sense of space and incorruptibility; we feel the characters are deathless people in an endless tale. It is true enough, of course, that a pungent happiness comes chiefly in certain passing moments; but it is not true that we should think of them as passing, or enjoy them simply “for those moments’ sake.” To do this is to rationalize the happiness, and therefore to destroy it.”

C.S. Lewis may call these passing moments mere glimpses into the pleasures of eternity. It is that reflection that shows what we truly desire. Chesterton clarifies that these pleasures that people love are rooted in the eternal and not the passing.

“A man may have, for instance, a moment of ecstasy in first love, or a moment of victory in battle. The lover enjoys the moment, but precisely not for the moment’s sake. He enjoys it for the woman’s sake, or his own sake. The warrior enjoys the moment, but not for the sake of the moment; he enjoys it for the sake of the flag. The cause which the flag stands for may be foolish and fleeting; the love may be calf-love, and last a week. But the patriot thinks of the flag as eternal; the lover thinks of his love as something that cannot end. These moments are filled with eternity; these moments are joyful because they do not seem momentary. Once look at them as moments after Pater’s manner, and they become as cold as Pater and his style. Man cannot love mortal things. He can only love immortal things for an instant. “

The contrast between this heresy and the truth is very apparent. On one side is hopelessness but on the other is the greatest adventure of all time.

“He feasts because life is not joyful; he revels because he is not glad. “Drink,” he says, “for you know not whence you come nor why. Drink, for you know not when you go nor where. Drink, because the stars are cruel and the world as idle as a humming-top. Drink, because there is nothing worth trusting, nothing worth fighting for. Drink, because all things are lapsed in a base equality and an evil peace.” So he stands offering us the cup in his hand. And at the high altar of Christianity stands another figure, in whose hand also is the cup of the vine. “Drink” he says “for the whole world is as red as this wine, with the crimson of the love and wrath of God. Drink, for the trumpets are blowing for battle and this is the stirrup-cup. Drink, for this my blood of the new testament that is shed for you. Drink, for I know of whence you come and why. Drink, for I know of when you go and where.”

Thoughts:

There was a movie a long time ago with the recently departed Robin Williams where he played a instructor. In the Dead Poets Society he motivated his class to ‘seize the day!’ but in the end he was fired. This shocked many people, especially in the scene where a student committed suicide. Now the advice to seize the day is one that behind it has no hope. Why should one seize the day? Is it to just follow ones bliss? Many people seize the day to medicate themselves against a harsh world and chase after wine, drugs, thrills, and other pursuits. The poor student who committed suicide has this dilemma: his teacher is telling him to chase his bliss of theater but his father wants him to go to Harvard. The student because of the mixed messages held a worldview of hopelessness in either direction  and so ended his life. It was a good thing that the fictional professor who was teaching those kids was fired. He was offering a life without hope and the consequences of that were disastrous. A better story to watch instead is The Emperors Club as that deals with the consequences of living for self.

William Lace Craig writes about this as well in his article The Absurdity of Life without God where he writes:

“If life ends at the grave, then it makes no difference whether one has lived as a Stalin or as a saint. Since one’s destiny is ultimately unrelated to one’s behavior, you may as well just live as you please. As Dostoyevsky put it: “If there is no immortality then all things are permitted.” On this basis, a writer like Ayn Rand is absolutely correct to praise the virtues of selfishness. Live totally for self; no one holds you accountable! Indeed, it would be foolish to do anything else, for life is too short to jeopardize it by acting out of anything but pure self-interest. Sacrifice for another person would be stupid.”

So if there is no eternity then we must face the absurdity of meaningless. However that is scary and painful so instead of that we try to distract ourselves. This unfortunately becomes medicinal living.

However, if one sees life as a grand eternal adventure in service of God then there is a pleasure abounding in everything!

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