G.K. Chesterton once said that the true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him. I believe that it is increasingly difficult for our culture to understand what Chesterton means. To understand why love is a more powerful motivator than hate, we must grasp that there are ultimate commitments involved in either posture: One fights out of a fundamental desire to destroy and dominate and the other fights because it is compelled by love to defend the good of the beloved. Think for a moment about all the outrage we’ve seen in cancel culture over the past year. It embodies one dimension of this perspective. The outrage of cancel culture makes everything a personal insult because there is no argument to be had, no discussion is possible. And that’s because the philosophy of cancel culture is built upon a view of reality that says the world does not have meaning in and of itself. Meaning is subjective, it’s imposed on the world; therefore it’s my meaning versus your meaning. The only way we can settle disagreement is by duking it out. If you oppose my meaning, you are a threat to me and I have a vested interest in suppressing you, canceling you, destroying you even, but not in having a reasoned conversation with you.
Opposite this is an historic virtue like courage. Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather strength in the presence of fear. It is strength in the presence of fear for a reason. Courage steps into the fray because something good is threatened. Courage as a virtue makes no sense without something good to defend, something worth giving your life to protect. Courage is therefore motivated by a love of the good, a love that demands we interpose ourselves between the threat and the beloved. Put simply, these martial postures can be summed up like this: One soldier seeks to impose meaning, the other to defend meaning.
This divide is also mirrored in education. Universities have largely given up the pursuit of integrated knowledge, built on an understanding that there is unity to the world. They have focused instead on a kind of pluralistic utilitarianism resulting in a radical diversity. Things are valuable insofar as someone values them and finds them useful. Thus the goal of education is increasingly the imposition of desire on the world to achieve the ends that I want rather than the discipline of my desires toward the telos of the good which is outside of me.
This shift has been accompanied by a parallel change in what it means to be fulfilled as a human being. I believe we are currently raising a generation of young people who have lost the ability to know the meaning of their actions apart from personal gratification. They don’t understand what their actions mean apart from the satisfaction of their own desires. Expressive individualism sees meaning not in what is or what ought to be but only in what I want something to be. Human freedom and flourishing is understood to be getting what I want rather than being free to do what I ought. If we want to contest this, if we want to raise up genuinely counter-cultural men and women who both know what is and what must be done, who are both wise and courageous, I believe we must begin by understanding the power of true delight – that is love rooted in affirmation. Put simply, affirmation is joy in the good of God’s creation.
Delight is an outward action because affirmation points away from the self. The word affirmation means to “strengthen or to confirm a thing.” It’s saying “yes” to a thing’s being. Affirmation is being delighted with someone or something: with God and His perfections, a Renoir, a vase of flowers, a 2005 Bordeaux, a Bach fugue, game of baseball, or a bowl of gumbo. Properly understood delight is a response to the worth or goodness of the beloved, it’s directed outward. In his wonderful book The Supper of the Lamb, Father Capon notes that we often use the word amateur for a person who is not very competent at something, but its original sense comes from the Latin, amare, to love. Amateurs do what they do for the love of the thing, not for the gain that they receive in pursuing it. In this sense the amateur is the one who responds to the world with love. This of course implies that the world is worthy of love. To be an amateur then is to affirm that the world is good and worthy of affection, and Capon says that this love of what is good compels the amateur to act and to speak. It’s love that drives him, and so he studies and he ponders and he speaks and he acts because he loves what is good. This is why Father Capon begins The Supper of the Lamb by encouraging a long session with an onion. Take an onion, sit down, and spend an hour (or longer) getting to know it. Capon rhapsodizes about just how odd and wonderful onions are – their beautiful shape, the fact that they are almost translucent, made mostly of water, the fact that they are layered and they can peel open. Why does he spend a chapter extolling a confrontation with an onion? The reason is that “man’s real work is to look at the things of the world and to love them for what they are. That after all is what God does and man was not made in God’s image for nothing.”
What’s the alternative? Listen again to Capon: “Every time [man] diagrams something, instead of looking at it, every time he regards not what a thing is but what it can be made to mean to him—every time he substitutes a conceit for a fact—he gets grease all over the kitchen of the world. Reality slips away from him; and he is left with the oldest monstrosity in the world: an idol. Things must be met for themselves. To take them for their meaning is to convert them into gods—to make them too important, and therefore to make them unimportant altogether. Idolatry has two faults. It is not only a slur on the true God; it is also an insult to true things.” Idolatry is the imposition of meaning; what a thing can be made to mean to me. This is the tragic legacy of Modernity and Postmodernity. Meaning is not something given, it is something made by us. Meaning comes from human nature, not from God. It is therefore imposed, not received. Nietzsche was willing to take this to its logical conclusion: Because there is no God, meaning and goodness as objective realities does not exist. Only the imposed desires of the individual.
The Biblical view of creation maintains that things are precious before they are contributory, they have meaning before they are useful to us. They are useful to us precisely because God makes them meaningful. Modernity says that things are precious if they are contributory and I’m the one who decides how and when and if they contribute at all. The price of this supposed “freedom”, of untethering the world from the One Who made it and from His purposes for it, is the loss of the capacity for joy. Joy isn’t a simple feeling like happiness, joy has reasons. It is a response to God’s goodness in creation, to the way things really are. The Biblical view of creation affirms that there is meaning to the world long before I show up to appreciate it. In Genesis, man was created on day six, not day one.
This is why affirmation is the heart of biblical culture. The word culture comes from Latin and it means cultivation of the earth, literally cultivation of soil. That’s what culture is, it’s cultivating the earth that God has given. It’s receiving and developing the world He made and it’s glad submission to the meaning he gave it. It points back to God’s original commission to Adam to cultivate and guard the garden. The tasks of cultivating and protecting both assume the value and meaning of what God gave Adam. It’s all predicated on the fact that God made a world full of meaning, and Adam’s job was to search it out, to learn about it, to understand it, to protect it, to give his life for it, so that it could flourish and grow into greater glory. That’s where culture making begins: by studying and serving and guarding what God has given. And it’s only men and women who have learned to love and delight in the world as it is given by God and not for what it can be made to mean to them who will have the courage to stand and to protect what they love when evil men try to take it away. Christians who love things for what they are, for what God made them to be, will be potent in the defense of those things. And that is why Chesterton said the true soldier fights, not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him.
Following Father Capon, if we love onions, if we love onions truly for what they are, we will also love children, we will love marriages, we will love being a man or being a woman, we will love creativity, and we will love the study of the world. The deeper we go into creation with grateful hearts, the more we see of God’s glory. Next to Him, creation is our dearest friend. Loving it well creates real gusto and zeal in the hearts of God’s people to create cultures that are rich and vibrant and full of life. Therefore, to be truly potent, Christian cultural leadership must be rooted in the love of what is good. Instilling this kind of love and the freedom it entails is the purpose of all true and faithful education.
Original Lecture by Joshua Apple delivered at New Saint Andrews College as part of an Alumni Lecture Series