“Truth, Love, and Stones of Remembrance” by John Stonestreet and David Carlson, posted May 4, 2020, at: http://www.breakpoint.org
“Remember the calamity of the Great Tsunamis. Do not build any homes below this point.” Those are the words inscribed on what are appropriately called “Tsunami Stones,” markers left by previous generations in Japan that warn future generations of difficult lessons learned.
After decades with no tsunamis, especially given new technologies such as better seawalls and flood-proof construction, these kinds of warnings were increasingly seen more as relics from the past than wisdom from the past. They became easier to ignore and, as a result, in 2011, many people perished.
The villagers of Aneyoshi, however, heeded the instructions their forebears placed on a tsunami stone in the 1930s, and they moved their village to higher ground. They not only survived the 2011 tsunami, but the one in 1960 as well.
When I learned about these stones recently from a friend, I immediately thought of a parable by G. K. Chesterton about those committed to reform by always changing everything:
… let us say, for the sake of simplicity, (there’s) a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes confidently up to it and says, ‘I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.’ To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: ‘If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.’
In other words, we should never remove a fence until we know why it was put up in the first place.
There’s no doubt we live in a culture that’s quite committed to clearing away all kinds of moral fences in all areas of culture, often replacing them with new fences in new places. What used to be unthinkable is now unquestionable. What used to be unquestionable is now thought of as quaint, puritanical, and in some cases, oppressive and evil. What used to belong to families now belongs to the state. The guilty are now victims; the good guys now the bad guys; the essential now non-essential.
Even in the Church today, perhaps especially in the Church, there’s a great temptation to move fences, to lower or remove moral standards in a well-intentioned, but often misguided, attempt to be “welcoming.” Almost always, these moves are made in the name of “love,” as if the key missional strategy of the Church is to remove any and all barriers to the Gospel, including any that are inherent and essential to the Gospel itself.
Often the tsunami stones of moral truth, which the Church has embraced and taught faithfully for 2,000 years, are seen as obstacles to progress. The first and greatest commandment to “love God,” at least as we’ve long understood it, seems to be in conflict with the second one of “loving neighbor.” Truth and love are increasingly seen as incompatible in the fog of secularism and moral relativism. Believing the truth about human sexuality, which went unquestioned in Christian history until only recently, is considered unloving. Speaking that truth? Well, that’s downright cruel.
This, of course, gets it exactly backwards. What is cruel, if moral realities do exist and if we live in a world designed and not accidental, is to remove fences and ignore stones. It is cruel to tell someone who’s not okay that they are okay. It is not only possible to be loving and to tell the truth, it is in fact, impossible to be loving without the truth. Learning to hold truth and love together, especially in a culture committed to their divorce, is now a key task of the Church.
“You can avoid reality, but you cannot avoid the consequences of avoiding reality.”
“A society is in decay when common sense has become uncommon.”
–G. K. Chesterton
Deuteronomy 8:2 — Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands.
Deuteronomy 8:6 — Observe the commands of the Lord your God, walking in obedience to him and revering him.
Deuteronomy 8:18-19 — Remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your ancestors, as it is today. If you ever forget the Lord your God and follow other gods and worship and bow down to them, I testify against you today that you will surely be destroyed.
Grant to us, Lord, the spirit to think and do always those things that are right, that we, who cannot exist without you, may by you be enabled to live according to your will; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
—Book of Common Prayer
The Parable of Chesterton’s Fence
By G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936) , English Catholic journalist and defender of the faith. This first appeared in his 1929 book The Thing
In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.
This paradox rests on the most elementary common sense. The gate or fence did not grow there. It was not set up by someone who built it in their sleep. It is highly improbable that it was put there by escaped lunatics who were for some reason loose in the street. Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good thing for somebody. And until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable. If something set up by human beings like ourselves seems to be entirely meaningless and mysterious, it is extremely probable that we have overlooked some whole aspect of the question. There are reformers who get over this difficulty by assuming that all their fathers were fools; but if that be so, we can only say that folly appears to be a hereditary disease. But the truth is that nobody has any business to destroy a social institution until he has really seen it as an historical institution. If he knows how it arose, and what purposes it was supposed to serve, he may really be able to say that they were bad purposes, that they have since become bad purposes, or, that they are purposes which are no longer served. But if he simply stares at the thing as a senseless monstrosity that has somehow sprung up in his path, it is he, and not the traditionalist, who is suffering from an illusion.