A Society of Amnesiacs

Vanier, Chesterson and Reforming

I had lunch with a Laurier graduate last week. We discussed the sort of recently-passed milestones you might expect in such a conversation: completed exams, grad school applications, job searches and his commencement ceremony. Not one for ceremonies in general, he was rather nonplussed about the whole thing. Save for the commencement address, a 20-minute disquisition on the importance of living a compassionate life.

FAITH OVERLOOKED
The commencement speaker chose to use Jean Vanier – may his memory be eternal! – as the exemplar of such a life. On that point, the speaker was entirely correct. Yet, this graduate tells me, the speaker never mentioned Vanier’s Catholicism. From what generous spring did Vanier’s compassion flow? Those in the audience without a Catholic background, or without a familiarity with the L’Arche community might never know.

I don’t know why the speaker didn’t mention Vanier’s Catholicism while extolling the man. It may very well have been because they recognized their audience was a pluralistic one, and for the sake of not sounding too sectarian on the occasion of a public university’s graduation, left out the religious stuff. A sensible approach, I guess. 

But maybe the speaker just couldn’t imagine why Vanier’s background mattered. If so, that approach seems to reflect a broader cultural sensibility. I think some of the obsessions of the moment – unceasing technological development, rootless individualism, transience, reflexive cynicism about the past – might be turning us into a society of amnesiacs. The world conspires to make us forget who we are because we don’t remember where we come from anymore. We get exhortations to be compassionate which sound great, of course, but are maybe a little thin too. “Be compassionate!” they say. 

“Ok, but how?” What philosophy, what tradition, what story might nurture that compassion?

“Uh… my dear graduate, you’ve gotta figure that one out yourself.” 

IGNORANCE AND ARROGANCE
This forgetfulness worries me. Not just because I was a history major way back when and love to pull the shroud off days gone by. When the rationale for doing something becomes opaque to us, when we forget why we do the things we do, it becomes much easier to just chuck all of it, should we feel the urge to do so. I think we feel that urge a lot these days, fueled by a sour cocktail of ignorance and arrogance: think of the glorification of disruptive tech and the glib talk of revolution in political columns. I worry that a call for compassionate living, shorn from the story that gives it meaning, may have the opposite effect.

A BETTER WAY FORWARD
If that’s the spirit of the age, then I think we’d do well to heed the parable of another one of my Catholic heroes. It’s from 1929, and that hero’s name is GK Chesterton. I’ll quote him here in full because folks from the past should be allowed to speak for themselves:

“In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. 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 is called “Chesterton’s Fence,” and I think we’d do well to heed it. Not because it calls for a stodgy kind of conservatism, though it may be read that way by some. Just the opposite, in fact: some fences may indeed need to be torn down. But we ought to do so while stewarding our inheritance with great care, with the eye of a conservationist, with an ear for the fulsome story that made it possible. At least that would help us know what might become unraveled, should we tug on a single thread. Wise counsel for those of us who bear the mantle “Reformed” and “reforming.” 

  • Brian Is CC’s Review Editor and a CRC chaplain at the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University.

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