The Virtue of Being Unreasonable
“The pagan, or rational, virtues are such things as justice and temperance, and Christianity has adopted them. The three mystical virtues which Christianity has not adopted, but invented, are faith, hope and charity… The first evident fact, I say, is that the pagan virtues, such as justice and temperance, are the sad virtues, and that the mystical virtues of faith, hope, and charity are the gay and exuberant virtues. And the second evident fact, which is even more evident, is the fact that the pagan virtues are the reasonable virtues, and that the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and charity are in their essence as unreasonable as they can be…
Justice consists in finding out a certain thing due to a certain man and giving it to him. Temperance consists in finding out the proper limit of a particular indulgence and adhering to that. But charity means pardoning what is unpardonable, or it is no virtue at all. Hope means hoping when things are hopeless, or it is no virtue at all. And faith means believing the incredible, or it is no virtue at all.”
- G. K. Chesterton (Heretics)
“Let’s be reasonable, shall we?” Posed in this way, how could anyone refuse this request? An admirable appeal. A mature petition. A grounded entreaty trying to set appropriate ground rules for debate and discussion in the modern era. Being reasonable, it is offered, is an indispensable virtue in seeking the Truth. After all, in this age of scientific inquiry and critical thinking, aren’t there dangers inherent in the alternatives to the reasonable – alternatives like dogmatism, superstition, and irrationality? But what does being reasonable mean? What is the cost? What is excluded? The answers are not always satisfying: To be reasonable logically implies one employs Reason. With Reason, many believe, man is capable of solving all his problems. If we are unsure, we will prove it. If it is not right, we will fix it. If we are uncertain, we will know it. The limitless potential of Reason (and its daughter, Science) emboldens us to overcome our weaknesses and differences to build the proverbial tower to the heavens. Or so it is argued.
But G.K. Chesterton argued that notwithstanding the virtues of the “reasonable”, our lives are more purposeful and our souls are healed primarily by the “unreasonable”. The “unreasonable” is the inartful name that haughty man has given to that which he cannot explain. It is better dubbed “Mystery” which is that which man cannot explain BECAUSE it is that which man cannot fully comprehend. Thus, the defect rests not in the “Mystery” (or “unreason”), but in man’s incomprehension of it. For now, let us call “Mystery” by the derisive moniker man gave it – “unreason”.
Again and again, our daily lives find the interplay of reason and unreason. Most clearly, we see this interplay in instances involving the Christian virtues of hope, faith, and charity. Cold, sterile, “reasonable” calculation may serve in the treatment of a dying child, but it is an “unreasonable” hope that informs the prayer of the parent’s bedside vigil. “Rational and reasonable” consideration may inform an imperfect government approach to poverty, but “unreasonable” charity will see you give to a roadside beggar knowing fully that he may be duping you. Brute “reasonable” logic may attempt to discredit a God-Made-Man Who performed uncanny miracles and rose from the dead, yet earnest “unreasonable” faith finds one marveling at a rolled-away stone and the remaining garbs of white. Reason allows for no mystery. Unreason is defined by it. Reason is incomplete by itself. Unreason edifies and justifies reason. The reasonable insist on control. The unreasonable humbly appreciate the Hand of God presiding over reason and unreason alike in a harmonious concert. It is up to man to decide if he will jealously fight vexing, inexplicable unreason, or if he will welcome it as part of God’s Mysterious Narrative for him. As Chesterton said,
“The morbid logician seeks to make everything lucid and succeeds only in making everything mysterious. The mystic allows one thing to be mysterious and everything else becomes lucid.”
We moderns, too, find ourselves confronted with a choice. Are we to be the strident logicians fighting unreason, denying Mystery, while adopting a worldview informed only by the empiric and worshipping at the altar of “the reasonable”? Or are we to be the mystics receptive to fallible reason, but fully embracing the beautiful brilliance of the Mysterious and “unreasonable”? It brings us back to our original question: “Let us be reasonable, shall we?” Yes. Yes, let us. But let us be unreasonable as well.