A Church Without a Chest

“Men without chests” are those who lack any sense of the sublime, the beautiful, the homely, or the slovenly, the ugly, and the perverse. What is a Church without a chest?

One of the insights of C.S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man is that we are moved not by abstract formulas, by bare concepts, or even by the “facts, facts, facts” that the schoolmaster Gradgrind sought to stuff into his young receptacles, but by visions of beauty and worth. These visions stir what Lewis calls the “chest,” the seat of powerful and almost rational feeling; not the appetite, which is located in the belly, or ratiocination, located in the head. 

Lewis contends that the whole thrust of modern education is to make “men without chests,” that is, people who lack any sense of the fitness, the reasonableness, of their passions when they are in the presence of the sublime, the beautiful, the homely, or the slovenly, the ugly, and the perverse. The result is monstrous—a hypertrophied head on a swollen belly, if you have a lot of natural intellectual power, or a withered pinhead on the same, if not; either way, a kind of calculative reduction of reason in the service of an overfed or unnaturally fed appetite.

What is a Church without a chest?

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We may take the question in many directions. I will choose one here—one that has been chosen, so to say, by others already whether I like it or not.

Suppose you are trying to teach young people in this grim and lonely time of ours—ride an American train sometime if you think that this evaluation of mine is unfair, or find me a dance hall somewhere with weekly dances that men and women and boys and girls of all ages attend—that the Church, or rather Holy Scripture, or rather right reason itself as it considers what sexual intercourse is and what a human child is, is correct and a boon to man when she commands continence to the unmarried and fidelity to the married, and when she says, as anyone anywhere in the world would have said a few cultural minutes ago, that a marriage, by its obvious nature, is between a man and a woman.

You can try Scriptural exegesis. And you may well need to point out that the Jesus who numbered ordinary fornication as among the sins that come out of a man to render him filthy cannot reasonably be construed to wink at sodomy; or that the Jesus who turns to the one-flesh union of man and woman in marriage “in the beginning” to rule out divorce cannot reasonably be construed to wink at any of our careless and thoughtless liaisons. But such considerations, taken alone, are more powerful at clearing away bad interpretations than at planting good and right passions. 

Jesus could take for granted that the people he spoke to knew that harlotry was bad, as they knew that wishing your father were dead was bad, and cheating your master was bad, and robbing a man on the road and leaving him for dead was bad. We must now do more than say that the sexual sins are bad; we must now help young people to feel it, to rouse up their indignation against it when it comes to tempt them.

You can try theology and philosophy. And indeed, there is much unused force in John Paul’s theology of the body. But let us be true to one another: most people at most times, and especially at times of powerful temptation, will find theology and philosophy to be weak reeds to lean on. Threads of abstraction will not restrain the charging bull of human will. One touch of a hand where it should not be dissolves a filigree world of ideas.

You can try severe moral warning. You had better try it; it is necessary. But it is far from sufficient. Alone, it produces the stern and unfeeling, and that is easy prey for the enemy. Many people say, “I was taught that it was wrong and terrible, but when I experienced it, I learned better.” Actually, they did not learn better. That is an excuse. But it is a predictable excuse. 

For we do not detest the ugly because of something it possesses; we detest it because of what it lacks, or because of the beauty it mocks, defaces, corrupts, or crushes. We must teach young people—and ourselves—to look with wonder upon the beauty of the moral truth. As regards the relations of the sexes, we must teach them to look with wonder and gratitude on each sex as it is, made by God to be what it is, and made by God to be for the other. We must, at the same time, teach them to look with wonder and gratitude on the child, the innocent child, such as Jesus embraced, when he said that we must become as such to enter the kingdom of God. 

These are beautiful things we no longer really see. But let us suppose we wanted to clear our own eyes and help our young people not to be bleary-eyed in the first place. We can hardly start too young—not now. 

In our schools, let the boys and the girls be dressed differently, and in ways that suggest and adorn the different forms of beauty that male and female make manifest. Let them then learn to dance. I do not mean, by that, the detached and strangely atomized and impersonal and yet sexually aggressive thing that has prevailed for the last sixty years and that has supplanted every healthy and merry folk tradition of dancing that used to teach boys and girls, in their memories, in their growing bones and their beating hearts, that they are blessedly different and for each other. I mean those dances that are symbolic of, and preparation for, the dance of marriage. Mirth, as I have often said, is joy’s country cousin, the fellow at the fiddle in the barn dance beside the church. Grimness and its procurer, lust, are from Hell.

Suppose you have a painting by Raphael, a Madonna and child. We do not say, in the first instance, that it is wrong to scrawl a mustache on the Madonna and to draw an obscenity on the child. We allow their beauty to become so present to us, so full in their power, that we treat it as a holy thing not to be tossed about, laid near a fire, exposed to damp and mildew, or left to the spiders and their webs. The beauty is real. It demands by right the concordant response. 

The same is true, and true in a far more profound way, of the human body, male and female, and of the persons, the distinctly and immediately and universally recognizable ways of being human, that male and female embody. We cherish Raphael’s painting. We esteem it for what it is and for what it represents. These are not in our determination. We receive them as gifts. So, also, with male and female. They, too, are not in our determination. We should rejoice in the beauty they do really and objectively possess.

If we did so rejoice, and if we taught, both by a holy reticence and by the merriment of wholesome and natural attraction, that the sexes are to be held in honor, we would no more ask whether it is right to fornicate, or to commit adultery, or to use pornography, or to wallow in Sodom, or to snuff out the life of the unborn child, or to expose children to obscenity, or to usher them into the grimy bathhouses of evil adult dreams, than we would ask whether it is right to spit on that painting or use it for toilet paper. It simply would not occur to us to ask—just as thinking about disease does not occur to people who are perfectly healthy and enjoying the clear and sunlit air.

  • Anthony Esolen

    Anthony Esolen, a contributing editor at Crisis, is a professor and writer-in-residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts. He is the author, most recently, of Sex and the Unreal City (Ignatius Press, 2020).

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