Liberty, Law and Paul

May 28th, 2016
by Chris

Henry Neufeld (aka The Boss when I’m doing editing) has mused recently on the Law and it’s significance for Christians in the course of looking at Luke 17.  I want to go in two directions from there…

The first might well be encapsulated by this graphic. It suggests that because there are a number of constraints on our behaviour (or at least our expected behaviour) we cannot possibly be “free”.

I think this is more or less completely wrong. It’s wrong from a Christian perspective, as faith in Christ (and one might say “freedom in Christ” involves following Jesus to the extent that, as Paul puts it “I no longer live, but Christ in me lives” (Gal. 2:20). We become members of the Church, and Christ is the head of that church, i.e. the maker of decisions. The earliest Christians, before any of our developed doctrines, confessed that “Jesus is Lord” – and in that time, this meant complete submission to the Lord’s will.

It’s wrong from the point of view of al-Islam (the way of submission to the will of God); philosophical Hindus and Buddhists aim at freedom from attachment (i.e. desire) through rules of self-denial, as did Stoics; every religious tradition which comes to mind has or has had a tradition of austere discipline, adding more rules to the conduct of one’s life.

I also think that it is wrong on general experiential principles. Regular readers of my blog will have noticed that some of them include abstract paintings out of a series I produced some years ago. Each of them is based on a very limited palette (selection of colours) and constraints as to the subject matter – and I found more originality and inspiration working within these tight constraints than I did when faced with a blank piece of paper and no constraints on what I drew or what colours I used. Similarly, when I am conducting a scientific experiment, there are huge constraints (in the laws of physics and chemistry) on what the result will be – the delight is in finding out how these laws can be used to produce novel results.

Then again, I spend some of my time doing research chemistry. This involves working out what rules are applying in a certain situation, how they work together and how those rules might be used to produce a result. None of this would work without the presence of a set of rules. I also enjoy board games, and sometimes trying to develop variants of existing games or new games – and those again focus round sets of rules. Without the rules, there is no game, there is no enjoyment (as witness the violent antipathy most game players feel towards cheats…).

The value of sets of rules was brought home to me in a massive way by my experience of many years of severe depression. Eventually, the depression robbed me of any ability to choose an outcome on the basis of an emotion – because all emotions had become foreign territory. The negative ones were, of course, the last to go, and a pervading sense that “everything is wrong” never actually left. I was in theory less constrained in what I did than I would once have been, because all outcomes were emotionally equivalent; yes, one course of action might result in me being injured or dying, or being rightly locked up for damaging other people – but those were just all equal outcomes; I had no way of preferring one. I recall an occasion standing in a Chinese takeaway gazing at the menu and trying without success to envisage what I might like to eat – to the annoyance of the serving staff, because even the most indecisive person usually managed to make a decision inside five minutes, and I must have been there for half an hour. I eventually did a kind of internal coin flipping, and settled on something. Did I actually like it when I got it home? I have no idea.

It’s worth mentioning that I have never been so objective as I was during that period – there were just no emotional biases to affect any decision. I have never been so dispassionate either – though empathy still worked to a small extent (in that I could feel sad for others), mostly the emotions of others, and so their needs and wishes, were equally a closed book. As a result, I treat philosophical advice that I should strive for objectivity, dispassion or freedom from attachment with huge suspicion – I really do not want these things, having seen what it is like to attain them! Patrick Henry said “give me liberty or give me death”, and frankly, death was preferable to that kind of liberty. I avoided it one day at a time…

The thing which kept me from damaging others during that period (and mostly from damaging myself) was that I had sets of rules. There were a broad set derived from the Sermon on the Mount, of course, and some more specific ones incorporated in a Twelve Step programme. I was only too aware that my own thought processes were not normal, and that in particular decisions as to what to do were well-nigh impossible; accepting the authority of a set of rules for conduct was, quite literally, a life-saver (otherwise the “it’s all wrong” would eventually have led to me deciding that nothingness was preferable to constant low level psychological pain). Working out what, according to those rules, was the next right thing to do was manageable.

All in all, therefore, I think that too much focus on rules being a bad thing is in itself a very bad idea indeed. And that brings me to Judaism (which you’ll notice I didn’t mention at the beginning) and the vexed Christian attitude towards the Jewish Law, based on the writings of Paul (largely Romans and Galatians). I wrote a bit about this recently. Judaism absolutely does not consider that the Law, including the massive set of additional rules put together over many centuries by rabbis attempting to clarify possible misunderstandings (and yes, extending the scope of these, but with the objective of “putting a fence around the law” so that you don’t even get uncomfortably close to breaching one of the Laws) is a bad thing – it’s their pride and joy, and their means of displaying their commitment to God.

Kurt Willems has recently launched The Paulcast, which sets out to look at Paul from all sorts of angles; he has recently finished a series on views of Paul (from traditional to New Perspective to Paul Within Judaism). It’s reasonably clear, I think, that my own writing (link in last paragraph) displays that I am squarely in the camp of “Paul within Judaism”, otherwise known as “Radical New Perspective”. But I go slightly further; the Law, to me, was (and perhaps is) a good thing not because it saves (though a set of rules in fact saved me from an earlier death than my family and friends, at least, preferred) but because it establishes a framework in which to live.

Paul may well be right in saying I would not have known sin except through the law”though in conscience I doubt that, unless he too was suffering from severe depression or one of the other mental illnesses which affects emotions (affect), but to suggest that that was the purpose of the Law is to suggest that God was in fact placing a permanent stumbling block before many generations of his chosen people, and that in the guise of something beneficial. I do not think that Paul intended to characterise God as a liar! I will grant that the passage Paul was quoting in the link places God himself in the situation of being a stumbling block, but not the law. Isaiah, however, also says that the Lord is “sanctuary and stone of offense”, so not an unmitigated obstacle for the unwary faithful. Paul also uses the word “stumbling block” in “a stumbling block to the Jews”, but there is is the fact that Christ was crucified which is the stumbling block. Not God, and not the Law.

In fact, as a disposessed nation, always strangers in the lands of other nations for most of their history, it is exactly the Law which has preserved Israel as a nation; the steadfast adherence to a set of rules which not only gave a focus of identity for Jews but also set them apart from those around them is probably the thing which above all else prevented them from being totally assimilated over 2000 years. This is almost an unique history (the only other group I can think of which has similarly preserved identity as permanent aliens is the Roma). Israel is not however by any means the only nation which has held its system of laws to be primary; the Romans did this for some time, although the law became secondary to the emperor cult; England (and subsequently Great Britain) has prided itself on being a nation of law for a very long time, and was very early in determining that even monarchs were subject to law; for a time the concept of Christendom in Europe allowed some latitude to the idea that all the nations were subject to God’s law (although the institution of the papacy rather detracted from that…); in more recent times the USA has given an example of a nation built on a set of laws (the Constitution) which is supreme over any other power, at least in theory.

Laws, in other words, form and enable communities, peoples and nations. Many of them (and sometimes the ones which most obviously produce the character of a nation) are unwritten – there is no law in Britain or Canada requiring politeness, for instance, but it is possibly one of the less broken laws in both countries. Some of them make absolutely no sense, but are still formative – this is how we do things. Judaism might, arguably, have rather a lot of those, but our driving on the left similarly makes no sense in a world where almost every other country drives on the right; suggest that we change, however, and there will be a massive popular outcry! Flanders and Swann used to sing “The Song of Patriotic Prejudice”, in which were the lines “And all the world over, each nation’s the same, they’ve simply no notion of playing the game. They argue with umpires, they cheer when they’ve won. And they practice beforehand, which ruins the fun!” This was a notion of Englishness with which I grew up – and yes, it’s daft from most standpoints, but it was a part of national identity (which, I think, Thatcher killed off). You played by the rules, you were ideally good at things without having to try too hard (or at least showing that you were trying hard), and you were self-deprecating. There are probably many, many more things which are rules in my society whether written or merely understood which are similarly illogical and unnecessary, but I am too deeply immersed in my society to see which they are…

I am not, of course, saying that liberty is not a valid cry – in many situations, there is not enough liberty. Similarly, however, in many situations there is not enough law. In the beginning, the earth was formless and void (chaotic), and God gave order; without that order, there would have been only chaos. Later in scripture, Jesus said “my yoke is easy and my burden light”, referring to the rules of behaviour he expected – and those probably included most of the Law.

Except for those who consider that “everything was accomplished” by his death and resurrection, of course, a view which I do not consider warranted – few of those who argue this would, for instance, say that the Ten Commandments had been superseded, and very many argue for a strict interpretation of, say, Leviticus 18:22, which I consider inapplicable for the world as it now is. But there’s the thing – I argue for the liberty to disregard a strict interpretation of this passage (not that it’s a liberty I need myself) not on the basis that it was a bad law at the time, but on the basis that Jesus’ rules of behaviour, which supplement those of the Law, demand that I not judge my neighbour, and that takes precedence for me.

That brings me to my other point. I am saying, in effect, that where there is a possible conflict between Jesus and Paul, I choose Jesus. With the utmost respect to more conservative Christian friends, I think you are inclined to base your theologies on Paul rather than on Jesus. You also base them on the Fourth Gospel rather than on the synoptic gospels, but that is not my immediate point. As Christians, we consider that Jesus was the son of God, the messiah, and God incarnate – we do not say any of these things of Paul. Paul was many things, including a massively successful evangelist, a pastor, preacher and probably the first Christian theologian, and he deserves to be taken extremely seriously by Christians as a result – let’s face it, the probability is that without Paul, the followers of Jesus would have remained a Jewish sect.

But he was not God, and we should not treat his words as having divine authority without significant scepticism.

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