Friday, September 16, 2011

Law and/or Love

Law is often paired with order and juxtaposed to love and compassion as if one is being asked to consider the dichotomy that where there is law and order love and compassion are absent (and the other way round of course). The juxtaposition of law and order to love and compassion can also be seen in less stark terms, that is, in terms of the contrast of priority and posteriority. In such a juxtaposition one assigns priority to one emphasis or the other such that the one emphasis frames and assigns meaning to the other or vice versa. Either one views love and compassion within the frame set for them by law and order, or one views law and order as meaningful only in the context set for them by love and compassion. Viewed separately, the two emphases will have different meanings than when the one is viewed in terms of the other, or the other way round. In both cases a choice is involved: “this” or “that.” The choice itself bespeaks a prior distinction: “this” is not “that.” But, what if the distinction presupposed is itself contestable. What if somehow the terms of the one emphasis come to bleed into the terms of the other? What then? What if one began to think not of law or love but law and love, the love of law or perhaps the law of love? This little bit of wondering, inspired by the attempt to test the choice for compassion of colleague Hendrik Hart, and the fascinating views on law and normativity in the context of freedom and love of colleague Nik Ansell, occasioned an admittedly peculiar reading of Psalm 119 (118), given as a chapel talk at ICS’s Fall Retreat this September. I post it here for your consideration and comment.

Text: Ps. 119: 11-24; 41-48; 97-112; 129-136; 161-176.

I have chosen sections of this long and prayerful consideration of law that exude poetic warmth, that mark a lover’s praise of the object of his or her love. In these passages it is as if law were the name of the Beloved and this psalm very nearly a Song of Songs. What are we to make of this warmth? How are we to understand the psalmist’s passion in the light of our Lord’s? Is there still cause to speak of law in the language of a lover’s ardor, or does crucifixion necessarily bank affective fires. Can a Christian really match the psalmists nomophilia? Should she?

A first consideration:

Some biblical scholars see Jesus as a reformer within Pharisaic Judaism. They point out that he shared with Pharisees a deep sense of the enabling effect of law for right living, indeed, for the very world’s right relationship with God. His belief in the resurrection of bodies at the end of time is often pointed to as a sure-fire indication of his identification with the Pharisaic party within Judaism on the issues that divided the community of his day. Moreover, we must remember that he claimed to have come to change not one iota, not one jot or tittle, of the law. Rather, he came to fulfill it instead.

Of course, there is more to the story. Most Gospel references to the Pharisees are negative. Indeed, their pages are persistently punctuated by sharp criticism. In Jesus’ view, the Gospels proclaim, Pharisees misunderstood law and, thereby, substituted a spirit-killing legalism for the life-opening pattern of a true and loving embrace.

I mention this understanding of Jesus because, in my view, it stands behind an important quality of two of the traditions of western Christianity. Both Catholic and Reformed Christians, like the Pharisees of old, understand law to be one of the central mysteries given by God for the good of Creation, including you and me. Thomas Aquinas speaks of law having been given us for our instruction; she is our mistress in matters of right living. John Calvin, similarly spoke of “the third use” of the law, a capacity to point us to proper patterns of grateful living-in-Christ. I sometimes say that the Catholic and Reformed traditions form the two parts of Pharisaic Christianity. Both could be imagined to produce poets willing and able to soliloquize upon their love of law as did the O.T. psalmist of our text.

A second consideration:

All traditions of western Christianity account for moral evil as the perversion of a proper and original good. That is, each and every good is spoken of as having its peculiar perversions. Moreover, the greater the good, the more heinous the perversions and the more devastating the destruction they occasion.

The good of law and its love is no exception. The Jesus we meet in the Gospels saw that so very clearly; the love-of-law when it has gone bad is a killer just because law, Torah, is a central life-giving good. The world that a rancid love of law creates is a glum dictatorship in which fear, fearful obedience and love become inextricably and toxically intertwined, a vampire world of the living dead, animate though sucked dry of vital spirit.

In such a toothsome world, our lives of faith become grey and punctured, leeched of their intended colours. It whispers, deadly, of burdens to be shouldered more than half unwillingly. It insists upon will steeled with mortal intent against a person’s every deep preference. It dreams incessantly of iron discipline tended with endless vigilance, rewarding reflexively a soldier’s automatic response to a Captain’s imperious command. And because most of us are not really all that disciplined and vigilant, steely willed, broad shouldered, or militarily adept, in the vampire world, our lives of faith are nearly always crossed out, staked, we could say, to failure. We become tightlipped about our hidden selves, shielding the depth of our non-compliance, dulling our awareness against despair or tending a secret, sullen rebelliousness. Nietzsche was onto this game; he saw the ghoulish earnestness of faith in the vampire world of law-love turned to bloodlust—ressentiment in deed . . . ressentiment, indeed.

One can see examples of this netherworldishness in our communal lives together. It can be seen in the call of some wielding law as club to others to put aside one source of grace or another in order to assent in austere abstemiousness to the club wielder’s will. In such a scenario, obedience is held up in honour, but identified with coerced submission. Christian living comes to be defined by those moments of renunciation-under-pressure in which something deep and dynamic in one’s being is dammed up and diverted, when one learns to just live-without, to live around a void just because COMMANDED to. I am not speaking of renunciation per se. The renunciations of the Catholic religious for example, are in principle different. They are not intended to be an end in themselves, an arbitrary doing-without the positive flow of one’s living. Rather they are the doorway to a richer positive living. In the vampire world, by contrast, doing-without against the force of life itself becomes the very definition of obedient, faithful living, such living itself turns out to resemble a living death.

One can see also this netherwordlishness in communities whose calling presses upon the limits of present expectation when forced to choose between their sense of calling and their actual belonging, for only the desiccated choice for belonging against calling counts as true and authentic commitment to the covenant “we” have made. The half-hearted who sigh and find that interior lack allowing them to just do what they are told, no questions asked—why, to them belongs the brass ring if not the kingdom of heaven.

One can see this same netherworldishness in the martial ethos of so many communities of faith structured by past need to serve both as fortresses against attack from without and as launching pads for attacks upon one’s enemies, as if the life of faith were best conceived as a crusade marked by the ghastly paradox that the soldier’s invitation to the other is sealed in the shed blood of the invitee, negative image, as I imagine, of our Lord’s pacific passion.

Just because we are or have been Pharisaic Christians, most Reformed and Catholic people of a certain age can tell stories of legalism and its peculiar outcroppings. We do so in a variety of moods ranging from wistful nostalgia, to amused indulgence, to angrily bruised complaint. Stories of nuns teaching a smartly obedient faith from the bottom up, of thundering preachers whose scornful eloquence brooks no deviation from an ancestor’s narrow path, the grey emptiness of Sabbatarian stillness spent longing for even one small licit excitement—why, such stories are Legion, a pig’s breakfast of silliness and hurt capable for all that of stampeding us, all squint-eyed and snouty, to a watery doom.

In the Gospels, Jesus spoke harshly of the legalisms and the legalists of his world. But, perhaps to my chagrin, I find that I cannot do likewise. I admire the passion of our Lord but find him inimitable. You see, I know in my bones that the line between the legalist and the authentic lover of law is paper thin. One passes back and forth across that line usually without ever really noticing, and most of us Christian Pharisees straddle it all our lives. It turns out that the universe we inhabit and the vampire world of the legalist are not two worlds; they are two takes on one world, God’s world, created, fallen, in equal parts perverse and redeemed, open to glory. And yet, the living of those who look with loving gratitude upon what they name God’s law, those who find themselves sharing the epideictic ardor of Psalm 119, or wishing they could, their living looks nothing like its colourless counterpart. It strikes us rather as a vivid expression of joy, undertaken with creative flare, bespeaking shalom.

One doesn’t have to look far afield to see examples shining in spite of the vampire’s gloom. I will tell just a couple of stories drawn from ICS’s storehouse of tales. I do so because ICS has been my little corner of God’s world for a long time. But I would ask you to consider that such things can be seen in your corner of the world as well. In fact, I would propose that such things happen all of the time.

I recall the labour and risk undertaken by two Toronto ICS supporters who in response to the financial crisis of 2008, bought a broken down 150 year-old cottage, organized posses of volunteer and paid labourers to strip it down, provide it its first real foundation, rebuild it into a cozy and elegant urban home in a time of economic recession and contraction with all that might have meant for real estate values. They did this hoping to make a tidy profit and to give that profit to ICS as an expression of their sense of its enduring value to the community of faith. It was a grand gesture, but only the most colourful example of a pattern of service that had already taken many forms in their lives over many years. Their gift I make bold to say lacked all vampirial reticence. There was nothing half-hearted, performed against preference as if wrung from the heart by heavy hands. Nor was there was anything like a soldier’s automatic response to a Captain’s imperious command. There was no need for pointed sticks or desperate dashes toward the morning light. There was lots of sweat and I am sure a measure of worry. But, equally, plenty of energy, moments of joy and the flicker of transcendence if one had but eyes to see.

I remember too a humble market gardener who some thirty years ago would deliver to the ICS foyer massive sacks full of cauliflower, beets, broccoli and leek. He was an immigrant of heavy brogue, little education and even fewer words. And yet there was this eloquence to his concrete living. For, again and again, he would say by his generosity as he plunked down his heavy sacks one by one, until the hall by the fourth-floor elevator was filled with the vegetable smell of his love: “ I don’t have much money and I am no study-head, but . . . well . . . you have to eat. I can help with that.”

I savour stories like these. In my view, they point to a pattern of faithfulness that I take to be endowed with the very law of life. It is a law it would give me great joy to live up to, for, Reformed Pharisee that I am, I love the law these life examples enflesh. The faithfulness the stories illustrate is one that in my experience we at ICS who teach and study, who administer and who work directly with our support community should spontaneously aspire to match, not half against our will, as a fated burden or automatic response but rather as a bubbling over of the very best we have within us: our best, i.e, most creative and joyful, theories about the redemptive possibilities within God’s world, our best mentoring of a new generation of Christian scholars, our most professional and effective organizing of institutional life, and our most attentive care for the community of support who in their prayers and interest mediate the welcoming invitation to be. And maybe the last point allows us to see how law can be alluring rather than a grey and crypt-ic appearance. Law at least in the Psalmist’s love-talk is not a Despot’s imperious command. No, law, all law, marks out an invitation to be; law opens up an opportunity for creative response and the joy such creativity releases. It is that invitation and response, that creativity and joy, that I think I see in our passages from Psalm 119. It is the opportunities afforded by that invitation and response that I heartily recommend to all and to each of us, right here and now, at the beginning of a new academic year.


  1. I think you are right, Bob, in so far as scripture says the law that summarizes all others is the law directing us to the love of God and neighbour. The scripture does not shy from speaking of the call to love in the language of law and command. Yet the deep, if somehow also paper thin, irony is that, as many have noticed, legalism squelches love. That result, on scripture's own terms, would make legalism unlawful. So this leads me to think that the legalistic conception of law is impoverished--focusing exclusively on the 'thou shalt not' and thereby ignoring space of flourishing that the gift of the law is intended to open up (as you so eloquently point out). So my question to you is, how would you conceive of law 'otherwise', so that your account of law is itself 'lawful', i.e., faithful to the law of love? How would you interpret St. Augustine's "Love, and do what you want" within that conception? Finally, I am minded of Nik Ansell's repeated point that all language, whether the language of law or of love, or of some mutually-reinforcing combination thereof, will be a fallible way of putting us in touch with, as Henk Hart would often say, "whatever it is we are talking about." This reminder, to me, bespeaks the need for vigilance regarding the limitations of all the language games we play, whether those of law or of love.

  2. You put your finger on the nub of a conundrum that I was trying to gesture toward at the end of my piece. I was playing on the use of the grammatical form of the Genesis account: the language of "let there be . . ." Iussives have an imperative force in the sense that they demand a response from the one addressed. But the character of the demand comes not from an imperative per se, an utterance that moves unidirectionally from a superior commander to an inferior recipient of the command. Rather, a jussive has about it the invitation to do or be something. Let there be light! Come let us reason together! If we thought of law as a language inviting response, it might be more lovable and hence avoid the paradox of being "unlawful" as you put it. Iussives are still utterances with an imperative force, yet their modus operandi is by invitation. That was my attempt to reimagine how to think about law in a way that makes the love language of the psalmist easier to understand.

  3. I wonder if a critically appropriated theory of relationality might be one way of engaging the issue of law and love. For isn't law only 'lawful' or invitational when it is understood as emerging from an encounter with the Other/other[s]? And yes, such encounters with others may, and will, involve language games which may, and will be affected by destructive intentions. However, we need to ask along with Paul Ricoeur whether we discover a deeper, life-giving feature of relationality that perdures, revealing destructive intentions to hold far weaker roots in the reality in which law and love flourish.

  4. So let me play you comment back to you in other language, Jennifer. I hear you suggesting that both love and law are forms or modes of relationality. Relationality is the deeper reality law and love give expression to. I am wondering if you are getting at the Creator-creature relationship that in the reformational tradition goes under the rubric of "covenant" and that grounds our creaturely response to the address of our Creator, a creaturely response named "religion" in the same reformational tradition? Have I understood your point, even while playing on it by translating it into the parochial vocabulary of the reformational tradition?

  5. You have understood my point of relationality precisely, relationality being the “deeper reality” out of which God in God’s extravagant mercy invites God’s people to live out a life of faithfulness (law and love). I understand this Creator-creature relationship to be fittingly named covenantal, moveover, because our deepest reality as human beings is imprinted with the imago Dei; we have been created in and for Father, Son and Spirit, and so are made (again, out of extravagant mercy) for Divine relationality. The reflection I took from your talk, however, is that in the broken world in which we live, two things often happen: first, we tend to understand law and love not as inextricable from one another and complementary, but in an adversarial relation, and as a consequence, we then misunderstand the founding relationship with our Creator and with fellow creatures as itself essentially adversarial. What is needed, then--and what I understood from the final movement of your talk—is the narrative medicine relating Christ’s love in the world. These stories of ICS supporters and nurturers that you share constitute one way of pointing us to the redemptive faithfulness that restores and renews our lives of law and love, such that we may be opened to the life of the Spirit reminding us how our lives shared with others are at the very heart of God’s own Life.

  6. A question that grew as I was reading this is: How do we tend to the vampire world? But thinking about it as a 'place' drew me towards my own self, and I found myself thinking of this vampire world as something within all of us. My thinking was along the line of the Reformed theology that places the line of good and evil across each human heart.

    Well, an ability to identify does not restrain my question. How do we tend to the vampire world?

  7. Do you think we need to "tend" the vampire world? I think we need to "attend" to it. We need to monitor our own disturbing yen for blood. We need to repent of our willing participation in it. But tend or husband it? Do I understand that right, Jonathan? If so, can you let me know what you are thinking of? If not, can you unpack what you might be meaning?