God chose to be present in history. God exists outside of human history but He chooses to work inside of it. God appears as a (God-)man in a specific space and at a specific point in time. Since Christ flaunts his society’s convention and is constantly upsetting the social order to the point of being executed for it, we know that He is not afraid of acting in accordance with Truth, which is timeless. He is never limited by His being a 1st century Palestinian Jew. But He also exists within a certain time and culture. God chooses to exist not above us but with us, and He revealed Himself slowly throughout time. This is why we see Jacob's family keeping household idols despite being in communication with the Living God. This is why Israel had such a difficult time embracing monotheism despite constant nudges toward that truth. The same way you have to learn the basic rules of grammar before you can understand poetry, God had to reveal himself slowly and with care so that we could understand the complexity that is Him. Finally this process came to completion in the person of Jesus Christ.
But when God speaks to us through human vocabulary (as He must) we are tempted to dominate His words. If I can only memorize these words! If we can only interpret these commandments into practical laws! If we can only find all the answers we can forget about the questions! I know in my spiritual life I always seize upon an answer. It feels much surer, more secure than having to walk the path of spirituality, which as Richard Rohr says is about asking the right questions and not about finding the right answers.
This need to control God, to have the answers, to seize upon God’s words is the tendency found in the Old Testament. It’s legalism. The prophets speak against it. They're always telling Israel to stop worrying about punching their spiritual timecard and start caring with the heart of God, to stop interpreting the Law and to live it, to stop rending their garments in penance and start rending their hearts.
The legalism of Israel’s faith, to me, seems to come to culmination with the 1st century Pharisees. Isn’t it funny that that’s when the incarnation occurs and Christ appears? The culmination of the Letter of the Law and the culmination of the Spirit of the Law appear in history at the same time.
Yet Christ has come and Christians - of every branch - are still legalistic. That’s exactly the type of Christian I tend to be, though at least now I'm fairly conscious of it. But it’s just so attractive! It’s nice to have all the answers, to know the rules. It makes existence and the spiritual life seem ordered and understandable and far less mysterious, at least to me. A black and white worldview is so seductive. Who has time to wrestle with the gray?
|Photo by Rick Holliday - rickholliday.wordpress.com|
All Christians struggle with legalism but Catholics do especially. We have to hold only lightly our rules, our dogma, our standards for what constitutes right or wrong belief or action. And we have to do this not because the rules are wrong (Christ was clear about never rewriting the Law) but because they are tools. They are signposts pointing toward paradise and not paradise itself. There's a natural attachment of the ego with the Law, and it's something we have to break.
I always think of a wonderful story from the Buddhist tradition that my philosophy adviser once related to me:
Two Buddhist monks were walking alongside a road. As they reached a bend in the road they came upon a poor, crippled woman crawling on the ground and trying to reach the other side. Buddhist monks, of course, are strictly forbidden from having any physical contact with women. But upon seeing the woman, the first monk picked her up, gingerly carried her across the road, and set her down on the other side. The two monks continued on their way and it wasn't long before the second monk said, with no small amount of exasperation, “What have you done?! Don’t you know we’re not allowed to have contact with women?” The first monk stopped, turned to the second with a curious look on his face, and said in reply, “I left that woman back there by the side of the road. Are you still carrying her?”Hearing this story made me realize which monk I was at the time and which one we're all called to be. The Letter of the Law is binding. The Spirit is always freeing.
I'd love a comment, especially offering your own perspective.