The prophetic voices in the Old Testament are really what speak to me. Without them Israel’s religion becomes stale, condemnatory, and legalistic. The Prophets are the critical voice that sees not just the words that God uses to communicate to us but His Spirit propelling those words. They see that God is not in the storm, He’s in the whisper of the wind.
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|
I became Catholic and joined a tradition that understands that it’s not about legalism yet has spent its whole existence developing answers. But I realize even our rules and knowledge today aren’t the end-all. It’s not enough to observe Lenten fasting or abstinence. It’s not enough to do penance. It’s about how you are meeting God, how you are growing in consciousness of the Divine Reality, and how you are being transformed. It’s not about the Letter of the Law; it’s about the Spirit of it.
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.