A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. (Ezekiel 36:26).
I think it is interesting that the editors of On Line Opinion have set as a topic something that has been on the mind of theologians since St Paul put pen to paper: what is the relationship between law and grace? This was a central issue for Paul because he had been a Pharisee, one who believed that justification, a juridical term that assumed God as judge, came through doing the law. It is in his letter to the Roman church that Paul examines this issue. He had already dealt with the Corinthian church which took the gospel as an excuse for loose morality, so his argument as to the place of law in human life is nuanced.
While he understands that the law is necessary for the protection of the community and is itself God-given, it leaves the inner person untouched. One can be a righteous
follower of the law but still be filled with disordered desires and feelings that
make a mockery of the outward show of behaviour. Paul himself found that the will
is impotent when it comes to the turbulent inner life:
For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can
will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the
evil I do not want is what I do. (Rom 7:18,19)
While the law may govern our behaviour towards others and is necessary to order
society and protect the weak from the strong it has no access to the desires of
the heart. Law will not change anxiety, bitterness, resentfulness, lust, grandiosity
and avarice. These are the things that we fear will disorder our lives and undo
us, these are the things we wish we could control but cannot, they are out of
reach of law and our conscious will. The disorder in our affections is what leads
us into confrontations with the law, it is not that we are bad people it is that
our affections lead us into bad places.
How, then, are the affections ordered? This is the crux of the matter because
we know that their disorder is not a matter of knowledge. We all know what is
right and wrong, we were taught that pretty much in kindergarten. Courses in ethics
will not help us here, neither will "values clarification". This is
why the church insists on the sinfulness of human beings as an ontological category,
something that goes to the depths of what it means to be human. We all find our
affections disordered, we all are tempted by wealth and position and adulation.
Our agony is that we find no easy way of resolving the promptings of the heart:
So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at
hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inmost self, but I see in my members
another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of
sin which dwells in my members. (Rom.7:22,23)
Paul's solution to this is the cross of Christ. His theology of the atonement
(literally "at one ment") is perhaps the most misunderstood of all Christian
theology because it seems to be framed in terms of a non-voluntary exchange. Without
our asking, God gave his only son over to death on the cross so that we would
be redeemed. The logic of this comes from the temple cult of giving sacrifice
and is nonsense to the modern mind.
Let us tell a different story. The man Jesus pushes against the powers of his
day (and ours) that bring bondage to human beings. These are the "principalities
and powers" of the world, not least of which are the religious powers. These
powers respond in fear and dread and rig his trial, convict him of blasphemy and
deliver him over to a criminal's death. He does not resist but allows them to
do their worst. Afterward it is found that the one who was judged becomes the
judge. Through the nailing of the body of Jesus to the cross we find that human
sin, that we have encountered so graphically in Romans chapter 8, has been judged.
The tables have been turned, Christ is vindicated, and the religious authorities,
or, to universalise, the unruly passions of the human heart, are crucified. This
realisation and its eternal (rather than secular) nature is the meaning of the
resurrection. The crucified one becomes the source of human freedom from the death-dealing
powers of the world.
Christians henceforth talk about being crucified with Christ and rising with
him to a new life in which sin is put to flight. It is thus not knowledge that
saves us from the turmoil of the inner person but an event in history, the affect
of which rolls down the ages to us. This opens the way to an effective religious
practice that looks with hope for change in the inner person; the transformation
of our desire. It is only then that we find that the law has become irrelevant.
This is the only way that I know in which the unenforceable becomes the force
that transforms ourselves and our society. It does so by tutoring the heart in
desire. Its nature in the world is such that it cannot be controlled or imposed
because it is grace and not law. Neither can it be foisted upon another party
by those who do not themselves take it as a serious challenge to their lives.
In other words is belongs to the provenance of God.
Why is this proposition not taken seriously in our present time and society?
It does not invoke discredited notions of the miraculous or the supernatural and
therefore cannot be refuted by today's scientists. Neither does it recommend uncritical
belief. Rather, it is an argument based on a particular interpretation of an historical
event. We are used to those. We look at the holocaust and wonder about the nature
of Western civilisation in which a nation immersed in Christianity and high culture
can carry out such an abomination. No one calls such exploration "religious"
and therefore to be left to the privacy of the believer. Indeed such arguments
are taken very seriously in our academe. The crucifixion of Jesus and the holocaust
both speak about the contents of the human heart and how those contents cannot
be trusted to guide our actions even when, perhaps especially, they are dressed
up in the clothes of religious authority or of blood and soil. However, such is
the tenor of the times, one is deemed to be religious and the other secular. One
is given no credence in the public sphere and the other much.
This bias is based on the popular notion that religion has to do with the supernatural,
however the basis of theological thought is not the otherworldly, the ghostly
and the ghastly, but the world of the past as it impinges on the present. The
theological science is an historical science that illuminates the present. The
genius of the nation Israel lies in the way it refused religious fancy and instead
plumbed the depths of meaning of events in history and in the way it created legends
that interpreted the world aright. That is why both the Old and New Testament
are occupied with events in time even when the literary genre is that of legend.
It seems old-fashioned and a little bit naïve to say that our affections
are changed when we read the stories from the bible. But that is just what the
church professes. But how else are our lives formed but by narrative, we live
in an "enstoried" universe. The biblical stories are stories that were
selected because they accurately interpret our lives and our place in the world
in relation to the person next to us. This is why these writings are the centre
for preaching. They are a rich source because they are not simple morality tales
but stories that evoke and puzzle and lead us on into an unknown reality that
would be hidden from us if we did not have them. In that way they enable us to
transcend our narcissism and turn to the person next to us and see them for the
first time. This is the basis of a civilised society in which secular law is enforced
rarely because responsibility and peaceableness has been written on the hearts
of the citizens.