We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Getting Beyond the Law

It was the Apostle Paul's amazing spiritual insight that humanity cannot be justified in the eyes of God by keeping the Jewish Law.  As Christians, we are justified by our faith in Christ.  This is the point he makes in Galatians 5:15-21, which has become settled Christian theology and ethics.  In all of the standard English-language versions (for example), the same language is used to make Paul's point: humanity is not justified by works of the law but by faith (2:15-16).  The Message and Today's English Version translate "justified" (see here) as either being put right or set right with God, which seems slightly different but not that much so.  All of these translations retain Paul's legal terminology of justification, being proven not guilty in a court of law.  Yes, "justification" can mean more than that (see here), but its legal sense lingers in the other possible meanings.

The problem here is that if we are justified by faith rather than the law, we are still being justified.  We are still operating in a legal framework.  Our understanding of how faith operates in our personal faith is still tinged (tainted, if you will) by the idea that we need to be justified in the eyes of God.  And while it was surely neither his experience or intent, Paul's insight that we are justified by faith too often fails to free the faithful from the Law.  Indeed, it can turn faith into a form of law.  Faith becomes something we have to achieve in order to be justified.  Yes, yes, it is not supposed to be that way, but generations of faithful believers have and many still do worry about whether or not they have been "put right" with God.  Is their faith genuine?  How do they know?  The surest indication that faith has been sucked into the legal realm is how closely it is tied to judgment and judgmental attitudes.  There has long been a huge cottage industry among Christians aimed at judging who is "really" a faithful follower of Christ and who is not according to one measure or another of what is "real faith."  And that is a legal concern.

Interestingly, the Laughing Bird paraphrase of Galatians 2:15-16 manages to remove the matter of faith and works from the legal realm.  It has these two verses saying, "We ourselves are not lawless Gentiles, but 'born and bred Jews'—people of the law.  However, we now know that this gives us no particular advantage, because God's approval is not a reward for careful compliance with the law, but a gift to those who entrust themselves to Jesus Christ."  Here, the issue at stake is the gift of God's approval and the route to that approval is faith.  We are not longer standing in a court of law before God the stern Judge but in the kitchen with God the loving Mother.

Paul gives us the freedom to no longer hold to the legal metaphor for understanding our relationship with God and to discover other metaphors for that relationship instead, such as one centered on our experience of family.  Historically, I assume that Paul did mean for us to stick with the legal metaphor but it also seems to me that his insight that justification is by faith freed him from the Law and by implication allows us to be freed from the legal metaphor—to see our relationship with God is a fundamentally different way, one that is not at all outside of the biblical tradition.  God is "Abba" (Mark 14:36) not Judge.  Faith really is a matter of trust in God, not of measuring up to God's expectations.