Saturday, December 29, 2012

Lower Law, Higher Law

There's a tendency to read Paul's commentary on the lower law as a critique of the Levitical ordinances prior to the coming of Christ. There are problems with this, not the least of which is that it contributes to an anti-Jewish reading of the Scriptures. More than that, however, a close reading of the Pauline texts reveals that Paul is addressing conflicts and challenges within the Church that are very much alive today, and his commentaries on Law have direct relevance to us. The teachings of Paul regarding the lower law and the higher law make so much more sense if we understand the lower law as something that is still functional in today's Church, rather than as something that was swept away in the ancient Church and has no more relevance in our day.

Based on the Pauline texts, we can understand the lower law in terms of a series of commandments and punishments that are designed to inculcate higher moral awareness. There is no guarantee that it will do this. But at the very least, if the law does not teach or train, it preserves good order. For these reasons, the law is ordained of God, even if it does not represent the highest stage of development that God hopes for us to achieve.

Paul is very clear about those to whom the lower law is intended to apply: those who cannot control their anger, lust, pride or other worldly impulses, and those who are more motivated by short term tangibles more than by long-term intangibles.

One way of looking at the lower law is to see it as a school in which the ego is broken down. Once we have learned how to submit our will to a higher will, we are ready for the higher law, which demands greater patience, sacrifice and compassion of us than the lower law.

Paul always seems to be talking to two categories of people: those who get it, and those who don't get it. He has much higher expectations of those who get it. They are expected to be more patient and tolerant with those who don't get it. One of the clearest signs that we don't get it is that we invest a lot in roles and status. The overarching ethic that everybody is intended to understand in his writing is that there is a place for all of us in the Church, whatever our gifts, whatever our roles, and whatever our level of understanding.

I am fascinated by the notion that God expects us to go through stages of development. God recognizes the impossibility of becoming like him without intermediate stages between where we currently are and where he is now. To me this is a very comforting notion! It means that God is always willing to work with us wherever we are! Most of us are still living the lower law in at least some areas of our lives.

The higher law is not a club. It is not a reward for adhering to some dogma. It has nothing to do with whether we call ourselves Christian or not. It offers no special privileges, though it does entail special responsibilities. It offers its own rewards. There are no gatekeepers to include or exclude us from it. We participate in it by simply living it. Those who get it live it, those who don't won't.

Christ is the model of the higher law. If we want to understand what it is, how it works, and what it demands of us, we need only study his life.

I am particularly fascinated by the fact that in the Pauline writings, Paul seems to acknowledge that the Church needs to govern its daily affairs by what looks like the lower law. Check out, for example, I Timothy 5 verse 20. Using public shaming techniques and fear to govern the Church is clearly an example of the lower law at work. In fact, the entire chapter is a study in what the Church looks like, and what Church leaders' admonitions need to be when members of the Church don't seem to be capable of living beyond the lower law. In this chapter, Paul finds himself obligated to address basic problems of anger, idleness, lust and pride.

Paul's views on slavery have been a source of much controversy in the last few centuries of Christendom. But if we understand the lower law / higher law scenario, Paul's views become more comprehensible. The lower law places a high premium on social order. It therefore tends to regulate slavery, rather than to ban it. Under the higher law, we see slavery as an abomination that could not possibly be countenanced living the kind of love that Jesus Christ taught and modeled. In I Timothy 6, Paul speaks to slave masters and counsels them against the dangers of coveting riches, evidence that he is speaking to a group of people who haven't "gotten it" yet.

The higher law mentality thrives in the recognition that we can be happy, whatever our lot in life. While the external conditions of slavery are an atrocity, there is a way in which a slave can ultimately only be a slave in his or her own mind. Once we make that recognition we will always be free, no matter what anybody else does to us externally. Paul sought to inculcate this understanding among members of the church. Unfortunately, some of these admonitions have been misinterpreted as acceptance of slavery. That would be, by the way, a very "lower law" way to read Paul's writings on the subject.

Everything that I've said here about Paul's views on slavery apply equally well to the subject of homosexuality and the church. And either we will get it, or we won't get it. But I still believe that the misunderstanding and the mistreatment of homosexuals by Christians offers gay and lesbian people an opportunity. Learning how to face that and to deal with that and come through victorious can be a school in the higher law for us.

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