I became a Christian during summer camp at age eleven, and few experiences since then can compare to the bliss of that first night and the month or so following it. I still remember, though distantly, the thrill of morning devotionals and a general sense of wonder at the strange, unmapped new territory of Christianity.
Walker Percy wrote that every explorer names his island Formosa, “beautiful”, and such Christianity was to me. After a time, however, I started hearing an internal voice, one that said, roughly, why do morning devotionals for ten minutes – you could do them for thirty. So I did, and the voice quieted, but after several weeks another took its place: you play video games for several hours a day – there are service opportunities out there. When friends started drinking, part of me welcomed the change, because the loudest missive from conscience was telling me not to drink alcohol, and I obeyed. But the more I applied myself, the more the voices proliferated: a fountain soda?! – that could be two dollars spent toward fighting human trafficking.
All these voices were really one and the same, something along the lines of me still being a sinner and having so much more of the Gospel to live out. Formosa was losing its allure, and the horizon of feeling morally at peace receded the more I moved toward it. Eventually, a move toward agnosticism (“none of it matters!”) or more likely Eastern Orthodoxy (icons! mystery!) would have been inevitable. But one voice is easier to deal with than hundreds, and the most merciful thing you can tell someone chasing a rainbow is that he’ll never reach it – even if he likely won’t listen. The reduction, or leading-back, from infinite possible moral tasks to one impossible task – “be perfect” – was the only thing that could’ve helped, and increased peace quickly followed my newfound impasse.
There are other ways to silence the voices of condemnation, more salutary perhaps than burnout. I once participated in a Bible study in which, during a Romans 7 discussion, five out of the six people gathered said they had never deliberately sinned since converting to Christianity. I recall the sixth person asking whether, for example, the time they spent at the gym might be better used doing community service. Immediately, one of the well-versed five responded that food is good, and God wants us to enjoy it. Acquaintance with recent pop theology had allowed him, unwittingly, to dull the Law’s force.
Why did Jesus preach the Sermon on the Mount? Especially the parts about anger making me a murderer and lust making me an adulterer – the Jewish Law seems to have covered all that pretty thoroughly. Did his audience need to hear the Law again; were they unfamiliar with the Hebrew Scriptures? Or perhaps they needed, like me, a reduction from the many voices to the one: “be perfect, just as your heavenly father is perfect.”
The Law is holy and just and good, as St. Paul affirms, but in practice, humans misuse it. The Law condemns us, as it should, on paper. But in practice, stringent morality can serve as a perverse comfort, a balm to the Adamic ego. Learning ethics back-to-front, for the idealist, allows us to better keep God’s command. For the realist, however, it merely provides the Old Adam with an expanded arsenal for self-justification.
One of my friends participated in a small group during college. Going into his third year in the group, everyone decided they should sign a group pledge not to get drunk, ever. It turned out that contemplative prayer, reading the Bible, and service were less important than continual moderation with alcohol. Not to mention moderation being more important than avoiding envy, lust, resentment, and contempt.
Not more important – few would actually say that – but more pressing, seemingly. The reason? Behaviors are more easily controlled than dispositions. If there is a requirement, we would usually rather it be a trivial-but-controllable one than be an amorphous one, one which constantly condemns us. Saul Bellow wrote that “Where a fellow draws a battle line there he is apt to be found, dead.” It’s easy to give a reason – because any standard will ultimately condemn us – but the more insidious danger is that we will draw a line which places us in the right, a distortion and minimization of the Law for the sake of self-affirmation.
Often those who are criticized for being antinomian are those who have taken the Law’s condemning totality so seriously that these minute boundaries, while not losing their reality, fade: an inexperienced literature student will think his two favorite books are massively important; while losing none of their real value, they nonetheless shrink in importance as he reads more. Thus Jesus, the only human ever to know the Law fully by obedience, could say, from his vantage point, “’whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment.” He took our hair-splitting and deconstructed it, utterly.
From a birds-eye perspective, which is to say an accurate one, perhaps the distinctions between a theology of breast-beating – “God, be merciful to me, a sinner” – versus one of line-drawing – “I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers” – blend together, too. God knows that humility and moral defeatism can become ladder-climbing techniques themselves. From such a perspective, we’re all revealed to be narcissists, and the differences small. Our absolute spiritual need (the only source of true humility) cannot be conjured, exhorted, or theologized into. Resisting that need, we can do nothing but draw Bellow’s battle lines, and he’s right to observe that there we will be found, dead. Luckily, the spiritually dead, biblically speaking, are the genuine substrates of redemption.