Many pastors feel they’re losing credibility. A greater attention to the Law in human experience could help regain it.

Along with preaching the Gospel, which overwhelms and effaces our faults, there is still, in Luther’s thought at least, the need to preach God’s Law, which – in addition to making sense of the world around us – lets us know how we stand before God, which is always as those who are spiritually impoverished in themselves and in need of continual mercy. As grace comes into focus only when we know we have done wrong, so the Gospel comes into focus only when we recognize our need of it. Some premonition of a “love which covers a multitude of sins” we may perceive, blurry and far-away, but that love grows sharper and more affective when we may see the “multitude” as it is.

Although I don’t have that sharp a vision of the “multitude” in my own life (“only the saint knows sin”, as W.P. DuBose put it), a couple of factors may be occluding our vision of the Law in the contemporary religious discussion. One factor is that, just as explaining the moral ideal of equality to a 1st-century Roman may have been insuperably difficult, so too are some of our distinct cultural values making us take for granted certain things which, in other places and times, may be thought immoral. An example would be the Bible’s frequent condemnation of ambition (he who would save his life…), while in our culture, we take an overriding desire for increasing prestige and income to be, by definition, good things. Another factor would be the Church’s reaction to these things, doubling down on the unimpeachable authority of the Law, but failing to connect it to real life. If I had a son and wanted to teach him not to be ambitious, I would watch Citizen Kane with him long before I would take him to hear many sermons about the evils of ambition.

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How, I wonder, has so much ideology – right and left – come to seem disembodied, to have lost connection to human experience? I think one starting-point would be to see the Law in its impersonality – that is, the Judeo-Christian moral code pronounces, and apart from the ‘cultural’ commandments, the delineation of which is another topic altogether, context isn’t much considered. The Ten Commandments, at the absolute minimum, are categorical, that is, brook no exceptions with regard to context, situation, personalities, and so forth. Immanuel Kant, who put forth probably the most philosophically advanced system of ‘deontological’ ethics – that is, ethics of duty – was famously criticized, with his absolute “do not lie”, through the scenario of a man in Nazi Germany being asked whether, and where, he was quartering any Jews. Context, in this sense, does matter, and obviously.

An ethicist, if she wanted to, could easily apply the same contextual critique to the Law of God: “Do not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” Well, what if a destructive tyrant in a country could be framed for a crime he didn’t commit, thereby ending his abuses of power? This isn’t the place to argue for or against (I’m not an ethicist), but merely to note a tension between total, faithful submission to the Law, on the one hand, and practicality, on the other. This tension, it’s also important to note, does not exist in an ideal world, e.g. Kant’s “kingdom of ends,” but it is a symptom of the Fall. The Psalmist struggles with the tension; for example, in Psalm 119, even he cannot keep the commandments (“O that my ways may be steadfast /   in keeping your statutes!”), but he sees their beauty (“I delight in the way of your decrees /  as much as in all riches”), that is to say, they are not arbitrary.

All this is merely to point out an element underemphasized in Christian teaching, which is the consonance of the Law with what is, indeed, holy, just, and good, even in immanent perception. Sometimes, it’s hard to see how damaging disobedience of the Law can be because people do not want to talk about it, often from fear of judgment.

The bible scene with Jesus at the well with the Samaritan woman shows signs of damage and peeling of paint

The discussion should not abandon the idea of a Law requiring submission even when we do not understand, but it should shift to endeavoring to provide more precise elucidations of how ethics play out in human experience. One place many can relate is the field of sexual ethics, a place in which the Law often seems restrictive and arbitrary, especially to the young, but can often be readily made sense of in even immanent terms.  For example, during a long car ride with a friend who had worked in campus ministry, he said, with regard to the ubiquitous question of people ‘staying over’ during college, that someone waking up next to you in the morning implies a certain bond of commitment in an unavoidable, even if subconscious, way. The Beach Boys’ “Be Here in the Mornin” started playing as we talked; his sensibility couldn’t have been more lucid. His argument didn’t require any faith, on the part of the listener, to make sense; all it required was empathy and a certain understanding of the way humans operate. To provide a couple more examples of connecting ethics to daily life in the realm of sex, via language equally accessible to Christian and non-, could there be a stronger argument against extramarital affairs than Faulkner’s “Wild Palms”? Or a more damning indictment of hookups than the young clerk, carbuncular, of The Waste Land who seduces a woman in apartment, whose “caresses / …still are unreproved, if undesired”?

So we can distinguish two levels: a transcendent “Thou shalt / shalt not”, backed by the divine authority, and the experiences in which we see, to simplify, whether or not those prohibitions make immanent sense, where and how they touch down at a more embodied, or enacted, level. To neglect the first would lead to arrogance and relativism; to neglect the second would lead to disembodied Gnosticism. Our cultural experiences are, with regard to premarital sex, hookups, and the like, shifting away from one in which the Law frequently made embodied, experiential sense. Unfortunately, the Church’s reaction has been to talk ever-louder about the transcendent, categorical end of things, rather than replenishing the drained store of embodied ethical sensibility. As a theological guardrail, such replenishment – consisting in finding resonances in specific, experiential situations – must never be understood as the unnecessary and idolatrous justification of God’s Law, but rather the increasingly necessary reification of it. As noted, Faulkner’s “Wild Palms”(appearing in the work If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem)helps this replenishment with regard to extramarital affairs, Eyes Wide Shut with regard to lust, many recent sociological reports for pornography, etc. As an example of employing such a resource, an episode from Proust, when the narrator and a girl named Albertine, whom he has described as mutually indifferent to one another, meet one night in the narrator’s bedroom, offers a few interesting insights. After they’ve done something beyond kissing though (in the context) probably short of sex, she speaks to him before leaving:

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‘When am I going to see you again?’ she went on, as though declining to admit that what had just happened between us, since it is generally the crowning consummation, might not at least be the prelude to a great friendship, a friendship already existing which we should have to discover, to confess, and which alone could account for the surrender we had made of ourselves.

The language here is that of physical actions corresponding to an emotional state; when the narrator’s and Albertine’s physical intimacy outpaces their emotional intimacy, she (and perhaps he, too) feels a need to ‘discover’ a great friendship which would account for their physical actions, make them more natural, and close the dissonance between physical and emotional states of their relationship. Proust continues:

…On reaching the door, surprised that I had not anticipated her, she offered me her cheek, feeling that there was no need now for any coarse physical desire to prom us to kiss one another. The brief relations in which we had just indulged being of the sort to which an absolute intimacy and a heartfelt desire often tend, Albertine had felt it incumbent upon her to improvise and add provisionally to the kisses which we had exchanged on my bed the sentiment of which those kisses would have been the symbol for a knight and his lady such as they might have been conceived in the mind of a gothic minstrel.

Now we have the language of symbolism: physical intimacy works as an expression of emotional intimacy (as well as a special instantiation of it). It functions too as a measure of their relationship, more broadly, and having been physically ‘told’ by an experience that they are at the least great friends, Albertine must find grounds for such a positive evaluation. The sign has been read, even created, by the two, and now she must try to create the reality to which it would naturally point.

The creation of this reality is a burden, a pressure often stifling. The pastor may have a difficult time convincing people that something is unequivocally ‘bad’ when they lack the cultural resources to make sense of this evaluation. Yet the pastor can read this scene in Proust without viewing it as a bit of bad luck or an anomaly or a missed connection, but something which fails for deeper reasons; similarly, making sense of a series of awkward breakfasts and interrupted friendships – meeting someone where they are, in other words – is something which those who believe in the Judeo-Christian Law are qualified to do, to their own credibility and persuasiveness.

With regard to ethical positions or arguments, I’m not qualified to advocate an opinion; it seems more useful to listen to the experts, be they biblical scholars, theologians, ethicists, et cetera. But the approaches taken in preaching, especially to younger people, could do for a positive change, one which connects the law with the truths of human experience, as discovered by, well, the experts in that field – novelists, screenwriters, poets, memoirists, and others. As those who provide the criteria for what we believe, those students of the human heart would often make poor luminaries. But for deepening our knowledge of the truth and presenting it as something more than arbitrary, they could be invaluable.