The Problem of Legalism and Lawlessness
Two of the biggest problems in the spiritual life actually often have the same root-cause. These particular problems have various names, and they are as follows: moralism/legalism/rigidity, and lawlessness/relativism/liberalism. Both of them develop from a false understanding of the moral law itself – a type of spiritual disease pertaining to God’s own commandments. Christ says that if we would like to be His friends, we must keep his commandments. This is a statement that perhaps requires a deeper more penetrating glance by legalists who think that merely doing God’s will de-facto makes them friends with Christ – as if some mere adherence to external behaviour, white-knuckling our own sinful inclinations makes us His friends. The lawless will of course be jarred at this statement as if obedience and friendship are somehow in opposition, and commandments have no place in such a relationship. The idea of objective criteria existing for friendships to exist seems sterile and off-putting. Why do these two positions exist in the first place? I might perhaps offer a suggestion in regard to how we enter into ethics and morality with a few presuppositions that affect our perception of them in the first place.
There are different types of laws – and St. Thomas Aquinas offers us some distinctions that help purify our mind, so that we can have the proper attitude towards the law itself. It is my belief that many people view God’s moral law (natural and divine law) as nothing more than a list of precepts that are positive laws. The contemporary view of positive laws, differ from God’s law. Positive laws are arbitrarily imposed upon nature. Early-Modern philosophy suggested that nature was in a “state of war” whereby human reason cultivated laws (social-contracts) to impose order upon something that was intrinsically disordered. In this case, man creates and defines order around his own will and reasoning. Therefore, civilization was a way of bringing order to chaos, and that nature should be viewed as something altogether disordered if left to itself. In some ways this approach assumed a Calvinist approach to grace and nature, whereby in a fallen world, nature was deprived of the good-absolutely. However, to Catholics, nature itself always contains within itself a purpose, even if for some reason it cannot achieve this purpose. That intrinsic-purpose in nature, sin cannot change, and thus to some degree, even in a fallen world, nature remains good, but sick. The philosophy was developed because disorder was observed in nature – but went too far when believing that the disorder was the state of nature itself, rather than nature being unable to actualize its intrinsic order already within the world itself. Laws therefore, if made in a positive manner should be there to “restore order” to nature, or to help nature flourish. The positive laws (human-law) is therefore at the service of what the nature of things are, rather than the view that nature itself is evil, and needs to be suppressed.
Digging a bit deeper, we might realize that if people view God’s law as equivalent to the positive law in relation to an evil world, we would see God’s laws as opposing our own version of the “good.” But what the Catholic Church wants to teach us is that our objective “good” is the same as God’s version of good in our life – the two are not in competition. Our perceptions might be in competition, but not the actual reality. God does not want us to repress our nature, but rather to restore it to full health. Unfortunately, because many people walk into moral discussions and dialogues, it is often the case that morality is viewed as nothing more than a set of rules imposed upon us. The natural-law therefore will help to offer a different and more integrated perspective that will thereby exclude both legalism and lawlessness while accepting the half-truth in both reactions. This leads to an integrated spirituality.
The natural law argues that our nature is not a social-convention, but is something objective. The technical term would be “ontological” which implies that “who we are” is not something we define or decide for ourselves, but rather discover, and hopefully (through choices) embrace. Our moral character is something we do choose, according to our decisions, but that defines our behaviour, not our essence. We notice this attitude is pervasive sometimes in our own language when we describe certain behaviour as “inhumane.” In other words, when a person is cruel they are not acting as the human-being they are. Their “action” does not match who they are. They are not fulfilling their potential as a human being but falling short of it.
The Natural Law suggests that the moral law is not imposed upon us, but is simply us ascribing to what we truly are – who we truly are. Aristotle said it like this: “action flows from being.” His point was that “what” a thing is helps determine what it should do. In this regard, a monkey flings its poop at its enemies, while human beings worship God. What we are helps define what we can do and what we cannot or should not do. When we discover that the natural law is simply us fulfilling our own potential, by being authentic to who we are, we can begin to understand why morality is actually a great thing that encourages us to accept who and what we are, by allowing our behaviour to coincide with that nature. God’s law is not in competition with who we are, and the moral law is there to heal us, not repress.
Unfortunately because of original sin, things begin to get confusing. If only life were simple, eh? If we were to use our desires to define who we are, we know from the doctrine on original sin that this is not an infallible method of discernment. As a result of the fall from grace, every human being is inflicted with desires and inclinations, perceptions of “self” that are unreasonable. For instance, men at times might be raised in a family where abuse is normal in relationship to a husband and his wife. This can teach the man the “wrong” thing about what it means to be a man – to which he emulates later in life. Or perhaps a person is born with a nature inclined to be addicted to alcohol – that isn’t a chosen state of life, but he must learn to not act on this inclination. Furthermore, he or she must not be defined by the addiction: we should not say that “John” is an alcoholic. Rather that John has a problem with alcohol. An addiction to alcohol is not “who John is.” Finding freedom from such substance abuse is allowing John to fulfill his potential that in a fallen world is difficult to achieve.
Our desires do spring from a good place, but at times come out twisted. For instance, sexual desire is meant to be conveyed through “giving and receiving.” To give one’s body to another as a gift is a physical action that is meant to communicate not just the gift of the body, but the gift of the whole self – my entire life, my commitment, my love of everything you are, with everything I am and will be. And when that gift is “received” love is returned to the other, because he has been accepted, and thereby loved through such acceptance. What is foreign to this exchange is “taking” love or the fantasy to “take.” Lust is essentially when a person interrupts the cycle of giving and receiving by interjecting an action of “taking” – and this can happen in rape, but it can also occur in a mutually consenting manner. A person can agree to have sex with another as a form of entertainment, treating the other person as a means to fulfill their own desires. People are not means – they are always ends; people are not objects, they are always subjects. And this is why we consider lust to be a type of objectification.
Morality is therefore, when healthy, grounded in a spirituality – but if it is understood as a cold list of laws and regulations there are generally two positions one will take in reaction. The lawless will see these rules as repressive towards his/her desires and therefore the false-self (false-identity defined by disordered desires/inclinations). As a result, the impulse to “be myself” will exert itself, but be applied to a false-subjective-self. This is because the law is perceived to be imposed upon “me” without having a relatable context with how I perceive myself. The law is therefore arbitrary. In a more subtle thread, sometimes we see theologians habitually look for “exceptions” to the rule (even when that moral law claims the act is intrinsically evil). Seeking such exceptiosn which do not by definition exist, they claim this way of thinking respects the complexity of the human condition and is free of “legalism.” This, at best is termed “nominalism.” Essentially the person is still looking at the law, not as a revelation to the person, but as a hoop to jump through. For instance, if contraception in all acts intrinsically violate the dignity of both women and men in “who” they are, and this truth is internalized, one cannot conceive of an exception where it would be okay to “hate” their spouse or themselves. There is no exception to that rule: hating your neighbour’s dignity or yourself is always wrong, and amounts to self-hatred – though perhaps a love of a false-self.
Legalism however seeks the over-simplistic route, whereby there is often a great deal of interior shame within the individual. Knowing that his or her desires do not line up with God’s moral law, man or woman begins to hate himself explicitly (confusing his desires with his nature), whereas with the lawless its often more implicit. The lawless simply creates a new-identity to love – even if it’s a subjective fantasy. The legalist however is in denial of his own true nature, and thus represses the desires he experiences, thinking them to make him unlovable. As a result he places all his hopes in external behaviour, as if that will somehow change his fallen nature into something that God is impressed by. Jesus refers to such individuals as “white washed tombs.” They look beautiful, but interiorly is the stench of death.
The legalist seems to be the one “picked on” most of all. Perhaps it’s because at least with the lawless you know where you stand on moral issues. But with the legalist, he manages to speak a half-truth, while also passing on something very poisonous, which turns other people off from the moral law itself. He conveys (falsely) through cynicism and bitterness that the moral law brings despair and wrath, rather than peace and harmony in nature. Nonetheless, in a liberal culture, the legalist is always the biggest enemy, even if both the legalist and lawless are equally culpable for the existence of the opposite extreme. The issue is “inordinate shame” with both the lawless and the legalist who view their nature to be at odds with God’s moral law. For the lawless, he reinvents his own definition of his essence/nature to cope with that shame. To the legalist he works very hard to violently change his desires through an emphasis on external behaviour that never truly changes anything and merely masks the deep need for conversion and healing that both require.
One of the vast challenges we have today is realizing that God’s moral law is actually offering us insight into who we are, and who God is. For instance, if you were to take the 10 commandments – you could begin to say, “What does this law teach about who I am, in relationship to others?” I’m told I should not kill – I suppose that means I should respect the life of others and cherish not just my own life. I am made to protect life and not to take it for some selfish reason. I’m also told I’m not to steal – I suppose that is because I am meant to share where I can, and to respect a person’s own property or stewardship over their property. I’m not meant to be selfish and entitled but generous. I’m told that I should honour God above all, I suppose that means God deserves the credit for everything. He is ultimately who will make me happy; he should be my first priority because that is where I will find fulfillment and peace.
If we can learn to habitually think of morality as drawing us back to the questions about who I am, who my neighbour is, and who God is, then we have begun to embrace the moral law in its right context. But without this we will naturally fall into legalism and lawlessness. IF we are lawless, we will only encourage people to hate themselves and create an illusion to cope with that self-hatred. Today that is promoted because self-concepts are often conceived to be something existential and not based upon reality. Why else would we see gender-confusion as something liberating, and a binary view of sexual identity as negative? The former liberates us to decide our own meaning and purpose according to our desires, conforming truth violently to our preference. Whereas the legalists would coldly insist that people who experience their own body not lining up to their affect should just “do what is right” and deal with it. That legalism would be the result of their own self-imposed violence on themselves being equally or resentfully shared with those who do not follow the supposed sacrifices they have made for themselves. But underneath that legalism is a shame towards themselves, and a tireless battle to overcome temptation by white-knuckling their way through temptation. Jesus teaches us on the Sermon on the Mount that it isn’t good enough to merely not commit adultery, but that we should not harbour lust/adultery in our heart. The man needs to change his desires, but not through anything but cooperating with grace, rather than self-righteous effort.
The devil is at play in all of this by the way. He is called the “accuser” because while he inspires sin, his goal is to get us to be ashamed of who we are: an image of God. When Jesus enters the desert, Satan asks Christ twice, “IF you are the son of God.” That statement alone should remind us that at the peek of a spiritual battle is an attack on our nature, our identity – and therefore, once we doubt this, our actions can easily be swept up in sin, since our actions are no longer united to our true-self. Satan wants us to resent who we are, because Satan resents the one we image. We should experience guilt for our sins, but not inordinate shame. What “I’ve done” is wrong, but it is wrong because of “who God made me” and “what God made me.” Therefore, even in guilt, we pay ourselves a compliment – by suggesting “I’m better than my behaviour.” Guilt therefore becomes not something crushing, but something encouraging – and an act of love towards ourselves and God. Shame on the other hand is simply an attack on ourselves, and we either cope by violent repression or by changing the definition of truth. Both are counterfeit solutions and in the end, deep down, we know neither will give us the peace we are looking for.