Legalism

I’ve been slacking, that is admittedly the case. In school we’re reading Galileo and Euclid (for another three weeks still), and there just haven’t been any topics coming up that cry out to be put into writing and forced upon my friends.

Tomorrow we’ll be wrapping up the first week of Great Lent and seeing in the second with Orthodoxy Sunday, complete with icon procession and reading of the proclamation of the 7th Ecumenical Council. “This is the faith which has established the cosmos!” Hurrah! Speaking of which, I have so far proved more or less incapable of being penitentially lenten if there’s even a slight possibility of being cheerily lenten. The alternative to cheery lenteness in my case seems to be apathetically lenten or confusedly non-lenten, neither of which are especially helpful. So there we are singing about how sinful and slothful and despairing we are, or anathematizing some of my dear friends whom I respect greatly (those who do not reverence icons), and there behind it in my mind and heart is a series of “hurrah!s” Ah well, perhaps it’ll wear off and I’ll come to be properly repentant someday.

In any event, I would like to take a moment to work out something my father and I have sometimes been puzzled by: the insistance on not being legalistic toward those who are for the most part too laissez-faire. Pastor John of NWBC would on a regular basis preach sermons on it, but in such a way that we left more puzzled than we had been coming in. Fr. John was mentioning the threat of legalism today, and has in the past — he says that somehow it’s intrinsic in “the Western mindset.” As he uses language closer to mine, and I think I understand his meaning somewhat better. Perhaps that can help elucidate our former quandaries.

If I followed what Fr John was saying, legalism, put briefly, is taking a means and mistaking it for an end. Or, rather, taking a rule meant to bring us into closer communion with God and others, and treating it as an immutable law, even at the expense of that communion. Thus, fasting is good, because it reminds us that “man does not live by bread alone,” that our relationship toward preferred food items should be one of freedom rather than necessity, that we do not need to eat, or to eat whatever we like, in order to be content and even joyous, and so on. It’s not about neglecting our health or insulting our friends or feeling superior or proud or whatever else we might come up with to mess up a fast. Legalism is adhering to the rule (to not eat animal products during Lent, for instance), while neglecting the reason for the rule (freedom from slavery to one’s own tongue and stomach, for instance).

To take another example, not drinking alcohol is a discipline — which is to say that drinking in moderation is not absolutely a sin — it isn’t intrinsically disordered, as some would say. However, it’s quite easy to lapse into immoderation, or to treat alcohol wrongly (by drinking to avoid confronting something painful, for instance). So there’s an associated discipline: let’s say it’s to only drink on festive occasions in moral company, for instance. Or even to not drink at all (as is the rule in rural Alaska because the people have been so damaged by alcohol). It’s not that there’s something wrong with wine, but rather that there’s something wrong with us — wine is a gift from God, but we are liable to misuse it on account of our immoderate appetites. Legalism would deny that wine is a gift from God, and make an absolute law out of the results of our immoderation, and say that drinking is always and everywhere wrong, and that we’re better people because we refrain from it.

If that’s a correct account, then legalism is easily enough understood, even if it’s difficult to refrain from falling into it. So why the perplexity? One possibility is that we were perplexed because Pastor John was dodging the legalisms we as a congregation were actually prone to, in favor of examples of kinds of legalism we were less inclined towards (if not as a congregation, then at least my family and acquaintances. But Fr. John’s comment about legalism being deeply ingrained in the Western mindset suggests something different. I remember Pastor John always having to say that we “can’t work our way to heaven,” as though somebody believed that we could. I suppose somebody does — there’s somebody who believes just about everything — but is it a common belief in Christianity? But hovering around the edges of my consciousness are the preferred definitions of sin in the different churches: it’s the breaking of commandments; it’s the same to break one commandment as to break all of them, it’s the breaking of communion, it’s a burden, it’s missing the mark… and the common complaint against Christianity — it’s just a long list of rules! The focus is always on what is forbidden and what is required and never on what is permitted! Because, really, there’s a great deal that’s permitted in Christianity that is not easily permitted within much anti-Christian culture. Like joy that is only tangentially related to oneself: joy because Christ is risen (!), because the earth is beautiful, because God is holy; because, yes, we can still be perfectly content without those shoes or this sweater or the new car over there; and there can be joy even in the face of injustice and suffering and the failure of our strivings for utopia; joy that is unrelated to a good political situation or an accelerating economy or whatever else might seem necessary to human happiness.

Evangelicals, I think, feel all that; they feel that paschal joy and delight and gratitude are at the center of Christianity, but lack a sufficiently developed theology (and sacraments!). But I wonder if that’s why Pastor John is so concerned about legalism: the error is plain, but the acquisition and acceptance of joy and peace and gratitude are elusive.

I don’t know if any of this is going someplace constructive… just some thoughts…

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2 thoughts on “Legalism

  1. Years ago my confessor said something like this: once you grant the opponent his assumptions, you’ve lost.

    This, I think, is the source of the confusion that you describe, and which I share (myself having come from a legalistic protestant confession, which also protested too much: ‘It’s not works!’).

    The mindset–whether Western or other–forces the questions to be asked. Rather than answer the questions, it is better to move into another mindset where such questions make no sense. And that is a long process.

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