THE BOXING RING
There is always a creative tension
between religion as requirements
and religion as transformation:
Jesus said, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:37f;
cf Deuteronomy 6:5; Leviticus 19:18))
But how can we love as Scripture (and Jesus) command us?
The Hebrew Scriptures: Law, prophets, and wisdom
The Hebrew Scriptures can be divided into three major categories – Law, Prophets, and Wisdom. Rohr points out that these biblical divisions also illustrate the normal pattern of human spiritual development:
The Law: In the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) we find the commandments that bind the people of Israel to God and to each other. (In human development, every child needs established order to survive and grow.)
The Prophets: In the Prophets we find critical thinking – the prophets question and chastise the nation’s political and religious leaders. (In human development, adolescents start to question and criticize the established order, beginning with their own parents. Without critical thinking, we can’t move to a deeper level of consciousness.)
Wisdom: In the Wisdom books we see the emergence of non-dualistic thinking. God, for example, answers none of Job’s questions, but questions Job instead – leading him deeper into Mystery. (Without critical thinking, humans can’t move to a deeper level of consciousness, the broader vision that can hold both order and critique in question.)
The ‘actor’ with a plank in his eye
Jesus called the ego the ‘actor’ (the meaning of the Greek word hypocrite). The ego always needs to be important, and to feel important, it tries to eliminate the negative wherever it finds it – in its own self, or in others.
In modern psychology, the negative has been called the’ shadow’ – that part of us that the ego doesn’t want to see (and certainly doesn’t want others to see). The shadow itself is not evil, but it allows us to do evil without recognizing it as evil.
Rohr writes that most religions have seen the shadow as the problem – and have developed rules to govern and even eliminate negative actions and attitudes. But the shadow is only the symptom; Jesus and the prophets deal with the cause: our over-defended ego, which always sees and hates its own faults in other people and thus avoids its own transformation.
Jesus’ phrase for the denied shadow is “the plank in your own eye”:
“Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the plank in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the plank is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.” (Matthew 7:3f)
Jesus knows that our attempts to repress our shadow won’t lead us into personal transformation (with growing empathy, compassion, and patience with others), but into denial – or disguise and hypocrisy.
Jesus addresses the radical cause of evil, and not its symptoms. He clearly sees pride, self-sufficiency and its resultant hypocrisy as the primary moral problems (see Matthew 5-7, the Sermon on the Mount).
The real sin
Growing up, many of us were given this definition of sin: “a thought, word or deed contrary to the law of God.”
But this definition focuses on external behaviors that can be measured, defined and controlled. The qualities of ‘mercy, justice, and good faith ‘ (see Matthew 23:23) can’t be measured, defined or controlled – but these are what Jesus calls the “weightier matters of the law”.
Paul’s contribution to understanding the Law
Morality, which first appears to be the goal and test of all religion, is merely the playing field where the deeper rhythm, the dance of love, shows itself (see Things Hidden, p. 81). We want law for the sake of order, obedience and ‘moral purity’; but God wants law to channel us toward divine union.
We all grow up with clear expectations from authority figures, which put needed limits on our natural egocentricity. But then we trivialize the Law into smaller rules that we think we can obey, instead of moving toward union with God.
Until we have had some level of inner religious experience, we won’t be able to follow the ethical ideals of Jesus; instead, we want clear guidelines and clear consequences.
And so, even in the first century, the human ego’s need for purity codes and rules began to win again – in the old hope that proper behavior would lead to personal salvation. This focus on rules is what Paul aggressively attacked in his letters to the Romans and Galatians – saying that God gave us the Law not to demand perfect obedience but to get us involved in the real issues.
In Rohr’s metaphor, we are all in a boxing ring – which is the Law, surrounding us, holding us up, showing us where the boundaries are. But the rules and the boundaries are not the real issue. Instead, once we are inside the boxing ring, we have a much better chance of discovering what the ring was built to contain (wisdom).
The stumbling block: thinking we can be obedient through willpower
There is so much more we can give God than obedience. ( If we could have come to God by obedience to laws, there would have been no need for God’s revelation of love in Jesus.)
So what is the law really for? It’s not to make God love us because we are obedient; God already loves us, and has shown us that once and forever in Jesus. The purpose of spiritual law is simply to sharpen our awareness about who we are and who God is, so we can become aware of our own need and then turn to God for fulfillment.
There is so much more we can give to God than obedience; in fact, the ‘stumbling stone’ in our relationship with God is thinking we can be obedient through our own willpower. Rohr writes, “If we can overcome this stumbling stone, we will have moved to the third section of the Hebrew Scriptures, the wisdom level of consciousness. The quid-pro-quo mind, dualistic thinking, has broken down in the presence of grace and failure, and finally God’s mercy is in charge.”
Questions for your reflection:
Richard Rohr believes the traditional division of the Hebrew Scriptures into three major sections also reflects the the pattern of human development. As infants and small children we need established order (the Law) simply to survive; as we mature we begin to criticize the established order (the Prophets); finally, we seek a broader vision that can hold both order and critique in tension (Wisdom).
Looking back over your life, does this pattern illustrate your own development?
Karl Rahner wrote, “Where men and woman have not begun to have the experience of God and of God’s Spirit who liberates us from the most profound anxieties of life, and from our endless guilt, there is really no point in proclaiming to them the ethical norms of Christianity.” (Rahner, The Shape of the Church to Come)
In your life, when have you experienced the presence of God’s liberating Spirit?