Law and grace

It's an old dichotomy, about which every generation tries to write something new, but I like this exposition in the 1883 "Chautauquan," which I'm proofreading right now at Project Gutenberg:
For be assured, though we have read the New Testament, named the name of Jesus, and quite looked down on the Jews, some of us have not yet climbed up so far as to Moses and his Jewish law. In the Bible's older Testament there are needed examples for us yet. Not all of us have learned that majestic, unchangeable fact, that God is Sovereign; nor those related facts that, if we will perpetrate the wrong, we must suffer the penalty; that we can not dodge the consequences of what we do; that indolence must sap our strength; that selfishness must end in wretchedness; that falsehood is a mint, coining counterfeits that must return upon our hands; that hypocrisy to-day is disgrace to-morrow. This is law, everlasting, unrepealable law; and our poor attempts to resist, or nullify it, avail not so much as a puff of mortal breath against the gulf stream in the Atlantic. Blessed will it be for our peace, when we accept it, and bow to it, turning it into a law of liberty.
Remember that the grandest examples of sainthood, or spiritual life, that the ages have seen, have been souls that recognized this truth--the firm, Puritanical element, in all valiant piety; and without it mere amiable religious feeling will be quite sure to degenerate into sentimentality. We need to stand compassed about with the terrible splendors of the mount, and with something of the somber apparatus of Hebrew commandments, to keep us from falling off into some impious, Gentile idolatries of the senses. Holy places, and holy days, and solemn assemblies, still dispense sanctity. Our appetites have to be hedged about with almost as many scruples of regimen for Christian moderation's sake, as the Jew's for his monotheism.

1 comment:

Grim said...

To turn them into laws of liberty means to legislate them for yourself, as freely-chosen laws (which just happen to be the laws you can observe in the world).

This is a kind of classic Enlightenment Protestantism, and you can hear the echoes of Kant's method in that talk about 'laws of liberty,' and the Enlightenment generally in this talk of moral laws that are analogous to natural laws -- with the natural laws assumed to be binding, irresistible, and determinate.

But that's not really how natural laws work, as much as they thought it was in the 18th and 19th centuries. In fact there are not determinate natural laws; the world isn't made such that things happen because they must. The appearance of a world like that is the result of an endless pre-existing series of things that happen indeterminately at smaller levels of reality. All we describe as a "law" at our level of observation is just the playing out of the probabilities of those non-determined smaller happenings.

So if our moral choices are in any sense really free, they should not be governed by hard, deterministic laws. The analog isn't to medium-sized physics, but to small-sized physics, the other place where genuine non-determined events -- freedom, if you like -- is observed.

What that means is that of course you can 'violate the moral law' without bad effects. There is no moral law at the level of individual choices. The laws we can only reason to from the observation of whole fields of similar choices, and are nothing other than the probable outcomes of those choices.

To know what those probabilities are, though, we have to begin by making free choices. Lots of them. We have to see what works well, not once but usually, to understand the moral laws that are embedded in the world.

We can still get there by reason, eventually, but only with education and experience. We need to learn as much as we can about history, and pay attention to the effects of our own choices and those around us.

That God might be the author of laws that govern only probably, meaning that sometimes the wicked prosper and the just suffer, has been a source of great puzzlement historically. But it is the only way in which free will is really possible at all.