It is the wager of The Enhancing Life Project that “spiritual laws” are a crucial conceptual category for deploying the resources of the religious in the ongoing, interdisciplinary work of Enhancing Life Studies. Different from other rational, empirical, and socio-personal laws of human conduct, spiritual laws are those laws that rule and measure enhancing life in relation to the authority of some ideal or counter-world, are promulgated in and operative through the socio-cultural imaginary, and rule and measure human actions and relations. And they are “spiritual” in that they interrelate (i) a power that is driving a living reality, (ii) a structuring and orienting dynamic, and (iii) a process of emergence that leads to the stable condition of a complex reality not being reducible to its parts. Yet insofar as these laws interrelate the actual world with a counter-world they might violate basic principles of thought and social life. If that is the case, how can they actually enhance life? Consider an example from Christian thought.
One of the basic “laws” of social and interpersonal life is the so-called “Golden Rule” as taught by many religions. This law coheres with basic ethical principles, especially those of reciprocity and universalizability. What about the principle of deservingness and justice? It would seem that any conception of justice, and so deservingness, requires ideas about equality intrinsic to the ideas of reciprocity and universalizability. In this respect, the so-called Golden Rule, or some equivalent, is basic to social and interpersonal life where human decisions must be made about responsible actions and relations.
What then are we to make of Jesus’s teaching in the so-called Sermon on the Mount in Mt 5:43-48 which reads (RSV):
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”*
There is of course thousands of years of commentary on this passage, more than can be covered in one blog post or even one hundred books! That said, we can note some salient features of this passage in order to isolate the features and seeming problems of “spiritual laws.”
First, this passage is about spiritual reality, as noted above. That is, it concerns (i) a “power” that is driving a living being, namely, the power of love and also the desire for revenge in situations of human life indexed to the ideas of neighbor and enemy. Likewise, the saying notes (ii) basic structuring and orienting dynamics, the reciprocal relations of care and support among neighbors within some social community and, conversely, the ways relations of justice, and so, equality and right desert, are often elided in situations of grave conflict with enemies. And (iii) the “spiritual law” taught by Jesus purports to be about a process that leads to the stable condition of a complex social life after the reality of animosity and trauma not being reducible to its parts of that situation. Second, the passage from Matthew sets up a complex relation between world and ideal counter-world. God’s heavenly perfection counters the logic of retribution noting that God lets rain, and so the flourishing of life, fall on the just and the unjust. And this is noted in contrast to the tax-collectors, a despised group in Jesus’s time as emissaries of Roman, with their desire for reward, as well as, shockingly, the “pagans’” tendency to draw strict division between insider and outsider. Even the lowest of people in the eyes of Jesus’ contemporaries, that is, Roman tax-collectors and “pagans,” seem to abide by the basic principles of social and interpersonal life that we have isolated. Yet, third, God, the heavenly Father, manifests a perfection utterly otherwise than those principles by causing—in the order of natural phenomena—the sun to rise and the rain to fall on the good and the evil, the just and the unjust.
Now, if that is so about the passage from Matthew, one of the most celebrated epitomes of Jesus’ teaching, would that not mean that orienting life by such teaching would destroy and not enhance social and interpersonal life in the actual world of human actions and relations? How is the counter-world and the ostensive “spiritual law” of this passage in fact not an escape from, rather than an enhancement of, interpersonal and social life? How does this not violate the basic laws of human life? A complete answer to these questions is also beyond the scope of this blog post. That being said, a few words are required in order to help complete this post.
The surprising insight of Jesus’ teaching of this spiritual law is to be found in the claims about God’s sending sun and rain on everyone, and for several reasons. First, sun and rain are used analogically to speak about the whole domain of reality that sustains and enhances life and that is attributed to a deity that, unlike some ancient Near Eastern gods, works for and does not war against nature or human mortals. But this means, second, that on analogy to the natural order so conceived, social life should be fundamentally ordered not by the pursuit of reward or limited to insider-outside but by the distribution of goods needed to sustain and enhance life. Yet this is an analogy because what is at issue is the benevolence of God towards all living things and not that actual causal structure of the natural order. Third, and importantly, this does not deny the reality of injustice or evil or reward seeking or closed communities in the actual world. On the contrary, it grants their reality and then presents a counter-world which can and should be used as an ideal or postulate to guide and orient life in what then can transform and enhance social and interpersonal life. And insofar as life is thereby to be sustained, transformed and enhanced, this means that principles like equality, deservingness, reciprocity, and universalizability most be upheld, but never to the point of the destruction of social and interpersonal life. After all, cycles of unending revenge can engulf a society under precisely those principles and so begin an endless cycle of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” In other words, Jesus’s spiritual law not only works by analogy to sustain the natural, local, and social goods of life but also to surmount situations of on-going conflict. It is why, perhaps with some exaggeration, the philosopher Hannah Arendt once argued that it was Jesus who discovered the role of forgiveness in social life.
The idea that there is an analogy between natural processes of sun and rain and the kind of love to be lived along with the ever-present possibility of violence in social and personal life opens up a fourth insight, namely, that the basic condition of human life is not natural causation or the fury of revenge or even the logic of justified retribution, but, rather, the freedom to orient life in ways that respect and enhance living realities. That is, the “moral space” constituted by this spiritual law is one in which people are free to orient life in ways that lead to flourishing rather than being determined by natural or social processes. This means, at the level of reflexive and moral/spiritual goods, that one is no doubt influenced by but not determined by genetic heritage, race, sex, class relations, memories of suffering or trauma. There is a form of freedom to orient life granting the profound challenge of doing so. This is an extraordinarily important insight because the passage from Matthew could elide any difference between the just and the unjust or warrant, as the love of enemy, a demand to love without condition the abuser or tormentor in interpersonal relation, or quietism and cultural loss in the face of social oppression and devastation. Is that the case?
Jesus’s teaching in Matthew finds a theological resolution to this question, that is, that God, the Heavenly Father, is the ultimate ordering power who creates and sustains life and, in this respect, is gracious to all living things. In terms of inter-biblical thinking, this would seem to be Jesus’ continuation of the claim by God after the “great flood” as found in the book of Genesis that he (God) would never again destroy all life or the innocent with the guilty. However, God’s perfection does not elide, as noted before, the demands of justice, reciprocity, universalizability, or deservingness. The teaching does not destroy the Golden Rule. It merely sets these demands, and so the right to equal regard and the demand of justice, within an encompassing vision that is meant to sustain life through those principles. It is meant, in short, to insure that justice itself does not decay into revenge or equality to be limited to one’s kin and clan or that reciprocal actions can lead to endless cycles of violence. And at this level is to be found the deepest insight of the spiritual law of the love of enemy. The backing theological assumption in Jesus’s teaching is that God also has enemies, that is, those who sin, who deny the reality of God, who work injustice on the weak and the outcast, violate the being and benevolence of the divine. And yet, the divine perfection is found in acts that sustain the world and heal social life. In this respect, to love the enemy and to pray for those that persecute you are not acts of submission to abusive power or quietism. They are acts of divine power aimed at remaking and enhancing the world and human life. This theological analogy between God and the one sinned against recasts the reality of those who suffer unjustly into agents of life in the face of death.
There is one final point to make before concluding. It is important to see that Jesus presents this law in dialectical fashion—although it is hard to imagine the historical figure putting it that way! That is to say, the teaching begins as Torah teaching contrasting “what has been heard,” and so an endoxa of previous teaching by rabbis with Jesus’s teaching. Furthermore, it starts with a perplexity, an aporia, since one is befuddled by the command to love the neighbor as one of the two Great Commands and asks who counts within the scope of that love. We know that elsewhere in the Gospels—Luke 10:25-37—Jesus is portrayed as teaching a radical notion of who is the neighbor in the parable of the Good Samaritan. But in Matthew the appeal is to God’s perfection as creator and sustainer of life. Finally, the dialectical argument—deploying, as we have seen, an interlocking set of analogies—concludes with a practical injunction and not a theoretical or empirical judgment. And this injunction to be perfect as God is perfect once again underscores freedom as the condition of action since God’s perfection is neither determined by natural causation, in fact it is God who works through natural processes (sun/rain) to work the divine will, nor any logic of retributive justice even though God has been and continues to be sinned against. In this respect, the truth or validity of Jesus’s Torah teaching reaches beyond the Torah text itself and even the debate among commentators and teachers into the life of the hearer. That is, we must say, the terrifying demand and possibility of living by this spiritual law.
*For a brilliant analysis of the entire “Sermon on the Mount” see, Hans-Dieter Betz, The Sermon on the Mount (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1995).