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Religion in the Public Sphere: A Q&A with William Schweiker

Spiritual Laws and the Spirit of Laws

December 15, 2016 • By William Schweiker Spiritual Laws and the Spirit of Laws

Consider a fact and a question. The fact: religions are powers that shape the social and personal life, and that shaping is, often enough, accomplished through their forms of law. The modern idea that religion is a “private matter” is factually wrong—the world scene demonstrates the force of religious laws formulated long ago to shape societies today. From ancient Athens and Israel, not to mention the other “axial religions,” there is a close connection between “civil law” and conceptions of morality. So the question is: do religions have anything positive to contribute to contemporary social order and personal life?           

A bit of history is in order.  In Plato’s dialogue Crito, Socrates, after imagining the Laws questioning him about whether escaping prison and punishment is just, accepts the sentence of death instead of fleeing the city. As the Socratic maxim states, “The unexamined life is not worth living." The Crito is a double examination of life: Socrates is examined by the Laws even as he examines Crito’s plea for him to escape prison and flee. 

Equally important in the Western moral imagination are two mountains. The first of these is Sinai, where Moses receives the Law. Law, Torah, can take different forms: the Law of Moses, the first five books of the Bible, the eternal Torah, oral Torah. The second mountain is the Mount where Jesus delivers his Torah teaching, enunciating a new “Law of Love” in the Sermon on the Mount. In whatever form, Torah is, then, instruction or teaching; it is a way of examining and orienting life around what is just and loving.           

In our globalized world, riddled with conflicts about the grounds, sources, and validity of law (e.g., Sharia, constitutional, English common law, canon law, state and federal law, natural law, the Law of Peoples), it is difficult—maybe impossible—to imagine the Laws speaking, examining, and instructing one about the right orientation of actions and relations. Religious laws are often the sources of conflict within a religious community and the wider social order, and we hardly believe that the only response to laws we cannot abide is, as the Laws say to Socrates, self-exile. Multi-cultural societies rightly reject the tyranny implied in the Laws’ directive to “obey whatever orders we give.” After centuries of debate about civil disobedience within modern Western society, consent to the “social contract” does not entail unquestioned obedience, and we have become attuned to the dangers of allowing the State to enforce a specific morality. Far better, it seems, to develop legal systems disconnected from religion and moral beliefs.

Is that the final verdict on the contribution that the religions can make to contemporary social and personal lives? My work in The Enhancing Life Project enters the thorny question of religion, morality, and law by exploring the paradoxical structure of what I call “spiritual laws.” This has its dangers: if one Googles “spiritual laws,” one confronts a total of 1,480,000 results! In the context of The Enhancing Life Project, what do I mean by “spiritual laws?” 

Laws in the social world are rules of individual or social action, established by some authority, promulgated and thus knowable, which concern the order, protection, and flourishing of some jurisdiction of life. This broad definition of “law” would seem to apply analogically to logical or rational laws as well as those laws we impute to the physical world. One task of my project, then, is to sort out the difference between kinds of law and their specific jurisdictions.

Spiritual laws, I now think, are those laws for enhancing life—in relation to the authority of some religious worldview promulgated in and operative through the socio-cultural imaginary—whose jurisdiction is human actions and relations, from a paradoxical or ironic perspective. My project seeks to identify what spiritual laws are present in the religions, especially Christianity, but also what spiritual laws may exist in the global socio-cultural imaginary that facilitates social life.  These laws are the rules and measures of “spirit” (i.e., the power of the free orientation of human life) and therefore the rules and measures of a kind of freedom that moves between the world(s) of everyday immanence and a religious worldview for the sake, ironically, of enhancing life in this world

An example of a “spiritual law” within the Christian tradition is Jesus’s command to love the enemy, based on the example of God sending the sun and rain on the righteous and unrighteous (Mt 5:43-48). God’s reign runs counter to our world that readily pits “good” against “evil” in a battle to the death. According to Jesus’s teaching, the perfection of life is found, paradoxically, by imitating God’s action in this world of conflict through the distribution of goods needed for life to endure, unmoored from moral discriminations, with the hope—and trust—that the wrongdoer will repent. The repentance of the wrongdoer is the “hope” of God and what the goodness of creation is to evoke. This is an ironic approach to securing social stability in situations of conflict. It is also an approach that limits the indiscriminate use of violence, in whatever form, whenever (a) driven by overweening self-righteousness and unrepentant of one’s own or one’s nation’s sins and whenever (b) the violence reaches the point of denying the enemy the necessities of physical and social life. Total warfare is no longer warranted and cannot be justified; the gassing of civilians no less than obliteration bombing exceeds the rule of justice; genocide cannot abide. There may be—and are—justified forms of war, but the conduct of conflict has specific limits rooted in what is needed to sustain and enhance life. This spiritual law, importantly, has permeated “Western” thinking about the conduct of war and conflict. 

Much more needs to be said than possible in this blog about particular spiritual laws and spiritual laws in general. The point of my research is to clarify how, through their often paradoxical and ironic teachings, the religions enhance worldly life in relation to other “jurisdictions” and how by doing so they contribute to personal development and social evolution.  The question that remains is whether or not we have ears to hear the speaking of these Laws in our day and age.