Saturday, August 2, 2008

Beware of the morality of legalism

by: Giles Fraser
When a Christian crosses the Slough of Despond, he encounters the first temptation of John Bunyan’s spiritual classic, The Pilgrim’s Progress. Christian meets the smooth and persuasive Mr Worldly Wiseman, who directs him towards a village called Morality: “there shalt thou live by honest neighbours, in credit and in good fashion.”

It seems an odd sort of temptation, and perhaps it is unsurprising that Christian leaves the straight and narrow path, and settles down in Morality.

One of the most vigorous exponents of the view that morality has little to do with Christianity is the poetic genius and eccentric theologian William Blake. According to Blake, the problem with the way most people read the Bible is that they understand it as a manual for moral uprightness.

By contrast, in the Gospels, the moral law is associated with those religious teachers who first want to judge and accuse one another. Blake notes that Satan is the great accuser. For Blake: “If morality was Christianity, Socrates was the Saviour. The Gospel is Forgiveness of Sins & has no moral precepts — these belong to Plato & Seneca & Nero.”

In a remarkable new book by Christopher Rowland and Jonathan Roberts, The Bible for Sinners (SPCK, 2008), the authors take this understanding of the gospel message, and apply it to the current crisis over homosexuality. Conservatives insist that this row is all about the Bible — and they are right.

Yet too many conservatives have become so narrow in their reading of the scriptures that they miss the remarkably creative ways in which Jesus and Paul themselves read their own scriptures. Jesus and Paul did not read the scriptures literally: you could almost say that they took hermeneutic liberties in the name of the Spirit. Thus, for example, in Galatians, Paul defends the new idea of open table fellowship, of Jews and pagans eating together, even though such a practice was evidently “unscriptural”.

The Bible for Sinners argues that the Windsor report and the idea of a Covenant seek to unite Anglicans by closing down the possibilities of biblical hermeneutics, and turning gospel faith into moral uprightness. What is at stake here is so much larger than what gay people do in bedrooms: it is all about the creation of a set of rules that will systematically make gospel faith all-but-impossible for Anglicans in the 21st century.

Blake would have seen the Windsor report and its children as a form of tyranny, in which legalistic religion (the “stony law”, as he called it) triumphs over the creative religion of the Spirit. And so do I.

Submitted by:

--The Rev. Dr. Tim Vivian, Interim Vicar Grace Episcopal Church, Bakersfield Assistant Professor of Religious Studies Department of Philosophy & Religious Studies California State University Bakersfield