Tuesday 10 January 2012

The fallacies of legalism and precision from a position of low spirituality


Most Western Churches are highly prone to fall into legalism and precision; but these are signs of a lack of spiritual depth, and are themselves false paths.

The true path is of course a middle way - not laxity, not legalistic precision; but not a compromise.


The early Church (according to Charles Williams) began to shape itself by discovering what it believed.

It was rather like Tolkien writing the Lord of the Rings - he gradually discovered what it was about. It was not invention, it was not extrapolation nor interpolation - it was a discovery of what was already there but not clearly seen.

When a council - designed to discover what the Church believed - was later found to be wrong, then it was regarded as not-a-council.

This is how things work when the Church is filled with the Holy Ghost.


However, when laxity increases because sanctity declines, there is a strong tendency to respond with legalism and precision - with sharp definitions, with increased discipline, with assertions of authority.

This is an error - when sanctity declines, the answer is an increase in sanctity and nothing else will work.

That was the error of the Reformation - to oppose laxity with Legalism. But, insofar as the Reformation really was an increase in sanctity (and it really was to a significant extent) - then that was to the Good.

And perhaps has often been the case with heresy - the benefits of heresy come from the increase in sanctity - and there often are such benefits even when the heresy is overall harmful or even evil in its ultimate tendency.


So the 18th century Evangelical/ Nonconformist 'revival' (Wesley, Methodism etc) did Good insofar as it was linked with devoutness and spirituality.

So did the almost-oppositely-inclined 19th century Anglo-Catholic revival do Good insofar it revived devoutness and zeal in the Established church.

By contrast, 20th century Anglican liberalism is an almost-unmixed evil since it was not only heretical, but associated with reduced sanctity, zeal, and spirituality.


From where we are now there is - I would think - zero-probability of making people more spiritual by more and more-precise legalism and more strict enforcement.

It must come (if it can come) from increased sanctity, probably from a revival of ascetic monasticism - that is, from example, from intercession and other spiritual means.

Insofar as this leads to greater sanctity, then those who achieve it will know just exactly what to do, but at present we do not know what to do, therefore we cannot make people do it.

But if we are trying to be more precise and strict about what to do from our current position of low spiritual development, then we will probably do more harm than Good.



Gyan said...

Only God knows the heart and one should not even speculate
about trends in sanctity.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Gyan - I get this from Fr Seraphim Rose and the Orthodox tradition which comes through him.

Orthodox thought is replete with discussions of trends in sanctity, much hinges on this. Key events in the historic decline in sanctity include the Fall of Constantinople and the Russian Revolution of 1917.

For an Englishman, the Norman invasion may have had a similar effect - the era of Anglo Saxon Saints was ended.

You *seem* to be advocating a refusal to judge: clearly that cannot be right, unless you believed that it would make no difference whether you served Christ or antichrist, which obviously you don't believe.

What then can you mean?

James Kalb said...

Is excessive rigor and legalism that big a problem in the Church today? I don't see it, except maybe among a very few people who are upset about the opposite problem.

After Vatican II there was a big movement away from legal requirements in the Catholic Church--no more meatless Fridays, relaxation of rules on fasting, radical de-emphasis on sacramental confession, much looser approach to liturgy, less policing of theologians, etc. Supposedly it all had to do with a new springtime in the Church but so far as I can tell the consequences have uniformly been very bad.

To say rules and definitions have only limited and subsidiary value is not to say they should be dropped. As you suggest devotion, mysticism, sanctity etc. are more the key, but the rules don't stop you from giving yourself to those things.

buckyinky said...

There is a temptation when precise statutes, laws, or guides are given to distort their ends and equate the following of them with sanctity, but the encouragement of this has not been the Western Catholic tradition, at least not in what I have studied and observed.

I follow the Church's teaching on artificial contraception, which is in many respects very precise (while still accepting essential mysteries surrounding the subject), but I do not suppose that because I follow it, that fact makes me more holy or spiritual. Nor have I found anything in the Western Catholic tradition that makes me think I should consider myself more holy for following the Church's precise rules and lines. I'm not sure how Dr. Charlton has concluded that the Western tradition, at least inasmuch as he means the Catholic, is to blame for the very real problem of legalism. To be sure, there are legalistic Catholics, but I do not see them being encouraged in this by the Church's tradition. From what I have seen, the Church's tradition, precisely the Western Catholic Church's tradition, would reprove them for their legalism.

Bruce Charlton said...

@JK - my concern is where we go from HERE.

I am not saying the removal of elgal requirements etc made things better - clearly they did not. But from here, I think an attempt to *restore* legal requirements etc would make matters worse.


I do indeed regard 'legalism; as a fundamental problem in the Western church (protestant as well as catholic) - going back 1000 years to the ascendancy of scholasticism. The reformation was, in important respects, a further step in this direction - attempting to get much greater precision from scripture, and conceptualizing sin in terms of 'legal' transgressions.

This is not necessarily a *fatal* problem, more of an Achilles heel. I am a Western Christian myself in terms of practice, so I hope that this can be avoided, with care and attention.

buckyinky said...

Thank you for your thoughts. I think I understand your pointing to the origins of scholasticism as a cause of the problem of legalism, though my limited historical knowledge quickly puts me out of my league in much in-depth discussion. It seems very important though, to understand exactly what is the cause of the problem. Is scholasticism itself the problem or the abuse of it? Obviously I think it is the latter, and that scholasticism itself is a helpful tool in gaining a more detailed understanding of reality as is proper for man, keeping in mind the limitations with which God created us. You said recently that scholasticism is both the greatest strength and the greatest weakness of the Western Catholic Church. I agree in that it can be used as a tool for great good or for great evil. But it seems that you are here saying that the tool itself is distorted, that the presence of scholasticism ensures that legalism will follow. I don't see how it is necessary to conclude this.

Thursday said...

Is excessive rigor and legalism that big a problem in the Church today?

Well, all that bright line drawing from the past is still on the books and it accumulates. I think what Dr. Charlton is getting at (he may correct me) is that if you're too quick to draw hard and fast lines, you're always in danger of drawing them in the wrong places and undermining the faith in general.

For example, the near universal flouting of and contempt for Catholic teaching on contraception has lead to a contempt among the faithful for Catholic moral teaching in general. As Dr. Charlton has noticed, the average level of devoutness among Evangelical Protestants is quite a bit greater than that of Catholics, something I've noticed as well.

(I tend to think that large increases in safety, prosperity, and comfort are the major drivers behind the lack of devoutness and disrespect for church teaching, but there are other factors that contribute.)

Bruce Charlton said...

@bi - I take the side of Eastern Orthodoxy (as contrasted with Western or Roman Catholicism in the Great Schism of around 1000 (it was a process rather than an event).

This had several causes including - the 'Filioque' addition to the creed (justified using philosophical reasoning), the rise of scholasticism (which is in essence the separation of philosophy from theology as an academic discipline) and the status of the Pope or Patriarch of Rome (the Orthodox regarded him as a kind of 'first among equals' - highest in status but not the ruler of other Patriarchs) - and the fact that Rome and Constantinople literally spoke different languages - i.e. Latin versus Greek, so easily misunderstood one another.

Although I take the Eastern side, the Schism did permanent damage to both sides.

PatrickH said...

The decline in practices such as meatless Fridays has had less to do with a decline in legalism or enforcement than it has with a decline of extra-liturgical popular devotions. Meatless Friday was really a popular devotional practice, not an enforced ascetical discipline. Stations of the Cross, Forty Hours, Eucharistic Adoration, Corpus Christi processions, and many other popular extra-liturgical practices (in many instances not mediated by the priesthood) declined precipitously from the sixties on. And this, I would submit has been precisely the cause AND symptom of a decline in sanctity in the Catholic Church. The return of these practices would be a most convincing sign of the return of popular sanctity, zeal and devotion among Catholics.
This return of zeal would also be aided by a serious effort to enforce appropriate deportment among Catholics, for example, dress codes for Mass. But enforcement alone would, as has been suggested, not be enough, and might even be harmful. Bring back the participatory traditional devotions,whose appeal would be greater if their exotic character was emphasized. Seeing zeal in action would do the Church today a power of good. And would produce its own virtuous circle in the renewal of faith.

buckyinky said...

Forgive me if I appear to be primarily proselytizing or plugging for the Western Catholic tradition I embrace--that is really not my intent. I am grateful to read your thoughts both here and elsewhere, and it is because I admire your thoughts that I would really like to probe, if possible, and understand where you are coming from. I readily acknowledge the great riches of wisdom and sanctity at our disposal which has been handed down to us from Eastern Christianity, and even Eastern Orthodoxy in particular. At the same time, where East and West diverge in the matter of the method of knowing known as scholasticism, I see the West taking the route which reflects more closely what we experience as man in the world that God created.

What we experience in the world, the judgments we make about reality, very often depends upon minute precision, if-then and either-or formulations, and abstract reasoning applied to matter, time and space. To deny this, or even not to acknowledge it seriously hampers our experience of beauty and truth. I see it as somewhat akin to allowing that portrait painting be done only with a brushes no less than an inch in width. Some lovely paintings could be done with these restrictions, but many of the most beautiful paintings known to man would never have been possible, and our experience of beauty, and I believe of truth and God would be thwarted. Doubtless the methods of scholasticism can and have been abused to come to distorted and bad ends, but it need not be so. We see also that fine brushes have been used to make precisely detailed, but also purposely hideous and obscene paintings, yet this is no reason to condemn the practice of detailed painting. I do not see that any of this need come at the expense of mystery either. If scientists are honest, our increased knowledge of micro-units of matter such as the molecule or atom have only increased the mystery of creation and our ability to wonder.

I think I can see how scholasticism makes it easier to fall into the pit of legalism than the road that Eastern Orthodoxy has taken; this is indeed a particular burden the Western Christian traditions bear. But again, the Western Catholic tradition, while often promulgating bright-line distinctions involving moral subjects and their relation to the material world, is careful also (at least I consistently see this from my observation) not to conflate following the rules with sanctity or closeness to God. From what I have seen of the Western Catholic tradition, obedience in such matters as these opens the gate for someone to begin on the path of holiness, but does not even begin to accomplish actual sanctity; whereas disobedience in these matters, or a refusal of a docile spirit to rightful authority will keep one from even beginning on the path of sanctity.

Kristor said...

The way I have parsed this is to distinguish between map and territory. Scholasticism, and more generally philosophy and theology – including even Eastern mystical theology – are maps. You get into trouble when you begin to be more attached to your map than to the territory. When it comes to theology, this error arises when the thinking is dissociated in the thinker’s life from his direct devotional/mystical/revelatory experience. My reading of Aquinas indicates to me that his thought life was definitely not dissociated from his devotional life, or, for that matter, from concrete experience in general. On the contrary, Aquinas is one of the most concrete, common-sense philosophers I have read. Many of his refutations – perhaps even most of them – are of doctrines that are radically incompatible with life as we actually experience it, but that have nevertheless grown popular enough to call for their refutation.

If you hike along treating your map as more authoritative than the territory, you are going to get lost, because maps can be properly interpreted only in terms of and by reference to the territory. So, Scholastic philosophy can be terribly useful and enlightening, but it should not ever become the main thing.

Similar caveats apply to scientific life, to politics, to legalism (ecclesial and secular) – to life in general. Scholars are particularly prone to this danger of idolizing the map, but anyone who has tasted the allure of that delicious feeling of systemic intellectual mastery is vulnerable. Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and Protestantism are all equally susceptible to this error (this is why, despite the overwhelming force and integrity of the mystical experience common to all 3 traditions, the schisms perdure). And, these days, the set of people who have been seduced by the temptation to intellectual mastery includes most of the population. Much of your work is about how our culture has got itself all tied up in great messy knots – in falsehood, error, sin, and wickedness – through an over-emphasis on rules, procedures, committees, etc. Viz., any of your stuff on pc, bureaucracy, etc. Much of our current problem as a culture derives from the fact that most of our people are wholly employed in dealing with these map issues; almost all “knowledge workers” are spending their lives on interpreting and reconciling maps, and never ever raise their heads to look out the window. I have referred to this portion of the economy as the “fake” economy.

On the other hand, if you try to get through the wilderness without a map, you are going to have a much, much harder time of it – and the chance of getting lost in such a situation is far, far greater than it would be if you had even the most sketchy and inaccurate map. I know this from experience! Having a lousy map is infinitely better than having no map at all, especially when lives are at stake (NB: lives are always at stake). It can be done – that’s how maps get charted in the first place – but it’s a lot harder, and more error-prone.

One may of course hire a guide, who knows the territory directly. One may apprentice oneself to a master; sooner or later, advancement in the spiritual life depends upon this step. There aren’t many masters, these days, or ever, I suppose. So, most people must fall back on maps.

Kristor said...

As to where we go from here, I think you are right that simply substituting the old maps for the current maps is not going to work. Because they interpret things in such radically whacked categories, that would seem to our modernist interlocutors as if we were speaking Latin at them. From the modern perspective, the Traditionalist maps are simply incomprehensible; indeed, they seem like wicked deluded nonsense. No; we need to confront the territory directly. One must first experience the truth in order to know it, or to know that one has known it, or then – last of all – to try to formalize it in a statement or map that others can use, can follow, back to that experience of truth. Experience of truth is the main thing, the first thing, always.

Where we must start then is to keep pointing out to moderns that their map is deeply whacked; that it is leading us directly over the precipice. We must point to the precipices that now surround us on every side but one (the one that leads back over the way we traversed in order to get to this tiny point of cornice, high above the abyss); as in, “Hallo! Look at the demographic death that is already upon us!” Once they see themselves teetering at the very lip of that great maw, they will throw their wicked old maps away as fast as they can, and scamper on tip-toes back over the narrow road that leads back to the highway. Then and only then might we be able to rummage about in our rucksacks for the old maps that we once used, with some interest in actually using them again.

Anonymous said...

God's law's are just Holy and pure! It seems to me most here are talking of man made law and tradition? God's law is right! By the punishment and what we deserve not being carried out God is merciful and longsuffering! God does not waver with His law. There had to be a payment(Jesus)! So how the law of God or "legalism" is bad i dont get it? Now if your talking about law's that catholic priests and popes made up or any other person that teaches anything thats not in the Word of God, this is including perverting and taking the Word out of context. God's Word is easy to understand. Let's use a perversion like lent for example! Can anyone show me where it talks about lent in a Kjv bible? This isn't legalism, this is a clear lie