Sunday, September 18, 2022

Spirit and the Law

     Lately I've been thinking a lot about the phenomenon of religious trauma, and how incredibly lucky I am to have missed out on it. I hear people talking about being raised in a thick atmosphere of guilt, shame, and fear, under the constant threat of eternal punishment. It comes from the whole spectrum of Christian churches, from the most tradition-bound, high-church Catholic and Orthodox all the way to the newest, most fundamentalist, Bible-literalist Protestant sects. I am SO glad I wasn't raised in the Church! I'm so glad I came in through the side door, as it were, as an adult, and got what I really think is a much healthier and holier relationship with religion than what seems to be typical out there.

    I did come to God through a side door of guilt and shame. But the relationship between God and my guilt and shame, as I learned it, was about 180° reversed from the churchy hellfire-and-brimstone story. I came to God through the 12 steps, among the drunks, the drug addicts, and the other traumatized people who taught me that God is the cure for what's wrong with me, not the judge or the punisher. God is the one, the force, the clarity, that can make me capable of growing more and more into the better version of myself, into the person I was born to be, a person who is less and less likely to act, speak, or even think in ways that hurt myself or others. Only after I had learned to surrender my will and my life to God with relief and gratitude, in the 12-step program, did I find my way into Church.

    Shame and guilt are not bad, in fact. That's the first of the 12 steps, actually: "admitted we were powerless over alcohol [or substitute your own weakness] and that our lives had become unmanageable." Damn, that's some powerful shame and guilt! I know I'm bad, I know what I'm doing is wrong, maybe even very, very wrong, but I cannot help itPowerless means that the threat of Hell can't move me to change, all it does is pile fear on top of the shame and guilt. Fear of God, who is willing to set me free from compulsion, whose grace is the one thing that can give me the power to change. God doesn't need to punish sin, sin carries all its own punishment in itself. God is here standing ready to heal, not punish. 

    Shame and guilt are necessary. They're even good, IF they are rooted in our own conscience, because they are what spur us to do good instead of evil. But conscience has to be formed, and the devil of it is that the churches -- all of them, mine very much included -- are trying to tell us that the way to form a conscience is to memorize your catechism, do what you're told, and trust in the preacher or the hierarchy to tell you what's right and wrong. Which, of course, is exactly the way to stifle your own individual conscience. It's exactly the way to learn that you can't trust yourself, and leaves no room at all for learning to hear and respond to your own inner knowing of what's right and wrong in real life. Which is what a "conscience" is, isn't it?

    I think about Paul's letters to the Galatians and to the Romans, and how passionately he cries out against his Christian converts turning from "Spirit" to "Law" as the source of salvation. He does not mince words! He says this: "You are separated from Christ, you who are trying to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace." How have Christians, across the whole spectrum of the churches, so thoroughly lost our way? What do modern Christians, all of whom profess faith in the Holy Spirit, think that Spirit actually is or does or means for our lives in this world? What do Catholics mean when they say that we are "sealed with the Holy Spirit" in the sacrament of confirmation? As far as I can see, it's still all about the Law, only now it's Canon Law instead of Mosaic Law. It still, spiritually, comes to the same thing: laying down a law to govern our morality, because it takes real work, and humility and patience and meekness, to cultivate a real conscience, and also to respect one another's consciences as separate from our own.

    The trouble is that law, checklists of rights and wrongs, don't work. They produce all the guilt and shame, without leading to the conversion. Conversion can only come from discerning our own guilt and shame by our own lights, in our own hearts. And it comes so, so much harder, if we have been taught that the Spirit of God is standing by, not to lift us out of the pain and trouble we've caused by our fault, but to subject us to everlasting torture for it. Especially if that list of "faults" doesn't jibe with our own conscience, like divorcing an abusive spouse, or falling in love with somebody of the wrong gender, or I don't know ... writing a blog post criticizing Church hierarchy and teaching, like this one.

    So ... if escaping from eternal punishment isn't a good motivator for living a good Christian life (i.e., loving God and neighbor), then what is? This, this is what it's all about, this is what keeps me coming back to God and prayer and Church over and over: from St. Paul's letter to the Galatians again: "the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law." (Gal.5:22-23). I am a witness, this is true. If in my guilt and shame, in my frailty and disappointment in my own shortcomings, I turn not away from God in fear but into God in trust, then I know love, joy, and peace, I grow in patience and the rest of those good things. When we teach others to fear instead of trusting God, is that not the greatest sin of all? 

    This is getting too long, so I'm going to stop here, for now. I'll end with the quote from Julian of Norwich that is also the header of this blog. It can't be repeated too often.

Wouldst thou learn thy Lord's meaning in this thing? Learn it well: Love was His meaning. Who shewed it thee? Love. What shewed He thee? Love. Wherefore shewed it He? For Love. Hold thee therein and thou shalt learn and know more in the same. But thou shalt never know nor learn therein other thing without end. Thus was I learned that Love was our Lord's meaning.

~~~~~  PEACE  ~~~~~

No comments:

Post a Comment