The Atrophy of Law, the Breath of Grace
Trying to get further down in the pile of "books to read" on my desk, I've been reading some of Giorgio Agamben's work, in particular The Time That Remains: A Commentary on the Letter to the Romans.
Agamben is interested in how Paul thinks about the law, and he takes a different tack on the issue than is usual in the history of Christianity. He argues that Paul's fundamental question is: What are we to make of the law in light of the messianic revelation? How does that revelation abolish the law and yet also fulfill it?
Agamben's answer is that this occurs in the tension between the performance of faith and the codification of law. In the performance, in the living experience of Jesus Messiah, the space of grace is opened. The codification of law, in contrast, gives us the ground for obligation and human relation. The two are in productive tension.
As history shows us, however, the problem is that the second of these almost always undoes the tension between the two: eventually it is resolved by law overcoming faith, and when that happens, law "stiffens and atrophies, and relations between men lose all sense of grace and vitality" (135). Human life requires both grace and obligation, but too often obligation has smothered grace and so, too, human life.
It isn't difficult to see this stiffening and atrophy of law in history. It isn't difficult to see it in government today when we clamor for more and more rules to define our obligations to and relations with one another, with less and less satisfaction. We may see it in our search for laws that govern human behavior and the implicit desire for control that such a search represents.
It is perhaps more difficult to see this disastrous calcification in our personal, daily lives with one another.
Do I insist on at least implicitly defining my relations with others, including perhaps those I love most, in contractual terms? I will do this, and you will do that—but I won't if you don't. The upper circles of that hell may be less obviously painful than the lower ones. It is easier to be self-deluded in them. But they are no less hell.
There is no human life without obligation. Thus the need for the word of law. But there is also no human life without the word of grace that undermines that law. In fear of the lawlessness of grace, we tend toward law. But that fear and its tendency too often make us take leave of the realm of grace. Then the word of law turns to stone and dies.
Our only hope of full human existence is in no longer fearing grace, allowing it to be in tension with the law so that they enliven each other in that tension.
James Faulconer is a Richard L. Evans Professor of Religious Understanding at Brigham Young University, where he has taught philosophy since 1975.