Monday, August 4, 2008


So this morning, I got to thinking about the geometry of emendatory claims. Partly, this comes out of my academic work, and partly it comes out of yesterday's Sunday school lesson.

Yesterday, the Sunday school lesson was over Genesis 1. From about verse 4 to the end of the first chapter, God does a lot of dividing: light from dark, dry land from water, water above from water below, vegetation and animals each into their own kind, and so forth. One of the points I made was that a lot of the Old Testament is based on an understanding of God as the One who decrees boundaries. We then talked about Christ's critique of the Pharisees, about His complaint that their traditions had entirely missed the point of the Torah, and I explained it this way: whenever parents lay down boundaries for their kids' behavior, what do the kids immediately do? One person said "Cross them!" That was somewhat true, but another person had an answer I liked better: "Push them." If you tell kids, "This is the line between what is permitted and what will get you in trouble," they will become loophole-seeking missiles. They will edge closer and closer to the line, displaying amazing creativity at cooking up circumstances that the original line didn't enclose, doing as much as they can get away with without being demonstrably outside the line. And the Talmudic hyperinterpretation of the Torah strikes me as exactly the same thing: we obsess over the precise square nanometer of territory that is bad territory, ostensibly so that we can stay off it and on the safe space. And Jesus said to the scribes and Pharisees, "Instead of killing entire forests to overanalyze the point at which you move outside God's will, why not work on being in the center of His will?" And an interesting corollary: in Genesis 1, all those boundaries and divisions that God made corresponded to natural laws, but throughout the Gospels, Jesus broke natural law whenever He had a reason to do so, and promised us that anyone could ask God to suspend natural law, even to make mountains fly through the air, and if we were within His will, He would grant those requests. So here too, the boundaries don't matter nearly as much as the center.

The analogous tidbit from my academic work goes something like this: in too many professional fields, one of the biggest problems is finding an effective way of teaching ethics to new initiates. One big, glaring flaw in the prevailing understanding of ethics is exactly what I've described above: too many people understand ethics only as a line between the conduct that is ethical and the conduct that is unethical. Unethical conduct brings consequences: punishment, loss of status, even just internalized guilt. Therefore, people rationalize and hair-split and plead special circumstances to try to dodge the injury of being judged unethical. Instead, a lot of folks say, we ought to stop thinking of ethics as a floor of behavior below which we must not fall, and think of it instead as a ceiling, as a body of ideas to which we aspire. Instead of being afraid of ethics charges, we ought to hope someday that we can be fully ethical. Instead of worrying about drifting too near the edges, we ought to turn our attention to how to reach the center. And that turn of thought is tied a great deal to identity, to thinking of proper behavior as tied in with who we are. When we treat ethics only as a raised guillotine, we apply it to our conduct, and we have all sorts of incentives to dissociate that conduct from ourselves. But instead of dissecting my sentences to argue that something I said was not technically a lie, maybe I should turn my treatment of truthfulness around and say instead that I want to be, to myself and others, an honest person, so I want to go the extra mile and sacrifice expediency to carve myself into that shape.

To take that back to Biblical teachings, it seems plain to me that a wrong understanding of what God expects is a fear of judgment of individual deeds, and a proper understanding is that He expects us to embrace an identity as His children, as followers and loyalists of His. And that's a completely different strategy for daily life. I don't want to be near the edges, I don't want to keep my attention focused on a floor that I'm in danger of falling through. Instead, I want to dig in deeper toward the center, to stretch higher toward completeness, all the while knowing that anytime I make any progress, it's because my stretching pleases Him, and He gives me, as a gift, what brings me nearer.

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