He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Saturday, January 31, 2015

The Fulfillment of the Law: A Transcendent Morality

In this third post about Christ's claim to be the fulfillment of the law, it will be good to remember previous posts and the themes of those posts.

In the first post, I examined how the law meets our needs for moral development at each of Kohlberg's six stages.  In this post, we saw how a child at stages 1 and 2 gradually transforms into a mature adult, a moral agent capable of operating at stage 5 and 6.  In understanding this process, we understand why a child needs to have the external constraints of a law in order for them to learn a genuine regard for other persons that will be necessary to reaching a moral maturity that allows them to operate at stage 5 and 6.  The law gradually transforms their pure egotistical behavior as children into the beautiful altruistic behavior demonstrated by those who have reached moral maturity.

In the second post, I examined how this lesson of regard for other persons as being of intrinsic value is something we learn in relationship with other persons, and that a large part of human moral development is learning how to properly order our behaviors so that they are directed toward the benefit of persons rather than the harm of persons so common to the behavior of the careless child.  This moral growth we experience as we develop as human beings simply does not make sense if we try to understand it as impersonal; our encounter with persons in light of the law gradually transforms us into new persons of moral maturity.

All of this leads us to understanding that what we are doing by living according to the law is an act of transcendence; from the depths of the worst sort of mewling egocentric hedonism we rise up to a new life as moral agents capable of the most pure altruism.  The law is the ladder we climb on our way up, a structure which can support us as we take our lengthy moral journey through all the many stages of human morality.  This journey toward transcendence is a fulfillment of the law's purpose by gradual transformation, a journey in which the law meets our need for support at every stage of that morality.

What good would this ladder do us if it only had one rung, and that at the sixth stage of morality?  How many of us would find a way to reach that sixth rung without the intermediate steps?  How many of us would give up because it is too difficult and remain complacent, operating on a makeshift stepping stone we've constructed?  If the evidence of contemporary Western culture is any indication of how this plays out, the vast majority of us choose the latter option when only the highest, most pure ideals are available for us to strive toward.  When the two available options are either a socially acceptable perfection or a socially acceptable egotistical hedonism, it's perfectly understandable that many would choose the latter despite the fact that they might otherwise aspire to the former.

We need the law, the whole of it, in order to transcend our state of existence as childish amoral agents and become mature moral agents through a process of gradual transformation.  This process of gradual transformation is in the end a complete one, fulfilling all the purposes of the law as I have described them so far, which are:

1.  To teach us the need for sacrifice as a means of maintaining healthy relationships.
2.  To orient our moral behavior toward the good of other persons.
3.  To preserve the health of the community.
4.  To lead us to encounter God fully as a person.
5.  To transform the social contract (covenant) between God and his people.
6.  To move us toward moral perfection as individuals of high principle.
7.  To heal us by way of sacrifice so that all these things could be accomplished in mutual love.

Christ taught us by visceral example in his life and especially on the cross he accepted willingly that sacrifice was necessary for the maintenance of healthy relationships.  In Christ, we are taught that the whole of the law is oriented toward the good of other persons, specifically God and neighbor, the concept of neighbor including our enemy.  In Christ, the community is preserved by being incorporated into His body through baptism.  In Christ, we encounter God as a person, fully human and fully divine.

In Christ, the law of the covenant of a particular people, culture, and time is transformed into a law of a covenant for all people and all times.  The law is incarnate in the Church, who as a living community of persons is the Body of Christ, providing us with the law in perpetuity.  This living community is in a constant state of transformation as it moves toward more fully living out the universal principles articulated by Christ.

In Christ, our universal principles are transformed into shared principles; our morality not only takes place in the context of our human experience, but also as a participation in the divine life of love.  This sharing in the divine life does not dissolve our individual life, but rather transforms our individuality so that our individual gifts shine all the more brightly; our individuality is fundamentally preserved.

In Christ, the need for sacrifice to reconcile us to God and to each other was fulfilled on the cross when he bore the weight of our sins unto death.  In Christ, the time of sacrifice at the temple for the reconciliation of the individual Jew to God was transformed into a singular, time-pervading sacrifice for the reconciliation of all people to God.

In all these ways, the radical transformation we experience in Christ is transcendent, offering us the opportunity to rise up from imperfection and live fully in the perfection He assured us was possible in the Gospel, that we be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect.  All in all, a perfect way to fulfill the law.

A Holistic Morality - A Personal Morality - A Transcendent Morality

Note: The above is an image of an icon I purchased from legacyicons.com, and it is a replica of an icon at Mount Sinai where Abba John Climacus lived and worked with his fellow monks to ascend the ladder to Heaven.

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