Richard Rohr on the Importance of Law

I cannot think of a culture in human history (before the present postmodern era) that did not value law, tradition, custom, authority, boundaries, and morality of some clear sort. These containers give us the necessary security, continuity, predictability, impulse control, and ego structure that we need, before the chaos of real life shows up. It is my studied opinion that healthily conservative people tend to grow up more naturally and more happily than those who receive only free-form “build it yourself” worldviews. This is the tragic blind spot of many liberals and free thinkers.

Here is my conviction: without law in some form, and also without butting up against that law, we cannot move forward easily and naturally. The rebellions of two-year-olds and teenagers are in our hardwiring, and we have to have something hard and half-good to rebel against. We need a worthy opponent against which we test our mettle. As Rilke put it, “When we are only victorious over small things, it leaves us feeling small.” Cultures which do not allow any questioning or rebelling might create order, but they pay a huge price for it in terms of inner development. Even the Amish have learned this, and allow their teens the rumspringa freedom and rebellion, so they can make a free choice to be Amish. And most do!

Perhaps no one has said it better than the Dalai Lama: “Learn and obey the rules very well, so you will know how to break them properly.” This also sums up Paul’s teaching about the law in Romans and Galatians!

Adapted from Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life,
pp. 25-26

6 thoughts on “Richard Rohr on the Importance of Law

  1. Guy J

    This should be another topic for our growing hitlist, Bill. In the past I tended to believe what’s written in this post. It was a favorite assertion of my dad’s too. However, the more time I spend on the other side in true faith and grace, the more I find that even the young have the law “written in their hearts” (as in Jeremiah), directly placed there by God, which means a few things to me:
    1. The law is a social construction only, and not something that was ever really very helpful for personal development. As suggested in your post, the law is the shell we all need to break out of to get a real relationship with life. This is a very Christian concept obviously, but maybe the best eggshell would dissolve without all the confusion and distress (and crucifixion) of needing to break it.
    2. While the law is very constructive for society, our reliance on it is overblown and has been perhaps since the dawn of civilization. It is, after all, a ridiculously clumsy tool, and I think this is well demonstrated by Jesus Christ himself.
    3. Learning to evoke the law written in the hearts and minds of people is a much more productive exercise for society to undertake than the legislation of more laws. Similarly this should be the central skill for individuals to develop to guide interpersonal relationships. Interestingly, it’s what the ethical society calls being “dedicated to bringing out the best in others” and in so doing bringing out the best in oneself.
    4. Importantly, this law of the heart I’m referring to can never be written down. It is not a code nor a standard, nor a commitment. It is simply “the best” as known and experienced by each individual personally. Each person’s “best” evolves over time, and this is an essential truth to understand in evoking it continually.

    Love is the tool by which we open up the perspectives of people so they encounter an ever growing sense of what their best can be. I would suggest that this “mechanism” (which is far from mechanical) is a far better “schoolteacher” than the law. If we had this approach as well ingrained in our culture as we have the law today, the kingdom of heaven will have come indeed.

  2. Bill Walker Post author

    Thanks for his Guy. I don’t really think I disagree, and I’m not sure Rohr would either! It all depends on what we mean by “law,” right? The way it is used here is surely open-ended. It may be helpful to read a previous excerpt from Rohr that sets this one up a little more. Here it is, from pp. 4-5, same book:

    The first half of life is of crucial importance. You need boundaries, identity, safety, and some degree of order and consistency to get started personally and culturally. (Conservatives are much better here, but the trouble is that they stay here!) You have to have boundaries to move beyond boundaries, without dropping the boundaries! This is paradox. It’s both-and. You have to have a home to which you can return. In other words, you need to know who you are.

    You also need to feel “special”; you need your “narcissistic fix.” By that I mean we all need some successes, response, and positive feedback early in life, or we will spend the rest of our lives demanding it, or bemoaning the lack of it, from others. There is a good and needed “narcissism,” if you want to call it that. You have to first have an ego structure to then let go of it and move beyond it. Only people who have internalized some impulse control tend to be successful in life, jobs, and relationships.

    If you are mirrored well by others early in life you do not have to spend the rest of your life looking in Narcissus’ mirror or begging for the attention of others. You have already been “attended to” and now feel basically good—and always will—and can now attend to others instead of yourself. If you were properly mirrored when you were young, you are now free to mirror others and to see yourself honestly and helpfully.

    I can see why a number of saints spoke of prayer itself as simply receiving the ever-benevolent gaze of God, returning it in kind, mutually gazing, and finally recognizing that it is one single gaze received and bounced back. And I do believe some people receive this loving gaze from God, even though they never got it from either of their parents. Their longing and their need is so great, and grace is always there to fill the vacuum.

  3. E.L. Gomez

    Interesting. I have some comments:

    Example 1: “The law is a social construction only, and not something that was ever really very helpful for personal development.” The sentence organization is interesting here. Is there an unstated “therefore” occurring after the “and?” Am I reading the clauses correctly? If so, what does this qualification say about, say, language, which is clearly a social construct as well? If not, I’m not sure how else to read the dependent and independent clauses here.

    Example 2: “It is, after all, a ridiculously clumsy tool, and I think this is well demonstrated by Jesus Christ himself.” This statement in tandem with your title seem at odds with my personal understanding of one of the greater biblical themes–the reconciliation of the old and new testaments. After all, didn’t Jesus state that he did not come to destroy (“replace” is much softer word, but no less effective) the law but to fulfill it? This would suggest that Jesus actually placed a great value on the authority, perhaps even the necessity, of the law, although he had obviously found fault with its application. Wouldn’t the alleged point have been more easily made if Jesus had actually said, “now the law is destroyed (and is replaced with love)?” Taking issue with the application and interpretation of the law, and throwing the system out on grounds of inefficacy [towards personal development] seem two very different objectives.

    Example 3: “the law written in the hearts and minds . . .” Importantly, the NT authors have told us what that law looks like, especially if we are to take the assumption that the law has been (ought to be?) replaced with love, and even if we don’t. These parameters are objective in that they can be referenced, and the references provide a working, contextually dependent foundation for a shared understanding. They are subjective in the way that “loving your neighbor as yourself” can mean different things to different people. But, they are certainly not morally relative. When I read “bringing out each person’s best . . .” my thoughts stumble on the requisite relativism. What does “best” actually mean? Perhaps that’s the point. “Best” as compared to what? My past? Yours? What if my “best” is demonstrated through the act of killing? Say I’m the world’s best sharpshooter, and I have a very rare and unique talent for assassination. If you help me to bring out this “best” so that I can kill even more people faster and for more money, will that process also bring out your best? And, in doing this aren’t we just loving each other and the world and bringing the kingdom of heaven closer?

    Points 3 & 4 are well meaning. I understand and accept that. The biblical law, be it the mosaic covenant or the sacrificial “new” covenant referenced within Hebrews (“the law written on the hearts”) wasn’t so nebulous or relative that it couldn’t be written down, described or objectively taught to some degree, and I believe the bible greatly supports this position. Rather, the effect of the NT’s legal refinement was a profound consolidation and simplification. This ideology is wholly different from one where a societal legal system is replaced by a form of moral relativism. In closing, I am not as far apart from your perspective as I’ve made it appear. I also take the position that the law should teach us to love each other in order to uncover our bests; but, these bests depend, foremost, on a personal identification with the biblical God; and that applying biblical teachings to our relationships reveals or reaffirms what the law is that God has written on our hearts.

    In deepest love, with the intent of bringing out your best ; )

  4. Guy J

    Yep, I see what you mean, Bill. Even so, I think it is a huge stretch to claim that what’s described in this second excerpt could be seen as law or even a precursor of law. I guess my point is that law is concerned with guilt and innocence above all else, and this is an important part of what I don’t believe is justifiable esp. in a personal, interpersonal, or parenting context. So for example, as you know, I utterly reject the idea of original sin, for to me there is no natural law which can form the basis of any such conviction.

    To the point of this additional excerpt: Boundaries are just distinctions, and they help us recognize the world and address it. They also lead the way to seeing how distinct things interact. These functions are of course vitally important to conceiving of the world and finding a place in it.

    More to the point on parenting, there’s a useful distinction kids should learn between “displeasing to Dad” and “pleasing to Dad”. However, even here, I don’t think guilt vs innocence should come into play. I guess I have found that law is not a good metaphor for parenting. I am very comfortable with things like distinction, displeasure, better vs worse, regard, esteem, empathy, and even anger and other emotions as contrasted with their counterparts, etc. But I think parents go astray when they set themselves up as judges of guilt and innocence.

    Law ultimately comes down to that which would be justified as forcefully upheld even unto the harm of a lawbreaker. The OT is all about this kind of harmful law and judgment.

    Example: As a parent, if I ever found myself in a position where I had to choose between mercy and some alternative, I should know that I am already far astray of my appropriate role. Mercy has no place in a loving relationship, and mercy’s whole basis comes from an assertion of raw power over another sentient being. Mercy has a place within law, but not in love.

    For another parenting example, I believe in consequences, but not so much in punishment. There is no authority in all reality which can rightly claim a punitive role. The best claim may be that of a democratic judiciary with due process and the rest. But again, while it may be the best tool yet going for societies to use, I still see it as a very clumsy one, quite behind the times and in need of revolutionary improvement.

  5. Guy J

    I guess said another way: My problem with Rohr’s thesis (through this tiny pinhole view I have) is with the lack of clarity between the Law with its implications vs. other modes of distinction which are healthy and constructive. Perhaps while he recognizes a continuum for making distinctions and “judgments”, he may be missing that somewhere along the line we start doing more harm than good. That is, somewhere in the basis of his thesis I suspect an apology for God’s lawful stance as demonstrated in the OT or (exactly the same thing) a justification for the way his father raised him or how he raise(d/s) his own kids. To the extent that’s what’s going on there, I’m afraid I just can’t go there with him.

    It is my hope that no one attempts to exercise even a smaller version of that sort of law in this life because it is based on a flawed understanding of humanity and life in general, something we are fortunate enough to have to some degree grown out of as a culture, thanks in no small part to the message of Jesus.

    To me it is essential that we understand that Jesus meant it when he said “It is finished.” To me part of what he was saying is finished is the role of law in interpersonal discourse, and in time even in societal structure. It is not something we should be modeling in our child rearing practices in order to “do for our children as God did for humanity” or any such justification. The whole idea should be eschewed as a source and expression of evil.

  6. E.L. Gomez

    Is “diametric opposition” the right description? Or “fundamental divergence,” is that better? There are so many ways that I could (should?) take issue with almost every statement in the previous two posts that I’m overwhelmed by the task. Nevertheless, I will take issue with only one, the general premise: “my point is that law is concerned with guilt and innocence above all else . . . ” Most of your points (including your parental analogies) are buttressed by this assumption.

    Absolutely and unequivocally not. Law is concerned with regulating transactions between people, above all else. Guilt and innocence is the focus of the most sensationalized sphere, but in the remaining areas encompassing the vast majority of our legal world (think mortgage transactions, etc.) these judgements play literally no part. The OT, being colored by a culturally and temporally unique form of law, is not exempted from this pattern. Therefore if the fallacy of the law is its inherent focus on guilt vs. innocence then the lenses through which our legal word is viewed are needing replacement.

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