Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Still converting my inner Pharisee

I posted this not quite a year ago on another venue. It's funny how much has happened since then and how little I have changed. But my desire has not diminished, which is a good sign. After writing this, due to events, I read Peterson's Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Ministry, but that story was told...

When we encounter Christ in an unmistakable way we are changed. Nonetheless, after such encounters we are often left with the question, "What do I do now?" or "What comes next?" Eugene Peterson observes in the first volume of his spiritual theology, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: A Conversation in Spiritual Theology, that "[a] common and distressingly frequent way of answering this to come up with a Code of Conduct." In the parlance of younger people, you tend to "Go all Pharisee on yourself." Peterson goes on to point out that Scripture gives us multiple places to begin: the Decalogue (I like using that instead of 10 Commandments because it makes me sound smarter!), Jesus' Two Great Commandments, the Golden Rule and even the Beatitudes. Of course, each of these is important and together they give us divine guidance on how to love, which is what it really means to live.

When our response becomes exclusively about establishing a Code of Conduct, even if initially rooted in biblical injunctions and well-intentioned, we are "rarely, if ever, able to let it go at that." We give in to the temptation to make a rule for every aspect of life and so "rules are added" and "regulations are enforced and it isn't long before the Code of Conduct grows into a formidable jungle of talmudic regulation." In keeping with the physical law that often proves true socially- for action there is an equal and opposite reaction, there is the minimalist tendency that enjoins you to "Follow Your Bliss," "Do no harm," something about karma running over dogma, visualizing whirled peas, etc. Peterson concludes that "the fundamental inadequacy of codes of conduct for giving direction in how to live the spiritual life is that they put us in charge (or, which is just as bad, put someone else in charge of us)." In such a self-defeating set-up "God gets moved off the field of action to the judge's stand where he grades our performance. The moment we take charge, 'knowing good from evil,' we are in trouble and almost immediately getting other people in trouble too."

None of this is to deny to the overall usefulness of codes of conduct, but they are not primary and probably not even secondary. For those of us who follow the charism given to Luigi Giussani, which is known by the short-hand Communion & Liberation, or even as The Movement, all of the above looks familiar and we have an abbreviated way of referring to this all-too-human phenomenon Peterson describes: the reduction of faith to morals. So, it is important to note that Eugene Peterson is an Evangelical Protestant, a retired Presbyterian minister to be precise. He also taught spiritual theology at Regent's University in Vancouver, British Columbia until 2006. I point this out to show how truly radical the method set forth by Don Gius is in its Catholic milieu. He shows us that to follow Christ, to live this way, is a loving response to truth, goodness and, above all, beauty, not painting by the numbers, something Catholicism can easily become.

I am reminding myself of this because as one year ends and a new one begins, it is all too easy to reflect on what needs to change in me and what I need to change. This leads me to make lists and resolutions that look great on paper, but that I know I will break likely sooner than later. Of course, this is not to say I won't make resolutions, but hopefully fewer and better resolutions (not using "hopefully" in the throw away sense) while realizing that what really needs to change in me is a work of grace.

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