a match in which grace must win. When it doesn’t, religion becomes moralistic, which is merely the ego’s need for order and control. I am sorry to say, but this is most garden-variety religion. We must recover grace-oriented spirituality if we are to rebuild Christianity from the bottom up.
In Romans and Galatians, Paul gives us sophisticated studies of the meaning, purpose, and limitations of law. He says its function is just to get us started, but legalism too often takes over.
.. Why did they fail? Because they relied on being privately good instead of trusting in God for their goodness!
.. Law is a necessary stage, but if we stay there, Paul believes, it actually becomes a major obstacle to transformation into love and mercy. Law often frustrates the process of transformation by becoming an end in itself. It inoculates us from the real thing, which is always relationship. Paul says that God gave us the law to show us that we can’t obey the law! (See Romans 7:7-13 if you don’t believe me.)
.. We’ve treated Paul as if he were a moralist instead of the first-rate mystic and teacher that he is.
.. Ironically, until people have had some level of inner God experience, there is no point in asking them to follow Jesus’ ethical ideals. It is largely a waste of time. Indeed, they will not be able to even understand the law’s meaning and purpose.
.. Humans quite simply don’t have the power to obey any spiritual law, especially issues like forgiveness of enemies, nonviolence, self-emptying, humble use of power, true justice toward the outsider, and so on, except in and through union with God.
The zealot—and we’ve all been one at different times—is actually relieved by having someone to hate, because it takes away our inner shame and anxiety and provides a false sense of innocence. As long as the evil is “over there” and we can keep our focus on changing or expelling someone else (as the contaminating element), then we feel at peace. But this is not the peace of Christ, which “the world cannot give” (see John 14:27).
Playing the victim is another way to deal with pain indirectly. You blame someone else, and your pain becomes your personal ticket to power because it gives you a false sense of moral superiority and outrage. You don’t have to grow up, let go, forgive, or surrender—you just have to accuse someone else of being worse than you are. And sadly, that becomes your very fragile identity, which always needs more reinforcement.
The other common way to avoid the path of transformation is the way of flight or denial. It can take many forms. Those with the instinct to flee will often deny or ignore pain by naively dividing the world up through purity codes and worthiness systems. They keep the problem on the level of words, ideas, and absolute laws separating good and evil. They refuse to live in the real world of shadow and paradox. They divide the world into total good guys and complete bad guys, a comfortable but untrue worldview of black and white. This approach comprises most fundamentalist and early stage religion. It refuses to carry the cross of imperfection, failure, and sin in itself. It is always others who must be excluded so I can be pure and holy. Denial is an understandable—but false—way of coping and surviving. Yet it is often the only way that many people can deal with the complexity of their human situation.
Now don’t let the word “mystic” scare you. It simply means one who has moved from mere belief systems or belonging systems to actual inner experience. All spiritual traditions at their mature levels agree that such a movement is possible, desirable, and even available to everyone.
.. You quite simply don’t have the power to obey the law or follow any ideal—such as loving others, forgiving enemies, nonviolence, or humble use of power—except in and through union with God. Nor do doctrines like the Trinity, the Real Presence, salvation, or the mystery of Incarnation have any meaning that actually changes your life. They are merely books on shelves.
.. However, until we have personally lost our own foundation and then experienced God upholding us so that we come out even more alive on the other side, the theological affirmation of the paschal mystery is little understood and not essentially transformative.