A Law unto Yourself


Thou art unto thyself a law, 
And since the soul of things is in thee, 
Thou needest nothing out of thee. 
The law, the gospel, and the Providence, 
Heaven, Hell, the Judgement, and the stores 
Immeasurable of Truth and Good, 
All these thou must find 
Within thy single mind, 
Or never find.


-- From Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Gnothi Seauton”

Of the making of laws there is no end, to paraphrase the Book of Ecclesiastes.  Even in the beginning there was no end to it, as anyone can attest who has delved into the fine print of the Old Testament.  As it turns out, God was merely clearing his throat when he gave Moses the Ten Commandments at Mt. Sinai.  Altogether, according to rabbinic tradition, the Lord handed down some 613 commandments during the time the Hebrew people spent in the wilderness of Sinai, which may explain why they wandered around for 40 years before entering the Promised Land.   

The Law of Moses, or Torah, functions both as a criminal and civil code but also includes a myriad of rules governing diet, religious practices, sexual relations and personal hygiene.  There are even some child-rearing tips thrown in, notably an injunction against making a burnt offering of your progeny.  Lest anyone be tempted to skip over some of the finer points, a long string of seemingly minor transgressions are listed as “abominations unto the Lord,” meaning they cannot be safely ignored.  These transgressions include eating “unclean” (non-kosher) foods, wearing fabrics with two different kinds of material, sleeping with a menstruating woman, charging or paying interest on a loan, planting a field with two different crops, trimming one’s beard, wearing clothing of the opposite sex and getting a tattoo.

The early Christian church faced a critical decision as to whether to require gentile converts to adopt Jewish religious practices.  Jesus himself seemed to be of two minds on the efficacy the law.  On the one hand, he said in the Sermon on the Mount that not “one jot or one tittle” of the law would pass away before heaven and earth passed away.  Yet the Sermon on the Mount itself might be considered an argument for embracing the spirit rather than the letter of the law.  And Jesus seemed to take a relaxed view of the subject in his various skirmishes with the Pharisees, who were generally regarded as strict constructionists on matters of the law.  St. Paul, himself a Pharisee, sided with those who felt that the law was a needless encumbrance on non-Jewish converts (who, for example, might otherwise face circumcision as adults).  He wrote the church in Rome that “now we are discharged from the law, dead to that which held us captive, so that we serve not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit.”

In time, of course, the church adopted practices – including fasting, penances and pilgrimages – that were at least as onerous as any requirements under Jewish law.  Martin Luther, a onetime Augustinian monk, sought to put an end to all that during the Protestant Reformation after concluding that his own efforts to merit salvation were unavailing.  “If anyone could have gained heaven as a monk,” he said, “then I would indeed have been among them."  Like St. Paul before him, Luther eventually realized that salvation could never be achieved through slavish obedience to the rules but only through the grace of God.     

All religious traditions seem to have this same penchant for rule-mongering as a path to salvation or enlightenment, notwithstanding recurring examples of trailblazers who found God by flouting the rules.  We all start out in life learning to avoid transgressions that, if not an abomination unto the Lord, are certainly an aggravation unto one’s parents.  Most of us apparently never outgrow the idea that you please God the same way you pleased Mom and Dad, by obeying all the rules.  We may even harbor the notion that fear of God is the only thing keeping us from surrendering to our worst impulses.  Some of us surrender to our worst impulses anyway, which only reinforces our sense that a cosmic disciplinarian is required.  We wind up in double bondage to sin and to the rules designed to keep us from sinning, often with a priestly caste serving as local enforcers.   

Spiritual maturity is not achieved by rebelling against the law, which can only result in lawlessness.  Rather, as Emerson suggests, we must find a higher law within ourselves.  Once we have gained the high ground, we are free to pursue a religious discipline or not, as we see fit – but without any sense of compulsion or any misapprehension that our salvation depends on it.  To be a law unto yourself does not mean you write your own law; on the contrary, it’s something altogether more humbling.  You discover that the law is already written on your heart.          

Matthew 5:18
Romans 7:6

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