This Dark Age

A manual for life in the modern world.

By Daniel Schwindt

The spirit and the letter

Something else that warrants comment about the uniqueness of Christianity is that its teachings seem focused on the creation of a ‘spiritual attitude’ more than the creation of a social order or code of conduct. We’ve said elsewhere that the great religious teachers manifest either a norm or a sublimation (an exception or transcendence over the norm). Christ’s attitude toward the Law (of the Old Covenant) and the law (of Caesar) is an example of a spiritual attitude that witnesses to the superiority of esoterism over exoterism (in the case of the Old Law) and of the spiritual in general over the temporal (in the case of Caesar). But at the same time, because this attitude is demonstrative of an orientation toward the spiritual as supreme, it also cannot be taken as if it were trying to lay out guidelines for a norm. No society can operate without giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s; and to turn the other cheek is laudable as an exception but as a rule it would result in slavery to the violent.

Here is an illustration of the Gospel’s concern for distinguishing between levels and establishing the proper ordering between the esoteric and exoteric, or the spirit and the letter:

For circumcision verily profiteth, if thou keep the law: but if thou be a breaker of the law, thy circumcision is made uncircumcision. Therefore if the uncircumcision keep the righteousness of the law, shall not his uncircumcision be counted for circumcision? And shall not uncircumcision which is by nature, if it fulfil the law, judge thee, who by the letter and circumcision dost transgress the law? For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh: But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God. (Romans 2:25-29)

St. Paul conveys here the truth that although the ‘spirit’ seems to contradict ‘the letter,’ it is only because it operates at a different level. For the same reason, it is also emphasized that the Gospel does not ‘depreciate’ the Mosaic Law but is its ‘fulfillment,’ not first and foremost in a chronological sense, but in an absolute sense, in that the spirit is the ‘principle’ and source of the letter, and the letter is merely its formulation.

We find the same meaning conveyed in the Koranic saying:

They say: Become Jews or Nazarenes in order that you may be guided: answer: No, we follow the way of Abraham who was pure [primordial, hanif] and who was not one of those who associate [creatures with Allah, or effects with the Cause, or manifestations with the Principle]. [Receive] the baptism of Allah [and not that of men]: and who indeed baptizes better than Allah? And it is Him whom we adore.[1]

Of the latter, we can say that the word ‘baptism’ has the same meaning as ‘circumcision’ in Paul’s usage above. In both cases the intent is not to render the concept (either circumcision or baptism) meaningless or wrong, but to illustrate by comparison that the reality in question operates at a superior level to ritual procedures and does not depend upon them for its effectiveness.

Consider the fact that the Christian notion of ‘turning the other cheek,’ or Jesus’s treatment of the woman caught in adultery. Neither of this attitudes could possibly be used as a basis for a social order, nor could the be used as a basis for moral norms of any kind. That is why Christians themselves, aside from a few exceptional examples, have never treated these teachings as ‘normative.’ Here, at least, they’ve understood correctly, and this is why it is obvious that the Gospel message concerned a level beyond that of moral norms and ‘the law,’ which is to say, it could not possibly have been a ‘replacement’ for the Law, since it offered no guidance at that particular level. Christ intended to create in his followers a certain spiritual posture or attitude that would predispose them to becoming vessels of the Holy Spirit through which grace could operate.

[1] Surat al-Baqarah 135, 138.

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