Saturday, March 27, 2010

Law and faith

Since it is Passover/Holy Week starting tomorrow, I thought I might digress from traditional legal topics for a bit and offer an unconventional reflection for this week. Another motivation for writing this reflection is today’s brief complaint in the New York Times about displays of religiosity on the baseball field.

Law and Faith (I limit my reflection to the three Abrahamic faiths as they are the ones I know best) have two things in common: authority and interpretation. 1) They are constituted by authority, and 2) they rely on human agency to interpret those authorities.

If you’re a lawyer, the authorities are not limited only to the national constitution or statutes or even administrative rules. Even customs and mores of the place are taken into consideration, operating as foreground or background levers depending on what the circumstances warrant. (There is substantial legal literature for example on the formal/informal ordering of various normative systems, mainly attributable to structuralist legal theorists like Duncan Kennedy.) Law has a formal and informal interpretive community too. The formal one would be those clothed with state authority to interpret these rules. You have the Supreme Court at the top of course (in the US, at least, as per Marbury), and then you have all the lower courts down to the community ones. But even politicians interpret the law though political scientists like Keith Whittington does not characterize it as interpretation but rather as construction. Nevertheless, they still form part of the formal interpretive community as official state agents. At the same time, citizens interpret the law too in their everyday dealings with the state and with one another. They either interpret it with a purpose to applying it squarely on their transactions or interpret it with the purpose of “bargaining in its shadow.” Everybody who is within the coverage of a law’s normative universe, in the words of Robert Cover, interprets and performs it.

But faith too has all those things. We have the Bible, the Quran, and the Torah and the secondary sources that comment and interpret these authorities. You have the papal encyclicals, the official doctrine of the Catholic church, the teachings of the Prophet, and many rabbinical commentaries. While the Catholic church has a hierarchical structure in terms of official doctrine, there is enough autonomy given to local clergy in the interpretation of that doctrine. Hence, you see different kinds of Catholicism-in-action depending on the place and region. For the rest of Christendom, the individual is a member of the priesthood of believers, and that means they seek the meaning of the words they find in the Bible in their own way. In both Islam and Judaism, imams and rabbis offer guidance and their own interpretations of religious rules, and there is obviously no central authority. In all these religions, believers interpret and perform these rules accordingly. More often than not, we pick and choose the ones we like, and pat ourselves for being liberal about the whole “religion thing.”

But that’s about where the similarities stop. Faith is underlined by sublime outrageousness while law embodies rationality. That is not to say faith does not have reason. It does, but that is not the core, and at some point, human interpreters will just have to concede to the “mystery” of it. Imagine the Passover story. Who in his right mind will listen and go with a guy named Moses to a never-heard of promised land? And who picks a guy like Moses to be leader anyway? The guy is a stutterer and even seems noncommittal at times. Faith promises things that are too good to be true, and in the process, lays down sometimes nonsensical rules. We interpret them and perform them nonetheless, in compliance with or in defiance of formal interpreters - even picking and choosing along the way.

Why this difference then and what is the significance for us today? It is trite to just simply leave it as one is man-made law and the other made by God. Law embodies rationality because it orders things. It can only make demands to its subjects for this purpose. Faith does not simply intend to order but to give meaning. Nevertheless, we need both because we are simultaneously embodied and spiritual beings. What faith does, I think, is that it inserts a profundity to the banality of law of our human society. We are made to search for reasons as well as meaning. There is something akin to interlegality going on here. We both try to order our existence on these two levels at the same time, in both our private and public lives. At best they overlap, at worst, they conflict. Or sometimes we interpret it in a way that they conflict so much so that we assert that we should just privilege one and ditch the other. We, both believers and non-believers alike, forget to struggle and understand. And there lies the problem.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Website Tracker