Monday, May 13, 2013

In Praise of Rules

There is a good post on a poetry blog about definitions of poetry. It begins with an apologia of definitions in general, with the argument being that definitions are necessary for the pursuit of human excellence. For example, if "basketball" had no definition then there would be no Michael Jordan. There would be no way to excel or to judge excellence, because each man or woman would be excelling in their own eyes if they could lower the hoop or reduce the distance of the three-point line from the basket to suit their own taste. Definitions provide the criteria by which the performance of a practice canbe judged as good or bad because they offer constraints or limitations that we must work within in order to overcome them; or, better, that we must work within in order to master the practice.

Consider the offside law in football. Because of that law, we can have moments like this and these. The time and space constraints that the offside law brings means that players have a range of skills that need to be mastered in order to work within the given limitations. Not just anyone can play a good through ball. The offside law means that only the best passers will emerge as useful within the game of football. Without the offside law, football would be some lesser game played by lesser players. Written into the definition of football is a whole host of rules, such that to describe what football is and to tell someone the rules amount to pretty much the same thing. It is here that we can begin to see the is/ought distinction collapsing, and the need for concrete definitions and descriptions.

This is exactly the point Alasdair MacIntyre makes in After Virtue, but it is one that many have failed to appreciate, especially if we think of it with our church hats on. I've heard it countless times before: law/religion/rules are the things which the gospel frees us from. Now there is a truth to that assertion, but more often than not it misses the beauty of law and the wonderful limitation that religion offers.

Frost describes writing free verse as like playing tennis without a net. Anyone who has gone to a tennis court only to find it without a net will know how joyless it is to attempt to play tennis on it. My sweeping assertion is that much of Christianity in the West today is an attempt to play it without a net, so to speak. This manifests itself in everything from self-conscious attempts at non-liturgical worship to blatant disregard of the Sermon on the Mount.

Sam Wells write of an "ethics for everyone" approach to Christian discipleship. This approach thinks that we better not make it difficult to be a Christian; we must remove as many of the constraints as possible so that everyone can play. Because of this, Christians are not just greedy or violent because of their sinful nature. Christians are so because these things have been written into the definition of "Christian". The spirit-empowered virtue that it should require to live as a follower of Jesus is no longer needed by those who identify as his followers. We have taken all of the mastery and thus all of the beauty out of the Christian life because of our message of lawless grace, which is no grace at all.

MacIntyre wrote that what society needs is the emergence of a new St Benedict. He wrote this, I think, because he thought that what we need are concrete descriptions of the kind of practices necessary to live a life of virtue. Or, in Christian parlance, the kind of discipline we need to live a life pleasing to God and worthy of the gospel.

In popular evangelical Christianity today, perhaps especially in Ireland, it is thought to be our great freedom that we don't live under something as oppressive as the Rule of St Benedict. The "religious" (read: Catholic) spirit that this rule exhibits is put forward, with the best of intentions, as our great enemy. We can see in it nothing but judgement, and in judgement we can see nothing but feelings of guilt and the incurring of punishment. But what if the judgement that discipline and rules bring is actually the possibility for a Christian life well lived? What if such rules function as the net does in tennis or the offside law in football, providing the constraints we need to master the form of life that Jesus presents to us in the Gospels and offers to us in the gospel?

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