Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Wisdom of Rules

I recently found this video of a lecture from psychologist Barry Schwatz on the importance of wisdom and how this relates to following rules. It is on a site called TED (Technology, Entertainment & Design) whose mission is simply to spread ideas that they feel are worth spreading.

Though I found the link through a post by Brother Maynard there is no indication that Barry Schwartz is a Christian. Yet I am struck just how much this echoes the teaching of the Paul in the New Testament on role of the law.

One quote from the video that sums this up for me is when he says, “The wise person knows when and how to make the exception to every rule.”

You see, just following the letter of rules without appreciating the spirit behind them is what Christians often call legalism. When we listen to some sermons particularly ones that emphasise personal righteousness we can feel brow beaten by our failure to keep the rules. I don't think I'm the only one. The message we hear is "try harder". We hear more rules that we should keep and despair of ever really living up to our Christian standards. Of course this doesn't mean that righteousness should not be preached but that we need an understanding of grace to appreciate how to apply it to our lives.

In the past I have tried to keep as far away as possible from sin that I've denied myself opportunities to relax both with believers and non-believers and many of the positive results that this could have led to. I've got over-anxious about what other might people think in my desire to be 'a good witness'. I can’t go there. I can’t do that. People might think I’m doing something I shouldn't be. Yet in my experience my non-Christian friends were often not as concerned about these issues as I was. They may even have felt my attempt to be righteous was at best silly or at worst unfriendly.

When we hear a preacher give examples of righteousness it is only human nature to deduce from these sets of rules – rules that can easily be misapplied. Unfortunately in sermons there often isn't space to ask questions and point out the exceptions to these rules or to explore what is behind what we hear. If we were to do so we might discover some deeper principles. And we might also be surprised at the variety of ways that each of us applies these principles to our lives.

A simple example is that in applying the principle of self control one person might be more sensitive to being effected by alcohol than another. Of course there is a balance here: on one side we fall into legalism and on the other into drunkenness; the righteous path is the one in between. It is that path that enables us to have a deep and meaningful conversation with our work colleague one evening over a pint or two.

I recently heard a challenging sermon that addressed such areas as our relationships with members of the opposite sex when applying principles of chastity, or faithfulness to our partners, and also brought up issues of honesty in our work environment. I have been asking myself what are the principles that apply in these situations, and how can I really apply them? But asking not only what are the dangers of licence in these circumstances but also what are the dangers of legalism.

I did like Brother Maynard’s closing comment that asking such questioning might not be rebellion or lack of faith as is sometimes suggested, but actually a pursuit of wisdom.


theologyandculture said...

Cool thoughts, David. I didn't watch the video yet, but I'm very intrigued.

For as long as I can remember, I've always been a "spirit-of-the-law" type of person, rather than the letter-of-the-law. I seem to remember it getting me into a bit of trouble while at Bible college, when exactly this question came up, hehe ;-). (Scott Lencke can testify to some of these times ;-).

In the most prime example, I was called to the dean's office for breaking curfew (pretty much every night). One of the other students turned me in, to have a clean conscience.

I explained my reasoning for breaking curfew: The purpose of the curfew is to ensure students get good marks, and to make nice quiet conditions at night in communal living for other students to sleep. (These were the principles behind the spirit of the rule.) So, I reasoned, as long as I was getting great marks (which I was), and as long as I didn't disturb the sleep of other students and was quiet (which I was), then I could faithfully break curfew.

The other student that turned me in explained that for him, "a rule is a rule, and you follow the rules." And he went further to say that rules wouldn't be in place unless they had purpose, so if you follow the rule, then you're following the purpose.

In a strange twist of irony, even though I was the one called into the dean's office, the entire conversation took shifted to counseling this student to break out of the legalism of his upbringing!

I have lots of other thoughts, but I have lots of homework as well, and I'm not supposed to be doing anything with blogs, so I'll cut it short here ;-D.

David Derbyshire said...

Thanks Chachi! I'm glad that you're not being too legalistic about your blog fast.