The Limitations of Institutionalizing God’s Covenant with His People: A Reflection about Laws and Relationship

Mosaic of the Visit of Three Angels to Abraham,                                                   National Shrine of St. John Paul II, Washington D.C..

As a philosophy major, I realize that the practice of theologizing cannot be reduced simply to the rational condition of human kind. Obviously there has always been a spiritual search in rational man, however; this type of reduction limits our understanding of the historicity of man’s experiences that have led him to pursue this journey of faith. In other words, is it that man created this spiritual dimension of his community building (or civilization) or is there an experience that made him respond this way? I think this is a both/and situation, the rational mind (as also shown in new neurological discoveries) is designed for a spiritual dimension, however; it is developed and externalized through experience. I would like to focus on the Judeo-Christian experience of God and their response to this encounter.

Discovering in the foundations of this tradition as a personal and historical encounter of particular individuals with God orients our reflection on the current status of Catholicism and the struggles that our Jewish ancestors suffered to understand about this same covenant that was made to Abraham and fulfilled in the Christ event. In the story of Abraham, and the trans-historical moment of God’s encounter with him we learn about the covenant God makes with his people, a loving relationship with His people.

There is a series of laws proscribed to his people, these are articulations as presented in the Torah, that express God’s desire to safeguard the experience of communion with them and avoid the things that hinder this communion. In other words, laws, as understood here, are not metaphysical realities in themselves, rather; they are articulations of things that hinder the experience of communion with God—in order to safeguard the relationship.

For example, if I am in a loving relationship with my girlfriend, I can make laws in an effort to maintain our relationship: Don’t deceive me, Don’t dance with other men, Take time off for yourself, Don’t disrespect me etc. What I am saying with these “laws” is this: I want to safeguard my relationship with you, let’s establish some boundaries to protect it. I love you, I want you to love me too. I want you to be healthy and happy. I want to be in an exclusive relationship with you, and I wish that it would be mutual. Underlining this covenant, is love and freedom. (I won’t be tackling these two concepts here). Love on God’s part who gratuitously created the world and women and men out of love, and who desires a loving relationship with humankind. God respects man’s freedom so much that he waits for man to freely choose to respond to this love (which is by obeying the laws).

Returning to my example, my girlfriend should not have to wake up in the morning and look through the laws that I gave her and worry about not breaking them if she is focused on a loving relationship with me. If that is the focus, she will naturally follow the “laws,” the same applies to me, since the relationship is mutual. But the laws are just articulations of the relationship I want to safeguard, they aren’t actual rules in themselves, when I say don’t deceive me, I am thinking: in a loving relationship, there is honesty etc.

In the Christ event, Jesus enters a time where this original covenant has been institutionalized. Distortions and additions to the original relational covenant have been turned into religious practices and traditions intermingled with cultural ideologies. These additions aren’t problematic per se, the problem is the distorted focus; from faithfulness to the law out of love for God. It became a legal system with the goal of personal advantage. The trap of retributive justice provides selfish motivations to follow the law, with one’s own well-being as the focus. This is what Jesus comes to abolish and bring fulfillment to the original covenant God made with His people. It was a relational covenant between God and his people, it was a promise of everlasting love. Jesus is a continuation and fulfillment of this covenant and desire for relationship with us—just like the laws were, though in a limited manner. Jesus abolishes the additions and distortions of the Jewish tradition and re-centered the focus on the loving relationship with God, which is directly connected to our loving relationship with each other.

Fast-forwarding to the 21st Century, Vatican II was an inspiration from the Holy Spirit to re-focus our efforts on the relationship with God and others. The institutionalization of the sacraments, ritualization of our liturgies and formulations of doctrines are important in order to safeguard the relationship that Christ established with his disciples, and subsequently shared and passed down to us. However, the problem arises when we prioritize the institutionalized and formulated structures of our faith and lose sight of the living relationship we have with Christ. Christ’s testimony in the Gospel demonstrates that God’s covenant is a living journey with his people, it is not a stagnant moment in history that is frozen and reverently exhibited. God has demonstrated time and time again—God accompanies his people in history, in this sense God is trans-historical, he is not ahistorical.

I find that in the Church today, like our Jewish brothers and sisters in Jesus’ time, many have lost focus on the reason for our faith, the reason for our hope. It is not held in a written document, or found in a particular ritual or sign; it is a person: Jesus Christ. It is important to me to emphasize the personal and relational foundation of faith, otherwise it does become a stagnant and fossilized tradition that slowly but surely dies. I fear that many today, like our ancestors in faith long ago, hold to a similar retributive justice system inserting institutionalized sacraments, ritualized liturgies and practicing them for their own well-being. Instead of allowing the doctrine to illuminate our reason, liturgies to ignite our hearts and the sacraments to impel us in our love for God and others. The mistake occurs when we want hold onto the safety of human constructs and worry about our own well-being above our relationship with God.

I am not anti-institution, nor do I feel that the sacraments and Sacred Tradition hinder our relationship with God–no, that is not what this is about. This is about our tendency to lose focus and idolize these structures, prioritizing them to the authentic relationship, covenant, with God. Returning to the example of a dating relationship, if my girlfriend were to only worry about completing the guidelines I gave to her,  and she failed to worry about me as the reason for completing the guidelines, our relationship would die. Though she is making a tremendous effort to follow the guidelines–paradoxically established to safeguard our relationship. Rigidly following the law is sterile, dynamic faithfulness to God and upholding the boundaries of the laws is what keeps the relationship alive.

This is a concern for me because of the intense polarization that I encounter in many Catholic communities, many divisions are cultivated in many parishes. Many persons are rejected, slander is spread about members of the leadership of the Church–all in the name of “safeguarding” authentic faith. This seems to be mistaken, it does not seem to be the way to be faithful to God’s covenant. This is what I think Pope Francis has been inviting the Church during these years of his pontificate. He said recently:

“I fear those Christians who do not keep walking, but remain enclosed in their own little niche. It is better to go forward limping, and even at times to fall, while always trusting in the mercy of God than to be “museum Christians” who are afraid to change.” (6/23/17) Pope Francis-address to the 75th convention of Serra International

My purpose is to spark a conversation. What do you understand about the nature of laws? What are the laws that you bind yourself to in faith? What is the goal of following those laws? What is your priority, your salvation (the trap of retributive justice/ Eudemonism) or a meaningful relationship with God? What is the reason for your faith, for your hope?



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