Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Christianity has long been susceptible to antinomian temptations. St. Paul’s pointed and often rhetorically violent rejections of the role of Jewish law in the lives of Jesus’ Gentile followers are difficult to untangle, and it is easy to fall back upon simple juxtapositions between law and grace or between letter and spirit. Moreover, the gospel stories report many instances in which Jesus rebukes the scribes and Pharisees, reinforcing a common Christian view that faith is at odds with a law-focused piety. These antinomian temptations need to be resisted, especially today when an antinomian spirit predominates in our culture at large.

Christianity, of course, provides many reasons to resist the antinomian temptation. “Not my will, but thine,” says Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane on the eve of his passion and death. St. Benedict’s Rule provided the basis for monasticism in the West. Martin Luther put the Ten Commandments at the head of his catechism, and as John Paul II explained in Veritatis Splendor, his encyclical on moral theology, the commanding power of moral truth serves as the foundation for genuine self-possession and authentic human freedom. But we are children of our antinomian age, one that Christianity itself has played a role in shaping. Therefore Christians do well to turn to Jewish thinkers, for they can help us formulate pro-nomian antidotes to our antinomian diseases.

As a technical term in theology, antinomianism refers to interpretations of St. Paul that take his assessments of Jewish law as a rejection of all forms of law. Some Gnostic strains of early Christianity read Paul in this way. The letter kills (one of St. Paul’s formulations) because the determinate, particular details of religious obligations and duties focus attention on finite, bodily life, implicating us in a fateful downward turn that impedes the upward direction of the spirit, which is the direction we need to go to return to our divine home—or so the Gnostic presumes.

Antinomian readings of St. Paul come up again and again in the history of early and medieval Christianity, but they emerged with vigor during the Reformation. Some interpreted Luther’s theology of justification by faith alone as releasing the believer from moral constraints, a view reinforced by Luther’s sharp distinction between the law, which condemns, and the saving gospel of Christ. Eventually Luther wrote Against the Antinomians, a treatise devoted to refuting this libertine construal of the freedom for which Christ makes us free (yet another Pauline formulation).

Luther failed to put an end to the antinomian temptation, and today it seems irresistible. Influential mid-twentieth-century theologians such as Rudolf Bultmann and Paul Tillich translated the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith alone into an abstract principle that they used to critique and deconstruct all forms of religious authority. To affirm any limiting norms—moral principles, confessional or creedal standards, and even the authority of the Bible—is to fall victim to “legalism.” What Tillich dubbed “the Protestant Principle” requires the rejection of all finite forms as idolatrous, demonic, and sinful. They are dimensions of the letter that kills, not the spirit that gives life.

What emerges from this approach, David Yeago has observed, is a “kind of ontology of human existence at whose heart is an antagonism, or at least an irresolvable tension, of form and freedom, of order and authenticity.” Form, by which Yeago means any durable norm, principle, or law capable of constraining our wills and shaping our lives, becomes intrinsically tyrannical. To preach the good news therefore means preaching an antinomian gospel.

Modern Protestantism does not have a monopoly on antinomianism. Various versions of postmodern cultural theory rest on similar assumptions and also lead to condemnations of law and endorsements of spontaneity. Terms such as univocity, foundationalism, presence, and metanarrative suggest determinative principles and authoritative truths, and they are consistently used as epithets to discredit and denounce. It’s not just a sin to be “hetero-normative.” It’s a sin to be any-kind-of-normative.

Meanwhile, antinomian terms such as difference, heterogeneity, and absence are usually used to evoke something positive and liberating. Marginality and alterity are words of praise. Any gimcrack academic who proudly claims to “problematize” reveals his antinomian disposition. He is unlikely to be as theologically and metaphysically clear-minded as Paul Tillich was, but the mentality is essentially the same in its spiritual logic: Law is bad and freedom from the law good. As a French intellectual recently urged in Le Monde with reference to what he perceived as the left’s diminished ardor for liberation, “We must firmly position ourselves on the side of disorder, dissonance, and emancipation.”

Floating as they often so aimlessly do in the postmodern university, Catholic intellectuals pick up these antinomian habits of mind. The Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo prophesies in After Christianity that we are heading “toward emancipation by diminishing strong structures (in thought, individual consciousness, political power, social relations, and religion).” The old social order in which Christianity played a central role has lost its power to command and shape our lives. Vattimo wants us to embrace this “emancipation” from Christianity as its paradoxical fulfillment. The trajectory of our postmodern age is, he writes, “a transcription of the Christian message of the incarnation of God, which Saint Paul also calls kenosis—that is, the abasement, humiliation, and weakening of God.” Vattimo’s God is the perfect disciple of Rudolf Bultmann and Paul Tillich, obeying the Protestant Principle and preaching an antinomian gospel: “I love you so much that I make myself powerless and command nothing.”

Paul Tillich and Gianni Vattimo, Rudolph Bultmann and our postmodern tricksters: Their formulations can seem quite alien and perhaps silly. It is tempting to dismiss all this talk of form versus freedom, univocity versus difference, and so forth as the chatter of theologians and philosophers at leisure in a playground of concepts. But I must warn against this dismissive impulse, for our modern theologians and postmodern theorists are drawing out (and reinforcing) the implications of attitudes now quite common.

Imagine that tomorrow a man wakes up and says, “Enough! I’m tired of fighting against my innermost feelings. I’ve always felt myself to be a woman, and I’ll be damned if I’ll let myself go on like this.” Medical professionals stand ready at hand; psychologists are prepared to help. If he has generous and expansive insurance coverage, then the way is clear. Hormones are administered, surgeries performed, wardrobes changed, and eventually coworkers are informed that Charlie is now Charlene.

It is, perhaps, as one might expect. Who can be surprised that people will turn to the promise of modern technology for solutions to the afflictions of inner unhappiness? Can we be shocked that people harbor all sorts of strange, urgent desires? The human psyche is extraordinarily unstable and diverse, and, like water finding its way downhill, our intense wants and urgent desires seek paths toward satisfaction.

Yet something else is at work, something more than the marriage of urgent desires and technological possibilities. Today most of us participate, however half-heartedly, in a permissive cultural sensibility, a pervasive mentality of therapeutic affirmation. It is a plain fact that Charlie can not only become Charlene, he can also feel entirely justified in demanding that everyone around him accept his decision and accommodate the fulfillment of his desires. Perhaps we snicker inwardly, and roll our eyes in unguarded moments. And yes, if we are orthodox Christians or Jews, we recognize the disordered character of Charlie’s desires—as well as the disordered character of a medical profession and society that would satisfy them. But for the most part we fall in line and do our best to make Charlie’s transformation seem like any other personal decision—a “lifestyle choice,” as we often say.

Richard Weaver once made an astute observation: “Every man participating in a culture has three levels of conscious reflection: his specific ideas about things, his general beliefs or convictions, and his metaphysical dreams.” Our general beliefs and convictions may be orthodox. However, as men and women of our times, our metaphysical dreams, which are imbued with antinomian assumptions, frequently are not. We often ignore or soften the plain testimony of Scripture, the clear and central role of the commandments and law in the history of Christianity, and even recent and robust magisterial affirmations of the authority of moral truth, making us antinomians by default. What Christians need today, therefore, may not be counterarguments—or at least not only counterarguments—but instead counter-dreams.

When it comes to law and commandment, Jews dream differently than Christians. This became especially clear to me when I first read Halakhic Man, a profound and poetic reflection on Jewish life by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, one of the most influential rabbinic scholars of the twentieth century. In this book, which is one of the last century’s great spiritual classics, Soloveitchik provides powerful evocations of the metaphysical dream of Judaism, a pronomian vision of swimming joyfully in the sea of Talmud.

Halakhic Man opens with a description of our modern scientific personality, “cognitive man,” as Soloveitchik calls him. He is oriented toward the world as it is, seeking to understand and grasp reality in accord with its immanent laws and principles. Cognitive man is in the best sense secular. He wants to know, but he accepts the length and breadth of this world as his proper domain. Over and against him Soloveitchik depicts his opposite, the spiritual seeker he calls homo religiosus. This personality seeks something beyond the here and now, something that transcends what can be measured or weighed or counted. He wants to climb the ladder of being, ascending to great and magnificent heights far above the mundane order of this world.

As a personality type, cognitive man plays little role in Soloveitchik’s analysis, as he integrates the secular or this-worldly orientation into his own view of Jewish life. However, homo religiosus provides an enduring spiritual option and temptation, for he reflects our natural spiritual impulses. Tears and anguish by the graveside express our rebellion against the cold laws of nature. Our hunger for eternity and premonitions of the divine disturb, unsettle, and override the laws and logic and reason.

These tensions within the soul of homo religiosus suggest the metaphysical contrast that plays a central role in Soloveitchik’s thinking. We are finite creatures—and yet we long for the infinite. We are human—and yet we wish to see the divine. Thus, as he observes, “religious experience, from beginning to end, is antinomic and antithetic.” Our desire for transcendence disrupts the lives we lead along the horizontal plain of immanent existence, creating a spiritual anxiety that seeks resolution.

Faced with this sharp contrast, Soloveitchik concludes, rightly, I think, that our natural religious impulses will lead us to focus on the vertical eruptions of transcendence at the expense of our loyalty to the mundane, horizontal realm of finite reality. For many, Soloveitchik notes, “the craving for transcendence clothes itself in ascetic garb, in an act of negation of life and of this world, in a denial of the worthwhile nature of existence.” In comparison with eternity, this world is as nothing, or worse than nothing because a distraction, a temptation. Unable to face the contradiction of finite and infinite, homo religiosus reaches upward, trying to stamp out all reminders of his older, earlier entanglements in worldly life.

At other times, Soloveitchik observes, homo religiosus searches life for transcendent moments: the sunset that inspires or the embrace and kiss that enraptures. Or perhaps homo religiosus turns toward death, seeing in the grave a sublime power that he imagines will provide a dark entry into eternal realms. Or he focuses on worldly pleasures that promise the transports of ecstasy. Although seemingly rooted in this world, none of these spiritual strategies forges a lasting loyalty to finite existence. Instead, as Soloveitchik writes, “concrete, empirical reality serves as the only springboard from which man may make his plunge into the supernal, and it is the supernal realm alone that serves as the object of the religious individual’s deepest longings, the goal of his ultimate quest.”

Thus does the spiritual logic of homo religiosus become clear. He may retreat into the desert to fast—or he may haunt the nightclubs of Paris in search of peak experiences. He may be a Neoplatonist eager to return to the One. Or, as Soloveitchik suggests in places, homo religiosus may be the Christian who communes with God in transient moments of mystic insight. “The common denominator of all of them,” Soloveitchik writes, “is that homo religiosus longs for a refined and purified existence.” He cannot endure the tension of immanence and transcendence, and to find peace and tranquillity he casts his lot with one or the other. He will be either beast or God, but not man, that strange and contradictory hybrid.

Halakha derives from the Hebrew word for “to walk” or “to go,” and as a term in rabbinic discourse it refers to the entire body of divinely given law that governs Jewish life within the mundane affairs of this world. Halakhic man, Soloveitchik’s term for the distinctive Jewish spiritual personality, follows the halakha, which neither erupts within nor draws him away from the immanent realm. On the contrary, Jewish law orders and shapes finite existence in accord with precise commandments. Thus, where homo religiosus sees the contrastive, antithetic tension between immanence and transcendence as a painful antagonism, halakhic man thinks otherwise.

Soloveitchik recounts a midrash that is based on the biblical verses in which God conveys to Moses the commandments for the construction of a tabernacle that will contain the divine presence. This traditional Jewish interpretation imagines an argument between God and Moses. Moses speaks in the manner of homo religiosus, saying, in effect, that it is absurd to imagine that the eternal Lord and Creator could possibly dwell within the finite confines of this world. After all, transcendence is antithetical to immanence and certainly cannot abide there. However, God rebukes Moses’ rigid metaphysical imagination, telling him in so many words that he should not be dictating to God what he can and cannot do.

God is almighty, and is therefore perfectly capable of dwelling in a modest tabernacle if he so wills.

Halakhic man harkens to God’s rebuke. He realizes that he need not forsake this world or his bodily existence in order to attain the divine. Transcendence has chosen immanence. God has descended and contracted infinite greatness to be present in the mundane realm of our finite affairs. As Soloveitchik puts it: “The universal homo religiosus proclaims: The lower yearns for the higher. But halakhic man, with his unique mode of understanding, declares: The higher longs and pines for the lower.”

For Christian readers, these formulations cannot help but evoke images of the incarnation. They certainly did for me when I read Halakhic Man the first time. The famous hymn of divine lowering in the second chapter of St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians—the kenosis that Gianni Vattimo so absurdly misreads for his own purposes—echoes in many of the passages in which Soloveitchik proclaims God’s descent and contraction. Indeed, in the passages where he inveighs against the metaphysical assumptions of kabbalistic mysticism, which cannot conceive of God’s presence in the world as anything other than an anguished humiliation of the prerogatives of the divine, Soloveitchik reminds me of Robert Jenson, whose life work has been to purge Christian theology of its residual loyalties to the Greek metaphysical presumption that there is a fundamental antagonism between time and eternity, a presumption that animates homo religiosus.

But I must set aside these themes, important though they were for my early engagements with this spiritual classic. For my task is to allow Soloveitchik to teach me what I do not already know—or know only in part and without clarity.

As I have puzzled over Soloveitchik’s contrast between homo religiosus and halakhic man, which is far more subtle and multifaceted than my brief summary can hope to convey, I have come to see that, as a religious impulse, antinomianism is not motivated by a desire to transgress. Instead, its rejection of laws and norms flows from a metaphysical dream of purity, a dream that releases us from the tension between immanence and transcendence.

Left to its own devices, St. Augustine’s restless heart seeks to resolve the antithetic contrast between transcendence and immanence, the infinite and the finite, the eternal and the temporal, by choosing a singular path. We will not subdue our finite lives and bring them under the sway of God’s commandments. Instead, we seek to fly to the infinite—or in the case of postmodern antinomianism descend into the “play of difference,” a deconstructive direction that Soloveitchik does not consider or even anticipate, but that his analysis of the spiritual desire for metaphysical purity and tranquillity illuminates. In any event, the upshot is a neglect or even disparagement of commandments, for they serve as nails that fasten transcendence to immanence.

Needless to say, in the course of his life halakhic man also experiences agonies of spiritual aspiration. He too feels the recalcitrance of the flesh; in his finitude and limitations he too shudders with awe when contemplating the eternity and holiness of the divine. “However,” Soloveitchik writes, “these opposing forces, which struggle together in the religious consciousness of halakhic man, are not of a destructive, disjunctive nature.” He need not take sides in a gesture of metaphysical loyalty. Time, finitude, embodiment: The immanent realm is the dwelling place chosen by the divine.

These formulations are possible because of the central role played by the concept of law in the life of halakhic man. Law is what Soloveitchik calls the “third verse,” the principle that harmonizes the antithetic conflict between transcendence and immanence. Commandments fuse the finite and the infinite together, allowing Soloveitchik to describe Jewish life in a way that fleshes out the central Thomistic affirmation that grace (transcendence) perfects rather than destroys nature (immanence). “God commanded man,” writes Soloveitchik, “and the very command itself carries with it the endorsement of man’s existence.” Indeed, commandment does more than endorse; it transforms by providing the means for human life to be brought into accord with God’s will.

The logic is straightforward. When we say, “Thou shalt,” or “Thou shalt not,” we seek to penetrate the lives of others by shaping and ordering their intentions and actions. If the circuit of command and obedience closes, if our imperatives become the intentions and actions of those whom we command, then we begin to enter into communion with them. I say to my son, “Do your homework!” Even if he grumbles and inwardly resents my commandment, insofar as he obeys, he conforms his will and life, if only for a short period and only outwardly, to my command. Should he consider and accept my reasons—the importance of education, the need to complete assigned tasks, and so forth—his conformity becomes internal. He begins to think as I think. And should he see and assent to the ultimate end of my commandment—his development and flourishing—his desire becomes my own.

God desires for us a supernatural end: to share in his divine life. For this reason we cannot fully “see” the reasons behind the commandments that guide us to this end. Nonetheless, divine commandments have the same capacity to effect communion, making them engines of our intimacy with God. As Soloveitchik says over and over again in so many words, halakhic man is sanctified and divinized by his cognition and performance of God’s law, a task undertaken in and amidst his everyday life. By doing as God commands, we walk in his ways. When we order our lives in accord with God’s will, we seek for ourselves what he seeks for us.

Soloveitchik has helped me see the larger significance of the Jewish pronomian metaphysical dream, one that sees the Torah as a gift and not a burden. The halakha—the all-encompassing array of divine imperatives—are as countless arrows of love shot downward and into human life. The more expansive and detailed the law, the more deeply and completely halakhic man’s life is penetrated by the divine, the more he is able to say in his every thought, intention, and deed, “Not my will, but thine.”

The higher longs for the lower, says Soloveitchik of the Jewish view of transcendence, one I’ve suggested accords with the Christian view of incarnation. The commandments serve to fulfill this divine longing, which is a nuptial desire for covenantal intimacy. Commandments do not just saturate life with the urgency of God’s will, they are the form of God’s word most perfectly suited for our finite, creaturely nature. Tolle, lege, “take, read.” Unknowingly given by children playing beyond the walls of his garden, this commandment delivered St. Augustine from the agonies of his restless heart. They were words of grace, for unlike the awesome mystery of the divine, which cannot be grasped or understood, God’s commandments can be obeyed.

A consensus has developed in the Catholic Church that relativism and skepticism explain why traditional moral norms are now largely ignored or rejected. Reason, wrote John Paul II, in his encyclical Fides et Ratio, “has lost the capacity to lift its gaze to the heights, not daring to rise to the truth of being.” The consequence is a deficit of conviction. Who is to say that the fetus is a human person? What gives you the right to impose on others your view that marriage is between a man and a woman? How could you be so arrogant as to imagine that you know who God is and what he (or she!) wants us to do? The way forward, therefore, involves renewing our confidence in truth. As John Paul II’s image at the outset of Fides et Ratio suggests, we must learn to soar on the wings of faith and reason.

To lift our gazes to the heights so that we might draw near to the truth of being—this and other exhortations are engaging, and they have inspired me in the past. However, I find myself sobered by Rabbi Soloveitchik. Perhaps the direction of our gaze should be downward as well. Perhaps we should entertain halakhic man’s dream of a law-saturated life. After all, even if we succeed in soaring on the wings of faith and reason, the truths affirmed on high will have no purchase on our lives if we cannot affirm the downward arrow of commandment. We must be able to pray the Lord’s prayer: not only “Thy will be done,” but also “on earth as it is in heaven.”

The Jewish metaphysical dream of the commanding arrows of divine love has been on my mind in recent years when I have made annual retreats at a center in New York. In the chapel above the altar there is a large, realistic picture depicting a scene from the New Testament. It is the wedding at Cana when Jesus performed his first miracle, turning the water into wine so that the wedding feast might enter into a still greater joy. This highly symbolic episode draws on the rich scriptural tradition of describing the covenant of God and Israel in vivid nuptial terms, as well as implicitly evoking the question of the relation of Jesus to the law of Moses. However, as I have prayed in the chapel and contemplated the painting, I have come to focus on the Virgin Mary rather than Jesus. She is looking at the young servant who has brought the empty jars forward, and, as the Gospel of John recounts, she is saying, “Do whatever he tells you.”

These words, I have come to realize, are directed to me. The Virgin Mother, the inexhaustible source of compassion and seat of wisdom, commands me to obey her son’s commandments. She does not urge me to swim in the sea of Talmud. But her words remind me of the truth to which the saints of the Church testify: There are no secular realms and no private zones of freedom that I can cordon off from the call of discipleship. I must open myself to the dominion of Christ’s law, which is summed up in the recurring refrain of the gospels, “Come, follow me.”

“Do whatever he tells you!” Rabbi Soloveitchik’s meditations on the spiritual logic of Jewish law have helped me see that Christianity does not set itself over and against Judaism by rejecting law and commandment. On the contrary, Christianity competes with Judaism over the proper form and content of God’s commandment. St. Paul’s criticisms of the law of Moses should be read as part of his larger claim about its fulfillment in Christ. The Old Testament commandments do not go far enough or deep enough into the particularity of our lives. Christ has tailored commandments just for me, and others for you. Deeply personal in content, these commandments are well-honed arrows of divine love that penetrate our hearts. We come closest to Christ when we listen and obey.

To Christian ears this claim about the central role of commandment and obedience can sound strange. Isn’t Christ most intimate to us when we receive him in the Eucharist? Again, the Jewish metaphysical dream clarifies rather than contradicts. “Take this, all of you, and eat of it,” says the priest in the words of consecration, echoing the words of Christ, and then, “Take this, all of you, and drink from it.” Had I not read Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, I might have never seen and understood the significance of the most obvious fact about these Christ-giving and therefore life-giving words— they are commandments.

R. R. Reno is the editor of First Things. This essay is adapted from his 2011 Merton Lecture for the Catholic chaplaincy at Columbia University.

Image by Matthias Zomer licensed via Pexels. Image cropped.

00 Days
00 Hours
00 Minutes
00 Seconds
Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before the clock above hits zero.

First Things is proud to be a reader-supported enterprise, and the Spring Campaign is one of only two major reader giving drives each year. It ends on June 30 at 11:59 p.m.

Your gift will fortify First Things to speak boldly on behalf of religious voices in the public square ahead of a pivotal season for our nation and the church.

Please give now.

Make My Gift