The Letter and The Spirit

Religious laws, in all the major traditions, have both a letter and a spirit. As I understand the words and example of Jesus, the spirit of a law is all-important, whereas the letter, while useful in conjunction with spirit, becomes lifeless and deadly without it. In accord with this distinction, a yearning to worship in wilderness or beside rivers, rather than in churches, could legitimately be called evangelical. Jesus himself began his mission after forty days and nights in wilderness. According to the same letter vs. spirit distinction, the law-heavy literalism of many so-called evangelicals is not evangelical at all: “evangel” means “the gospels”; the essence of the gospels is Jesus; and literalism is not something that Jesus personified or taught.

Nor need one be a Christian for the word “evangelical” to apply: if your words or deeds harmonize with the example of Jesus, you are evangelical in spirit whether you claim to be or not. When the non-Christian Ambrose Bierce, for instance, wrote, “War is the means by which Americans learn geography,” there was acid dripping almost visibly from his pen. His words, however, are aimed at the same anti-war end as the gospel statements “Love thine enemies” and “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” And “Blessed are the peacemakers.” Bierce’s wit is in this sense evangelical whether he likes it or not. …

To refer to peregrinating Celtic monks and fundamentalist lobbyists, Origen and Oral Roberts, the Desert Fathers and Tim La Haye, Jerry Falwell and Dante, St. Francis and the TV “prosperity gospel” hucksters, Lady Julian of Norwich and Tammy Faye Baker, or John of the Cross and George W. Bush all as Christian stretches the word so thin its meaning vanishes. The term “carbon-based life-form” is as informative. Though it may shock those who equate fundamentalism and Christianity, ninety years ago the term “fundamentalist” did not exist. The term was coined by an American Protestant splinter-group which, in 1920, proclaimed that adhering to “the literal inerrancy of the Bible” was the true Christian faith. The current size of this group does not change the aberrance of its stance: deification of the mere words of the Bible, in light of every scripture-based wisdom tradition including Christianity’s two-thousand-year-old own, is not just naiveté: it is idolatry.

This, in all sincerity, is why fundamentalists need connections to, and the compassion of, those who are no such thing. How can those lost in literalism save one another? As Max Weber once put it: “We [Christians] are building an iron cage, and we’re inside of it, and we’re closing the door. And the handle is on the outside.”

–David James Duncan

This was excerpted from an essay featured at Bruderhof; a longer version was published in the July/August 2005 issue of Orion. What Duncan wrote resonated deeply. I would like to read more.

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