Can philosophical thinking help us in reading the Gospels?
This quote by one of the most famous philosophers of the 20th century tries to make a distinction/separation between law and justice. I am not going to analyze this statement or study the philosophical genesis of it, though they are in itself interesting. But it is good to remember that law and justice are often equated in the society; courts of laws are there to provide justice. Whether courts of law can provide justice in each particular case depends much on the available information, evidences, strengths of arguments etc.
What I would be interested here, is to see, whether this philosopher’s statement is helpful in reading some of the biblical passages. Before getting into that task, it is important to notify that Derrida is not the first one to arrive at such a statement regarding law-justice. I just give one example here.
I take two Biblical passages, the parable of the prodigal son (or father) and the scene where Jesus encounters a woman who was caught in adultery, though this work needn’t be limited to these two passages.
Parable of the Prodigal Son (or Prodigal father)
A son who destroyed his share of property is returning to the father in his desperate situation. Definitely it is not repentance, but poverty and hunger which brought the younger child back home. When his elder brother deals according to the law (which is totally “just” according to our normal understanding), the father deals with compassion, love, or however you name it. Probably in Jesus’ terminology, that is justice. Father doesn’t deny the law, or the need to have laws in the society; but he practices justice, which is not blindly (or in a extremely logical way) following the law.
Jesus and the woman caught in adultery
One of the striking features of this event is that man who committed adultery with her is never seen. Forgetting that aspect, we look at the scene. Jesus never say anything about adultery; he might have accepted the law of the times. But when he was forced to give a response, his response was not of the law (of the promised punishment), but a clever response which freed the woman from a punishment. He never said that adultery is okay; but his encounter with the person was not on the level of her actions, but on a deeper human level; probably a level of justice/compassion/love.
Every institutions, which include the church, need laws in its functioning. When it can limit the use of laws and increase the employment of justice/love/compassion (which is not denying the law, but going beyond it), it fulfils in some extend the promise of Jesus, “I came to give life and life in its fullness”. Acts of justice (not of law) in the life of many people converted them from tyrants to “people of love”. Paul in the Bible may be a good example.
Though Genesis speaks of the first sin (in a mythological fashion, though myths are not carriers of truth in a fashion different from history), there is an orginal goodness that precedes the sin. Many of the passages of the gospel invites us to that original goodness — which is probably the reason for which Jesus says, the kingdom of God is already at hand.
Philosophers, and those called agnostics/atheists, have such interesting thinking (and lives) which can help us in interpreting some of the passages of Bible and to become a better disciple of Christ. Some of us may argue that Derrida or any such thinker is needed to arrive at the radical idea of the gospel. Though I may agree with that idea in general, I don’t think I need to respond to that criticism. It is for you to judge. I will conclude with a quote from Christoph Theobald (translated from French) on the same topic, which was given during one of the last courses in Theology.
The law is indeed the necessary response of any society to human violence; but it is incapable of creating a true bond, which can only be built on the inner confidence of each individual. On the other hand, the “surplus” of justice that the relationship with the “stranger” requires, even the love of the enemy and reconciliation, goes beyond all legislation and calls upon the singular “measure” of each person, inviting him or her to go all the way.
Many of the democratic countries have three ideals — equality, liberty and fraternity. I read a comment from someone who said, when equality and liberty are rights (we can question in the court of law), is fraternity a right too? May be the question is not as simple as I write it here, but it’s something to think for…