Thursday, June 28, 2012

"The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath"

I have just finished reading Richard Holloway's memoir Leaving Alexandria: A Memoir of Faith and Doubt, a brilliant and troubling reflection on his struggle with faith and the way in which that struggle affected and ultimately ended his career as a priest and bishop of the Church of Scotland. I would like to quote a few thought-provoking passages, the first of which comes in the chapter in which Holloway describes and reflects upon some of his major transgressions of the rules of the Scottish Episcopal Church, such as performing the Eucharist according to the Presbyterian rite, marrying divorced couples, and marrying gay couples:

What I did not reflect on at the time was that this untroubled capacity for ignoring rules that struck me as inhumane or silly defined me as an anarchist. I am not using the word  in the organised, programmatic sense normallly associated with the term. I no more believe in anarchism than I believe in any other kind of ism. I am using it in a temperamental sense, which is probably why I did not think too much about what I was doing at the time. Anarchic, in the sense in which I am using the word, means that one treats rules and regulations as having only a relative or provisional status, not as being immutable. Sitting in a car at a red light on a pedestrian crossing on a Sunday morning with not a soul in sight is daft, as are most regulations applied without reference to the context. Yet the minatory power of that red light paralyses us into stupidity and acquiescence. This is one of the faultlines in debates about human value, and it puts the role of institutions and the good of the individuals in unnecessary contention. We need institutions, but they are always instrumental goods, good for something else. That something else is human flourishing, which is an intrinsic  good, good in itself. Religions are a famous battleground in this debate, because they imagine their rules and regulations are not just another variant of human arbitrariness, but have immutable transcendental authority behind them, a delusion Jesus challenged. He skewered the issue wiith a single saying: "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath." The saying can be universalized: The State was made for man, not man for the State.  The Law was made for man, not man for the Law. Traffic lights were made for man, not man for traffic lights. Religion was made for man, not man for religion. Jesus's saying fixes the status of all institutional rules as useful but never absolute.


1 comment:

  1. I think that apart from some historical exceptions, "Church of Scotland bishop" is an oxymoron ;)