Transgression

God makes it rather certain that we will all fail, if we are honest about ourselves. The bar and goal of unconditional, divine love is set so high that no one can ever honestly say, "I have fulfilled the law!" or "I am a totally good person."
05/21/2014 01:18 pm ET Updated Jul 21, 2014

The law was given to multiply our opportunities for falling. -- St. Paul to the Romans (5:20)

After this surely-shocking Scripture, I begin these remarks on transgression with a poem from my favorite metaphysical poet, George Herbert, Welsh-born Anglican priest and mystic of the 17th century. In "Easter Wings," as in other of his poems, he seems to deeply comprehend the precise and astounding nature of how spiritual transformation happens. He has learned that you must fall or fail before you know what reunion, or even union, really is, and only "then shall the fall further the flight in me." God makes it rather certain that we will all fail, if we are honest about ourselves. The bar and goal of unconditional, divine love is set so high that no one can ever honestly say, "I have fulfilled the law!" or "I am a totally good person."

I quote only the first stanza of George Hebert's poem. (Please note that he actually printed it in its entirety on the page in the form of two wings -- and you see one of them here -- so we could symbolically fly with this hard-won wisdom, even on paper.)

Lord, who created man in wealth and store,
Though foolishly he lost the same,
Decaying more and more,
Till he became
Most poor:
With thee
Oh let me rise
As larks, harmoniously,
And sing this day thy victories:
Then shall the fall further the flight in me.

As in his well-known and beloved poem, "The Pulley," Herbert believed that God created a "repining restlessness," a de facto distance and incompleteness in the heart of all humans, which keeps them forever open to transcendence, always longing for more from a seemingly remote and mysterious God. He believed that the soul lives and grows through longing and restlessness -- which "tosses him to the breast" of God.

It seems that we must fail, and even "transgress," and then desire mercy and love because of that very transgression. It is the way humans test divine love, just as children do with their parents. Otherwise we have no way of knowing that the long, lonely distance between God and ourselves can be--and is--spanned from the other side. Divine oneness is always twoness overcome, not twoness denied or even avoided. We all seem to live in a terror of twoness after having come from our primal and perfect oneness in God. Some say it is the very urgency of all sexuality (sectare = to divide).

What is sometimes called the "myth of transgression" has been seen to operate on many levels: social, psychological, legal, and literary. Our interest here is precisely how the Gospel itself reveals this to be the deepest pattern of transformation, because the old must always die for the new to be born, and our first attempts to love God by following rules are eventually revealed to be much more love of self and love of some kind of order (But we can't know that yet!). It is our failure to live up to our first man-made attempts at love that drives us toward an ever-higher love where we are not in charge. To paraphrase St. Augustine: "Seek God, but once you find him it will send you on a search of never finding him (because God is infinite)."

This whole trajectory was set in motion with the original Genesis story of "the fall," where a commandment of dubious quality was given to Adam and Eve. It set up an arbitrary line in the sand that begged for transgression and, in fact, is assured in literary terms. Children already know this intuitively when you read them fairy tales. When it says "You must not do this," a child somehow knows the princess or peasant will do exactly that! It sets the whole story in a dynamic direction and creates a needed tension for actual moral development, insight, and compassion. But we forget how to read with the common sense of children as soon as we see that a book says "The Bible" on the cover. There seems to be an inherent need in humans for crossing boundaries, testing limits, and even "testing the gods" to find out who these gods really are and who we really are in relationship to them.

The mythic figure here is what some call the Trickster, the clown, the anti-hero and, in Biblical literature, "the sinner" who is again and again shown to be the hero, especially by Jesus. "Her many sins must have been forgiven her or she would not have shown such great love," says Jesus of "the woman who was a sinner" (Lk 7:47). The law-abiding Pharisee is deemed ridiculous while the grasping tax collector, with no spiritual resume whatsoever (but who is nevertheless honest about himself), goes home "justified" (Lk 18:9-14).

This myth made less and less sense to later Western Christian history which came to think that religion largely existed to teach and maintain social and imperial order. God did not become incarnate to be a divine policeman or a courtroom judge, but instead a "bridegroom" who invites us to his wedding party (Mk 2:19-20). The Western mind eventually had little respect for the ubiquitous disorder in the universe--so different than the Pueblo Indian clown who breaks the perfect symmetry and seriousness of the sacred dance, or the intentional imperfection sewn into the Navajo rug. After forty-some years as a priest, I believe that many if not most people are attracted to religion because they want order in their own lives and in the world. This is not bad; it is a first-half-of-life need and task, and it is nothing but the early warm-up act for the Gospel (Gal 3:24). Today even science demonstrates rather convincingly that asymmetry is what breaks the dead patterns and moves all elements, species, and ages forward. It is called "chaos theory."

This is how the transgression myth was revealed through the Gospel. Jesus, who is judged to be a sinner/offender/failure/transgressor by both high priest and Roman Empire -- and truly is by their "objective" criteria -- is, in fact, the one who "redeems the world"! Paul repeats this message and calls it the "mystery of the crucified," which forever discounts both "the Law" (his Jewish religion) and "reason" (Greek philosophy) as ways to achieve order in this world.

The Gospel and the cross say that the only honest and healing order is the acceptance of disorder. This is God's surprising and scandalous plan. It is much of the import of Paul's letters to the Romans and the Galatians and, as some scholars now recognize, Paul presaged the "good cynicism" of postmodernism by two thousand years: All the big story lines ("metanarratives") are wrong, and the one that is right is the one you do not want to hear! Both Jesus and Paul believed that necessary and predictable transgression--and the need for mercy that follows--is the pattern of transformation. This is the way God "justifies," or executes divine justice. This is how God re-aligns reality inside the only Absolute there is: the eternal love of God. Pope Francis is the first Pope I am aware of who has had the insight and courage to say that Divine Love is the only absolute, and not law, or the church, or morality. Law and reason can never achieve their own goals perfectly, but love and mercy can and do. "Where are your philosophers now? Where are the scribes?" (1 Cor 1:20), Paul shouts. Love alone is the "fulfillment" of the Law (Rom 13:8-10, Gal 5:14).

I will choose such a bridegroom and his wedding banquet any day. We have had too many centuries of ecclesiastical policemen and church courtrooms which have futilely tried to suppress all transgressions, instead of using them as the very springboard which tosses us into the breast of God.