A Lawyer and A Believer: Part 2

To Be A Lawyer and A Believer: A Two-Part Series

Part 2: Believer

 Originally Published in the Maryland Daily Record

            Last time I wrote about the impact of religious belief on the professional lives of lawyers, from the perspective of one who professes to be both a believer and a lawyer.  Now I want to turn to the obverse of that subject, i.e. the impact of legal training and experience on the lives of believers. 

            First, I need to, as the British would put it, declare an interest. I am what detractors would call a “Cafeteria Catholic.”  I turn to the faith in which I was raised for fundamental doctrine, I listen carefully to its teachings on moral principles, and I participate regularly in its rituals.  But I believe that God gave me a mind and a heart with which I am also expected to discern the truth, even though the truth they lead me to acknowledge, and the life I have led in consequence, do not conform entirely to Scriptural authority, ecclesiastical tradition, or the dictates of Church authorities.  To me, blind obedience and unthinking faith are a rejection of my God-given responsibilities, not the culmination of them.  I accept some but not all of what my church offers: hence the “Cafeteria” epithet, which I propose to use below merely as a descriptive label and not as a putdown.  To my observation, most lawyer-believers are Cafeteria. 

            To our religious belief and practice we Cafeteria believers, of whatever faith, apply the concepts, the outlook, the way of doing things that the rest of our lives teaches us will work. And as the law occupies a huge part of the lives of those of us who are lawyers, inevitably the lessons of our lives as lawyers get applied on a broad scale to our faith.  We lawyers immerse ourselves in the current of our times: government, economics, philosophy, mores, and outlook.  You could certainly argue that this worldliness is a huge mistake, a snare and a distraction, blinding us to the eternal truths of our faith.  To us Cafeterias, however, the distrust of the world urged by many faiths is the real mistake. 

            It used to be officially ok for my particular brand of believers, Catholics, to take their cues from the spirit of the times.  The very shape of the present-day Church was largely set by its decision, at around the time it evolved into the established church of the Roman Empire under the Emperor Constantine and his successors, to follow the governing model and way of doing things — in that era.  And the working model, the template, in that era was the Roman Empire itself: a centralized monarchy and bureaucracy with rules and standards and taxes imposed on the provinces by the monarch after only that degree of consultation which pleased the monarch. 

            Sadly, my particular Church has stuck to that ancient model through thick and thin rather than growing and developing together with its faithful as they and the world around them found ways better than Constantine’s.  Eventually, only the darkest and saddest places in the secular world were run the way my Church — to this very day — is run.  Whole books could be and have been written about the Church’s deterioration, and this is not the place to do more than mention a few examples: the decline in “vocations” to the clergy, the widespread promulgation of directives that command little respect or obedience, the frustration of the aspirations of women for leadership positions, the sex abuse scandals, and the rise of the competing model of Christian faith amongst evangelicals.  My Church is a mess, and the approach I inevitably apply to pondering it is a lawyer’s approach. 

            A lawyer learns that there are two fundamental organizational models that qualify as “best practices” within our civilization: public corporations and democratic governments.  Each form of organization contains strong elements of shared decision-making and accountability.  Corporations must hold regular shareholder meetings, put ultimate issues to a shareholder vote, disclose their important business data to the marketplace in carefully defined fashion, and are subject to various forms of liability to shareholders if fraud occurs.  Democratic governments incorporate checks and balances to prevent abuses of power, and are subject to recall or replacement at the hands of the electorate. 

            I said in my previous column that as a believer I cannot conceive that sacred and secular are separate spheres.  What we do as individuals and as societies, no matter how secular, is also spiritual.  And spiritually, we as a world have evolved from monarchy to democracy politically, and in the direction of public ownership and accountability in our economic affairs.  In the end every citizen and every investor has at least some say in the direction of the enterprise, and the accountability runs from the top to the bottom.  Why would God be leading us to that outlook in government and business, and to the opposite outlook in religion?  It does not add up. 

            Reinforced by my lawyer’s training and experience in this belief, I cannot readily turn it off when I enter a house of worship.  And I am totally unimpressed by any argument for ecclesiastical totalitarianism deriving its sole authority from the dicta of religious authorities that their church, or shul, or mosque is some kind of grand exception to the rules of accountability and consensus by which the rest of the world seeks to organize and govern itself. The dicta amount to a circular argument, corroborating one’s authority by reference to one’s authority. 

            In short, being a lawyer breeds a deep conviction that in matters religious “Cafeteria” is a good thing, if followed consistently, and not halted for, say, 16 centuries.  And it breeds a deep distrust of leaders claiming the right to dictate to others because – well, because they say so. 

            Along somewhat the same lines, lawyers tend to drink deep the Western World’s brew of continually growing pluralism and diversity.  This is always a tricky subject for any religion.  The default setting for most religions is typified in the words of the Muslim-slayer Roland in the 11th Century French epic that bears his name.  Shortly before Roland falls in battle defending Charlemagne’s rear guard against Muslim soldiers, he utters this famous defiant phrase: “The Christians are right and the pagans are wrong, and bad example will never come from me.”   But take Roland’s saying, switch “Muslims” for “Christians,” and the resulting phrase is essentially the attitude of Osama bin Laden’s suicide bombers today. 

            We lawyers don’t play that, whoever’s speaking.  We accept that each denomination maintains that its own Scripture, theology, and moral code is the best.  But we also know that the world works best when the denominations don’t push the point.  This approach probably started out for pragmatic reasons.  A civil society cannot sustain too many St. Bartholomew’s Days (when the French Catholics massacred Protestants), or Kristallnachts (when the German Christians massacred Jews), or Salem Witch Trials, or, of course 9/11s.  Mutual religious tolerance and civil society are in fact inseparable for this reason.  

            But in the long experience with tolerance, a secondary consensus has grown stronger and stronger as well: the perception that all faiths are speaking of the same God, that God’s revelation to humanity is not exclusive to any one faith.  And, in short, that everyone has some piece of the Truth.  We do not forbid an established church in this country only because believers in other faiths would find it intolerable; we also do so because to establish one church alone would be bad for that church itself.  Churches need to be humble for their own good.

             Litigators can tell you that if there are a lot of witnesses to something, there is never total agreement among them on the details.  As you flip through the deposition transcripts, you see that being honest does not keep witnesses from contradicting each other.  Their chronologies differ, or their recollections of who said what.  And no one remembers that things went down the way the documents show.  And this is supposed to stop where the experience of God is concerned?  Remember, if you are a believer, what that experience is like: it is elusive, hard to pin down.  St. Paul (1 Cor. 13:12) says that in this life we see God as in a mirror darkly, and he’s ever so right.  Later on, Paul says, we’ll see God face to face.  Later, not now.  Right now, we have all these witnesses with similarly obstructed and unclear views and suspect recollection.  And their deposition transcripts, a/k/a scriptures, are inconsistent. 

            Given this reality, which is more probable: that one denomination would have flawlessly captured the truth about God and our proper approach to God, or that we are all a bit like the blind men encountering the elephant in the fable: each of them feeling and describing a different part, each of them right about what he feels, and none of them capturing the whole wonderful multifariousness of the beast? 

            It follows that when the unelected leaders of a faith tell us to go out and try to bend the political process and the laws to their concept of what God wants – say, outlawing abortion or gay marriage, or displaying 10 religious commandments as if they were the law of a secular land, or blocking condemnation of the violation of Palestinian human rights because the country doing the violating is someone’s religious homeland, or trying to impose Sharia on infidels and the unwilling, a person with my professional background is going to have two giant problems.  We will ask: who are these people to tell fellow-believers, in God’s name, no less, what their politics should be, and who are they to tell those outside the circle of their faith, those who do not share their outlooks, what the laws and politics should look like?  Silence and humility would be a much better response to all these leaders should know they do not know about God, or God’s will. 

            To a lawyer-believer, those faiths which are scripturally based — and this includes most of them — should be the humblest of all.  One thing we lawyers have learned how to do is read.  We parse texts, we ask rude best evidence questions, we want to know about the competency of the declarant-author.  When it comes to texts of any sort, we are the ultimate Doubting Thomases.  And if we subscribe to scriptures despite all that, we do it well aware we are dealing with documents that embody truth but not in the way a deposition transcript literally reports what was said. Scriptures are folk tales, scriptures are collections of epigrams, scriptures are poems, scriptures are feeble attempts to capture the ineffable experience of Divinity, scriptures are letters dashed out without methodical consideration in the heat of the moment, scriptures are codes of law reflective of less enlightened times.  Scriptures are built up in layers by different authors who may be writing at different times, for different audiences, for different purposes, even at cross-purposes. 

            Beyond that, the writers of scriptures didn’t know all that we know.  Neither Moses nor Jesus nor Mohamed nor the Buddha read Locke or Adam Smith or Darwin or Jefferson or Einstein.  They knew nothing of modern cosmology, economics, political science, psychology, or technology.  It is abusing scriptures to treat them as if they trump modern humanity’s knowledge and insights based on these sources.  For instance, as I said last time, a scripturally-based concern for the poor that treats the markets with disdain simply has little hope of aiding the poor, and, if it had any chance of being followed, would risk damaging everyone.  We understand markets in a way Jesus did not.  We understand the importance of lending at interest in a way that Moses, who forbade it (Deuteronomy 23:19), and Mohamed, who followed him in that regard (Koran, Surah al Baqarah, 275-280), did not. 

            That is not to say we ignore our scriptures, of course.  We build our faiths around them, and properly so.  But we should do so admitting how complex, how nuanced, how controversial, unprovable and eternally contingent our takes on those scriptures must be.  To try using state power or indeed force of any kind to inflict our scripturally-based views on those who believe differently or not at all shows insufficient humility before either God or humanity.  God rightly asks Job: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?”  (Job 38:4.) The certainty of fundamentalists of all stripes amounts to a claim that they were right there taking notes.  And that is gnostic foolishness. 

            I would imagine that there will be those who read this piece and the last and say that to be a lawyer and a believer along the lines I have reported is to carry cross-pollination to the extent where it might be better characterized as cross-pollution.  I respectfully differ.  I believe that what I have described is a position akin to that of most moderate men and women possessed of both bar cards and baptismal certificates (or whatever the equivalent might be in other faiths), and who take seriously the commitments implied in both documents.  I think they include some pretty good lawyers and some pretty good believers. 

            A lawyer’s worldliness is not the death of faith.  It may be the death of arrogant faith, of xenophobic or tribalistic faith, of fundamentalistic faith.  Of course one’s faith cannot emerge from the encounter unchanged, any more than one’s approach to one’s profession can.  Each will evoke a critique of the other.  This is not a cause for dismay.  To use the contemporary phrase, it’s all good.  If you do it right and consistently, everything gets improved. 

            And so I say: See you in court.  And at church.