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Laws and Laws

I am now in the process of preparing a three service series using Brueggemann's categorisation of the Psalms, and this week it is the 'Psalms of Orientation' for which I am using Psalm 19 which encapsulates two of his 'certainties' or 'givens' - the natural order and Torah.  This got me thinking quite a lot about concepts of 'law' as used by scientists and as used by society. 

Scientific laws endeavour to express something that is 'given' about the way things in the natural world behave - we don't see an object fall under gravity and instantly mutter (for example) 'v squared equals u squared plus 2 a s' (let alone the ones that actually relate to gravity and I have long ago forgotten!), rather we accept this 'law' as a given, something that is dependable, reliable and unchanging, something that provides the stability and order needed for life.  Implicit in the logic of Psalm 19 seems to be something of this - it is the predictability of the 'heavenly bodies' that points beyond themselves to a God of order and stability.

Societal laws on the other hand often have a feeling of prohibition about them, and seem increasingly to be drawn up in response to something that has gone wrong - for example the recent laws on possession of knives or holding suspects without charge.  What I think that Brueggemann is saying is that Torah is not this kind of negative law, based on prohibition, but actually something a bit more akin to the laws of science which can almost be deduced from the order and stability that result.  Rather then constraining behaviour, Torah is liberating and enriching - Psalm 19 speaks of it bringing joy to the heart, revival to the soul, light to the eyes.  This is far from an 'anything goes' view, for that would be disordered, but it offers a more positive alternative to the legalism that Jesus criticised in the religious people of his day and that, sadly, characterises so much of church life today. 

If the essence of Torah is as much a 'given' as the fact that night follows day, and if the lives of Christians could reflect this, then I guess we'd be approaching utopia.  Life of course is never so simple, and this is where the psalms of disorientation and reorientation come into play.  What I think is a reasonable deduction though, is that both the created order and the Torah point us to a God who is dependable, reliable and consistent rather than one who is capricious and variable.  Such 'givens' are things that we tend not to think about, but they are the essential backdrop against which our lives take place.  Just as I can expect cows to moo, grass to be green and the sun to rise, so I can expect God to be.

I have no idea what my good people will make of my thoughts but it has been helpful for me to revisit my understanding of 'law' in a way that moves beyond mandates and prohibitions to means of order and stability.

Brueggemann speaks of the 'canopy of certainty', Africans apparently have a metaphor of God (or maybe of faith) as an umbrella.  Some concept of a secure, dependable 'domain' (in its scientific/mathematical meaning) seems to be consistent with these ideas.


  • Hope your series on psalms is fruitful, Catriona. I found Brueggemann's categories of orientation and disorientation extremely helpful as a counterpoint to the more traditional categories of Psalms of lament and praise (corporate and individual).

    I struggled more to identify which Psalms clearly demonstrated a new orientation (unless it was those where the psalmist moved from one state to another - usually as a result of giving voice to lamentation). The other thing I struggled to get to grips with was that the resulting new orientation may have been cheerfully wishing to beat your enemies' children's heads against rocks. We can take the most uncensored thoughts to God in prayer, it's true, but I would hope for a different sort of reorientation. Maybe life isn't like that...

    I'll be off-line for a while as a result of moving. But I'll follow this thread with interest.

  • Hi Andy,
    Yes I think you're right, like any categorisation it has its limits, and I think that some of the psalms, probably combine all three phases (bringing them in to line with some of the other schemes I've seen). I guess we need the psalms re-cast like a traditional hymnal and arranged thematically but with that extra little index at the back which offers some cross-referencing.

    Either that or we could emulate SOF or MP and list them alphabetically (according to the NIV, of course!) with a nice thematic index at the back, having subsection titles like 'B3 Prayers for Smiting Foes' ;-)

    This week we are using Psalm 137 as an example of a communal lament/song of disorientation - and noting the incitement to violence at the end of it. Although I don't intend to spend much time on the verse concerned, I will be noting that whilst it's alright to vent the corporate spleen, life shows us what can result when such prayers find their enactment and the need to differentiate between letting off steam and seeking revenge. I will be suggesting that we cannot expect God to answer inthe affirmative prayers that are not consistent with order, justice, mercy and love (and carefully avoiding why some we think are in that vein don't seem to get an affirmative either!).

    Hope the move goes well - and be ready with your own songs of disorientation when you can't find your kettle!!!

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