The Duty of Culture

"The duty of culture" is not the usual translation of Romans 8:4, τὸ δικαίωμα τοῦ νόμου. Usually we get something like "the just decree of the law." Which follows naturally from the notion that νόμος is properly translated as "law" in the first place, which I've already disavowed. Law makes decrees, which may be judged just, dictating the context of δίκαιος and δικαίωμα. But if νόμος is not law, but custom, and a means of describing the normative way of life of a culture, it has nothing necessarily to do with decrees and judgment.

As an OT friend of mine is arguing with respect to Amos and the oracle against Israel, when we realize that the juridical context is far from the only possible one, and pay attention to the real context of this piece of text itself, suddenly the picture of justice changes. In point of fact, the juridical context is only a very small subset of the demands of justice in a culture. Law is never the basis of culture. It is instead the systematic codification of general ethics. It is the bureaucratic institution to which a culture delegates the majority burden of its consideration of moral duties and their conflicts. In other words, law is merely an artifact of culture. (Corollary: there is no "natural" law, only laws based on cultured understandings of the world.) And so, if we wish to think properly about justice in terms of the nature of decrees of the law, we have to be able to descend to the foundations, and speak first of justice in terms of the duties of a culture.

What happens if we read Paul talking about culture rather than law?

Let's start again with the translation of Romans 8:1-4 that raises the issue:
From this we may know that there is no judgment against those who are in Christ Jesus, for the culture of the spirit of life has released you, in Christ Jesus, from the culture of failure and death. Indeed, God sent his own son in the likeness of fallible flesh, and in the matter of failure judged against failure in the flesh—the impotence of culture, the root of its habitual weakness because of the flesh—so that the duty of culture should be fulfilled among us, who do not comport ourselves according to the flesh, but according to the spirit.
As with all of my translations, there are idiosyncrasies here. (If you don't care, skip this paragraph.) I've already mentioned that "culture" stands in place of the usual "law," and why. For similar reasons, "failure" stands in place of the usual "sin," and "fallible" in place of "sinful." It simply gets closer to the root of the word in its cultural setting. (Plus, it avoids implying that the flesh is necessarily sinful, since here it is only prone to failure, which is the point in Romans 7 also.) And the biggest idiosyncrasy here is syntactical, and it's the best I've been able to do to date in rendering the syntax of verse 3. Paul fronts two phrases which do not in any natural way belong to his sentence: the noun phrase τὸ ἀδύνατον τοῦ νόμου, here "the impotence of culture," and the prepositionally dependent clause ἐν ᾧ ἠσθένει διὰ τῆς σαρκός, more naturally "in which it was habitually weak because of the flesh." The first is an object-accusative phrase, and the second is obviously meant to further describe something. They go together, or they wouldn't both be fronted in sequence like this. But the rest of the verse has a high degree of syntactic integrity already: "God sent his own son in the likeness of fallible flesh, and in the matter of failure judged against failure in the flesh." Verse 4 follows this with a purpose clause, and so continues the sentence, but the clause break gives us an opening, such that our pair of odd phrases belongs between them, as what we would call an appositive in English. This has the advantage of also lining up the prepositional datives, and dashes give the sense of interruptive emphasis that belongs to such blatant fronting in Greek.

So: as mentioned yesterday, if Romans 5-8 is about sin, it is also about the role of culture. And Paul is trying very hard from the beginning of the obvious diatribe in chapter 3 to make clear that culture (in particular the Judean culture of Torah) is not an unmitigated, all-purpose good, but it is still a good! The Judean culture of Torah is of value, not over against other cultures, but as a path before God. Nor is it the only path before God, nor is it the only path before God that God respects in judgment. But all are guilty, and all are accountable to God, and no culture is capable of making one just and right in God's sight. Only πίστις, only the relationship of trust in God, constitutes justice; this is the principal duty before God, and stands in no direct relationship to the deeds and practices of any culture. Or is God merely our national god, and not the god of any other people?

But the duty of trust does not void culture. Rather, it establishes it. Romans 3:31 echoes the command to Abraham in Genesis 17, the fulfillment of the promise of Genesis 15—both of which Paul will go on to cite—and the nature of covenant itself, by reminding the audience of this fact. "Walk before me and be blameless" isn't a conditional sentence. It is not, "If you walk before me, in thus and such a way, I will account you blameless." The mutual accounting of justice between Abraham and God has already happened, and happens again in every re-establishing of the relationship of trust. What remains is to live in a manner that recognizes the fact. And circumcision, and sabbath-keeping, and kashrut, and all of the key cultural elements of halakha that make for a Judean walk before God, are only truly important to the extent that they condition a life of trust in God by constant reference to that relationship as the heart of life.

Which is something we ought to keep in mind, when we're tempted to get too literal and textual in the particular forms of any divine command ethics. It is not the practices of the way of life, or the way of life itself, that relate the person and the community to God. The culture does not norm the relationship; the relationship norms the culture. Culture is the wholly optional element here, in its particular details.

What is culture good for, when it is good? The support of the virtue of relationship with God. And, also, the demonstration of vices insofar as they lead away from that relationship of trust. This is the nature of the Decalogue, and of Torah as a larger system. This is the duty of culture.

What happens, when human culture fails at this duty? What happens, when virtues and vices cease to be phenomena of the relationship of trust, working in a certain situation, and become things in themselves? What happens, when we keep the idea that the relationship is important, but subordinate it to the culture and ethos of a given situation? We stop trusting the spirit, and begin to trust in the flesh. And trust in the flesh can never be anything more than trust in the inevitability of failure and death—and occasionally taxes, of course.

In the flesh, there is no recourse to failure and death. We cannot appeal to nature to save us. Virtue and vice become a mockery of the futility of human power. It's like the endless video games that are so popular today: no matter how good you are, the only benefit you get is the ability to delay ultimate failure, the power to die later rather than sooner. You cannot become so good at your body that you can escape failure and death.

This is why Paul is not a Stoic, by the way. Even moderation, even the best pursuit of Aristotelian ἕξις, is no better in the Stoic path than the Epicurean path. There is nothing about seeking good and avoiding evil, any more than seeking pleasure and avoiding pain, that will ultimately evade failure and death. The goal is beyond the power of the flesh. When Paul speaks of "killing the practices of the body," he is not doing it for the sake of wisdom or the mind or the soul. It is not ascetic practice for the sake of your psychic life as opposed to your physical life. Paul makes no distinction between ψυχή and ζωή here, and in fact the "culture of the spirit of life" is ζωή, the life by which your body lives.

And, indeed, the spirit is the life of Jesus Christ, the life by which his body lives even though it was killed. It is the spirit of the one who raised Jesus Christ from the dead. It is truly the spirit of bodily life, the only means by which bodily life may be guaranteed. The spirit is not opposed to our bodily flesh, but our trust in bodily flesh is opposed to our trust in the spirit of God. It creates a culture of failure and death where God wills a culture of life. Our trust in bodily flesh creates a culture that fails at the essential duty of culture, because of the impotent weakness of the flesh toward life.

And so God becomes incarnate human being, the Father becoming truly father in the Son. Why? To condemn failure in bodily flesh, the impotence of culture, the means and cause of its perpetual weakness because of our flesh. To redeem us from the culture of the failure and death of our flesh, and to establish us in the culture of the spirit of life, which fulfills the duty of culture: to live in trusting relationship with God. Our bodily flesh is not evil, or even bad. It is worthy of life, and God gives and sustains that life. It is simply unworthy of our trust.

And when our trust is rightly placed, we have the ability to do things impossible to a culture attendant upon the flesh. We have no reason to evade suffering, as the moralists of failure and death do. We have no reason to see in suffering anything but the land through which the spirit carries us, suffering together with us as we suffer together with Christ, toward our inheritance. We have no reason to engage in practices that protect our flesh against others, that seek salvation by our own means. Instead, we have by our trust in God every reason to do justice for others first, because God does justice for us.

And we have no reason therefore to judge any culture, any way of life—especially not our own—as better than another on any basis but the sole duty of culture to trust in God. This is a duty to which God has seen, and to which God continues to see, in the dwelling of the spirit in creation. It is God, and God alone, who does justice, and human justice is only so in its predication upon trust in God and the life and work of the spirit in creation.


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