Toward A Reasoned Defense of the Peculiarly Christian Law Student
By Michael P. Schutt, Institute for Christian Legal Studies
A Dallas pastor recently told me he had never met a group as apologetic about their jobs as Christian lawyers. "Every time one gets up to speak to a Christian group, he apologizes for being a lawyer or makes a derogatory joke about being there." When we talk about apologetics in law, this is not the example we need! The pastor's insight, however, certainly exposes the absence of any effective apologetic-a reasoned defense-of the life and work of the Christian lawyer.
Unfortunately, Christian law students are no different. They are not confident in their ability to live a life of faithful witness in the law, and they are no more capable of articulating a defense of such a life than the lawyers described by the pastor. Christian law students need a well-articulated apologetic now-while in law school-if they are to have confidence in their calling to serve Christ in the profession.
A reasoned defense of the particular calling of the Christian law student is indeed possible. Of course, much depends upon what we mean by "Christian law student." The first epistle of Peter reminds us we are a chosen people, set apart by God's mercy for Him.[i] The King James renders us "peculiar people," meaning those for God's own possession. A Christian law student, then, is set apart, different, peculiar. Being a peculiar law student must mean something more than simply carrying a Bible, desiring to "fight for our religious liberties," or seeking to empower the powerless and advocate for the poor. It should include all of those things, of course, but it is also more than that. A peculiar student is one possessed by God for His service, seeing every surrounding and circumstance through the light of God's truth. It means seeing law as a calling-vocation-to love one's neighbor, rather than as a summons to amoral gunslinging on behalf of various clients. Peculiar students seek Christian mission in an office practice, government service, or litigation. Peculiarly Christian students seek truth in the law, viewing tort rules, contract law, and the criminal system in light of the teachings of the church and the revealed Word of God. Peculiar students pursue Christ beyond mere propositions; they seek truth through stories, symbols, and relationships.
A majority of students I meet, however, are unconvinced it is possible in our society to be both an effective student and a peculiar student. They wonder, too, whether the pursuit of expressly Christian scholarship in the law is even necessary. These students raise important questions that are fundamental prerequisites to a peculiar Christian discipleship in the law. Put simply, their questions are "Why bother?" and "Is it right to do that in a pluralist society?"
The answer to the first question is that we ought to pursue truth, beauty, and goodness in the life of the law because we were created to do so. The answer to the second question must dispense with the myth of the secular society. These answers are a necessary foundation to any full-fledged defense of the life of faith in the law. They also provide a reasoned defense of both the necessity and the wisdom of developing and then embracing an explicitly Christian approach to the student's life in the law.
We Were Created To Pursue Truth, Beauty, and Goodness
A friend of mine who teaches law at a top-tier school was recently asked by a student why we spend class time discussing "policy" issues. In other words, why should students care about underlying principles? My friend replied that discussing policy helps us to understand the law better. More importantly, he also noted that caring about the reasons behind the law makes one a better person. It is as simple as that. This is a central question to our calling as students of the law: will we pursue truth and goodness in the law, embracing our highest calling as human beings created in the image of God, or will we reject that calling by considering truth and goodness as not worth pursuing?
Medieval theologians had a name for that rejection of our calling: acedia, one of the seven deadly sins. We translate it today as "sloth," but that doesn't even begin to capture its essence. Acedia, the Latin term from which sloth is eventually derived, means sluggishness or apathy, but in a particularly spiritual sense:
[Acedia] meant especially this: that the human being had given up on the very responsibility that comes with his dignity: that he does not want to be what God wants him to be, and that means that he does not want to be what he really, and in the ultimate sense, is.[ii]
Aquinas called acedia "sorrow about spiritual good,"[iii] a sorrow in which we "look upon some worthwhile good as impossible to achieve."[iv] In other words, rather than embracing God's call to pursue "good" in all we do, we say simply "Nah. No thanks. It's not worth it." Acedia is the sin of failing to seek beauty, goodness, and truth as we were created to pursue them; it is the rejection of God's call on one's life. For law students, it's the refusal to engage the law with the mind of Christ.
We are all tempted to reject our calling, and it is indeed difficult to seek Biblical truth in our scholarship and practice, especially under the time demands of law school, but we must resist the lie that we are too busy for it to be worth our precious time. The deadly sin is to decide that truth in law is not worth seeking, that God does not call us to love our neighbors in our practice or to apply His word to what we do every day in our ordinary work.
The temptation to acedia also is great when law school assures us that there is no moral order to the universe, and that law cannot be called either "true" or "false." Yet law does make truth claims-about the nature of the human person, about punishment, even the nature of the law itself, for starters-and the substance of those claims matters. Of course, we may have trouble getting to the truth and sorting out our different presuppositions. But to cave in and announce that it is not worth the trouble-that is sin. That is acedia.
Myth of the Secular Society
I recently gave an address to a student group on this issue, in which I argued that there are true ways and false ways to study and practice law. A student approached me afterwards and noted that, while what I said was perhaps true in the abstract, she was concerned that Christian truth is inappropriate in the secular realm of law, especially because we might be perceived as forcing our religion onto others. After all, she said, "we live in a pluralistic society." She was essentially asking whether it is legitimate to develop a vision for life in the law in traditionally Christian terms.
She is not the first student to raise this concern in the face of a challenge to think Christianly about what we do as lawyers and law students. In fact, most law students I meet are skeptical of the wisdom of articulating approaches to law and legal institutions that rely on a "religious" understanding of the world. Most of these concerns are related to the belief that we live in a society that prizes pluralism and religious tolerance and, therefore, that anything that sounds intolerant or religious must be off-base in public discussion.
We are mistaken, however, if we believe that the existence of pluralism means that we live in a purely secular society, where religious neutrality reigns. As Lesslie Newbigin eloquently established in his 1989 classic, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society,[v] the idea of a secular society is a myth, and the pluralistic ideal is misunderstood. To begin with, one of the key elements in our supposedly secular society is the separation between the private and the public human being-"a concept of the human person which separates morals from public life." The very nature of society renders this impossible, argues Newbigin:
The way societies behave, and the policies they accept, will be a function of the commitments the members of society have, the values they cherish, and - ultimately-the beliefs they hold about the world and their place in it.[vi]
In short, all of our aims and policies-seemingly neutral positions of the culture-are based on deep-seated beliefs and values. Fundamental notions of the nature of the human person and its place in the universe, the nature of law, and the obligations of the state all flow from moral and religious convictions supposedly outside the competency of the secular society.
Consider, for example, the work of committed secularist Richard Posner, a prolific and eloquent legal theorist at the forefront of law and economic theory. In Law, Pragmatism, and Democracy, he begins by explaining that philosophical pragmatism is the best foundation for pragmatic legal theory, and he explains why he finds certain fundamental theses "most congenial" to his approach:
Since we are just clever animals, with intellectual capabilities oriented toward manipulating our local and physical environment, we cannot be optimistic about our ability to discover metaphysical entities, if there are any (which we cannot know), whether through philosophy or any other mode of inquiry. We cannot hope to know the [metaphysical] universe as it really is . . . . Renouncing the quest for metaphysical knowledge need not be cause for disappointment, however, because it means that . . . there is no deep mystery at the heart of existence. Or at least no deep mystery worth trying to dispel and thus worth troubling our minds about.[vii]
Judge Posner, in just these few sentences, makes religious pronouncements on the nature of the human person, the end and limits of human knowledge, and the value of seeking the mystery at the heart of existence. This is not "secular" legal theory, it is moral anthropology and theology. And this is just one portion of one paragraph of the introduction!
The fact that these "secular" points of view are rooted in fundamental beliefs and moral values is rarely articulated. Newbigin explains:
It is widely believed in our society that to introduce the name of God into the discussion of a public issue, or into an academic study, is to intrude a private opinion into a sphere which is governed by other criteria. These other criteria are not normally brought into the open for scrutiny.[viii]
This is certainly consistent with Dean Roger Cramton's famous claim, almost three decades ago, that the "prevailing religion" of the American law school classroom is almost never openly articulated, but simply lurks behind all that is said and done.[ix] Because this value system is taken for granted, it is difficult for the novice to detect its presence or address it.[x]
On that score we should be invigorated by Judge Posner's approach. It is refreshing to read, for a change, an honest articulation of the importance of moral anthropology, epistemology, and theology as a foundation for legal theory! What a strong testimony to the metaphysical nature of our inquiry into the true purpose of the law. What a great invitation to discuss the nature of the human person and our ability to grasp metaphysical problems and bring reason and faith to the law. What better example of the necessity of religious commitments to legal inquiry than Posner's own statements?
Moving toward an apologetic of the peculiarly Christian law student, then, starts with recognizing and then rejecting the secularizing impulse to privatize virtue and faith commitments.
To call men and women into discipleship of Jesus Christ is and must always be central in the life of the Church. But we must be clear about what discipleship will mean. It cannot mean that one accepts the lordship of Christ as governing personal and domestic life, and the life of the Church, while another sovereignty is acknowledged for the public life of society.[xi]
In rejecting the myth of the secular society, we emphatically reject the false compartmentalism between the public lawyer and the private person, and to do so, we must awake to the fact that we live not in a secular society without religious faith, but in a society that has faith in "gods that are not God."[xii]
Christian students who desire to think faithfully about their calling as followers of Christ in law school have a two-fold task before them. First, they must cheerfully affirm the responsibility to seek the true, the good, and the beautiful-even in the law!-that comes with being created in the image of God. Second, they must reject the myth of the secular society and embrace the challenge of a discipleship relationship with Christ. Tall orders. And this is only the beginning of the faithful walk of the Christian lawyer.
Michael Schutt is the director of the Institute for Christian Legal Studies, a cooperative ministry of the Christian Legal Society and Regent School of Law, where he is an associate professor. This article originally appeared in The Christian Lawyer (May 2006), pp. 18-20.
[i] I Peter 2:9 (ESV): "But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light."
[ii] Josef Pieper, Leisure the Basis of Culture 28 (Gerald Malsbary, trans., St. Augustine's Press 1998) (1948).
[iii] Peter Kreeft, Back to Virtue 153 (Ignatius 1992).
[iv] Summa Theologica II-II, 20, 4.
[v] Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Eerdmans 1989).
[vi] Id. at 218.
[vii] Richard A. Posner, Law, Pragmatism, and Democracy 4-5 (Harvard 2003) (footnotes omitted).
[viii] Newbigin, supra, at 217.
[ix] Roger Cramton, The Ordinary Religion of the Law School Classroom, 29 J. Leg. Ed. 247 (1978).
[x]Cramton found that the "essential ingredients" of the "unarticulated value system of legal education" include a "skeptical attitude toward generalizations; an instrumental approach to law and lawyering;" and "a faith that man, by the application of his reason and the use of democratic processes, can make the world a better place." Id. at 248.
[xi] Newbigin, supra, at 220.
[xii] Newbigin, supra, at 220