By Andrew Mahon
As we reach the end of "Messiah" season, some concert-goers will find themselves perplexed by one line of text in Handel's masterpiece, where the alto and tenor sing "the strength of sin is the law." The libretto of "Messiah" by Charles Jennens is a profound compilation of biblical verses, worthy of study in its own right, and most attentive readers will have no problem formulating at least a superficial understanding of it on a first read-through. The "Messiah" is an oratorio, ostensibly about the life and significance of Jesus Christ (though it only mentions the name of Jesus once and in a movement that is, more often than not, cut from the performance), but many a listener and performer is left unable to make sense of this one line about the law being the strength of sin. But as I sat through my 50-somethingth "Messiah" performance the other night, I fancied that we might find some help in unpacking this from a contemporary, if controversial, personality in Dr. Jordan Peterson of the University of Toronto.
In Peterson's first podcast with notorious American atheist Sam Harris, the two intellectual heavyweights got stuck for two hours on an impassable disagreement on the concept of truth. Peterson, in that conversation and elsewhere, maintains that objective truth is a late-comer in human history, and that an older conception of truth is something perhaps more akin to Aristotelian virtue, considered as truth long before science was developed as an instrument to attain objective truth — this latter being the only kind of truth Harris allows for. And from a Darwinian perspective, this virtue-truth was evolved to promote health, maximize well being and ultimately to ensure survival. Peterson uses the example of an arrow that flies "straight and true." It made me think of the line from the Glen Miller song "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree": "Just remember that I've been true to nobody else but you. You must be true to me." In both of these cases, what is being described by the word "truth" is not factual truth but a beneficial way of functioning.
Peterson argues compellingly that humanity followed this kind of truth — that humanity lived a certain way that was beneficial to survival — before people ever had any understanding why they did so or why they should do so. The understanding came later, as a clarification and an explication of what they were already doing. That is, in fact, the only reason they accepted the explanations when they eventually did come — they saw that the explanations were true.
In another podcast, Evergreen State College Prof. Bret Weinstein, not without controversy himself, uses the example of filth in the Old Testament to illustrate this. The Jews had learned by experience that if they defecated in camp, it negatively affected their health and survival. This truth eventually became a written law. Thousands of years later, we understand the science of how microbes in feces can make people sick. But before the science and even before the law, the Israelites were already living according to this truth. Both the law and the science came later to explain the truth. As Peterson argues, the way people live comes before any understanding of why they ought to live that way. And he's right. People do, in fact, start by living a certain way long before they ever identify the rule they're following or think of explaining why they're following it.
In his biblical lectures, Peterson describes how Moses was asked routinely to judge various disputes among the Israelites. He would employ his wisdom to administer a just ruling and after doing this enough came to the realization that he was following certain rules that could be identified and written down. In this way, he received the revelation of the Ten Commandments, which were an identification and explanation of basic truths that he and the Israelites were already adhering to in trying to maintain a healthy, functioning society. The basic truth of morality or goodness or decency was built into the nature of things, waiting to be recognized. They knew it somehow, without fully understanding it. For Peterson, the rules come second — obeying them comes first. And this is recapitulated in the development of every child: A group of children can correctly play a game before any one of them can explain the rules.
While thinking about this during my "Messiah" performance the other night (I'm a singer so I was on stage, but after so many years of singing "Messiah," I do occasionally allow my mind to wander), I considered the parallel with the legal system, which Peterson has briefly touched upon. The beginnings of English Common Law, many centuries ago, took the form of a Moses using his wisdom and common sense to make an impartial judgment in a particular dispute. After a myriad of such decisions, the resulting legal system that we've inherited has, in the words of Dorothy Sayers, "no code and scarcely any statutes. It is all case law, an intricate cat's cradle of precedents. It appears to know nothing of right and wrong but only of rights and wrongs established by long custom and to base its authority on no general principle but only upon an endless series of improvisations."
Well, this has often troubled people, who "long to take dustpan and broom to it — clear out the old junk and reduce it to a spring-cleaned order." Following the American Revolution, the Founding Fathers thought something needed to be written down, and so the Constitution and the Bill of Rights became the foundation on which the Common Law in America would be built. In Canada, the same feeling resulted in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In Europe, Common Law in Britain is (for the moment) subservient to the European Charter of Fundamental Rights and European Union Law. But it's not as if human rights were non-existent before these documents and codified laws were written. On the contrary, these documents merely identified and explicated and clarified what was already practiced and adhered to (or at least what was expected). They attempted to enshrine the rights that people already knew (but didn't necessarily know they knew) they had. That is, they attempted to put in clear and specific terms an understanding of the way people were already attempting to live.
With each written legal document or codified system comes the danger that we lose sight of its role, which is to serve and accompany an older and more universal, more basic kind of truth, by instead treating the newly devised document or system as the fundamental source of that truth. Thus, we always hear Americans talking about the Constitution as if it's the source of rights (such as the right to bear arms, which everyone has an opinion on). In Canada, people now talk about Charter rights, forgetting that those rights were already enjoyed before Canada had the Charter. And in the United Kingdom (UK), many British people who voted to remain in the European Union (EU) are concerned that the UK will abandon the European Charter of Human Rights, not recognizing that British law already exists to protect those rights, without identifying them as such, by basing itself on the older truth, preserved in the Common Law system. This danger is evident and made worse by the fact that the lawmakers can get it wrong and what then? The people are stuck with it. (The further danger, now that society seems fallaciously to take as axiomatic that rights begin with written documents and laws, is that certain ideological groups will move to create laws to reflect rights which don't exist at all in the older universal truth and force people to behave in whatever way they decide. Fighting this agenda is what has made Peterson so famous.)
This danger existed for the earlier documents as much as it does for the modern ones, though Moses was certainly a far greater lawgiver that the Founding Fathers, the EU architects and the elder Trudeau government. The many laws and dietary restrictions in the Old Testament, for example, carried this danger. It became all too easy to point to the law itself, rather than on the positive truth that the law existed to clarify. The Incarnation of Christ was, in some sense, a restoration of that positive truth that had been obscured, ironically by the very laws which were created to make it easier to apprehend. The Jewish authorities rejected Jesus and handed him over to be crucified justifying this by the law, not recognizing or not being willing to recognize that Jesus was the embodiment of the very truth that the law was developed to serve.
And so the strength of sin, indeed, appears to be the law. Sin doesn't mean breaking the rule or breaking the commandments or breaking the law. The word sin means to miss the mark. And the mark is the same positive truth for which the laws, commandments and rules exist in the first place, the positive truth that is personified in Christ. But the people inevitably become confused and preoccupied by the rules and laws, which are then used as justification for doing what is contrary to the positive truth, for missing the mark, for sinning. Consider the U.S. justice system in particular, where lawyers do whatever they can to exploit the weaknesses of the codified rules, finding loopholes, obviating the need for any recourse to common sense and wisdom.
All well and good so far. But after my "Messiah" performance, I consulted my brother on this confusing bit of the "Messiah" libretto, and I learned to my irritation that I had gone too far in my attempt at explanation. According to the traditionally accepted interpretation, the line of Scripture means that the law under which the Jews lived facilitated a greater awareness of sin and its consequences, enabling the Israelites to avoid falling into sin or to face a prescribed punishment dependent on the infraction. Strength in this sense refers not to the power to sin or to justify sin, as I had thought, but to the power of the knowledge of sin and its consequences, expounded in law, to correct human behavior. And Christ came to cancel the law, to satisfy the law and to fulfill the law. Maybe I've sung the "Messiah" too many times, because now I'm as confused as everyone else who's ever struggled with this line.
But perhaps all of this can cohere. The law was created to spell out a positive truth, by giving an awareness of the violations of that truth and their consequences, thus giving the notion of sin a power over people to help them to behave well. But the truth could be obscured by that very law and can still by laws today, by providing sin with a legal justification. Christ somehow released us from the law altogether by personifying the Truth and bringing that truth into the world in a new way.
Whatever the advantages or pitfalls of the law in revealing or concealing truth, Peterson's understanding of truth is something along the lines of the way to live one's life. These three things are, in the end, inseparable: way, truth and life. And that brings me to another biblical quote, not found in Handel's oratorio, but which is, perhaps, the encapsulation of its entire meaning — the words of Jesus: "I am the way, the truth, and the life." In Christian theology, Jesus is the embodiment of the positive truth we are called to emulate. And so it's rather fitting that the perplexing line about the sin and the law and the single mention of the name Jesus in Handel's Messiah come together in the same quote, taken from St Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians: "The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God who giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ."