I never liked elevator speeches. I struggled with reducing my purpose in life or work to a rush of words that I could get out before reaching the figurative lobby. Now that I’m in law school, the task is a little easier. People generally have some sense of what it is to be a lawyer. But prior to this I was studying philosophy of religion at a divinity school. Fewer people have a clear sense of what that’s about. And these days, if I happen to divulge both of those pieces of my biography—law school and divinity school—I can often see the confusion work its way through their faces.
Often they’re wondering why a pastor, minister, or priest would become a lawyer. I explain that I, like most students at my school, went for a degree in religious studies, not ordination. Another reason for the dissonance seems to come from that old dichotomy between the sacred and the profane. Even as fewer people in our country identify with organized religion, there still seems to be some notion that those who take religion seriously at least have the courage of their convictions. Lawyers, on the other hand, are known for their moral promiscuity. Both generalizations need to be questioned. Still, when quickly explaining how I ended up at BC Law, I often try and fail to reconcile that perceived tension.
So I’m using this blog to break free from the limitations of an elevator speech and offer one explanation of how divinity school and law school go hand in hand. A warning up front: as an occupational hazard of divinity school education, I sometimes reason allegorically, and this will be one of those times.
In one of the Upanishads humans, demons, and gods come together to ask the supreme creator deity, Prajapati, for the fundamental truth of their moral duty. Prajapati responds to humanity first, uttering one syllable, “da.” Humanity hears this as “datta,” the vedic Sanskrit word for “give,” or “be generous.” Prajapati then turns to the demons and again utters the syllable, “da,” which the demons hear as “dayadhvam,” be compassionate. The supreme deity turns to the gods and says, “da,” which they hear as “damyata,” or control yourself. In Hindu religious ethics these three commands have often been taken together to mean that our basic ethical duty is threefold: be generous, be compassionate, and control yourself. But there is almost always more than one idea floating around in these metaphysical stories and what I find most interesting is the cautionary tale for anyone whose job or faith relies on interpreting language: the same syllable is uttered three times and each time it is heard in radically different ways.
Here’s another way of thinking about it, one that might feel a little closer to BC Law, both as a law school and as a Jesuit institution. In Pope Francis’ 2015 address to Congress, he compared the legislator’s work to Moses, whom he called the “lawgiver of the people of Israel.” He said that the figure of Moses “symbolizes the need of peoples to keep alive their sense of unity by means of just legislation…[and] leads us directly to God and thus to the transcendent dignity of the human being.” Just law, then, is intimately tied not only to civic unity but also to more transcendent ideas of human dignity. So Moses’ faithful transmission of God’s laws is hugely important to anyone who traces their religion back through that encounter on Mount Sinai (over half of the global population).
In the Jewish mystical tradition of Kabbalah, there are various accounts of that meeting that challenge the commonly held story that God passed down all five books of Moses. Some deny that God gave all ten commandments, claiming instead that it was just the first two: “I am the Lord your God, you shall have no other gods before me.” Then there’s an even more heterodox story that claims God didn’t give that first utterance, “I am the Lord your God” or say the first word in classical Hebrew, “anokhi,” or “I.” This version maintains that God spoke just the first letter of the first word, the Hebrew letter aleph. Generally, it’s safe to say that aleph is a silent letter but experts in Semitic languages will clarify that aleph is actually more like a glottal stop, or the sound of your vocal chords flexing and locking, blocking the flow of air. Sound made by blocking sound. The idea is that what was passed down at Mount Sinai, giving rise to the life and law of the Abrahamic religions, was the kernel of divine inspiration, an invitation to give human expression to something that defies form.
This story makes intuitive sense to me because I was raised and educated by Quakers, who worship by sitting together in silence and waiting for someone to feel the presence of God, stand, and speak. Quakers believe that everyone has direct access to divine truth but that doesn’t mean they believe every message is delivered directly from God. The messages I heard growing up in Quaker meetings for worship came from friends, neighbors, teachers, and family members, with all their humanity and fallibility on full display. On top of that, Quakers are minimalists when it comes to ritual, aniconic when it comes to symbolism, and cautious when it comes to rhetoric. You might not be surprised to hear that they aren’t always a lot of fun at parties. But all that religious austerity has helped to prevent them from mistaking the priest for the God. Quaker meetings for worship testify to the idea that divine and human authority intersect somewhere between silence and the flexing of vocal chords getting ready to speak. The words that come after the silence vary in fidelity to their source of inspiration.
I often return to this during class. We’re being trained to take language seriously, to understand that the choice and interpretation of a single word or phrase can make all the difference. While reading about disputes between wealthy uncles and entitled nephews in Contracts or between grouchy neighbors and careless toddlers in Torts, I’m aware that the consequences are relatively prosaic. But in practice, the outcome of a case can change a client’s life and some cases will alter our country’s trajectory. In less than three years, my classmates and I will be entrusted with both preserving the integrity of law and with bending it toward a still unrealized ideal of justice. My hope (possibly a leap of faith) is that those years spent studying the space between deities and prophets were also years spent cultivating the kind of simultaneously responsible and adventurous legal imagination necessary for this work.
Ian Ramsey-North is a first-year student and new Impact blogger. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.