Reflections From Within the Cathedral
In the classic law review article, Property Rules, Liability Rules, and Inalienability: One View of the Cathedral, Guido Calabresi and A. Douglas Melamed ambitiously weave together diverse legal subject areas including Property, Contracts, Torts, and Criminal Law into a cohesive monolith worthy of beholding in all its majesty. Referencing Monet’s series of paintings of Rouen Cathedral, Calabresi and Melamed humbly acknowledge that their analysis is but a single perspective of the Law. Nevertheless, their very conflation of Law and the Cathedral is a proud premise indeed and deserves examination. To what extent is this metaphor appropriate, and what can it teach us about being followers of Christ and students of the Law immersed within the heart of the “Legal Cathedral?”
Early Gothic cathedrals were resplendent and awe-inspiring structures built as visual representations of God’s eternal glory. Similarly, the legal curriculum, with all its intricacies, is an awe-inspiring (and sometimes overwhelming) behemoth embodying centuries of society’s highest values. In medieval times, the illiterate masses would file into the Cathedral to admire illustrations of Biblical stories portrayed in stained glass windows, each one shedding light on the ornate structures within. So today, does the uninitiated 1L pore over colorfully highlighted stacks of judicial opinions, each case illuminating important facets of the Law. Under ideal conditions, with the pastoral support and effective sermonizing of an anointed (a.k.a. tenured) professor, the earnest law student — like the devout congregant — might even stand to learn some doctrine.
More than just grand edifices for spiritual education, however, cathedrals also serve to orient us. Physically, cathedrals have historically oriented the congregation to the rising sun in the East. Spiritually, they are intended to orient our hearts to God. Although built as places of devotion, cathedrals have never been constructed to be worshipped in and of themselves. Rather, they are designed to help channel our lowly veneration beyond their vaulted ceilings and into the heavens above.
If the Law then is a cathedral, one must ask, “To what — or rather, to whom — are we being oriented?” Scripture tells us that Jesus was not impressed by the Pharisees who intimately knew the Law, but who lost track of its orienting purpose. In fact, he condemned them strongly:
“Woe to you experts in the law, because you have taken away the key to knowledge. You yourselves have not entered, and you have hindered those who were entering.” (Luke 11:52 NIV)
So where exactly is the Law meant to lead us? The answer — much like for the Cathedral — is that the Law exists to orient us to Christ:
“Christ is the culmination of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.” (Romans 10:4 NIV)
In the Law we are called first to love the Lord our God and second to love our neighbors as ourselves:
“On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:40 NIV).
Therefore, if our study of the Law is not drawing us near to Christ, then something is deeply wrong. If it is not orienting us towards loving others, then we are misdirecting our devotion. We will have found ourselves worshipping the splendor of the Cathedral rather than the Lord for whom it was built. And to do so would be to misunderstand the Law entirely.
In the coming weeks, as law students around the country devote themselves to studying for their final exams, may we not neglect our duties to love God, to love our neighbors, and to love ourselves. It is only then that we will be able to truly comprehend the Cathedral of the Law and to honor God from within its walls.