law school

When I began law school in 2008, both evangelicalism and law school attendance were on the rise in the United States. Though these trends generally got covered in different corners of the newspaper, I came to suspect a secret connection. A year or two at a fine American law school can leave the most hard-bitten among us longing for rebirth. St. Paul once wrote: “For I was alive without the law once: but when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died.” It will come as no surprise to even the most unbiblical law student that Paul was once an attorney himself. Law school can cramp, as stilted policy discussions and four-hour exams chock full of outlandish narratives of wrongdoing seem unequal to the pleasures and pain of being human. Who we are gets buried beneath what we do. Pressed upon by prescribed forms, the doubtful legal journeyman or woman longs to break on through, to speak in tongues, to be born again.

Thanks to Paul, law students can rely on a strong precedent should they have a change of heart. If my generation seems to have a particular passion for law school, that may disguise a deeper passion for conversion. Late-night dive-bar conversations with dissatisfied summer associates are never fully consigned to hopelessness. In the complaints of the soon-to-be-professional, there always remains a glimmer of expectancy: Perhaps I will be transformed. Perhaps the law is not the final form my life will take—it may only be the shaping flame. Such a wayfarer takes the bar and trusts in grace.

Betting on epiphany is an old American tradition. From the one-time minister Ralph Waldo Emerson, to the tortured academic Thomas Kelly, to the mercurial insurance man Wallace Stevens, some of our greatest voices have used the grayscale world of professionalism as the background for their kaleidoscopic experiments with the spirit. Yet there is something cartoonish about turning the black-letter law-book into a springboard toward the Ultimate.

William Stringfellow, a great American lawyer and theologian, offered plenty of ammunition to the spiritually-dissatisfied law student. Yet he also criticized the flight from reality that frequently accompanies frustration with legal drudgery. On the one hand, his descriptions of his alma mater were unrelenting: “Initiation into the legal profession, as it is played out at a place like the Harvard Law School, is … elaborately mythologized, asserts an aura of tradition, and retains a reputation for civility. All of these insinuate that this process is benign, though, both empirically and in principle, it is demonic.” On the other hand, as much as Stringfellow condemned the cult of success and power he found at law school, he was also unimpressed by quick-and-dirty spiritual evasions. “Contemporary spirituality,” he explained, could only offer cheap escape from the here-and-now, not an alternative response to the human complexity with which legal systems must struggle. Where both legal education and contemporary spirituality went wrong, in his mind, was their idolization of personal efficacy at the expense of the true effectiveness of the Word of God.

Stringfellow was a Rhode Islander, and true to that state’s noble birth, he lived his own religion. He was an early adopter of the civil rights revolution; in the late 1940s, he sat down with some black students at a lunch counter in as-yet-desegregated Maine. After graduating from Bates College on a scholarship, he studied in London and briefly joined the Army. Stringfellow often said that by the time he enrolled in Harvard Law School, he knew he would never have a profession, only a vocation: to live in accord with the Word.

Throughout his life, Stringfellow contrasted “legal” advocacy with “biblical” advocacy, and “contemporary” spirituality with “biblical” spirituality. Biblical advocacy and biblical spirituality were really one and the same thing—a form of politics that recognized God as the only legitimate actor on the world stage. This form of politics was anathema both to the law school of Stringfellow’s youth and the modern spiritualisms he saw gaining in popularity all around him, from yoga to televangelism. What both realms had in common was their commitment to personal prowess through self-discipline. Where the law student was most exacting, where the modern spiritualist was most dedicated to “self-denial,” Stringfellow saw only “a matter of self-indulgence, a vainglorious idea.”

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