New book by ANU Law scholar traces religious roots of law
Associate Professor Joshua Neoh

Associate Professor Joshua Neoh, Sub-Dean (International) at ANU College of Law and author of 'Law, Love and Freedom: From the Sacred to the Secular'.

Law is not just about a set of rules. Law is a value that is connected to a whole set of other values that together make up the good life.

How does one lead a life of law, love and freedom? It’s a question with deep roots in the Judeo-Christian tradition that Associate Professor Joshua Neoh aims to address in his new book, Law, Love and Freedom: From the Sacred to the Secular, published by Cambridge University Press.

Valuable to lawyers, philosophers, theologians and historians, the book is a must-read for anyone interested in law as a humanistic discipline. In this Q&A, Dr Neoh discusses how the book aims to elucidate the moral vision that underlies our modern legal order and trace our secular ideas to their theological origins.

What inspired you to write this book and explore the intersection of law, love and freedom?

In December 2011, I visited Ampleforth Abbey, a Catholic monastery in North Yorkshire. I was immediately captivated by the lives of the monks. The contrast between monks and hippies could not be starker. Monks left me awestruck, while hippies left me dumbfounded. So I started thinking about what makes the monastic life awesome. The answer, for me, lies in the way their form of life brings together the values of law, love and freedom. The story of monasticism that I tell in Chapter 4, which is the central narrative of the book, is my tribute to their form of life.

How do these three pillars support each other and allow us to “lead”, rather than just “live”, a good life?

One does not just live a life. One leads a life. Living a life could be done willy-nilly, while the leading a life requires a conscious effort. Leading a life requires giving it a certain direction and not just drifting hither and thither where the wind blows in the sea of values. Leading a life is the ordinary-language way of expressing the Socratic insight that an unexamined life is not worth living. Law, love and freedom are values that one has to choose, and in choosing, one commits oneself to those values. Monks exemplify this idea of choice and commitment. To the monks, freedom is not about being able to do what you want. On the contrary, freedom is to be found in obedience. The monks choose to lead a form of life that is defined by the monastic code, as an expression of love of God and neighbour. This form of life is sustained by the commitment of the monks.

What were some of the challenges in researching for the book?

Thinking, reading and writing are all solitary activities. They are part of the life of the mind. Thinking requires you talk to yourself. Reading requires you to imagine the author talking to you, and writing requires you to imagine you talking to others. It is all in your head. I enjoy the life of the mind, but there is the risk that one gets lost in one’s thoughts. Guarding against that risk is the greatest challenge in researching for the book, and in intellectual life generally.

What are the key lessons or insights you hope readers will gain from the book?

Law is not just about a set of rules. Law is a value that is connected to a whole set of other values that together make up the good life.

And finally, you explore Paul the Apostle and Martin Luther’s lives, as shaped by nomianism and antinomianism. How would they fare as lawyers?

They both love a good fight, so I am sure they would make excellent lawyers. Paul fought against what he perceived to be Jewish legalism, while Luther fought against what he perceived to be Catholic legalism. However, despite sometimes claiming to be anti-law, they are both very much lawyers at heart.

The Centre for International and Public Law (CIPL) will present a symposium for Law, Love and Freedom: From the Sacred to the Secular on Wednesday 19 February, 3.30-6pm. This will be followed by the book's official launch.

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