Monday, July 6, 2015

Maintaining standards

Much of the dissatisfaction and insecurity of the average man today is caused by what we perceive as the failure to keep to our standards. I know it is for me. My personal gripe is not about ecological recklessness, economic or social injustice, or ‘sliding scale morality’ taking hold of us, but about the complete breakdown of public education in America, which I believe is the root of the other problems. I am not going to entertain my personal gripe, but examine the one currently at the top of the country’s list—sliding scale morality.

What I mean by this, is the collapse of what used to be called ‘normal’ (we are constantly told, there is no ‘normal’), but worse yet, the complete abandonment of moral absolutes. Signal events characterizing this trend are, for example, the battles over images of ‘The Ten Commandments’ being set up in public buildings, and the ‘marriage equality’ conflict recently (and perhaps temporarily) decided by the United States Supreme Court. Earlier signposts were similar rulings that seemed to overturn former moral absolutes, Roe versus Wade, opening the door to legal abortion.

Ask anyone, and though the lists may differ in details, almost everyone feels that standards are not being maintained. Even those who wholeheartedly deny the existence of moral absolutes, believing in relativity of customs and morals, if they are honest, will admit that they feel some standards are being let slip or let go. They may be atheists or just believe in a God who couldn’t be bothered with so insignificant a matter as human welfare. They may believe ‘right and wrong’ are merely functions of our ‘herd mentality’ or instinct. Still, most believe in maintaining standards.

As a Christian, I believe in the law of God. By this, I mean that I accept it as fact that the Divine Nature has a definite personality, will, and plan. The plan is evident in the very structure of the physical universe. The will is perhaps less evident, but still reveals itself in the flow of human history. As for the personality, well, that I am a person and am sitting here thinking and writing is enough proof for me. The God I believe in makes things just like Himself, just on a different scale. As a consequence, I believe that the law of God is a function of His personality, will, and plan, and not of anything else.

Yes, there are human laws. Of course, there have to be. Made in the image of God, man imitates Him even when we don’t intend to. God is a lawgiver and so are we. That’s why there are six hundred twenty three mitzvot (commandments) in the Torah (the law of Moses). The famous Ten Commandments are at the core of these, but I don’t think that all of our man-made laws, even when attributed to the God of the Bible, are necessitated by These. To me, the Ten Commandments represent the irretractable moral law. They are universal and inalienable, not because they were written by God’s finger on the stone tablets, but because they are inscribed on every human heart, what we call our ‘conscience.’

Even the conscience, however, is overlaid, sometimes displaced by, the man-made laws and customs, many of which are counter to the Ten Commandments, but it is still there, waiting to be discovered, or to be freed. Human society, when it holds the Ten Commandments as a moral absolute, can still subvert them out of accidental or intentional legislation, and when it does, will find itself in exactly the dilemma we now are in. Hence, our dissatisfactions and insecurities, even when we do not want to admit it.

The Ten Commandments. I say they’re valid because they’re ‘written on the heart.’ Others will say because ‘they’re in the Bible.’ Either way, their substance simply cannot be ignored without consequences. Some of them cannot be enforced by human legal systems because they are too deep, though societies have tried, without success.

The first, ‘I am the Lord thy God. Thou shalt have no other gods before me,’ seems to impose the strict, dogmatic monotheism of the Semitic peoples on everyone else. I think that it is deeper. It is the call that all humans hear echoing inside their inner silence, in the ‘monotheism’ of their own personality, what motivated the poet Walt Whitman to write his ‘Song of Myself’. No state or church can enforce this, and it needs no enforcement. It is vital. It is the ground of human personality and the key to understanding it.

The second, ‘Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image,’ seems to be a corollary of the first, and I believe it is. You cannot follow the first without following the second. Yes, historically, it has been used to prohibit man-made representations of ‘God’ in the round and even in the flat, and just as historically been beaten back by human nature itself which, like the living God, still wants ‘face to look upon Face.’ This leads me to believe that misrepresentation, even substitution, of the Being by anything not intrinsic to Him, is the moral imperative of the second commandment, again, unenforceable.

The third, ‘Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain,’ though seeming to have nothing really to do with anything at all in the modern world view, is still, in my opinion, an ineradicable moral value. Yes, I cringe when I hear anyone joining the Name of Jesus in a curse as much as a Jew is scandalized by one articulating the syllables of the Tetragrammaton YHVH. But this commandment is as much a prohibition of taking your neighbor’s name in vain, that is, disrespecting his or her personhood, hence a universal transcending religious borders.

The fourth, ‘Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy,’ like the first, seems to have nothing to do with anyone except the Jews to whom it was first given, but the speed with which a ‘day of rest’ has conquered the world seems to testify that this, too, is a moral imperative that cannot be denied. Yet, as with the other Commandments, we try to bend this one to our uses, even though ‘deep down’ we know we shouldn’t. Shopping on Sunday, or working for pay, still feels strange for many people who live in countries where once all activities except ‘church’ were banned on that day. Though we have legislated the ‘weekend’ and do whatever we please, the pattern of human life is regulated by a seventh day ‘rest,’ which we find ourselves taking, out of expediency, any day of the week, proof again of its inviolability.

With the fifth, ‘Honour thy father and thy mother,’ we transition out of commandments many think merely formal and ceremonial, into those which most consider moral and enforceable. This is also the only one of the Ten Commandments which has a blessing, or reward, attached to it, ‘that thy days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee.’ Bridging the ceremonial and the moral, this becomes the proof text for many human laws relating to our obligations to authority, again a universal nonetheless. When we dishonor, or even kill off, our roots, what can we expect but that we should wither and die?

If the fifth commandment can still be regarded as a ceremonial, and unenforceable, standard, the following five cannot. We know instinctively that they are true and with the necessary energy try either to enforce them or to find our way around them, depending on our purposes. It is on these five that all man-made legal systems are built, even when the foundations are so overlaid and ‘remodeled’ that they are unrecognizable. Even moralities and legal systems completely unrelated to the Ten Commandments have these five at their core. How is this possible? Again, not on stone, but on the human heart, are they indelibly inscribed.

‘Thou shalt not kill… Thou shalt not commit adultery… Thou shalt not steal… Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor… Thou shalt not covet.’ That homicide, infidelity, theft, dishonesty, and greed are prohibited should surprise no one. In no country or culture anywhere on earth, knowing the Ten Commandments and the God of Abraham or not, are any one or all of these five held up as an ideal to be achieved—except in the modern world. There may have been human societies in the past in which some of these were considered virtuous and deserving of praise, but they have been known aberrations. In the modern world, however, legal systems seem to be designed to actually protect the breakers of these five commandments from any punishment, again proof of their validity.

The collapse of moral absolutes under the weight of our man-made legislation should hardly be a surprise to anyone, but the way back seems to be undiscoverable, because everyone has his own idea now of what is moral and what immoral, and I am no different. I may believe that only the Ten Commandments are really from God and everything else just man-made expedients. Whether I am right or wrong about this, the world struggles on, either maintaining standards, or dismantling them. Meanwhile, daily life under the watchful eye of Divine Providence continues, and even in the briefest moments allowed us, we can make a difference by doing what deep down we know is right.

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