The Place of the Golden Rule in a Spirituality of Ethics
Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
A decade or so ago I took part in a discussion on morality in which I asserted that the Golden Rule was a sufficient standard for determining moral behavior. An interlocutor asked, “Is the Golden Rule really adequate?” I responded glibly that we had the assurance of Jesus to that effect. On further reflection I continue to believe in the sufficiency of the Golden Rule as at least a touchstone for moral discernment and at its best a call to moral action that stretches our capacity. In short, it represents a spiritual response to the call for an ethical life. In this paper I will examine salvation history and explore the Golden Rule in its context, origin and implications. In conclusion, I will examine the morality of judgment in the light of the spiritual system articulated.
The Nature of the Good: God, the Universe, and Everything
I begin this exploration by observing that the account of the Fall in Genesis is not history — certainly not natural history — but sacred story. Much theological thought, even in the post-Darwinian era, and even among non-Fundamentalist thinkers, has been hampered by neglect of this distinction. This does not mean that the story is to be discarded or disregarded; language, which is based on symbols, is essential to communication. The moment we move from things themselves to the names we give them we have stepped into a symbolic world; how much more with larger concepts for which no underlying “thing” can even be said to “exist.” We cannot escape the story, nor should we, as long as we are aware that it is to be used as story and not pressed into use as natural history. The “freedom from myth” agenda of some theologians is both doomed (as language itself partakes of symbolism) and to some extent pointless, rather like translating poetry into prose. Poetry bears truths that prose cannot articulate; but at the same time, to press the symbols into service as facts is to mistake their purpose and their meaning.
Natural science assures us, beyond reasonable doubt, that there was no age of perfection from which humans fell through sin. Rather than seeing the Genesis accounts in that way, it is more helpful to see the story of origin, as other theologians on closer reading have done,(1) as a kind of “upward” fall from innocence through knowledge: the place where the wages of sin and the cost of freedom merge. Seen in this light, there is a deep truth behind the sacred story (or rather stories) portrayed in Genesis, consistent with the truths revealed in natural history, and the two ways of knowing shed light upon each other, as I will demonstrate.
A summary of the argument
God (who is Self-Giving Love), begins that creation by allowing that-which-is-not-God to come-to-be. The culmination of that creativity is in God’s bringing to being creatures made in the image of God. In accomplishing this goal God was constrained by a limiting condition: God would not coerce beings into this likeness. Since God is loving and free, the creatures bearing God’s image would have to become capable of love and freedom. So God created a universe in which selfless love might arise, as it must, only from selfishness: only creatures that are self-interested, that become aware of that self-interest, and — through the life of God in the world, in the Incarnate Christ and the indwelling of the Spirit — become able to set that self-interest aside, have achieved the other-interested, self-giving love characteristic of God. They become children of God fashioned after the express image of God, Jesus Christ (Col 1.15). For God to create free creatures, the world needed to be placed under bondage to self-interest first. (Rom 8.21)
The Trinity as Basis for All Creation
Within God the Trinity-in-Unity, the One-who-is-Good (Mk 10.18, Lk 18.19), the intimate self-giving of the Persons to each other subsists in perfect unity without confusion: the Three are One and yet remain Three.
In the beginning, God created the universe of beings. This is the self-giving of the Father through the Son and in the Spirit. These created beings are good in their being (Gen 1.31) — that is, they need not do anything in order to be good. The creatures are sinless (unconscious of sin, void of will), and praise God simply in their being. (Ps 148.1-10) The moment these beings begin to act, they act with self-interest, although not conscious of self; this initial self-interest is entirely innocent and completely passive. The first creatures (energy and matter: Gen 1.3-10) endure and have identity solely because they possess two interrelated properties: identity, because the universe is not infinitely divisible but has a quantum structure; and endurance, because in accord with physical laws they cease to exist upon physical dissolution.(2) The principle of self-interest or perpetuation-of-self is solely physical at this point, coalescing in stars, planets and waters, and only governs the object itself: the physical self endures so long as it is recognizable as self, that is, as an entity. This principle governs the formation of simple objects, and more complex entities such as crystals. The survival of the physical self is determined solely in the relation of structure and material with the environment. Forms that are better suited to the conditions of their environment will survive longer under this principle.
In the second stage, entities evolve that not only form enduring structures, but are capable of replicating these structures. This is the beginning of what may be called, even in its simplest forms, life. In sacred account, this is represented by vegetation, the simplest form of life known to the Genesis author. (Gen 1.11) The primary law that governs evolutionary self-perpetuation through self-interest takes effect at this point: the living self endures in itself and in its generative and regenerative capacity to sustain and replicate itself. (Of course, replication produces not the self itself, but another self, another entity.) Living things survive because they are suited to and take advantage of the environment in which they live, and those better suited and better equipped to take advantage have a higher statistical opportunity to survive and reproduce. That they reproduce means that they can replace themselves over time with their progeny. With the emergence of life (and reproduction) comes death: a sacrifice in individual endurance more than compensated for by the capability of self-replication in progeny. Survival and evolution at this primitive stage is still driven entirely by external and environmental factors. There is no libido dominandi at this point (or at most a libido far below the level of intent; a drive without a driver, if you will), simply the tendency for living things to continue living and reproducing, those best adapted to the environment tending to dominate only in the statistical sense.
The third stage is the period of sensation, arising in some plants and the simplest animals, in which creatures begin to take active part in their own survival through the sensation of pleasure and (primarily) pain, though they would not be identified as such (there being no consciousness present to so identify them).(3) The sensing self operates on the basis of pleasure and pain to maximize its survival and the survival of itself-as-species. The sensing self reacts to the physical world automatically — no consciousness is posited: the higher plants turn towards the sun; the hydra’s tentacles withdraw at the touch of a needle. In the second half of the third stage animals with more developed nervous systems evolve, and complex behavior and instinct emerge, and with them the first intimations of consciousness. This period also marks the emergence of what physiologists call “the serpentine brain” — the neural structure comprising much of the brain in primitive organisms, but which has endured in the core of the human brain, in such processes as the limbic system. The conscious self operates on the basis of choices still largely determined by biological drives conditioned by pleasure and pain, now identified as such.
The fourth stage marks the dawn of consciousness-of-consciousness, or self-consciousness.(4) This is the point at which the self first becomes aware of itself-as-self, eventually leading to awareness of the other-as-other-self. It is also the point at which the human takes on the image of God, patterned after the Second Person of the Trinity, the logos who represents the capacity to discern self and other, to reason, and to love. The Latin term equivalent to logos, ratio, is helpful here, for a ratio requires at least two terms: in this case the self and the other.
But this is also the moment of open potential to the Fall. With the recognition of the great division between the self and the other, the pang of disunity comes to birth, and with it the awareness of the libido dominandi. To pick up the earlier analogy, a driver finally takes the driver’s seat. This is also the point of the arising of the divided mind, or the sense of duality (the mind driving the body: an image common to psychology and philosophy alike, and returned to again and again in imaginative literature and art.(5))
To return to the language of our sacred story, it is as if all of Genesis 2 and 3 are compacted into one moment, “the fruit with its seed in it” (Gen 1.11). First comes the human recognition of isolation (Gen 2.20), the optimism of union with the other (Gen 2.23), the sorry realization that inner self-interest is still alive in the serpentine brain (Gen 3.1), the tragic impossibility of seeking to become like God (who is Perfect Self-Giving, Perfect Love) at the prompting of self-interested motives (3.5-6), and the shame of exposed imperfection and separation, for which self-conscious nakedness is the powerful symbol (Gen 3.6-10). This is the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The self experiences for the first time the guilt and shame of the choice for self-interest, which is the root of sin falling from likeness to the perfectly self-giving God.(6)
It would be wrong to mark the drive to self-interest as inherently evil (in the popular sense of the word), however. Not only is it to some extent a necessary felix culpa, but, as I have shown, a necessity in the development of complex organisms capable of achieving freedom, and it is an integral part of God’s creation, and hence good. The Rabbis (Genesis Rabbah 9:7) believed that the human being had both a good and an evil inclination (the yetzer-ha-tov and the yetzer-ha-ra‘), both of which were declared “very good” by God (Gen 1.31). To explain how the “evil” inclination could be good, the Rabbis answer, “If it were not for this inclination, a man would neither build his house, marry a wife, father children, nor conduct business.” As we have seen, the inclination to self-interest has been behind the process of evolution prior to and leading to human life. But in spite of the positive outcomes of self-interest, the self (upon self-consciousness) also becomes tragically aware of the urge towards an asymptotic altruism and self-sacrifice, goals towards which it is called but which it can never achieve on its own, an inner awareness of what will eventually be recognized as “the divine likeness” (as humans begin to apprehend God’s self-revelation) combined with a realization of how far short the unredeemed self has fallen. The self-conscious self is no longer governed by purely physical or biological forces, but though incapable of escaping them, becomes responsible for its actions and aware of the discontinuity in itself.
Because of the heritage of evolution, the self-conscious self will always to some extent incline to choose for itself rather than the other, experiencing guilt and shame as a consequence, but incapable of fundamental alteration. At this point the concept of law as custodian or fence against abuse emerges (Gal 3.23). This law is not “natural” in the sense of describing how things happen (as the “law” of gravity); on the contrary, law is inherently unnatural for it points not to what is but to what should be. (Rom 7.9-10) The natural law of gravity governs the fall of objects; the natural law of self-interest — even as it guides the rise of more complex and ordered forms in concert with the pressure of the physical law of entropy leading to chaos — governs how far short falls the humanum from the divine image of perfect self-giving. These natural laws are, strictly speaking, non-moral in themselves. There is no “natural” moral law.
This principle was long ago recognized by Maimonides (The Eight Chapters, VI): there is no natural or “rational” moral law, though there may be generally accepted principles, which are cultural constructs or divine ordinances. All so-called law is given, whether by God or human reason, and hence is positive.(7) Two arguments against this view can be raised. First, Kant states that “self-love” cannot be a universal law, because a person in suffering might choose suicide on its basis, and if this were applied as a categorical imperative universally life would cease. (Groundwork, 53-54) This argument fails as a reductio ad absurdum which assumes a case in which all are suffering and choose escape through suicide. It also ignores that death is an ineluctable part of the functioning of the law of self-interest among living things, and that life evolves and develops through the means of selective death, in accord with the physical law of entropy.(8) Second, it is argued, on the basis of Rom 1.20, that Paul regarded the prohibition on idolatry as an exception, since nature teaches that there is a creator-God behind the visible world. However, knowing God does not necessarily render illicit the worship of lesser gods. That principle was established in the positive law given at Sinai, expanding upon what may be “naturally evident” — that God is one — by limiting worship to this One alone. The Rabbis generally held the prohibition on idols not to be natural, but to have been among those laws given to Noah, an event recorded in the Oral rather than the Written Torah. (Mekilta on Exod 19.2, Sifre Deut 40, Sanhedrin 56a) The Rabbis are firm in stating there can be no sin nor crime unless an explicit warning and prohibition has been given in advance, i.e., a positive law: “The Lord does not punish unless he has previously declared such-and-such an action to be an offense.” (Sanhedrin 56b)
The problem with law, and its failure in bringing about unity among people, and between people and God, has already been exhaustively explored by Paul in Romans and Galatians, and Jesus in his tirades at the “Pharisees,” and need not be discussed at length here. Paul and Jesus were well within their religious tradition. The idea of the heteronomous law as ultimately ineffective without inner and autonomous conversion lies at the core of Ezekiel’s image of hearts of stone and hearts of flesh, (Ezek 11.19-20) and Jeremiah’s “law written on the heart” (Jer 31.33). The Rabbis too looked to a day when even Torah would pass away: when Messiah would come. (Niddah 61.b, Avodah Zarah 9a), the written Word of God would be fulfilled in the Living Word of God. The law could be a custodian and a guide, but more than law would be needed to lead humanity from the serpentine coils of self-interest into the gracious light of self-giving. The law would always be a well to which one would have to return time and again after each fall and repentance; what was needed was a means of grace like a spring of water welling up from within, so that one might never thirst again. (Jn 4.13-14) The law could only supply a sacrificial system that involved daily repetition of the same rites (Heb 10.11), which could never do away with the fundamental discord that sounds through human history like a cipher on an organ. What was needed was an intervention that would alter the system “once and for all.” (Heb 7.27)
So the fifth stage is punctuated by the Incarnation/Crucifixion/Resurrection, the “Christ Event” that marks the central point in salvation history, empowering the Flesh-Restrained-By-Law to be reborn in the Spirit (Rom 7-8). From an eternal standpoint, which is to say, God’s standpoint, God only performs a single mighty act of self-giving which to us (in the world of time) appears as a sequence of acts. The act of kenosis which begins Creation finds its definitive exposition in the Incarnation and its telos in the Cross, the ultimate Self chooses (and chooses to become one with) the ultimate Other — the creaturely order, particularly in the human — and experiences death-to-self, which is the antithesis of all that the evolutionary process has been built upon. In the Incarnation/Crucifixion/Resurrection we behold the self-giving of the Son in obedience to the Father by the power of the Spirit, the hinge point of the universe, the At-One-ment where God’s self-giving in Christ opens the way for transformation of a universe that until this point has known only self-assertion, self-preservation, and self-interest. This is, to return to our sacred vocabulary, the flowering of the Tree of Life, the Cross of Glory, balancing the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. In the eschatological sign of celibacy (Mt 19.12) Jesus overcomes the natural law of biology (self-in-progeny) and in the sign of the Cross overturns the natural law of self-preservation by giving himself for the life of the world.
In the Resurrection/Ascension the selfish universe is offered a Way towards redemption, by incorporation of the human (as the universe’s organ of self-perception) into the Body of Christ; as the old patristic tag stated it, “God became human that humans might become divine.” Following quickly, with Pentecost comes the self-giving of the Spirit from the Father through the em-Bodied Son (the Church), and the Christ-conscious self is enabled to self-sacrifice through incorporation in Christ, and the charismatic indwelling of the Spirit. The Christ-conscious person has put on Christ (Rom 13.14) so that it is no longer the old self that lives, but Christ that lives within one. (Gal 2.20) By incorporation into Christ, the human creature enters the life of the Trinity, where each member becomes one as the Father and the Son are one in the Spirit, (Jn 17.20-21) without division and without confusion or duality. (Col 3.10-11; 1 Cor 15.28)
This first section has demonstrated that only self-interest could build the world of the flesh through EVOLution; and that only perfected other-interest could build the world of the Spirit through LOVE. The maxim of other-interest given by Christ is summed up in the Golden Rule, which I will examine in the next section of this essay.
Note 1. Charles Williams’ He Came Down From Heaven is one such eloquent examination of the “wound of knowledge,” the creation of “otherness” and the miracle of love as the source of healing. Note as well Bonhoeffer’s analysis of the cost of coming to the “knowledge of good and evil.”[^]
Note 2. An analogous “creation” at the human level is the Great Pyramid: it endures precisely because its design encourages its endurance — well-designed pyramids don’t fall down, and their shape is ideal for resisting wind erosion. The pyramid builders no doubt based their structures on the sand dunes whose identity and endurance served as a model. I note in passing that the identity of an entity does not (as in the case of a sand dune or an ocean wave — or a human being) reside in the material of which the entity consists at any one moment; but in the enduring interrelation of many changeable parts in an identifiable whole over time. One of the most valuable insights of process theology lies in this distinction.[^]
Note 3. It can be observed that for one period in the history of the world Jeremy Bentham was perfectly correct in his assessments.[^]
Note 4. It is impossible to determine exactly at what point the fourth stage is entered. While it has been traditional to limit this fourth stage to humanity, questions raised by science and as yet unanswered to universal satisfaction concern when “humanity” begins, and whether other advanced creatures are self-conscious as we are. At this point there is, as far as I know, no firm evidence of consciousness-of-consciousness among other animals, however intelligent they may appear. It is important to avoid anthropomorphism, and reading “altruism” where there may only be an instinct to preserve the species, as in the behavior of the lapwing which “sacrifices” itself to protect its nest. It is, however, incumbent upon us in our treatment of all animals that we at least accord the possibility they may feel and be aware of more than we know.[^]
Note 5. The twentieth century was notable for its contributions to the artistic analysis of the divided mind. A recent example is the film “Being John Malkovich.”[^]
Note 6. This notion departs from Bonhoeffer’s understanding of the primary separation recognized as between “man” and God; I view the primary separation leading to the sense of sin to be between the self and the other. I would suggest that self-consciousness emerges in human history before God-consciousness develops. The first humans could not conceive of God before they could conceive of themselves and their fellows-as-others. This is the one point at which the Genesis-myth does disservice to the actuality of human history: there was no Eden in which God and humanity enjoyed easy familiarity, and which the Tree of Knowledge undid. Consciousness of (and hope for and faith in) God as unity only comes out of the pain of disunity.
I am also attempting to steer clear of the “privation of being” language used in Thomistic theology, and adapted in some modern ontological-existential theologies (i.e.,Macquarrie). My focus is on God not as Being but as Love, Giver-of-Perfect-Gift (Jm 1.17), most especially God’s Triune Self poured out in creation, redemption, and sanctification. Moreover, my philosophical roots do not permit me to see “being” as a quality of which an entity can have more or less.[^]
Note 7. See also Rom 1.32, Acts 17:30-31 for the positive nature of so-called natural moral law.[^]
Note 8. The importance of extinction in natural selection, and selective cell death in embryonic development are well-attested examples of this seeming paradox at work.[^]