illiI have a friend who likes to assert that the Golden Rule (do unto others as you would have them do unto you) is not unique to Christianity or to religion. He believes that the Golden Rule is a result of the evolutionary process and can be seen in nature. His conclusion is that the Golden doesn’t come from God or religion, but from the evolutionary process.
I don’t subscribe to that (obviously), but I haven’t really set out to test the hypothesis. I have done much thinking on the Golden Rule as the “second greatest commandment”, as Jesus called it. I have compared the Golden Rule that was invoked, encouraged and demonstrated by Jesus in his own life to the expressions of a golden-like rule in other religious traditions.
I am not shocked or surprised to find expressions of an ethic like the Golden Rule in all (or nearly all) world religions. Truth is truth, right? Shouldn’t we expect to find it or expressions of it wherever we look? We wouldn’t we expect to find some expression of the Golden Rule in nature too? If the world was created by God, shouldn’t the world exhibit the character of God that is expressed in the Golden Rule?
Ok, does anyone really think that the world expresses God’s love as summarized in the Golden Rule? I have heard many atheists say they don’t believe in God precisely because the world doesn’t exhibit God’s love. Christians, of course, find reasons for this reality expressed in the Scripture. I don’t intend to address them here, but I think the point is a good one: that the demonstration of the Golden Rule is difficult to find in nature.
In the end, we can see something of the Golden Rule in nature, but the demonstration of it leaves something to be desired. It doesn’t explain why the Golden Rule exists. It doesn’t prove the evolutionary paradigm, and it doesn’t negate the existence of a creator God in whose nature and character the Golden Rule finds its source.
When I was in college, the first class I took was World Religions. Though I graduated with an English Literature major, I also had enough credits to be a Religion major. I didn’t need the dual major. I only took the religion classes because they interested me.
I also became a believing Christian during my college years. It was a transition that took place between that World Religion class and the summer between Sophomore and Junior years. It’s a long story that I might tell in detail some time, but the point for now is that I did a lot of reading and thinking about these things in those years and in the decades since. It doesn’t make me a theologian, but I have more than a passing interest.
Early on I learned that the creation story and flood story in Genesis, among other things, have counterparts in other religions, including other religions in the same area of the world – the Ancient Near East. Phoenicians, Assyrians, Persians, and other people groups had similar myths that have been uncovered from that general time period.
Zoroastrianism, in particular, was said to share many attributes similar to the ancient Hebraic view of the world, including the idea a singular creator God, a dualistic cosmology of good and evil, the ultimate destruction of evil, judgment after death, etc. The scholarly understanding when I was in college was that Zoroastrianism may have predated Hebraic thought and influenced it.
It occurred to me at the time, not having any reason to doubt that speculation, that Abraham may have been particularly open to his encounter with God if, indeed, he had lived in an area of the world and in a time in which there was this kind of influence. It made some sense. He was the right guy in the right place with the right influences setting the table for an encounter with God, the Creator of the world.
Recently I did some research on Zoroastrianism. Wikipedia acknowledges that Zoroastrianism has “possible roots dating back to the second millennium BC”, though “recorded history” of Zoroastrianism only dates back to the 5th Century BC. (Wikipedia). Obviously, dating the roots of Zoroastrianism back to the second millennium BC is just conjecture if records of Zoroastrianism only date to the 5th Century BC.
If we date the accounts of Abraham and his descendants according the biblical chronology and references, that history goes far back into the second millennium BC, but a loose consensus of modern archaeologists and theologians reject that dating in favor of first millennium BC dating. (See Wikipedia, for example) Modern scholars don’t take the Bible at face value. In fact, they presumptively dismiss it for its face value.
Scholarly views are not universal on this issue, of course. Not by a long shot. Some notable evidence and analysis exists that the modern consensus is wrong about the timeline for the life of Moses, the Exodus and other things. (See for instance Patterns of Evidence: The Moses Controversy) The Patterns of Evidence conjecture is that historians and archaeologists who assume a particular timeline for certain events are not apt to see the evidence for those events if they occurred in a different timeline.
The Patterns of Evidence thesis is that evidence for the events described in the biblical narrative is there if we peer through the lens of the right timeline and look for them in the right time periods. Specifically, the biblical accounts of Moses, the Exodus and entry into the land of Canaan are apparent in the archaeological record and historical data on the biblical timeline (second millennium BC), not in the first millennium timeline applied by modern, skeptical scholars.
Certain archaeological finds, like the Ebla Tablets, also raise questions about the modern scholarly consensus. The importance of “looking” in the right places according to the right timelines is explored in Timing the Walls of Jericho.
Back to Abraham, though… he was reportedly from the area of Ur (southwest Iraq), which is quite a distance from the area of Canaan (later Judea) where he ended up – about 1600 miles in fact. In Ur, he may have come in contact with Zoroastrians and other influences. That intrigued me in college, and so I revisit that thought journey again today.
“Meaninglessness does not come from weariness with pain. Meaningless comes from weariness with pleasure…. No one is more fed up with life than one who has exhausted pleasure. Some of the loneliest people in the world are those who have lived indulgent lives and emotionally and physically drive themselves to impotence.”
This is a quotation from Ravi Zacharias in a talk he gave titled, the Problem of Pleasure. If you listen to Ravi Zacharias much, you will note that he returns to this theme often, and he often mentions Oscar Wilde, the famous Irish poet and playwright. He was a brilliant writer and thinker who was an outspoken atheist and lived a hedonistic lifestyle.
Wilde is described as “the supreme individualist”. The Picture of Dorian Gray, is described as a “novel of vice hidden beneath art” tinged with “self-conscious decadence”. The Importance of Being Earnest, commonly believed to be his best work written at the height of his career, is more subtle and nuanced, but continues the same theme, as do all of the works of Oscar Wilde. (See Wikipedia)
We know much of Wilde’s private life, ironically, from a much publicized court case that publicized his private life when Wilde sued the Marquess of Queensberry for libel. Queensberry was also an outspoken atheist. Queensberry’s son, Lord Alfred Douglas, was the person who introduced Wilde to “the Victorian underground of gay prostitution”. Queensberry’s defense was to prove his statements true by hiring private investigators to uncover the “salacious details of Wilde’s private life”. The trial that Wilde initiated left him bankrupt as the defense proved the truth of Queenberry’s statements.
Wilde, the “colourful agent provocateur in Victorian society”, spared himself no pleasure and wasn’t shy about his lifestyle. Like Solomon, though, he retained a sort of wisdom borne of experience. Having been baptized as a child, he often used biblical imagery and characters in his writing, though his use was, perhaps, sacrilegious. During a two year prison sentence for homosexual actions, he requested the Bible in multiple, languages, Dante’s Divine Comedy and other works with Christian themes. When he was released from prison, the Catholic Church turned down his request to spend six months at a monastery, and Wilde wept at the news.
As I sit here thinking of these things, I am also thinking of the unfolding story of a friend, a very enthusiastic and committed believer in God. He is a lover of the stage, a former Shakespearean performer. In that sense, he shares something in common with the playwright, Wilde. My friend is in the ICU as I write, having suffered a series of strokes that could leave him incommunicative and paralyzed. Even in his desperate physical situation, he and his family have experienced the presence of God sustaining them in faith. They exhibit a transcendent joy and peace even in the middle of the difficulties they face.
We are naturally attracted to pleasure and pull back from pain, but sometimes the pleasures we seek cause us pain. We tend to think that pleasure is good and pain is bad, if not in a moral sense, then certainly in an experiential sense. God gives us the ability to experience pleasure and pain. In that sense, God gives us both pleasure and pain. Neither one is intrinsically good or bad. CS Lewis implies this when he says that God whispers to us in our pleasures, but He shouts to us in our pain.
In a previous blog post, I observed that Scripture reveals a progression from law to relationship to faith. In Habakkuk, the prophet said, “The righteous will live by his faith.” (Hab. 2:4) This statement in Habakkuk is the second half of a verse that contrasts “the proud one” whose soul “is not upright to the righteous one who lives by faith. The implication is that the righteousness is linked to faith and is contrasted to pride.
We see this theme continued in the New Testament:
“The righteous shall live by faith.” (Romans 1:17)
“Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’” (Galatians 3:11)
“[M]y righteous one shall live by faith” (Hebrews 10:37)
And the reason that salvation is by faith (in the grace of God) is so that no one can boast.
“For it is by grace you have been saved through faith, and this not from yourselves; it is the gift of God, not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Eph. 2:9)
When Jesus summarized all the law and prophets in just two statements (love God and love your neighbor) he whisked us past the academic details of the law to the simple heart and spirit of the law. (Luke 10:25-27) If we think this simplification of the law makes it any easier on us, however, we should think again. At the same time Jesus simplified the expression of the law, Jesus upped the ante on us when he said that, if we even lust in our hearts, we have committed adultery. If we have even gotten angry in our hearts at our brother, we may have committed the sin of murder. (See Mathew 5:21-48)
Jesus made the law simpler and more difficult to follow at the same time!
Maybe this is because our ability to follow the law (to maintain God’s standard of morality) isn’t the key point. In fact, the point is our inability, in ourselves, to live up to God’s standard! Until we realize that we can’t measure up, we don’t measure up, we are depending on ourselves and our own efforts to “be right with God”. But we never can. Whether it’s 613 laws or just two principles, we fall short.
Our focus shouldn’t be on the laws and other people. On this horizontal level, we compare ourselves to others, and we judge ourselves and others in comparison. This is where pride and self-righteousness dwell, and the focus is, ultimately, on ourselves. Rather our focus should be vertical, on God and our relationship to him.
The charge that Christians are hypocrites is a common one. Many people cite the hypocrisy of Christians as a reason they don’t go to church or consider themselves Christian. According to Webster, a hypocrite is “a person who puts on a false appearance of virtue or religion” or “a person who acts in contradiction to his or her stated beliefs or feelings”. As a Christian, I take this charge seriously, and so I feel compelled to address it.
In this world of fake news, we seem to be on hyper alert to what is fake. If Christians claim to be virtuous or religious, but they act like everyone else, most people would consider them “fake”. If Christians have ascribed to certain standards of morality and conduct, but don’t live up to those standards themselves, most people would call them hypocrites.
As I survey the Christians that I know and have known in my life, I find myself having to concede that Christians are guilty as charged. In fact, I need look no further than myself to come to that conclusion. I fail in my life on a regular basis to live up to the standards I believe in, though I recoil at the thought of putting up a false front about it.
Still, the answer is clear and obvious: Christians are hypocrites.
We are religious. It isn’t a pretense, for most of us. We try to be virtuous. That usually isn’t a pretense either, but we fail to live up to the standards we hold out. There can be no doubt of that.
Calling Christians hypocrites is like shooting fish in a barrel. It’s that easy. You literally can’t miss.
But, that isn’t the end of the story. Not by a long shot. It’s only the beginning.