Systematic Theology: Ethics

The statutes and judgments given to Israel were a mark of their special wisdom and understanding: “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.” (Deuteronomy 4:6) Such wisdom and understanding are valuable to us not only for understanding the way things are but also for knowing how to live. The laws and statutes given by God are worth continual study and bring great reward: “O how I love thy law! It is my meditation all the day.” (Psalm 119:97)

The history of the world is punctuated with certain transformative events that have fundamentally altered its course. The most significant of such events was the mortal life of Jesus of Nazareth. At the completion of that event, with the Resurrection of Christ, everything changed. The most salient fact of human existence, our finite temporal horizon ending with death, was abolished. Another transformative event took place about one thousand years before that in the wilderness of Sinai, when Moses received the torah (תּוֹרָה) “instruction”, at the hand of the Lord. This too was a foundational event in the history of the world on which the legal, moral, and philosophical developments of the nations have turned in the centuries since. Moses himself witnessed to the people that this would be the case and called their attention to it in his great recitation in Deuteronomy: 

“Surely I have taught you statutes and judgments, just as the Lord my God commanded me, that you should act according to them in the land which you go to possess. Therefore be careful to observe them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples who will hear all these statutes, and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ For what great nation is there that has God so near to it, as the Lord our God is to us, for whatever reason we may call upon Him? And what great nation is there that has such statutes and righteous judgments as are in all this law which I set before you this day? (Deuteronomy 4:5-8, NKJV) 

The statutes and judgments distinguish Israel and make it noteworthy among the nations. “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.” Considering how many nations and peoples look to the Bible, to the statutes and judgments that the Lord gave to Israel, it seems to me that this has been dramatically fulfilled in the centuries following Sinai. 

I find the torah a joy to read: a rich source of inspiration for the mind and for the practical aspects of life, both theory and wisdom. I recently read a Psalm that seemed like a perfect response to the Lord’s divine instruction. 

“O how I love thy law! it is my meditation all the day.
Thou through thy commandments hast made me wiser than mine enemies: for they are ever with me.
I have more understanding than all my teachers: for thy testimonies are my meditation.
I understand more than the ancients, because I keep thy precepts.
I have refrained my feet from every evil way, that I might keep thy word.
I have not departed from thy judgments: for thou hast taught me.
How sweet are thy words unto my taste! yea, sweeter than honey to my mouth!
Through thy precepts I get understanding: therefore I hate every false way.”
(Psalm 119:97-104, KJV) 

What kind of person do you want to be? You could do a lot worse than aspire to wisdom and understanding. The Lord was pleased when Solomon asked to be blessed with “an understanding heart to judge” and to “discern between good and evil.” (1 Kings 3:9, NKJV) And the Lord said: “Because you have asked this thing, and have not asked long life for yourself, nor have asked riches for yourself, nor have asked the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern justice, behold, I have done according to your words; see, I have given you a wise and understanding heart.” (1 Kings 3:11-12, NKJV) These are aspirations of the highest good. No wonder then that law, torah, which gives wisdom and understanding, is sweet to the taste, “sweeter than honey”. 

Not all studying we do in life is a delight, even if it’s necessary or useful. Sometimes we have to study subjects that aren’t all that interesting to us and that can be quite a slog. But when you’re studying something that you really find interesting, that is delightful. I really enjoy studying the sciences, which I’m fortunate enough to be able to do in my professional and academic life, as well as for pleasure. And other people have other interests. But I happen think that torah, the instruction, laws and statutes given by God in the Bible has the potential to bring universal delight to everyone, if approached receptively. It can be the kind of thing that you can’t stop thinking about, such that, like the Psalmist, you meditate on it all day. 

I believe that this delight for the torah originates in our very natures. I like the way it’s put in the Catholic Catechism: 

“Endowed with ‘a spiritual and immortal’ soul, The human person is ‘the only creature on earth that God has willed for its own sake.’ From his conception, he is destined for eternal beatitude. The human person participates in the light and power of the divine Spirit. By his reason, he is capable of understanding the order of things established by the Creator. By free will, he is capable of directing himself toward his true good. He finds his perfection ‘in seeking and loving what is true and good.’ By virtue of his soul and his spiritual powers of intellect and will, man is endowed with freedom, an ‘outstanding manifestation of the divine image.’ By his reason, man recognizes the voice of God which urges him ‘to do what is good and avoid what is evil.’ Everyone is obliged to follow this law, which makes itself heard in conscience and is fulfilled in the love of God and of neighbor. Living a moral life bears witness to the dignity of the person.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1703-1706) 

I think that’s right. Our natural attraction to the good is integral to who we are. That attraction is often clouded by immoral practice but it can be purified and cultivated. As we learn and act according to the good we are developing to become the kinds of creatures that we are meant to be. The understanding and wisdom that comes from meditation on the laws and statutes given by God are the ends to which our reasoning capacities are directed. 

The Lord’s torah, instructions, statutes, and judgments include more than ethics but I will focus presently on the ethics given in scripture and tradition. The scriptural foundation for ethics is in the Ten Commandments given by God on Mount Sinai, written on tablets of stone. In what follows I’ll go through the Ten Commandments, out of order, starting with topics like murder and theft, and eventually circling in toward the core source of moral goodness in God. Some of the topics will be auxiliary to the ten commandments themselves, but are also important moral topics in Christian teaching. With many of the auxiliary topics I’ll take my lead from the 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church, which has an excellent section on Christian moral teaching in its Part Three, “Life in Christ”. That particular text is Catholic but most of the teachings in that section agree with general Christian moral teachings. 

Thou shalt kill 

Murder is probably the most obvious moral evil. No one wants to be murdered. None of us wants the people we love to be murdered. And pragmatically we can’t have a stable society without prohibiting murder. The theological basis for condemning murder is the divine image in which human beings are created: “For in the image of God He made man.” (Genesis 9:6, NKJV) 

Human beings are made in the image of God and, because of that, are intrinsically inviolable. This is more than just a pragmatic matter. Because this inviolability is intrinsic it goes beyond just the interest of social stability. There are many instances in history where social stability was actually the justification for the murder of minority populations. But that kind of justification is absolutely impermissible. Most such justifications would probably be mistaken anyway, but even if murder had, in a perverse way, some kind social benefit it would still be inexcusable. Human beings, all human beings, are intrinsically inviolable. 

This commandment also touches on related issues like warfare, suicide, euthanasia, abortion, and bodily integrity. 

Suicide, euthanasia, and abortion are all considered forms of murder in Christian moral teaching and are all wrong. The immorality of each relates to the inviolability of human beings and the premise that the person being murdered under suicide, euthanasia, or abortion is a full human person with an inviolable right to life that no one has the right to abrogate. Absolute inviolability means that people do not even have the right to murder themselves, as with suicide. In the case of abortion, although most people agree that a human fetus in its early stages of development is a human being, not everyone agrees that the fetus is a person with an inviolable right to life. The concept “person” here being a moral category. 

Are all human beings persons? Yes. That’s what it comes down to. And there can be no other criteria for moral inviolability, i.e. the right to life. Differences in intelligence, strength, physical appearance, ability, stage of development, contribution to society, whatever, don’t make a difference to this right. Similarly people who have been injured, incapacitated, or simply aged, are no less persons with inviolability than anyone else. People are not more or less worthy of life because of their contribution to the Gross Domestic Product. There are no mere “drains on society” who are dispensable. 

It is true that there are people who are wholly dependent on others for their survival and who do not “contribute” in tangible ways. But they are no less entitled to life than anyone else. It is perhaps instructive that the first murderer defiantly challenged God with the question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9) Yes, absolutely. I think the Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas got it right when he said that each person is infinitely responsible for everyone else. A similar idea is the line from Fyodor Dostoyevsky that, “We are all responsible for everyone else—but I am more responsible than all the others.” 

Thou shalt not steal 

Theft is another moral evil that is rather obvious. We value our possessions and we don’t want people to steal from us. We don’t want to live in conditions in which we are constantly worried that we will lose everything we own the minute we leave our homes. We also want to be able to make agreements with people with confidence that people will honor their agreements. These are basic and fairly obvious conditions for a functioning and ordered society. 

Along with stealing, the Catholic Catechism also lists the following as morally illicit: 

“Speculation in which one contrives to manipulate the price of goods artificially in order to gain an advantage to the detriment of others; corruption in which one influences the judgment of those who must make decisions according to law; appropriation and use for private purposes of the common goods of an enterprise; work poorly done; tax evasion; forgery of checks and invoices; excessive expenses and waste, willfully damaging private or public property” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2409). 

A related topic to the ownership of goods is the moral concern for the physical needs of the poor and vulnerable. The poor are not justified in stealing from the wealthy, but neither are the wealthy absolved of responsibility to look after the needs of the poor. This is abundantly clear in torah

“If there is among you a poor man of your brethren, within any of the gates in your land which the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart nor shut your hand from your poor brother, but you shall open your hand wide to him and willingly lend him sufficient for his need, whatever he needs. Beware lest there be a wicked thought in your heart, saying, ‘The seventh year, the year of release, is at hand,’ and your eye be evil against your poor brother and you give him nothing, and he cry out to the Lord against you, and it become sin among you. You shall surely give to him, and your heart should not be grieved when you give to him, because for this thing the Lord your God will bless you in all your works and in all to which you put your hand. For the poor will never cease from the land; therefore I command you, saying, ‘You shall open your hand wide to your brother, to your poor and your needy, in your land.’” (Deuteronomy 15:7-11, NKJV) 

This is more than a suggestion. This is an obligation commanded in the Law. When giving these kinds of commands the Lord often reminds Israel of her former enslavement, for example: “You shall neither mistreat a stranger nor oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 22:21, NKJV) The Bible has a strong sense of what we might today call social justice. It’s not only a perversion of justice to actively steal from someone but it’s also a perversion of justice to treat someone unreasonably or with excessive harshness, even if it doesn’t technically violate a contract. For example: 

“When you lend your brother anything, you shall not go into his house to get his pledge. You shall stand outside, and the man to whom you lend shall bring the pledge out to you. And if the man is poor, you shall not keep his pledge overnight. You shall in any case return the pledge to him again when the sun goes down, that he may sleep in his own garment and bless you; and it shall be righteousness to you before the Lord your God. You shall not oppress a hired servant who is poor and needy, whether one of your brethren or one of the aliens who is in your land within your gates. Each day you shall give him his wages, and not let the sun go down on it, for he is poor and has set his heart on it; lest he cry out against you to the Lord, and it be sin to you.” (Deuteronomy 24:10-15) 

When someone is in a position of power they should still respect the person in the position of less power. A person’s home is a personal space, even if you’re lending them money, or even own the home. Even in the case of collateral, where it’s part of a contract, don’t be unreasonable. Don’t deprive a person of their means to live in comfort and dignity. Continuing: 

“You shall not pervert justice due the stranger or the fatherless, nor take a widow’s garment as a pledge. But you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this thing.” (Deuteronomy 24:17-18) 

Interesting that it calls this a perversion of justice. But what if everyone had agreed to the arrangement beforehand? Isn’t everyone getting exactly what was agreed to? Isn’t that just? The Lord’s notion here of justice would seem to be more than “giving everyone their due”. This kind of justice calls on the wealthier to be more generous. Continuing: 

“When you reap your harvest in your field, and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be for the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat your olive trees, you shall not go over the boughs again; it shall be for the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, you shall not glean it afterward; it shall be for the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow. And you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I command you to do this thing.” (Deuteronomy 24:19-22, NKJV) 

This is really interesting. It’s your field. Don’t all the sheaves, olives, and grapes rightfully belong to you? Actually, no. It’s a fascinating concept of justice at work here. 

Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor 

Lying takes many forms. Bearing false witness against a person has to be one of the worst forms. Slander, libel, defamation – these are ugly and inexcusable actions. We ought not underestimate how important our reputations are to us. Unfortunately we cannot expect that we will always have the reputations we deserve. In fact we’ve been warned about the opposite, that disciples of Christ will have all manner of evil spoken against them falsely (Matthew 5:11). That will happen. But wo to the person who perpetrates these kinds of falsehoods. Bearing false witness can cause financial damage but I think the social damage is even worse. 

To love God is to love the truth. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6) and Psalmist said, “Your law is truth” (Psalm 119:142). The Catechism says: “Man tends by nature toward the truth. He is obliged to honor and bear witness to it: ‘It is in accordance with their dignity that all men, because they are persons . . . are both impelled by their nature and bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth. They are also bound to adhere to the truth once they come to know it and direct their whole lives in accordance with the demands of truth.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2467) Why again, when studying torah, this delight, “O how love I thy law! it is my meditation all the day”? Because it’s in our nature. We are impelled toward truth, we are bound, morally, to seek and adhere to truth. 

Truth isn’t merely propositional but also morally inflected. Aristotle said, “To say that that which is, is not, and that which is not, is, is a falsehood; therefore, to say that which is, is, and that which is not, is not, is true” (Aristotle, Metaphysics, 1011b26). Yes, for sure. But it’s also a moral principle. To say that that which is, is not, and that which is not, is, is wrong. It’s an offense against reality and against justice. 

Thou shalt not commit adultery 

Sex is either something we think too much about or not enough about. I’m reminded of Alain de Botton’s playful book title How to Think More About Sex. The title is playful because by “think” he doesn’t mean mere sexual fantasy but rather critical thinking. What part does sexuality play in the overall scheme of things? 

The Catechism states: “Chastity means the successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus the inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being. Sexuality, in which man’s belonging to the bodily and biological world is expressed, becomes personal and truly human when it is integrated into the relationship of one person to another, in the complete and lifelong mutual gift of a man and a woman. The virtue of chastity therefore involves the integrity of the person and the integrality of the gift.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2337) 

Something interesting to observe in this statement is that chastity and sexuality are not opposites. Rather chastity is sexuality directed toward its proper ends. What kind of beings are we? We are certainly members of the bodily and biological world. We are mortal. And we only persist as a species through sexual reproduction. Sexuality is the way in which belonging to the bodily and biological world is expressed. In a certain sense all of ethics concerns the successful integration of the multiple aspects of our being toward those ends for which we are created. And that’s what chastity is for sexuality. 

An important concept pertaining to chastity is “integrity”. The primary definition of “integrity” is general moral uprightness. But another definition of particular relevance here is of a state of being whole and undivided, having all parts integrated into a coherent unity. The Catechism states: “The chaste person maintains the integrity of the powers of life and love placed in him. This integrity ensures the unity of the person; it is opposed to any behavior that would impair it. It tolerates neither a double life nor duplicity in speech.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2338) This is an interesting concept that can certainly apply to other aspects of personhood in addition to sexuality. Continuing on: “Chastity includes an apprenticeship in self-mastery which is a training in human freedom. The alternative is clear: either man governs his passions and finds peace, or he lets himself be dominated by them and becomes unhappy.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2339) 

Underlying all of this is the sanctity of marriage. Jesus said: “Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate.” (Matthew 19:4-6) This union is a very serious matter. And hence the gravity of adultery. The union is designed by God for the unitive and procreative purpose. 

Marriage of male and female persons is what sexuality is for and is normative for it. Violations of chastity include adultery, rape, fornication, prostitution, lust, pornography, masturbation, and homosexuality. 

Rape especially is an extremely serious offense. It is not only a perversion of the divinely ordained purposes of sexuality but is also violent. It is also a uniquely horrific act of violence because it is sexual, and thus much more horrific even than a regular assault. Sexual assault is a more accutely personal and existential attack. And our appropriately intense and visceral response to it indicates how deeply sexuality is situated at the core of our being and identity. 

Thou shalt not covet 

The forbidding of covetousness is interesting because it pertains to thoughts rather than physical actions. Our moral character and virtue is defined by our mental actions. A succinct expression of this outlook is the proverb: “For as he thinks in his heart, so is he.” (Proverbs 23:7, NKJV) 

For example, the commandment says, “thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife” (Exodus 20:17, KJV). This goes beyond but also extends from the commandment against adultery. To be sure, it is wrong to commit adultery. But it is also wrong to desire another man’s wife. Chastity is not only physical but is also mental. A clear example of this is Jesus’s teaching: 

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell.” (Matthew 5:27-30, NKJV) 

The most extreme example of an offense of this kind is pornography where a person is actively seeking and leering at people lustfully. This is extremely destructive to a person’s soul. Modern communications enables us to access an unlimited number of images on a scale previously unimaginable. The commandment and teaching of Jesus condemns leering and lusting after even just one person as a very serious sin.

This kind of statute relating to mental actions is in tension with more modern moral ideas like the “harm principle” as promoted by the philosopher John Stuart Mill, where actions are only immoral if they cause harm to others. We find anything beyond this invasive. What goes on inside my head is no one else’s business. But the Lord’s torah is much more extensive than this and goes deeper into the state of one’s soul. 

Beyond sexuality we are also commanded to cultivate our thoughts in all our relations to others. “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house… nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor’s.” (Exodus 20:17, NKJV) Today we might say that we must not covet our neighbor’s job, our neighbor’s car, our neighbor’s investment portfolio, our neighbor’s social prestige, etc. Thinking like that is not a proper way to live. And if you think about it, it’s certainly a way to be miserable. There’s wisdom in the idea that comparison is the thief of joy. It’s no way to live with yourself or with others in fellowship. 

Honour thy father and thy mother 

The family plays a central part in God’s creation, starting with husband and wife, father and mother. God has joined husband and wife together (Matthew 19:4-6) and commanded them to “Be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28, NKJV). Father and mother are the divinely appointed leaders and teachers of their children. 

The Catechism states: “In creating man and woman, God instituted the human family and endowed it with its fundamental constitution. Its members are persons equal in dignity. For the common good of its members and of society, the family necessarily has manifold responsibilities, rights, and duties.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2203) 

The philosopher Roger Scruton distinguished between the kinds of rights and responsibilities created by agreement, as with a contract, and the kinds of rights and responsibilities that we have for reasons beyond anything we chose; what he calls “sacred obligations” (Scruton, On Human Nature, 113-117). Family responsibilities, rights, and duties are of this second type. Children do not choose to be born, nor to be born to the parents they’re born to. Nevertheless they have responsibilities of filial piety. And parents do not choose the character and personality of their children. We take then as they come. Another philosopher, Michael Sandel, has called this “openness to the unbidden” (Sandel, The Case Against Perfection). Parents are obligated to care for them and teach them, regardless of the unique and unforeseen challenges that come with each individual child. As Scruton puts it: “The field of obligation is wider than the field of choice. We are bound by ties that we never chose, and our world contains values and challenges that intrude from beyond the comfortable arena of our agreements.” (Scruton, 116) Nowhere is this more relevant than in family responsibilities. 

What do parents owe to their children? The Catechism states that parents must respect their children as human persons, educate their children, create a home “where tenderness, forgiveness, respect, fidelity, and disinterested service are the rule”, teach them “self-denial, sound judgment, and self-mastery”, initiate them into “solidarity and communal responsibilities”, teach them to “avoid the compromising and degrading influences which threaten human societies”, and teach them the gospel of Jesus Christ (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2221-2226). 

What do we owe to our parents? When we are children we owe them obedience and respect. The Catechism states, “Obedience toward parents ceases with the emancipation of the children; not so respect, which is always owed to them.” As adults we must, as much as we are able, “give them material and moral support in old age and in times of illness, loneliness, or distress.” 

Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy 

Labor is part of the human condition, something illustrated in Genesis with God’s words to Adam: 

“Cursed is the ground for your sake;
In toil you shall eat of it
All the days of your life.
Both thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you,
And you shall eat the herb of the field.
In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread
Till you return to the ground,
For out of it you were taken;
For dust you are,
And to dust you shall return.”
(Genesis 3:17-19, NKJV)

Nevertheless, we are ordained to more than endless toil. God has ordained that we should have periodic and regular rest. Rest is not just for a privileged elite. Everyone must have rest from labor on the Sabbath: 

“In it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates.” (Exodus 20:10) 

This includes laborers, service workers, migrants; everyone. This reprieve even extends to the animals that labor for us. As important as it is to rest from our own labors on the Sabbath it is just as important, maybe even more important to enable others to rest. As stated in the Catechism: 

“Those Christians who have leisure should be mindful of their brethren who have the same needs and the same rights, yet cannot rest from work because of poverty and misery… Sanctifying Sundays and holy days requires a common effort. Every Christian should avoid making unnecessary demands on others that would hinder them from observing the Lord’s Day.” 

This is a Sabbath perspective that ought to affect the way we view ourselves and others generally. Who am I beyond my labor and career? Who are other people to me beyond the benefit that I can get from them in the goods and services they provide me? 

Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain 

One of the important concepts in the Law given by God through Moses is that of holiness. Certain things are marked out as qadosh, radically separate and other from the ordinary. God is loving but his holiness also requires singular reverence. But his holiness doesn’t diminish his love and goodness. These attributes all cohere together as one in a way unique to God. An apt illustration of this is C.S Lewis’s description of Aslan, a type for Christ, in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

“‘Aslan is a lion- the Lion, the great Lion.’ ‘Ooh’ said Susan. ‘I’d thought he was a man. Is he-quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion’…’Safe?’ said Mr Beaver …’Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.’” 

I think the most powerful example of this principle in scripture comes in the episode after the people of Israel had fallen into idolatry and worshiped before the golden calf, an unimaginably grave offense before God. The Lord told Moses that he could not stay with them but would instead send an angel, a messenger, in his place. 

“Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Depart and go up from here, you and the people whom you have brought out of the land of Egypt, to the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying, ‘To your descendants I will give it.’ And I will send My Angel before you… for I will not go up in your midst, lest I consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people.’” (Exodus 33:1-3) 

The Lord is good but he is not safe. That’s why he was hesitant to journey with the people. He knew that his holiness was hazardous to the people in their wickedness. Still he did go up with them. And he did not desire that they be distant from him. Rather he instituted laws and statutes for them to be holy like him. 

“Now therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people; for all the earth is Mine. And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19:6) 

We should keep these things in mind when we speak of God and approach God with the proper reverence. 

The Catechism states: “Respect for his name is an expression of the respect owed to the mystery of God himself and to the whole sacred reality it evokes. the sense of the sacred is part of the virtue of religion” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2144). 

I am the LORD thy God 

We end now with the first commandment. I wanted to save this one for last because I think of this as the foundation for all of ethics. What is it that gives the laws and statutes their authority? “I am the LORD thy God” (Exodus 20:2). What follows that statement is absolutely authoritative, coming directly from the source of truth, goodness, beauty, and all that is. Nachmanides (1194 – 1270), also known as Ramban, said in his commentary on this verse: 

“He said, I am the Eternal, thus teaching and commanding them that they should know and believe that the Eternal exists and that He is G-d to them. That is to say, there exists an Eternal Being through Whom everything has come into existence by His will and power, and He is G-d to them, who are obligated to worship Him.” (Ramban on Exodus 20:2) 

The Lord also says, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:3) Which we can interpret either as having other gods in priority over the Lord or even simply in the presence of the Lord, even if in equal position. I think one possible way to summarize the whole of the Hebrew Scripture would be as Israel’s continual temptation with idolatry. 

The Catechism states: “Idolatry consists in divinizing what is not God. Man commits idolatry whenever he honors and reveres a creature in place of God, whether this be gods or demons (for example, satanism), power, pleasure, race, ancestors, the state, money, etc.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2113). 

This first commandment is foundational. It addresses the matter of where goodness itself comes from in the first place and it also precludes the possibility that there could be any other source. What else could be the source for goodness and ethical principles? Power? Pleasure? The state? Economic output? There are ethical systems with each of these as a philosophical or ideological foundation. And each has a compelling case that is, to a limited extent, intellectually satisfying. But I don’t think that any of them is ultimately intellectually satisfying, nor ultimately emotionally or spiritually satisfying. 

What should we expect and hope to receive from the law? In the end we want answers to the question, “how should I live?” Does it ultimately matter how I live? If it does matter how I live, why does it matter? On what basis? I think these questions are naturally related to the question of what kind of beings we are. What are we and why do we exist? What do we exist for? It all goes back to this first commandment: I am the LORD thy God. How we should act and what we should do ties back to our origin in God. 

Human beings are the tzelem elohim, the image of God. So to understand what kind of beings we are and how we can fulfill our nature we should look to God. What attributes are constitutive of our divine nature? Holiness, justice, loving-kindness, mercy, faithfulness, honor. We are also embodied, spiritual, mental, mortal, dependent, sexual, emotional, social, familial, and rational. All of these attributes have moral implications that are addressed in God’s laws and statutes. Our fulfillment requires spiritual practice, reverence for God, filial piety, responsibilities to family members, sexual discipline, concern for the physical needs of others, respect for the physical body and for life, and discipline of the mind. God’s laws and statutes set forth the foundational ethical principles for how to fulfill our nature as human beings and as image bearers of God’s nature.

Star Wars: Padmé and the Vote of No Confidence

Jeff and Todd discuss Padmé and her call for the vote of no confidence that launched Palpatine’s rise to the chancellorship and to absolute power. We look at her actions from different ethical perspectives – deontological, teleological, virtue – and at her complicated role in the narrative as both hero and pawn, as well as her dominant presence and importance in the arc of the whole saga.

“But Also For the Interests of Others”

In his letter to the Philippians Paul said: “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.” (Philippians 2:3-4)

“I gotta go home. What do I owe ya?”
“The real question, Eleanor, is what do we owe to each other?”
(The Good Place, Season 2, Episode 12)

What do we owe to each other? This is the question that runs through all of what is now one of my favorite television shows, The Good Place. This question has stuck in my head the last few days. And as a Christian it’s got me thinking about what it means to be a disciple of Christ and live in imitation of Christ.

In his letter to the Philippians Paul said: “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.” (Philippians 2:3-4) I think there is a radical shift in perspective, call it a new life, being born again, in coming to look out not for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. We could call it maturity, while noting that it’s a kind of maturity that we don’t just reach naturally. It’s not maturation of the old man into a more developed version of the old man. It’s a complete rebirth and transformation into a new creature.

For all of this Christ is the model and the means. Paul continues in his exhortation to the Philippians saying, “Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:5-8) These are some of the most important verses in the New Testament and have been foundational to the development of the doctrine of Christ’s nature and Godhood. But what I’d like to focus on is the exhortation embedded in it; the ethic.

Jesus’s teachings repeatedly feature a theme of reversal, particularly in the ways that we esteem ourselves and others.

“And whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Matthew 23:12)

“For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.” (Matthew 16:25)

There is a repeated message of shifting focus away from self and onto others. Paul said to the Philippians that this was exactly Christ did at a level fundamental to the very nature of his mortal existence. He “emptied Himself”; ἑαυτὸν ἐκένωσεν (heauton ekenōsen). That verb, κενόω (kenóō), “to empty out”, is significant in Christian theology for the “kenosis” of Christ, the ‘self-emptying’ of Jesus’ own will to become entirely receptive to the will of the Father. But this isn’t only teaching about Christ’s nature. Paul is calling for the Church to do this as well, to imitate Christ in his kenosis of self. Rather than being self-centered we are to de-center ourselves from our own circle of concerns, maybe even put ourselves on the outside edge of that circle, looking in, to center the interests of others.

Another thing Jesus said was that, “whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant” (Matthew 20:26). This could be understood, perhaps in the first instance, as a warning. If you try to be greater than others you’ll end up being a servant instead. But I think the positive interpretation, that we ought to act as servants to others, that this is true greatness, is also consistent with Jesus’s teachings. And it’s consistent with Paul’s message to the Philippians. Christ took “the form of a bond-servant”, a δοῦλος (doulos). And I think here of the image of Jesus kneeling and washing his own disciples’s feet.

What does it look like to “not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others”? A few years ago in my church’s worldwide general conference one of the church’s leaders, Dallin H. Oaks, quoted Alexandr Solzhenitsyn who said: “It is time, in the West, to defend not so much human rights as human obligations.” I come back to that idea a lot. Was Solzhenitsyn saying that we shouldn’t defend human rights? Certainly not. Having been a victim of the Soviet gulags himself he would be the last person to say that. But I think he was onto something quite astute. Rights don’t carry much force without human obligations. We have to think about others. We have to think about one another.

A community has to have people who look out for the interests of others. This is what Paul wanted to see among the Philippians. He said these things would make his “joy complete” (Philippians 2:2).

The author of comparative religion Karen Armstrong has focused a lot on kenosis in her writing and it is clearly on view in the 2009 Charter for Compassion that she spearheaded. The second sentence in that Charter states that, “Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there.”

These are ideas that impact me deeply:

“Regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.”

“Dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there.”

“What do we owe to each other?”