The Law of Love Leaves the Golden Rule Completely in the Dust

In the present Wikipedia article on the Golden Rule, Harvard’s humanist chaplain Greg Epstein is quoted as saying, “‘do unto others’ … is a concept that essentially no religion misses entirely. But not a single one of these versions of the golden rule requires a God“. Yet months after I lodged a protest about this at least depending on where your quote from the Gospel begins and ends, the chaplain’s pristine wording still summarizes a list of quotes from the New Testament that begins and ends where some would expect it to. (In the other two parallel passages, Christ is quoted as saying explicitly that the duty to love one’s neighbor was like the duty to love God.) As quoted earlier in the very same Wikipedia article:

A similar passage, a parallel to the Great Commandment, is Luke 10:25-28

25And one day an authority on the law stood up to put Jesus to the test. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to receive eternal life?”

26What is written in the Law?” Jesus replied. “How do you understand it?” 27He answered, ” ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. Love him with all your strength and with all your mind.’(Deuteronomy 6:5) And, ‘Love your neighbor as you love yourself.’ ” 28“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do that, and you will live.”.

After the point where the quote is ended as cited here, Christ is asked an evasive question and drives home his point with an answer that is absolutely ludicrous and is meant to make his interlocutor pointedly uncomfortable. Though the absolute love for God is not treated as up for debate here, trying to love your neighbor as yourself without loving the Lord with your entire being is a chicken with its head cut off.

For now, I do not want to go into the unquoted followup to a question about where our obligations stop. I wish instead to say quite specifically here what the text quoted in the Wikipedia says. What it says, in essence, that “Love your neighbor as you love yourself” is a spillover to an absolute obligation to love God with your whole being. The obligation to love one’s neighbor is, in mathematical language, a corollary to an obligation to love God. It’s a consequence of the first stated imperative. Whilst one can cut the beginning and ending of the quotation so that “Love your neighbor as yourself” is all that survives the abbreviation, the obligation to love one’s neighbor is but a brilliant shadow cast by the infinite obligation to love God. There is some degree of confusion in the suggestion that this gem, shared by Jew and Christian, works just as well if “Love your neighbor as yourself” is stripped of its foundation of, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. Love him with all your strength and with all your mind.” There is considerable insensitivity in seeing the two but failing to recognize them as connected.

While Eastern Orthodoxy may have a rich and many-layered understanding of holy icons and experience a rich interconnectedness between the theology of holy icons on the one hand, and a human race created in the image and likeness of God as stated in the very opening chapter of the Bible, it is not just Eastern Orthodox who have reason to see an implied, too-obvious-to-need-stating connection between loving God and loving people who are made in the image of God. You cannot be cruel to a child without paining that child’s healthy parent, and it is confusion to try to love God without implications for loving one’s neighbor. I am not aware of C.S. Lewis articulating any particularly interesting theology of icon as such, but the rising crescendo that closes The Weight of Glory could hardly be clearer: “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal… Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.” We are to love God entirely, and this love must unfold to loving God in the person of every neighbor who bears God’s divine image. Only a Harvard humanist chaplain could make a blanket statement for all world religions and let slip something so foundational to the plain, old New Testament. You know, the text from which we learned John 3:16 as Bible-believing kids.

Having said such, I would like to go over some rules and variations related to the Golden Rule, before explaining why I believe “Love your neighbor as yourself” is far more interesting than “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

A Fool’s Golden Rule: “If you can’t take it, don’t dish it out!

There is a bit of social wisdom, legitimate enough in itself, that is a sort of spurious version of the Golden Rule: “Don’t tease others beyond the point where you can handle them returning the same.” It may be wise enough to observe in practice, as it’s really best not to get into waters deeper than you can swim, but in itself doesn’t shed much light on whether teasing should really be avoided (a position that has adherents), or teasing is a legitimate and important dimension to any particularly strong personal connection (another position with adherents).

Of greater concern is this: different people have different tolerances for how much they can enjoy banter. Perhaps others will present less of a confusing situation if they also follow this Fool’s Golden Rule, but it is desirable, and in the spirit of a real Golden Rule, to avoid teasing others beyond what they can handle.

If we go with an expectation that some people avoid getting into waters beyond what they can swim in, and some are less perspective, there is an element of self-care in making sure you don’t invite more teasing than you can handle, and self-care can be perfectly legitimate. However, it doesn’t address how to approach banter legitimately, and without dishing out needless pain. Perhaps one pair of options are either to mostly avoid teasing, indefinitely, or to start very lightly, gradually escalate with a question mark in your eyes, and stop immediately and later on tone things down a bit on any social cue that the other person has had enough. I believe this suggestion is arguably appropriate, but runs somewhat independently of the Golden Rule, and is even based on recognition that knowing what “you would have others do unto you” does not fully answer everything essential. Teasing within people’s tolerances is an area where knowing only your own limits is not enough.

However, this would provide a nuance some have explored in relation to the Golden Rule. If you are eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and a friend with a deadly peanut allergy walks by, perhaps you might show social respect, but there is neither any faintest obligation of hospitality nor the Golden Rule to knowingly give your special-needs friend food containing a large amount of peanut ingredients. If you’re having beef stew and a vegetarian friend walks by, one obvious level of interpreting the Golden Rule is to offer some social salute and, depending on how rushed the friend is, invite the friend to join the conversation but not, under any ordinary circumstance, offer a bowl of beef stew. A classic comic has a father taking a son to a restaurant and bowling to celebrate, and in the last frame the mother tells the son, “I know; we also did all the things he likes for my birthday too.”

I might note that some Orthodox authors have challenged this nuance (or, perhaps, nuanced the nuance). The essential argument is that if you’re spiritually healthy, you will probably be at least sometimes seeking for yourself things that are good and genuinely in your best interest. If you are trying to show kindness to someone in the grip of passions, that person will be seeking to indulge passion and not what is in his best interests. The correct gift is, for that person, one that in some minor way, and without invading and assuming command, what you would want in the sense of something in one’s own best interest, and not what the other person would want in the sense of serving one’s sinful passions.

The Silver Rule: “Do Not Do Things to Others That You Would Not Have Them Do to You

Figures in multiple religious traditions have summarized ethics in a commandment not to do things you wouldn’t want other people to do to you. It is unmistakable that “Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am the LORD.” has received devoted attention in Judaism for millennia. However, certain scholars who represent landmarks in the Talmud have summarized the Golden Rule in a more diluted form: they tell people only to refrain from doing things to others that they wouldn’t want others to do to them. This is a lower bar.

I would like to put a word in to puzzled Christians wondering why master scholars of the Jewish Bible would choose what is essentially an ethical consolation prize, and a negative morality rather than a positive morality.

My best guess here is that Talumidic scholars didn’t choose the easier of two serious options. That is, they did not line up “Treat others the way you’d like to be treated” and “Don’t do things to other people you wouldn’t want them to do to you,” and go for the less demanding option. The Old Testament thunders “Thou shalt not,” and not in just the Ten Commandments. It includes “Love your neighbor as yourself” but not, as stated in the Sermon on the Mount, “Do to others what you would have them do to you.” It took me a long time to understand what a Lawgiver was years back, because I thought of rules as unhelpful and constricting. But I would call to mind a medievalist conference that talked about law in Western Europe, and said in essence that law had captivated the public imagination, and fascinated people as being, among other things, a way for people to resolve conflicts without attacking each other physically. Perhaps even the word “lawyer” has slimy connotations today and we think litigation is completely out of control, but to many in the medieval West, people thought litigation was a live and better alternative to an ongoing and deadly feud. Law was seen as a peaceful way to avoid violence. St. Moses was a Lawgiver, and a great deal of that Law was devoted to forbidding people from engaging in destructive practices. There is brilliance in condensing the entirety of the Law to “Do not do things to other people that you would not do unto you,” and I would suggest it is an anachronism to criticize Rabbi ben Hillel and others like them because they chose the Silver Rule over the Golden Rule. (I see no reason to believe that they did anything of the sort.)

Whether or not the Silver Rule is not as good as the full-fledged Golden Rule, it shares the strengths that make the Golden Rule so important. The Silver Rule and the Golden Rule both alike are short, simple directives that offer broad and far-reaching guidance. They might not replace longer and more detailed treatment of what is right and wrong, but a treatment of ethical details alone presents a danger of not seeing the forest for the trees. The Silver and Golden Rules help people see the forest very quickly, and then be in a better position to see the trees situated in the forest when it’s time to study the trees. And, as has been pointed out, in U.S. educational culture the most important lessons are not introduced in graduate meta-ethics seminars; they’re taught in kindergarten, with the Golden Rule often given a place of prominence. The “All I Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” poster that was ubiquitous some decades back reflects important choices made in U.S. educational culture, whatever other flaws it may have. The most important ethical lessons are placed at the very beginning of formal education itself.

I would also like to comment on a the terms “negative morality” and “positive morality.” The language is loaded. It doesn’t mean, or at least not at first glance, that negative morality is bad and positive morality is good. I might mention what the term “progressive cancer” means. “Progressive” is not here loaded language complimenting someone for being sufficiently far to the left; a “progressive” cancer is a cancer that continues to grow and grow, and be more and more destructive despite every treatment that’s thrown at it. Returning to “negative” and “positive” morality, a negative morality essentially says, “Here’s a shortlist of things you shouldn’t do. You’re free to do anything else.” A positive morality dictates your options far more narrowly: “This is what you should do.” And I would make a pointed remark about positive moralities: if you are going to choose a positive morality, choose very, very carefully. Every single one of the twentieth century Utopias that racked up over a million innocent lives in its body count was driven by a positive morality!

I ultimately side with a positive morality, if “morality” is really the term; as Orthodox I use the term “moral” / “morality” primarily with non-Orthodox because the way Orthodoxy covers terrain there are spiritual disciplines and there is divinization, but there is not really a separate category of morality as such. However, it is usually not helpful to ask people to grapple with an oblong concept like that if it can be avoided.

The Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

I wish to comment quite briefly about the Golden Rule as classically worded that it appears exactly once in the Bible, that Christ states it in the most important homily the Orthodox Church can offer, and that Christ himself endorses it as a complete summary of the Scriptures that existed then. The Golden Rule itself is the least in need of introduction of all these variations: asking the man on the street, “What’s the Silver Rule?” or “What’s the Platinum Rule?” should often elicit a perhaps puzzled, “I don’t know.” If you ask, “What’s the Golden Rule?” people may not be able to rattle off the words, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” but they should usually immediately recognize the reference and instantly recall the point, gist and basic concern whether or not they can quote (or misquote) the classic formulation.

The Platinum Rule: “Do unto others better than you would have them do unto you

I would briefly comment that the Platinum Rule is more a curiosity of discussion of ethics than a point in any live community’s ethical system that I am aware of. For reasons to be discussed below, I believe the Law of Love represents a far more valuable way to go beyond the Golden Rule than simply upping the ante for what one is expected to give others.

However, while I am not aware of religions teaching the Platinum Rule (even in ethics it seems to me to only come up in academic discussions), it does seem to come up in practice even if it is not enjoined. The first job I had was at a rental yard, where assignments ranged from assembling tents for a celebration to scrubbing burnt-on crud off steel to putting away sewer snakes. It was not a glamorous position. However, I noticed that the worst and most disgusting jobs (such as cleaning up a port-a-potty after a wild and wet trailer ride) were always done personally by a manager. Always. In a traditional marriage and family, feminists may claim that the husband and father occupies the position of greatest privilege. This is possibly so, but under the live definition of privilege, his privilege includes taking an ailing pet to the vet for the last time. In the business world, there is the manager who from time to time skips lunch during crunch mode, but would never arrange a schedule so that one of her subordinates was asked to miss a meal. Goodwill, whether or not it is an organization of goodwill towards its employees’ financial interests, asks people whether a donation is good enough to give a friend, and I would comment on that point that there are some pockets where people are generous and giving towards others, but continue to personally use worn or damaged possessions themselves that they would be mortified to give to someone else, especially someone lower than them socially. For a concluding example, anti-smoking advocates found that they met limited success with anti-smoking messages that said, “Hey, Dad! Look at what you’re doing to yourself!” (Dads seemed not to be terribly concerned.) Then they shifted the center of the message to, “Hey, Dad! Look at what you’re doing to your kids!” and, Wow! was there a change.

The Platinum Rule may or may not be preached anywhere outside of academia. It does, however, appear to be something people practice of themselves in situations where they have been brought up to respect the Golden Rule.

And now I will show you a more excellent way

One patristic claim has been that the Old Testament purifies what is done externally in the hands, and the New Testament purifies what is done inwardly in the heart. That may be painting things with broad strokes, and someone who doesn’t know the Bible well may still point out that as prominently as in the Ten Commandments the Old Testament forbids coveting in one’s heart, and the New Testament has numerous passages condemning concrete actions as sin. I don’t know the Talmud, but I’m pretty sure that a good Talmud scholar could point out numerous passages rejecting sins committed, at least at first, only in the heart. However, it is helpful to understand here that the relationship between “Old Testament” and “New Testament” is really not a relationship between “First installment” and “Second installment: more of the same.”

One core aspect of “Road to Emmaus” passage that winds up Luke’s Gospel is, “Then he said to them, ‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.” “Scriptures” does not here refer to any part of the New Testament; there is only one place, in 2 Peter, that any part of the New Testament is called Scripture. Furthermore, at the time reported in this Gospel passage, none of the New Testament had been written. The basic model of Scripture in this passage, which remained live for a surprisingly long time, was that the Scriptures were the Old Testament and represented a locked treasure hoard, and the New Testament contained the key to unlock the Old Testament Scriptures. Fr. John Behr commented in a class that the worst thing that happened to the Church was the canonization of the New Testament. He was perhaps speaking provocatively, but he was driving home a patristic enough point that the Old and New Testaments should not be identified as a first installment and a second installment of the same.

At least in the Wikipedia, “Love your neighbor as yourself” is treated as a wording or formulation of the Golden Rule. I would like to draw an increasingly sharp distinction, and from here, I will use the terms Golden Rule to strictly mean paraphrases or repetitions of “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” and Law of Love to mean “Love your neighbor as yourself,” with or without explicitly stating the commandment to love God from which it arises.

In my own experience, I was surprised by what was apparently obvious enough to the article authors that there seemed no perceived need to establish or defend: that the Law of Love was a wording of the Golden Rule, apparently interchangeable with others.

The first, relatively superficial objection I had was that the Golden Rule uses one’s own desires as a guideline for what action to take. The Law of Love does not directly state what actions to take, and the implied line of action I would see (others might nominate other candidates) is an obligation to seek others’ best interests. It is long religious experience that we often do not seek our own best interests, but finely gilt spiritual potholes, and the Christ who commands love for one’s enemies might perhaps leave room to believe that someone who meets forgiving love with ongoing hostility might, perhaps, be even further from seeking what is genuinely beneficial to them. In the Golden Rule the yardstick of action, at least on a rule of thumb level, is one’s own desires. My personal impression, as someone who has problematic desires, is that the yardstick for action, besides love which I will come to in a minute, is that it is the other person’s best interests.

The second, more serious objection I can think of, has to do with virtue. One basic distinction has been made between a rule-based morality and a virtue-based morality. At the heart of Confucianism, for instance, is not any calculus of required, permitted, and forbidden actions; the highest goal is to become a person who embodies certain virtues, such as a filial piety. The Philokalia draws on certain Greek philosophy, carefully and selectively. The greatest debt I can see to a feature of Greek philosophy in the whole collection is in the cardinally important place that is given to virtues. The concept may be adapted for Christian use at points, but any reasonably sensitive reading would recognize that virtue, from wherever the authors acquired it, is extremely important in the text. As regards the Golden Rule, it is a strictly rule-based guideline and need not perturb a rule-based morality. As regards the Law of Love, “love” may appear as a verb and not a noun, but the commandment is to exercise virtue. Now there are feedback and reinforcement between what is in your heart and what you do with your hands; someone who is honest is more likely to tell the truth, but conversely telling the truth is a practice that also builds the virtue of honesty. However, the Law of Love takes the action from the Golden Rule’s playing field of (potentially) rule-based morality, and puts us on turf where virtue at least looms large.

The Ladder of Divine Ascent is on the shortlist of Orthodox classics, and Orthodox monastics traditionally read it each Lent. It has various steps of virtues to acquire and vices to surrender, amounting to thirty steps in total. And elements of Greek philosophy may be present; the step that is second from the top is “Dispassion”, a Holy Grail sought in the same philosophical currents that had the authors of the Philokalia think so much in terms of virtue. However, the very, very top rung of all in the great Ladder is the “Faith, Hope, and Love” in an industrial-strength allusion to one of the favorite chapters of the Bible the world around:

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end.For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

And there is further to go than virtue-based morality.

Beyond even virtue-based morality

The concepts “You need right action” and “You need to be in the right moral state”, taken together, cover many of the world’s ethical systems, and for that matter cover most of what I have said so far.

I would like to push further.

Your actions are in some sense something you possess, and your virtues are in some sense something you possess. Perhaps neither one nor the other is an item you can put on your desk next to your car keys, but they can appear, so to speak, as self-contained. Which they are not.

I was rebuked, when I was newly minted as Orthodox, for asking a question entirely framed by the Reformation schema of nature, sin, and grace, and given very good pastoral advice to stay out of 16th century Reformation concerns for a while. I am grateful for this. That stated, the Reformers were not the first people to see grace, and our need for grace, in that faith whose book is the Bible. But the Philokalia has titles like the in-depth “On Those Who Think They Are Made Righteous By Works,” and stern warnings that you may only take credit for those achievements you pulled off before you were born (an exception could be made disqualifying the handful of places in the saints’ lives where an unborn child cries or speaks from within the womb). This is not exactly a teaching of grace alone, in that there is a sense of synergy in relation to a divinization where we contribute, but the relevant Fathers are here as clear as any of the Reformers that however much we seek virtue and right actions, we should take no credit before God. Even if, as it turns out, on Judgment Day the saved who take no credit for their works are given full credit for these works by God.

The whole of how we are created is for a divine dance, where we are part of a larger picture and God is calling the shots. Had I raised another Protestant question about discerning God’s will for my life, I might have gotten an equally helpful rebuke. Christ has all but sworn that if we seek first the Kingdom of God and his perfect righteousness, all God’s Providence will follow, including career paths, material needs, and so on and so forth, perhaps even without our needing to try to seek God’s will for our lives. God’s Providence may have plans for the course of our lives, which will be given if we seek first God’s Kingdom, but the New Testament doesn’t have a word about seeking God’s will for our lives. When it discusses God’s will, it discusses God’s will for Creation and the like. Nowhere do the Pauline letters discuss a discernment of what course is intended for your life, or mine.

Sometimes pagan custom ain’t so great

I was in England and on a Cambridge tour was excitedly shown, in a church building no longer live as a place of worship, pagan symbols such as two-tailed mermaids on the baptismal font. What I wanted to ask, instead of just holding my tongue, was whether she had anything to say about Christian symbols in the building. But I held my tongue.

There is an ambiance of mystery and the alluring today surrounding pagan customs, and someone who reads some of the same books I’ve read may read, for instance, about a heirarch who wisely decided to try to wean a newly-illumined people from pagan practices across a few generations, or that some particular detail of observance was in origin an exotic pagan custom that was incorporated into the Church’s intricate practices. And, in general, I’ve read that some leniency was observed in relation to pagan custom. What may be the first written account of the life of St. Seraphim of Sarov, Flame in the Snow, seems unblushing about recording a preserved pagan custom here and there.

But may I say something about pagan custom in relation to my own milieu, and one intended to be not enticing, but banal?

We have bank accounts and general financial planning and don’t let a good deal of what the Sermon on the Mount says about providence and God’s generosity get past our filters. We want endowments, or in short, we want the financial infrastructure to what is, in the end, Hell.

This may be a much less exotic and enticing than the chasing and catching game in the great St. Seraphim’s life, but I really mean it. Forget every sexy connotation that vaguely rises up at the thought of being allowed to practice a pagan custom. One of the great pagan customs in our world is wealth management, and here I write not as someone without slaves who calls for the abandonment of slavery, but someone with fewer slaves who calls for the abolition of slavery. We need, by God’s grace to wean ourselves from the violation of the Sermon on the Mount that forever tries to create our own providence, administered by nothing wiser than our own hand. That is (among the) pagan customs that should come to mind when we think of the Church trying by degrees to free generations of converts from pagan custom, ancestral or otherwise.

The story is told of a little girl who saw, in a vending machine, a metal necklace with gold wash. She asked her Dad, but he discouraged her. But she insisted, and he bought the necklace. That night at bedtime, he asked her, “Do you love me?” She said, “Yes.” He said, “Give me the necklace,” but she didn’t. The next night, the same thing happened. Many nights later, with tears in her eyes, she reached out and set her necklace in his hand, the gold wash all but gone. He, also with tears, reached out with his other hand, and gave her a necklace of solid gold.

What we are invited to is God’s Providence, but we can opt out by trying to get our own ersatz providence and not really need God’s intervention. (One of the names for this is, ”Hell.”) We are instead summoned to the Great Dance, where many people weave together in intricate motion and in unfolding glory, and things end up better than we could have imagined if we had everything our way. (Or we can insist on trying to have our way; one of the names for this is, “Hell.”) Or we can stop fighting, and work with God as he draws us into a larger world and opened our eyes to what was there all along, but still more things in Heaven and earth than are dreamed of in our financial planning.

And, incidentally, trying to live on a basis of what pseudo-providence you can get for yourself is not a new pagan custom: while admittedly some of our financial instruments were not available then, Christ calls the basic practice a pagan custom as much as anyone else has: “For after all these things the [pagans] seek.” Christ never denies that we need food, water, clothing, etc., but he does try to give people a clue that the God who has loved them from eternity already knows the needs he has built in to their constitution, and has every desire to provide everything necessary to people who are seeking what really is worth seeking.

(Similar remarks could be made for other ways we isolate ourselves from patristic submission to the Sermon on the Mount in favor of pagan customs.)

In depth: If thine eye be single…

St. Philaret of Moscow, possibly a rare instance of a Metropolitan named after a layman, wrote a famed prayer for the acceptance of God’s will:

O Lord, I do not know what to ask of Thee. Thou alone knowest what are my true needs. Thou lovest me more than I myself know how to love. Help me to see my real needs which are concealed from me. I do not dare to ask either for a cross or for consolation. I can only wait on Thee. My heart is open to Thee. Visit and help me, for the sake of Thy great mercy. Strike me and heal me; cast me down and raise me up. I worship in silence Thy holy will and Thine unsearchable ways. I offer myself as a sacrifice to Thee. I have no other desire than to fulfill Thy will. Teach me to pray. Pray Thou Thyself in me. Amen.

And this humility opens up a passage from the Sermon on the Mount, the greatest Orthodox homily in history, and possibly the most politically incorrect:

Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness!

No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon. Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment? Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they? Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature? And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?

Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? (For after all these things do the [pagans] seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.

“If thine eye be single”: this part appears to be a digression, even an intrusion. It is not. Most translations translate away a term like “single” to mean “healthy” or “sound”, and while an aspect of “single” is indeed “healthy” or “sound”, the direct and unusual rendering tells more. St. Paul describes one decisive advantage of celibacy: that the celibate can focus on God with an undivided, single attention, where the married Orthodox must needs live out a divided attention where effort is split between God and one’s spouse. This is no heretical rejection of sacred, holy marriage, where St. Paul elsewhere says forcefully, “…marriage, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth…”; he is simply advising people that he wishes to spare them the trouble, however holy marriage itself may be.

But here celibate and married are both summoned to an eye that is single: an eye that rests its gaze purely on God, instead of dividing attention between God and stupid money. It may be honorable to divide attention between God and a wife given as an icon by whom to love and serve God: but nowhere does the New Testament endorse it as also acceptable to divide attention between God and a lifeless, subhuman wealth that is utterly unworthy of human love.

The seeming digression ups the stakes for trying to serve both God and mammon. The cost of chasing after wealth is a fragmented and divided spiritual vision. There are several places in the Sermon on the Mount where advice about a divided attention could appropriately be placed: for example, if you look in lust, your eye is not single, and is not single in a much more obvious sense. However, Christ sandwiches the warning in a passage debunking the apparent and seemingly self-evident goodness of wealth. And this passage, like others in the Sermon on the Mount, opens up a larger world.

A third basis for morality beyond rules and virtues

In the philosophy class where a professor introduced a distinction between a rule-based morality and a virtue-based reality, I looked and rightly or wrongly drew a conclusion for a Holy Spirit-based morality that is productive of virtues as virtues are productive of right actions. The key verse I drew on was Galatians 5:22-23: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law.”

I’m a little cautious about saying tout court that this musing is fully patristic. Some people have made a subtle but important distinction between virtues and “graces”, where a virtue is the sort of thing you build with God’s help but by your own action, and “graces”, which are also by God’s help but the divine generosity greatly exceeds the contribution you would normally need to build up a virtue. Possibly there are other adjustments needed; because it is my own musing, I think that it would best be endorsed as Orthodox by someone else besides me.

However, what I believe more legitimate for me to endorse is this. In The Acquisition of the Holy Spirit, St. Seraphim of Sarov, mentioned above, speaks with a layman who has essentially spent his life trying to understand, in Western terms, the meaning of life. St. Seraphim receives him with great respect, and lays out the answer: the central point of life is “the acquisition of the Holy Spirit.”

As mentioned, I’m a little cautious about saying that my own formulation that Christianity has a Spirit-driven morality that reaches higher than virtue-based morality as virtue-based morality is higher than rule-based morality. It hasn’t stood the test of time so far as I am aware. However, what I think has stood the test of time is that, while thoughts, actions, and virtues are all very important in the New Testament and the Philokalia, it is even more, more important to focus on a God who infinitely eclipses the greatest virtue. I’ve heard Orthodox raise a question of, “Then why am I here?” and assert that the reception of grace is synergistic, where the reception of grace includes our active cooperation with Christ in us, the hope of glory. But, whatever other differences may exist between Orthodoxy and Protestantism, I have never heard an Orthodox complain that Martin Luther, or any other figure, overstated the importance of grace. (For that matter, I have never heard an Orthodox Christian state that it is possible to overstate the importance of grace.)

The surprise I hadn’t mentioned

There was a surprise I met with the Wikipedia article that I haven’t mentioned. I was surprised that the Law of Love was classified as an articulation of the Golden Rule at all. After numerous readings of the Bible, it was settled in my mind that the Golden Rule’s explicit presence in the entire Bible amounted to part of a single verse of the Sermon on the Mount. It was not just that I preferred the Law of Love to other things that were called phrasings of the Golden Rule. To me they were so different that I never made the connection.

The Golden Rule is great partly because it offers direct prescriptions for action. If we avoid getting bogged down too much in special cases, if I wish others to show me such courtesies as saying “Please” and “Thank you,” that’s probably a sign I should seek to extend those courtesies to others. If I prefer not to be needlessly interrupted, in most cases I should probably avoid needlessly interrupting others. If I prefer that others’ communications with me be straightforward, that is probably a sign I should usually be straightforward with others. The Golden Rule may be stated in a sentence, but it covers an enormous territory.

The Law of Love dictates virtue, not action, and is far more ambiguous as far as action goes. There is respected precedent in monastic literature to what may be an assumption that the actions most fitting to the Law of Love are those that seek the complete best interests of the other. The point of monasticism, including the point of its many unpleasant parts, is to advance your best interests, which are never trumped by treating people the way they would like to be treated.

Let me give one example. At least some monastic rules state that “Monastery guests are to be treated as Christ himself,” and even without that implication the third parable of Matthew 25 provides excellent and chilling warrant to all Orthodox to treat all others as Christ. Good Abbots meet visitors with infinite respect. And for all this, monastics, including Abbots, are normally very sparing with compliments. (And they sometimes shock visitors by trying to dodge social compliments.)

There is no contradiction to this. In many cultures, compliments are given freely and are a staple of managing mood in the other. The Philokalia speaks of foul plants of spiritual sickness as being (as rendered in the polite English translation) “manured by praise.” The Philokalia is not generally foul-mouthed, and to the best of my knowledge human praise is the only thing that the entire collection metaphorically compares to excrement.

Marriage is also an institution for self-transcendence; some have said that marriage is not a place for children to grow up, but for parents to grow up. Marriage is also a vessel of holiness and salvation, but things are perhaps sharper and perhaps easier to see in monasticism. If insults and cleaning latrines are what it will take for a novice to gain the precious treasure of humility, then the love of an Abbot will be expressed in that nasty way. And monasticism above marriage highlights the difference between a nuanced understanding of the Golden Rule that will treat other people the way they want to be treated on the one hand, and on the other hand a nuanced understanding of the Law of Love as seeking the other’s best interests. We should best not treat ourselves as honorary Abbots and authorities above others, but seeking the other’s total best interest is more important than being pleasing to others.

Conclusion: A doorway to the divine

If I may quote Lewis again, this time from The Abolition of Man, “It is Paul, the Pharisee, the man ‘perfect as touching the Law’ who learns where and how that Law was deficient.” It is further St. Paul, the Apostle, who tells us that the Law is a tutor meant to train us up until we are ready for greater things.

I might suggest that the Golden Rule, at least in the forms I have seen it, be given a place similar to what place the Apostle gives to the Law, and in one aspect the place Church Fathers give to the Old Testament as addressing outer righteousness until the New Testament could train us in inner righteousness.

That is to say that we should keep the Golden Rule, perhaps at some level of sophistication and nuance so we don’t knowingly offer a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to a friend who has a deadly peanut allergy. And furthermore we should recognize its significance in that world religious traditions are immeasurably different in immeasurable ways, yet precious few fail to offer some form of the Golden Rule. That speaks for a profound significance even beyond that a moral directive that covers an incredible amount of ground with something in a nutshell. Even a good subset of these credentials properly qualify the Golden Rule as astonishing and arresting.

Yet, for all of this, neither the Platinum Rule, nor the Golden Rule, nor the Silver Rule, nor this article’s nomination for a Fool’s Golden Rule speak a whisper about inner state or virtue, and on this account they must be seen as outer righteousness as Church Fathers have received the Old Testament as a tutor in outer righteousness. The Silver, Gold, and Platinum Rules may progressively escalate the action that is specified in their demand towards our neighbor: but even the Platinum Rule does not show the faintest hint of a request for virtue. The Silver, Gold, and Platinum Rules push further forward in the same plane: not one of them rises higher to draw our eyes towards virtue.

The Law of Love does, and here I am not especially interested in the fact that on the level of action it is possible to rise from pleasing people to seeking their best interests as best we can in a given situation. The Law of Love is a summons to virtue, and more. It moves beyond outer action alone to inner state, and here I might mention that contrary to today’s psychological framing of “inner”, figures such as Augustine held the inner realm to hold the things themselves for spiritual realities: or as condensed in homilectics, Heaven and Hell are inside us. I do not claim any Orthodox or Christian monopoly on inner concerns; the desire for inner virtue may be found in innumerable world religions and age-old philosophies. However, the Law of Love says something that was missed in the Silver Rule. Even if Ben Hillel probably knew both summonses to love, by heart.

Furthermore, the Law of Love implies something that I am not aware of in any formulation of the Golden Rule, and though I am hesitant to quote someone I’ve just critiqued as an authority, is something that a certain Harvard chaplain did not at least notice anywhere else: the box is open at the top.

Nothing hinders a materialist from seeking to act by the Golden Rule, and it may be seen as needlessly insulting to question whether a materialist might take guidance from that beacon. For that matter, you can be in your actions halfway to being a solipsist and still seek to obey the Golden Rule, even if you might end up being hampered by your habits because you are trying to act beyond what your philosophical reserves will afford you. There is nothing in any standard formulation of the Silver, Golden, or Platinum Rule that forbids you from being, and seeing yourself as, self-contained. One can of course subscribe to the Golden Rule and be open to things vaster than the Heavens: Christ himself did as much, and it’s hard to see what stronger warrant one could ask to say that a practitioner of the Golden Rule might be open. However, if we hear that chaplain say, “None of these versions requires a God,” then we might see circumstantial evidence that, as magnificent and really astonishing as the Golden Rule may be, it does not reach high enough to bid us seek a box that is open at the top.

The Law of Love is more and different compared to this. It really does say, “There are more things in Heaven and earth than are dreamed of in your philosophy, and I want to show them to you.” It summons us to leave the Hell of self. Its overwhelming impulse that bids us exercise the highest of all virtues, love itself, is a surge from the heart of a command to render an even higher, absolute love to a God who is infinitely beyond. A hymn tells the Theotokos, “When you gave birth, you tore all the philosopher’s nets;” along with that is all possibility of enclosure by anything less than God. I have quoted from the Sermon on the Mount; it is important enough in Orthodoxy that even in the shorter forms of the Divine Liturgy it is quoted in shorthand by chanting its opening Beatitudes. It is characterized by a fundamental openness that is needed as an exegesis of the right and proper love to God, and if you try to love God and live a self-contained life, you may find God responding to you by offering you help to repent of your sin and begin to enjoy a larger world.

I wish to conclude by quoting a poem I wrote, Open:

How shall I be open to thee,
O Lord who is forever open to me?
Incessantly I seek to clench with tight fist,
Such joy as thou gavest mine open hand.
Why do I consider thy providence,
A light thing, and of light repute,
Next to the grandeur I imagine?
Why spurn I such grandeur as prayed,
Not my will but thine be done,
Such as taught us to pray,
Hallowed be thy name,
Thy kingdom come:
Thy will be done?
Why be I so tight and constricted,
Why must clay shy back,
From the potter’s hand,
Who glorifieth clay better,
Than clay knoweth glory to seek?
Why am I such a small man?
Why do I refuse the joy you give?
Or, indeed, must I?

And yet I know,
Thou, the Theotokos, the saints,
Forever welcome me with open hearts,
And the oil of their gladness,
Loosens my fist,
Little by little.

God, why is my fist tightened on openness,
When thou openest in me?