Thursday, 12 July 2012

Making Sense of the First Three Commandments

     When I was in the fifth grade, the Gideons came to my school and handed out New Testaments. I still have mine, a tiny red volume with a the Ten Commandments prominently laid out near the beginning. It was reading the third, in particular, that planted a seed of doubt in my young mind. After, all, the commandments about killing and stealing, well, those were pretty straightforward unassailable moral doctrines. I wasn't entirely sure about all of the others; I didn't understand why God would care which day of the week we took off, and as a fifth-grader I simply figured I'd defer questions on the morality of adultery until I knew what it was.
     But the second and third commandments troubled me. For one thing, "graven images" couldn't possibly mean any likeness at all, as the King James version seemed to say. Not only was I raised in an artistic household (although, to be fair, my father's paintings are kind of abstract), but the church had stained glass windows depicting apostles and saints, and there were mosaics and statues all over the place. If the people whose job it was to preach this stuff thought it was okay to make likenesses of these things, then there must be some special meaning to the word "graven" I didn't understand yet.
     The third one is what really got me angry, because unlike the "graven images" thing, everyone around me seemed to have a pretty clear idea of what it meant. It was even explained to me thusly: Don't use the name of God in a disrespectful manner. And I'd seen people scolded for saying things like "God damn it!" or "Jesus CHRIST!" as an expletive.

     Okay, I'll accept that this is a rude thing to do, I thought. But come on. Commandment #6 is "Thou shalt not kill." The ten commandments are supposed to be the ten biggies, right, the really serious important rules? How does using a mere word come anywhere close to making the list, much less coming well before murder as a no-no? I couldn't imagine that God would be so petty, so vain as to be offended by such an ordinary and commonplace utterance, much less condemn someone to eternal damnation for what he might have said after hitting his thumb with a hammer.

     Thus the seeds of doubt were planted, and eventually I found myself simply abandoning any assumption that the authors of the Bible had any more clue what they were talking about than any other mortal of the time.

     Oddly enough, it was only after becoming a de facto atheist that I began to appreciate a subtler and more important interpretation of the commandments that troubled me so, the first three. In fact, I now believe they are the three most important, for believer and non-believer alike, because they are aimed at fostering a proper sense of humility and piety (and yes, I think an atheist can be pious).

     Let's look at the first. "Thou shalt have no other gods before me." Trivially, this is no problem for the atheist to obey, because atheists have no gods at all. But more seriously, notice that it doesn't say "Thou shalt place me before other gods." It just says no other gods before God. God is frequently kind of evasive about putting into words exactly what or who He is; "I am that I am" is kind of vague. And yet, even as an atheist, perhaps even because I am an atheist, I'd insist that there is some kind of absolute, objective reality about the universe, something which for lack of a better term I'd be willing to name "God" simply because it's supreme and not subject to anything else. Or call it "Truth", if "God" is too laden with smiting and silliness. And if we put all the mythological baggage of "God" aside, then it turns out that the commandment to have no other gods before Truth becomes one that preaches a genuine piety.

     The second commandment, in my little Gideon New Testament, was explained to me as meaning not that one should never draw a picture of a flower, but that one should never make artifacts into idols. The paradigm case was right there in Exodus, where some of the Israelites made a golden calf and started worshipping it. Now, this is in a sense a violation of the first commandment, since worshipping an artifact is to have another god before God, but it's an especially tricky case, because it's so much easier to think that by genuflecting before a depiction of something, you're worshipping the thing it depicts and not the mere artifact. Yet the God of the Israelites, like the abstract Truth I mentioned in the paragraph above, is not a physical thing, and cannot be depicted at all. So it does make some sense to make it a separate commandment, which I'll restate as follows: "Never mistake a depiction of the Truth for the Truth itself." Or, to use my favourite Zen saying, "Words are a finger pointing at the moon: look at the moon, not the finger."

     Finally, the third commandment deals with a closely related impiety. It has nothing to do with speaking disrespectfully about the Big Guy, but with having the vanity to think you speak for Him. The commandments doesn't say "Thou shalt not speak the Lord's name in vain"; it says "take". What can it mean to take anyone's name, but to assume to act as an agent for them in some way? And is that not an extremely vain thing to assume, especially if it's God you claim to be speaking for?  The vitally important point here is that you do not get to speak for God, no matter what you think it is you're saying. Everything you think you know is just that: what you think you know. None of it has any divine authority, and every thing you ever say about God (especially, but anything else for that matter) should always be attended by the tacit qualifier "I think that..." or "I believe...."   You don't get to say "God hates fags"; you get to say that you believe God hates fags. You don't get to blame anything you say or think or do on the vain pretence that God told you to. For, as the second half of the commandment goes, "the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh His name in vain."
     That's significant, I think. None of the other commandments tack that on, that the Lord won't hold you guiltless if you steal or murder or covet. It's only taking the Lord's name in vain that gets this addendum, and I think it's because the thing that makes taking His name in vain so bad is that it makes you think you're guiltless, that you're playing it safe and just doing what God says. That's kind of the whole point of taking His name; you think you're just following orders.
     Remember Harold Camping, who predicted the world would end last year? I happened to download his PDF explaining his reasoning, which was subtitled "ANOTHER INFALLIBLE PROOF THAT GOD GIVES THAT ASSURES THE RAPTURE WILL OCCUR MAY 21, 2011".  It would have been fine for him to say, "I'm convinced the Rapture will occur, and here are my reasons," but no, he said it was GOD'S infallible proof. What vanity! What arrogance! What a grave intellectual sin, regardless of whether or not you believe there even is a God. 

     You don't need to believe God exists to see this is a sin. But you kind of need to believe God exists to be capable of committing it.


  1. Tom, You seem to be stuck in the fifth grade. You have tossed about your concepts, marshalled your experience and education, broadened your vocabulary, and applied your philosophical principles to put yourself more soldly where you were in the fifth grade. You were blind as to spiritual perception then, and you still are today. Your cavalier dealing with the ten commandments displays that you have not a clue concerning the awesome Person behind them. Ask God to reveal Himself to you. You have dabbled in the means that He uses. Ask Him to make them effective unto your own enlightenment. Ask Him to make Himself real to you.

  2. Stop for a moment and consider the effect of your argument style, both on me and on any undecided person likely to read this. Am I likely to say to myself, "Good heavens! He has a point! I should really go do what he says!"

    Well, maybe, but only if you actually DO have something resembling a point. Nothing you said in your comment actually addresses anything I said in my post, other than to simply claim I don't know what I'm talking about. Hey, I know I don't know what I'm talking about; your task is to convince me that YOU know what you're talking about better than I do, and I'll listen to you. But if all you can do is the rhetorical equivalent of telling me I suck, well, that just makes me suspect you're even more clueless than I am.

  3. You are determined to make God comprehensible to you in order for you to accept Him. To argue your points is to suggest that your thinking is on the right track. It isn't. Knowing God is having a personal relationship with Him through His Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus said, "Come unto Me, and I will give you rest." Ask Him to give your mind data to work with that you cannot get on your own.
    The blind man cannot see colour by arguing green to him--he must be given sight.

  4. I am not trying to make GOD comprehensible to myself; I realize (probably far better than you do) just how impossible that is. What I am trying to understand is my place in the world and how I should proceed. I may not be able to fully comprehend that either, but I have no choice but to try.

    You are urging me to abandon the only tool I have with which to decide how to proceed, my capacity for reason. You are telling me NOT to try to understand things, not to think, not to reason, but just to go along with what you say.

    Because that's what it boils down to. YOUR word. As I read the Bible, I don't get the same meaning out of it you do. I think about the universe, I don't come to your interpretation of it. The ONLY basis I have for accepting your view is that you (and others like you) claim it's the right one.

    You think you are speaking on God's behalf. Get over yourself. It's YOU that's talking here. What you say must stand or fall on its own merits. You don't get to wear the mantle of God's authority, and you will not be held guiltless for what you say when you do.

  5. Tom, Read 1 Corinthians 1:20-26 and you will see why I approach our conversation as I do. You cannot find God in the way you are seeking Him. You do not have to abandon your mind, but you need to take into consideration data that you can only receive directly from Him. He must reveal Himself to you. Jonathan Edwards did not stop thinking because he believed the Bible. It was as a Bible-believer he dd all his great work. Seek the Lord, and He will be found of you.

  6. I've read it, thanks, and it explains why you approach this the way you do, but it does not address my objections in the least. I KNOW you think I am totally wrong. I KNOW you think I just have to believe the Bible and ask God to reveal Himself to me. This is nothing new.

    But it misses the point. I am not seeking after God, exactly, except insofar as to me "God" is a poetic name for Truth. I am seeking for Truth, for understanding; if that brings me to the understanding that there is a God, fine, and if it brings me to the understanding that there is none, that's fine too. You tell me the God of the Bible is what I'm looking for, but that doesn't help if I don't understand it. And you decline to help me understand, saying that the understanding of philosophers is folly.

    You know, that'd be a really choice rhetorical tactic against someone who was a little more insecure. But I honestly do not care if you think I'm foolish. I KNOW I'm foolish, just not necessarily in the way you think I am. And worse, I have all sorts of reasons for thinking you are every bit as foolish as I am, except that you are also somehow deluded into thinking you are wise.

    I, at least, can see how you might be mistaken in what you are telling me, and I have tried to articulate it for you, although you blithely disregard my reasoning as folly because Saul of Tarsus wrote a letter describing it so. But you can't tell me how I'm wrong, other than to say I can't get to God this way. And you can't tell me how the path you recommend differs from a thousand other "Just believe, and it'll be fine" paths.

    I seek Truth. If you tell me I can't find God by seeking Truth, well, too bad for God.

  7. Jesus said, "I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." Knowing truth for a human being is to know as one knows a person the One who is the truth.
    When you see this you will realize how you were looking for truth in the wrong place. Your biggest obstacle appears to be your pride, but there may be other life-dominating sins that are not visible to others. There must be a break with your sin for you to know Christ, and it may be that God has already begun to show you your bondage and to make you want to be free. Forgiveness and a relationship with One ho really loves you is what you are looking for in the wrong place and in the wrong way. May He make this known to you!

  8. Motes and beams. You are so thoroughly immersed in your pride that you cannot see it at all. And you commit the grave sin I believe the 3rd commandment warns against, in dressing up YOUR beliefs as if they were God's own truth. What you call my pride is in fact my steadfast refusal to pretend to such certainty.

    So sure are you that your beliefs are the absolute truth that you think the only reason I haven't embraced them must be that I haven't asked God to enlighten me. You refuse to consider that maybe I've asked, and got no answer. Impossible, you think, since YOU got an answer. Well, there's a discrepancy, sure. But there are several ways to resolve it. Maybe, as you seem to be convinced, God didn't answer me because I never asked and I've been lying to myself all along. But maybe God didn't answer me because He felt I didn't need an answer the way you did. Or maybe you hallucinated your answer.

    The thing is, you do not know what's in my mind. You do not know how earnestly I have sought after Truth, and how sincerely I have asked to be shown the Truth, if indeed it be God. So when you diagnose my problem as pride, you only succeed in revealing your own ignorance, and that inclines me to see the third explanation as the most likely: that you hallucinated God's answer to you.

  9. There are millions of "fair weather" Christians out there. When they were young, someone told them they were Christian, took them to Church a few times, and that was that. They have no conviction in their beliefs, just a sense of comfort or tradition.

    There are almost an equal number of cynical Christians out there. They've taken Pascal's Gambit... safer to pretend to believe, than risk going to hell. Their belief is one part indifference and one part fear. No parts faith.

    You know what I like though? A stone cold, no holds barred Atheist. You see, an Atheist, no matter what the forum, has to throw down the gauntlet. An Atheist will read the catechism, listen to the echos of eternity, and try to commune with their ancestors. Once you can look into the yawning void of the unknown and say with conviction "there are no gods here," that is the moment you step away from fear and truly understand the universe.

  10. Jackhammer Johnny, You speak as one of the foolish women. The fool has said in his heart there is no God. For although they knew God they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools. It is appointed to man once to die and after this the judgment. How shall we escape if we neglect so great salvation? There is no other name under heaven given among men whereby we may be saved. At the Name of Jesus every knee will bow.

  11. Anonymous, you're still doing it. You come here to tell me, and now Jackhammer Johnny, how foolish we are. which is something you cannot do without implicitly claiming to be wise enough to recognize a fool. Yet your presumption of your own wisdom is so deeply ingrained, and so masked by your belief that it's GOD's wisdom, that you are entirely unconscious of your vanity. For my part, I know I am a fool; why do you lean so on your own understanding?

  12. I have no confidence at all in my own wisdom, but rather think myself a bigger fool than you think yourself to be. What has happened is that I have been given the ability to see the reality of what the Bible reveals. If you and Johnny would ask Jesus to make Himself known to you, Jesus would do it. It is foolish not to ask, since it it leaves you in your natural blindnes and dooms you. Jesus says, "Come unto Me."

  13. Bingo. You believe YOU have the ability to see the reality of what the Bible reveals. What is that ability, if not wisdom? You dress it up, pretending it's God's revelation and not your own thinking, so that you can believe yourself to be pious, while you put all your doubts and misgivings and healthy critical reasoning skills into a box and label it as "your wisdom" and disdaining it so you can believe yourself to be humble.


  14. If a blind man were to berate me and condemn me and accuse me of arrogance for believing in blue, I simply could not argue him into my perspective. It is not a matter of arguing. He does not have to think harder; he needs to be given sight. You are pretending that it is not a matter of God's revelation. But your reasoning is as foolish as the blind man arguing against blue. Come to Jesus and ask for what I have been talking about. He has said, "Whoever comes to Me I will not turn away."

  15. And if someone with blue-tinted glasses keeps insisting that the world is all blue, and you can see that they're looking at it through those glasses, which one is blind?

  16. You are getting narrower and narrower, so that you scarcely seem to have a mind anymore. God gave you a mind to use it to explore the wonder of His creation and the complexity of relationships. You use it shoring up your own blindness. You need Jesus to take away your sin and to grant you a new heart, that you might find what you have been looking for in the wrong place. Jesus says, "Come unto Me..."

  17. Interesting that you should choose the word "narrow", as it suggests that you see a lack of breadth. Or perhaps there is a breadth that you do not see? How might I argue you into seeing that breadth, and how might you argue me out of seeing it?

  18. Interesting that I commented along these lines before progressing this far back through the posts and commentaries.

    And I guess I'm the only one here who gets to represent things from a different position of faith.

    Additionally, I've communicated with Tom in another forum, and I believe I am the only commenter to have done that.

    I do believe I recall that Tom and I have had discussions that indeed Tom HAS asked for this insight, and has not received it.

    "Anonymous" is doing precisely what Tom has said in this particular entry: "Anonymous" has failed to continue to represent God. "Anonymous" believe s(he) IS God.

    This no glory to God, and an active work of Satan and his minions.

    There is utterly no chance at all of such conduct converting ANYONE to ANYTHING.

    The behavior of "Anonymous" is reprehensible beyond any excuse.

    In that the clear obsession with this one person who happens to have a blog verges on amounting to cyberstalking, the behavior my be more than just a put-off to non-Christians, it might actually be criminal conduct.