Today is the 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time. In today’s readings we have the famous Golden Rule:
“You shall love the Lord, your God,
with all your heart,
with all your being,
with all your strength,
and with all your mind,
and your neighbor as yourself.”
This statement is the bedrock of Christian thought and morality. As easy as it is to say, it is incredibly difficult to follow. While Christianity may have the most extremely form of the positive Golden Rule, it is far from unique in promoting the Golden Rule. Every major ancient culture including the Babylonians, Egyptians, Indians, Chinese, Greeks and Romans had a form of the Golden Rule. Moreover, all major world religions, including Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, Taoism, Janism, Native American spirituality and even the New Atheists have a form of the Golden Rule. There is a universality to its acceptance as a model of ethical behavior (ignoring quasi-popular philosophies such as Ayn Rand’s objectivism who people may aspouse to but never propose implementing to its logical conclusion).
This in and of itself is striking. It is likely that over 99% of the humans who lived in the last 5,000 years adhered to some form of the Golden Rule. Despite attempts for an explanation, I do not believe there is convincing basis in evolutionary biology why I should be nice to my neighbor or treat her the way I want to be treated (see Patrick Kerns’ rebuttal in the comments below for an opposing view). In a “survival of the fittest” world without any objective morality, I should solely look out for my self-interest without regard to how it affects others. It is a perplexing question.
In today’s reflection, we answer this conundrum by turning to an outstanding podcast by Fr. Robert Barron of Word on Fire ministries (Fr. Barron’s weekly homilies are a rich source of the Christian faith and I encourage you to visit there often). Fr. Barron cites C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity which used the universality of the Golden Rule as evidence for the existence of God. Lewis calls the Golden Rule the “Law of Human Nature” and asserts that everyone knows it almost instinctively.
Lewis then makes a second observation. While people everywhere have a notion that they should behave in these ways, they do not do so themselves. He says, “They know the Law of Human Nature; they break it. These two facts, are the foundation of all clear thinking about ourselves and the universe in which we live.”
Lewis reasons that just as the laws of physics or mathematics are real, this Law of Human Nature must also be real. It must have been created as part of a universal truth, and not by societal convention. In other words, the Law of Human Nature is embedded in the ontological nature of reality.
Lewis says, “I find that I do not exist on my own, that I am under a law. Something that is directing the universe, and appears in me as a law urging me to do right and making me feel responsible and uncomfortable when I do wrong.” Other cultures have treated this Law of Human Nature as a real but impersonal force. Greeks used the term logos and the Chinese used to the term tao to reflect this eternal order or path to eternal order.
Lewis reasons from a monotheistic perspective that there must be a “perfect goodness” behind the universe that is interested in what we do. “I think we have to assume,” he says, “it is more like a mind than it is like anything else we know.” Perhaps that is because it has rules. To Lewis, that perfect goodness, the Law of Human Nature, that Being, is what we call God.
What makes Christianity unique among monotheistic religions (all other world religions) is the belief that God (logos, tao, Law of Human Nature, perfect goodness) so loved creation in general and humanity in particular that God became human to enter into a more intimate relationship with humanity in general and each person in particular. Our very being is hard-wired to seek out our creator (and hence the universality of the Golden Rule).
That is why a rich prayer and spiritual life is so enriching (love God with all your heart, being, strength and mind). Moreover, when we spread that love to others (love your neighbor as yourself), we are connecting us with our Creator, our fellow humans and our truest selves in sharing this divine order. Lord, this week help me to love you and all of my neighbors more deeply.
Please find a set of references which give a very sobering assessment of the state of the humanly created world in 2013, how we got to here, and what if anything we can collectively do about it.
Thank you for sharing. No doubt there are a lot of problems with the world in 2013 due to human selfishness, greed and corruption. Those attributes have been part of humanity since before recorded history. The theory that humanity could somehow use reason alone to overcome these attributes was tested and proved false by the bloodshed of the 20th century.
However, I am very optimistic about the future. Humans are very continuing to evolve spirituality, intellectually, emotionally and morally (albeit very slowly). I believe we are in a unique time in history, a beginning of a Second Axial Age due to the deep interconnectiveness brought about by technology. The internet has been foreshadowed by Teilhard de Chardin in his description of the noosphere. The fact that you and I are able to have this conversation and learn from each other virtually instantaneously despite being physically separated by half of a globe is nothing short of amazing and will a deep impact on our understanding of the metaphysical connection among all of humanity and all of creation.
I respectfully disagree with your assertion that:
“Despite attempts for an explanation, there is no convincing basis in evolutionary biology why I should be nice to my neighbor or treat her the way I want to be treated. In a “survival of the fittest” world without any objective morality, I should solely look out for my self-interest without regard to how it affects others.”
There is a rich literature looking at evolutionary biology and how it pertains to cooperation, even at the level of bacteria. Unsurprisingly there is a lot of good Game Theory and Economics to suggest that cooperation yields abundant material rewards (The Prisoner’s dilemma, Nash Equilibrium). Not treating others badly is (usually) a prerequisite to effective cooperation. Treating others badly often hinders cooperation. Given that civilization constitutes a large-scale cooperative endeavor it seems a necessary condition for civilization that they would have an ethical value corresponding to the Golden Rule.
In general, I would argue that morality itself is an example of convergent social evolution in a number of different places and times because it developed to provide similar solutions (namely, how do we live together well). Although a robust defense of this idea would take much more space than I can fit in your comments section.
References for a number of papers on cooperation:
Thank you for your contributions. You raise good examples of the counter-arguments. Although I do not find them convincing they are certainly worthy of discussion.
I do not want to get into that debate on this blogpost as the focus is slightly different, but it is definitely an interesting topic and I will add it to my list for further discussion posts. Jack Mahoney, S.J. does an outstanding job of discussing the scientific and sociological literature on human altruism in his excellent book “Christianity in Evolution: An Exploration“. The book is written from a Christian perspective, but it is more sympathetic to the evolutionary basis for altruism than I am. Moreover, it is not afraid to call for a re-examination of core Christian doctrines such as Original Sin. I look forward to discussing with you in the future.
In the interim, I have modified this blogpost to tone down the assertion and to make a reference to your comments. Thank you again.
Thanks, I always enjoy reading your posts. Arguments of the form:
1) Human morality has common features across space and time, therefore there is some basic universal moral law
2) A universal moral law requires a deity
3) Therefore God
I find these arguments a bit strange for the same reasons I find Natural Theology arguments of the sort:
1) The eye is wonderfully complex, it is clearly designed
2) Design requires a designer
3) Therefore God
The core assumptions that both of these arguments make is that humans are reliably able to tell the difference between what could have been designed by a god and what could have arisen as a result of natural processes. Given that we only have one world to observe, and the deity’s existence is in question, the argument is unsustainable because it relies on people’s intuitions about what is possible through natural processes (i.e. evolution or morality in this case). Human intuition on this front is not tremendously reliable, therefore we should look to science to determine whether A) Eyes can evolve through natural processes and B) human societies can develop morality with large overlaps despite lack of communication.
I picked the example of the eye because it was a favorite of William Paley’s and is an example of convergent evolution – several different species have evolved eyes, completely independent of each other as a way to address a common need.
I would suggest that just as educated theologians have abandoned the Natural Theology argument regarding the Eye in favor of evolution people should also abandon the Natural Theology of morality argument. From what I understand of your theology it might be as appropriate to say that God created the conditions for the evolution of morality among his people instead of directly creating a moral law and imposing it on humans. That would also go a considerable way to explaining why we muck it up so often! (As part of a continuing process of moral development).