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Beauty is Not an Argument: The Three Moral Commands of the Gospels

“Fear invented the gods,” the proverb tells us, and when even my cheeriest freethinking friend confesses her doubt about hell, I believe it. Pascal’s wager was hardly a stroke of originality: “believe or hell” convinces many people. However, I believe most religions’ staying power is in the beauty of their sentiments. Hell, God, the Devil, the prophets, what chance had they if they carried no snares of metaphors, rhymes and rhythms? The barefooted doomsayer on the streets of New York is little more than John the revelator, except John had the imagery. Beauty leads men astray. For who hasn’t met the liar who spoke such honey that we believed him–even though we knew the truth? What then is beautiful in the New Testament?

Much, in fact. The whole repertoire of Jesus sayings, though often borrowed from the rabbis of the time, fills our literature by the force of its eloquence. “Love your neighbor as yourself,” we are told. Why? Well no need to bother with whys: it sounds good. “If only we would follow this command, the world would be heaven,” a pastor once said in my presence. I reflected. Something was amiss here. I sniffed and pawed the roots of this tree, never satisfied with fruits alone, and came to realize: no! I do not love my neighbor as myself. I do not love my family as myself. I do not even love my lover as myself. Why? As simple as the sun: they aren’t myself. I love my brother with brotherly love, my other brother with brotherly love, but even then, I love them differently. To love all men, all my neighbors, equally is promiscuous enough. To love them as myself–absurd!

“Love your neighbor as yourself,” but love requires intimacy. Love requires a breaking of defenses, a knowledge, an appreciation, respect, and admiration of. Would I love any Joe with the same fervor I reserve for my child? Then corrupt is my love! The way I love myself is unique. I care for my needs, I pride my deeds, I search and research my depths, and really concern myself with myself. To invest this energy and intimacy into any other person–supposing they even wanted it, which they shouldn’t–would waste my time and dull my blades. No, I love every man as a self unto himself. I love my mother as mother, my brother as brother, my friend as friend, each according to his kind, and each to the degree I choose, free from command and order.

Not that Deuteronomy, the source of Jesus’ command, really meant Samaritans and Gentiles are neighbors, as Jesus is said to imply. They meant fellow Jews. But if the statement is supposed to have any philosophical worth, beyond a Hallmark how-do-you-do sentiment, then we must ask “What is meant by love? What is meant by Myself? What is meant by in the same manner?” Try as I may, I see no real program here. Because none is provided. Why should love be commanded? Why should I be threatened to love? My heart is my own. (As a side-note, I have heard preachers say, as if they were surprised, that Jesus intended us to first love ourselves. This appears to be a sort of revelation to some of them.)

Often hailed as a stroke of brilliance, and a sentiment known by all great men, from Confucius to Hillel, is the so-called Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. C. S. Lewis, in his Mere Christianity, claims that the entire “natural law” presupposes this sentiment. But again, we have all dress and no depth: Jesus gives no argument, no system, no proof. Yet this sentiment hardly proves itself, nor is “wisdom proven by her children” but by arguments and reasons. Why should I do unto others as I would they did to me? Are they me? I expect treatment as Daniel, you as Mike, Jill as Jill: Do unto others as deserved!

Consider a simple reading: every teenage boy should think twice before applying this to his date: maybe the kisses you would have unto you are unwelcome to her. So the Christian counters: “Do unto others as you would if you were them”; but now it is “do unto others as they wish you to do”–both compromising to do, and removed from the original precept anyway. And further, this assumes that they know what they want and should get it. The criminal wants a break from the law, but does not deserve it. He probably does not need it either. Jail may be the best thing for him. The fact is, we do not always know what we want. Perhaps you need slaps, insults, criticism, sooner than kisses and forgiveness.

For to do-as-you-would-be-done-by overlooks the question “And what should I desire from them?” So much for the simple eloquence of this command.

Do unto others as they deserve. The whole law lies on this command. Deserts are not all punishment. Every man deserves respect and polite treatment as a man. Do unto others as you deserve to do. Perhaps the criminal deserves justice, but not from me the bystander. I am not the judge nor the police. I do not deserve to have to punish. In the same manner, I deserve to give gifts and be kind because I am a lover, not because they deserved love. I may give gifts greater than your deserts, because I deserve to do this.

“Love God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, with all your strength.” Yet my heart, mind, and body are meant for so much more than love. To spend them all on loving would be a waste. Why not a little ambition? Why not a little hate? Why not a little curiosity, creativity, courage?–my heart wants so much more than love.

More to the point: who can love any one thing with all their being? Our being was not made for such a cyclops view. We need diversity. I love this, I love that. And this Jehovah, this Jesus: I have not met you. I do not know you. I cannot love you the way I love myself. You are unknowable. I see no body, I see no face. I do not kiss shadows. Nor do I romance ambiguity. To love you with my whole person is such an intimate choice, such a matter of taste and temperament, such a personal matter, that to command my complete love is pure audacity, psychology absurdity, and blasphemy to the ways of the heart.

Characters in a book–and that’s what Yahweh and Jesus are–cannot be loved like this wife in my arms. They cannot be loved like this friend sitting across from me. They cannot be loved like my mother or father. Nor should they. To call any love greater than God-love “idolatry” is a curse on love. It cannot make me love God more, but only make me love mother less. It infects all great loves and all great passions with guilt. “How much I love the guitar” says the Christian musician, and then repents of his passion that night! Or Augustine’s guilt over admiring Cicero–for what? This beautiful sentiment is a crime.

There are hundreds of commandments in the Old and New Testaments which believers heartily ignore, simply because they command no eloquence. Paul’s morality hardly impresses the average person, simply because he lacked the bumper-sticker beauty that Jesus is made to quip. But aside from eloquence, why should we do this command, that command? The Bible gives no arguments. It is the beauty of the words that hypnotize us, and when her eyes are glowing and fiery, we want the hypnotism, the deceit. Yet, like a soap bubble that reflects a dancing rainbow on its surface, these sayings burst into nothing when they are pressed too hard.

For the responsible thinker to choose and practice his morality, he must not memorize eloquence, but hammer out his beliefs with the sober and joyful hammer of reason. He must choose what principles best apply to his poise in life, and he must choose them not because they sound good, but because they are good for him, they make sense, they do not promise beatitude, but are beautiful by logic, and not rhetoric. The lazy man wants seduction. The reasonable man, however, will sweat to thwart the succubus. His loves and beauties are earned, his morality is deserved by his effort. He does not repeat beautiful sentiments, but dares his own word. This is true morality, and not vain rule-saying. So let us be.