Sunday, May 06, 2018

On the Mount (29)

The so-called Golden Rule is not a new thing.

Infogalactic says, “The Golden Rule or ethic of reciprocity is a moral maxim or principle of altruism found in nearly every human culture and religion,” whether in its positive or negative form. From this ubiquity, one might reasonably conclude that the principle is inherently logical, intuitive or fundamental to human society; perhaps all of these.

Thus when the Lord Jesus laid out his own version in the Sermon on the Mount, it seems unlikely his audience had never heard this particular ethical statement — or at least something very much like it — before. History suggests it was a familiar concept.

Petersonian Gold

Dr. Jordan Peterson recently tweeted his own version: “Treat yourself as you would have others treat you.” From a psychological perspective, I suppose that may be a useful strategy, but one cannot help but notice that Peterson’s version is backwards, more like the teaching of Confucius than that of Christ. The Lord’s version is not about how we treat ourselves, but about how we treat others:
So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.”
What else is so different about this? Well, it’s not even really the way it’s framed; rather, it’s the rationale behind it. “Do unto others” is not offered here on the basis of how logical it is, or how intuitive, or how good it may end up being for society generally, nor is it even offered because it ‘works’ and produces desirable results for those who follow it.

It is offered on another basis entirely.

What “Therefore” is There For

In the quotation from Matthew above, I have emphasized the little word “so”, because in using it the Lord is pointing out the connection between what he is about to tell his audience and what he has said before. The Blue Letter Bible says the Greek conjunction oun is used in the New Testament to mean “then, therefore, accordingly, consequently, these things being so”.

In short, it directs our attention back to what the Lord has just taught about the fatherhood of God; that, like any good human parent, he hears the voices of his children and responds to their needs by giving them what they require.

Anyone who can in truth call God his father (and we have established that not everyone can do that) is in a perfectly secure, deeply caring personal relationship. This being so, the child of God can afford to be generous in his dealings and to treat others in the way he too would like to be treated.

THAT’s the real basis for the Golden Rule — not instinct, logic or societal benefits, though of course we can certainly see that the rule is indeed logical, and that general observance of it is likely to lead to a more fair and reasonable social order.

The Law, the Prophets and the Chimpanzees

Unsurprisingly, the Lord then goes on to point out that treating others the way you like to be treated is not only consistent with the teaching of the entire Old Testament, but in fact it sums up that teaching: if you treat your neighbors, friends, families and even enemies well, you will have done everything Moses ever required of Israel, and everything to which the prophets called back the people of God when they went astray. This is precisely what one might expect if a God who is a loving father to those who believe were to give his children advice about how to live and get along.

Not long ago, I watched Peterson and Dr. Bret Weinstein debate the evolutionary utility of such common wisdom. The consensus seemed to be that millions of years of natural development might teach men to order their own conduct as the Lord here describes. Peterson even tells his audiences that the longest-lasting dominance hierarchies among chimpanzees are maintained by those that treat their subordinates well rather than abusing their power. Even monkeys “do unto others” as they would like to have done to them, and thus their furry little kingdoms prosper.

The Fly in the Ointment

However, it may be easily observed in both history and nature that only a small subset of rulers, either animal or human, actually elect to behave this way; which might call into question whether a Golden Rule-based way of doing business is genuinely intuitive.

Either way, utility is not the reasoning to which the Lord Jesus appeals. In the long run, enlightened self-interest and even altruism are wholly inadequate motivations for goodness. It is only the security that comes from God the Father’s love for us and his very nature poured into our hearts that is sufficient to get the job done. Note that the Lord Jesus doesn’t tell his audience, “Do this because it works.” Rather, we are to do it whether it works or not. Only a truly Christian version of the Golden Rule teaches us to treat our enemies as we would wish to be treated, and even when they are determined to remain our enemies thereafter.

Followers of Christ don’t obey him because obedience works out better for us. We obey because of who God is, and who we have become as a result.


  1. Peterson has so much to say that is good and worthwhile. Much of it leads to an enhanced respect for scripture and has certainly pointed even atheists to reading and reconsidering the wisdom of the book. I'm grateful in large measure for the influence Peterson has and what it's producing.

    But Peterson also reminds me quite frequently of something C.S. Lewis pointed out: "he who sees through everything, sees nothing". While he regards them as good and noble, Peterson is constantly looking past both the bible and the person of Christ as if they pointed to an even deeper / and better truth. And in doing so, he constantly misses the real aim of the borrowed wisdom he shares. It's a sad and uncommon oversight with some real side benefits, but it's an oversight still.

    1. Yes. The longer you hear him speak, the more the essential poverty of a worldview without a literal Jesus Christ becomes apparent.

    2. That's one of the most accurate and perceptive summations of JP's problem that I've seen, Bernie. Being a Jungian, JP is constantly trying to look "behind it all," to find a universal set of symbols. And that works pretty well with some mythic traditions, because all mythic traditions really are is the (to one degree or another) errant attempts by humans to articulate the moral realities that are out there, objectively, prior to all their attempts. JP works very hard to translate all that for them.

      The problem is this: how did it happen that we ended up in a universe that composed of any such symbol-set? For according to Evolutionism or Materialism, we should expect nothing "behind" it all at all. It is surely the most surprising fact of all that we find ourselves in a universe of minutely balanced physical constants, governed by physical laws, sortable by logic, available to science, with morality in it, and full of symbolic indications of deeper truths.

      Yet one fact accounts for it all: "In the beginning was the Word." In trying to look "through" everything, JP's actually looked past the Logos, doubled around, and mistaken the symbols themselves for the ultimate truth. He's gone right "through" the One who is THE Truth, and ended up with nothing more that the handful of mythic symbols that were intended to point to Him in the first place.

      This is the danger of intellectualism: that we can think that when we see "more" than other people do, that means we're being right. But we may just be being too clever by half.

  2. That, and this: myth and metaphor can point you in the right direction, but they can neither empower you on your journey nor bless you at the end of it.

    Worse, you can't have a relationship with either a myth or a metaphor.