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The Law

Lawrence: Now we agree, don't we, that the Bible contains the word of God, even though there are many things in it that we find incredible, and that we can sort out the word of God from everything else by demythologizing. 

Sophie: I agree except, as I said, I hope there is some way we can save the resurrection from demythologization.

Lawrence: All right. Setting aside the resurrection for the moment, let's consider the word of God in two stages, correlative to the two parts of the Bible, the Old and New Testaments. We will start with the Old Testament, and we'll take up the New Testament later.

Sophie: Fine.

Lawrence: Now, since we are assuming that God's ultimate purpose is the establishment of Utopia, the perfect society, on earth, we should expect the word of God, once we sort it out, to say that, shouldn't we?

Sophie: Certainly.

Lawrence: All right. Can you point to a place, or places, in the Old Testament where the word of God that says that can be found?

Sophie: Oh, . . . I can't say off hand. I . . .

Lawrence: What about the law?

Sophie: The law?

Lawrence: Yes. The law of God. Now listen to this. The function of the law is to describe the ideal.

Sophie: What?

L.: I told you to listen.

S.: I am, but . . . you're losing me.

L.: Suppose we compare the law of God to the rules of a game, such as football or basketball. The rules are the laws of the game which describe how it is to be played perfectly. In football the ideal game would be one in which there is no unnecessary roughness, no clipping, no grabbing the face mask, nothing that would cause an official to impose a penalty. In basketball there would be no slapping an opposing player's arm, no charging, no goal tending. If either game were played perfectly, there would be no penalties or foul shots. There would be no need for officials to enforce the rules, and there would be no need even to call them rules. A football player would not grab an opponent's face mask simply because that is not part of the game, and a basketball player would not charge an opponent for the same reason. Do you see what I'm getting at?

S.: I'm not sure. You're not talking about the real world if you expect the players never to break any of the rules.

L.: No, I'm not talking about the real world, but it's an illustration of the way the law functions. Of course, in the real world a game without penalties is a rare occurrence. Human nature being what it is, the players are not expected to play the game perfectly. Human nature being imperfect, the games are imperfect, and there must be officials to continually remind the players of the way the game ought to be played.

S.: Human nature as developed during the course of evolution.

L.: Right. Now, just as the rules of a game describe the perfect game, the way the game ought to be played, laws serve the same purpose in the conduct of society. The traffic laws describe a society in which everyone stops for red lights and stop signs, no one drives a vehicle while intoxicated, and everyone obeys the speed limit. The criminal laws describe a society in which no one commits murder or rape, no one steals, no one passes counterfeit money, and so forth.

S.: Wouldn't that be nice. But what does this have to do with the Old Testament?

L.: In the Old Testament we have the law, or laws, of God, the divine laws which describe the perfect society as envisioned by God. In it people don't commit murder, or adultery. They don't lie or steal, or use profanity. They worship God, not graven images, observe the Sabbath and honor their parents. And they don't covet things that belong to others. The divine laws, you see, are a blueprint for the perfect world desired by God.

S.: Oh, I see what you're doing. What you have just described is an ideal world in which everyone obeys the ten commandments.

L.: Of course I have. The ten commandments are the law of God, the divine laws, as revealed in the Old Testament. There are many other laws to be found there, to be sure: ritual laws, laws of purity, among other kinds, but the ten commandments are the major ones. If everyone obeyed all of them all of the time, you would have a society that was very close to being perfect.

S.: I suppose we would.

L.: So we have found what we are looking for in the Old Testament. The presence there of the law of God, the ten commandments, tells us that the ultimate goal of God for his creation is an ideal world, a Utopia, where everyone acts in accordance with the ten commandments.

S.: I see.

L.: Now, let's turn to the New Testament. The Utopia envisioned there is where people conduct themselves as if there were no commandments, no laws, because the laws are unnecessary.

S.: I beg your pardon?

L.: Just as in the perfect football and basketball games in my illustrations, the players did not commit what would have been fouls in the imperfect games, not because they were fouls, but because they had no inclination to do those things that otherwise would have been fouls, the people in God's ideal world of the New Testament do not commit murder, or adultery, for example, not because of commandments, but because they have no desire or inclination to do those things. In the Utopia of the New Testament, to say that people do not commit murder or adultery is descriptive of the way they are, as opposed to the present real world where it is a matter of the way they ought to be.

S.: You mean that in the Utopia of the New Testament, people are the way they ought to be?

L.: Yes, but don't misunderstand. They have free will just as in the present real world. That is, they have the freedom to violate the commandments, but the makeup of the people in the ideal world is such that they don't want to do those things that the commandments prohibit. That's why the commandments are not necessary.

S.: Oh. Would it be the same thing as if, say, in the real world a law would be passed requiring people to breathe. That would be entirely superfluous, as no one has the slightest wish not to breathe.

L.: No, that's not a good example, because breathing is not something we do of our free will. A better example would be a law prohibiting us from eating grass. It's something that we are capable of doing if we want to, but a law against it is not going to change our conduct.

S.: Yes, I can understand that. Who cares if we're not allowed to eat grass? But the ten commandments are not like that. They deal with things that people are tempted to do or not to do. We've got to have laws to keep people from yielding to their temptations. I'll go along with the idea that God is hoping ultimately to establish a Utopia, but it's a Utopia, it seems to me, where everyone obeys his laws. The laws will be there so the people will know what it is that God wants from them. And the people will obey them out of respect for, or fear of, God, but to say that the laws are unnecessary, that's hard for me to imagine.

L.: Well, let's examine God's laws more closely. Take the commandment against adultery. Don't you agree that there are people in the real world who would not even consider committing adultery regardless of the temptation they may be confronted with?

S.: Yes, but in the real world, we have the commandment.

L.: We do, but what if we didn't have it? Let's say that God had never proclaimed that adultery is wrong. I'm talking about a hypothetical situation in the otherwise real world. In this case there are nine commandments, and as far as we know, adultery is all right with God. Don't you think there are still going to be people who have no inclination to commit adultery?

S.: Oh, surely, there are people who love their spouses and want to be faithful to them, and it wouldn't matter if there is a commandment or not. They're not going to commit adultery.

L.: And they won't even be tempted?

S.: No. Not if they genuinely love their spouses.

L.: What about murder? Do you think we need a law of God to tell us that it's wrong to kill another person except in certain circumstances such as war or self-defense?

S.: No, I think most people have respect for human life in general, and are not inclined to want to kill anyone, even people who have treated them cruelly, or people they hate.

L.: So that, just as in the case of adultery, there are people who don't need a law against murder to deter them from killing other people.

S.: Surely. Any decent person, the idea of murdering someone isn't even going to enter his mind.

L.: And stealing? What if God had never decreed that we shouldn't take someone else's property?

S.: Again, I believe all decent people will respect each other's right to exclusive possession of their property, and don't need a law to curb a tendency to filch.

L.: All right. Do you think the same would hold true of the other commandments? What about bearing false witness, honoring one's parents, coveting?

S.: I see what you're driving at, but with these commandments, it's less clear. I think most people would agree that bearing false witness, which is lying, – technically it means lying in court, but the spirit of it means lying in general  - is wrong. Even so, there is more of a tendency, even in some otherwise decent people, to do it anyway. There is a strong need for a commandment against that. Also, the commandment to honor one's parents would be hard for some people, because some parents aren't deserving of honor. As to the commandment against coveting, I have a lot of trouble with that one. The commandment says: "You shall not covet your neighbor's wife, nor his house, his manservant, his maidservant, nor his ox, his ass, nor any thing that is your neighbor's.” The dictionary defines covet to mean "crave, desire, fancy, lust after, or pine for.” And I say, what's wrong with that? What harm is there in, say, lusting after your neighbor's wife? That's strictly a thought process, isn't it? As long as you keep your thoughts to yourself, who cares if you do a little lusting?

L.: God cares.

S.: I suppose he does, or he wouldn't have given us the commandment, but I don't understand why he cares. What difference does it make to him what we think, as long as we don't act on our impure impulses?

L.: It has everything to do with what I perceive to be his goal of the ideal world. It consists of a people who have a certain attitude, a state of mind that keeps them from doing things that would violate the commandments. People like that aren't going to even think about committing adultery which is what lusting after someone else's wife really is. In fact, Jesus himself said that "every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” You see, if people have the right state of mind all the time, they won't be doing any wrongful acts, such as adultery or stealing.

S.: Oh, I don't see how that's possible. We can't control our thoughts. No one can. Even the greatest of saints is going to have impure thoughts, thoughts that he or she would rather not have. It's one of the traits of being human.

L.: It is now, I agree. But in the ideal world I believe God envisions, people will not have impure thoughts. And just as in my eating of grass example, they'll be perfectly obedient to God's laws without the temptation to be disobedient, and without the necessity of even having laws.

S.: Tell me, then; how do the people get themselves into this state of mind where they have no impure thoughts and they don't need laws to tell them how to behave?

L.: That's a good question. Let me ask you this. Did you ever notice that the ten commandments are mostly negative? There are only two of them with a positive note - remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy, and honor your father and mother. The rest of them are things that are prohibited. You shall have no other gods besides God, you shall not bow down to graven images, you shall not take the Lord's name in vain and you shall not kill, steal, lie, commit adultery or covet things belonging to others. Theoretically, a person could spend his Sundays in church activities, be nice to his parents, and carefully refrain from doing anything that would violate the other eight commandments, and yet never accomplish something worthwhile.

S.: Ahem. Excuse me, but if a person did all of that, isn't that something worthwhile?

L.: Do you really think so? No one else is benefiting from his behavior, except his parents, unless you consider it a benefit not to be killed, stolen from, or lied to.

S.: I think that's a benefit.

L.: Oh, certainly it is. But what I'm getting at is the attitude toward other people that's reflected in the bottom five commandments. It's entirely negative, we must simply do them no harm. Otherwise, it would seem to be all right to leave everyone alone, regardless of what condition or predicament they might be in. Wouldn't you think God would want us to look out for other people. Wouldn't you expect him to have a commandment that gives us a positive duty to help other people if they need it. What about someone who is drowning? If you can swim, and have the means to go in the water to save the person, don't you think God would want you to? Especially if you wouldn't be putting yourself in any danger.

S.: You know, you're right. There should have been a positive commandment like that. Certainly God would want people to help one another.

L.: What if I told you there is such a commandment?

S.: Oh? Are there other commandments besides the ten we have been talking about?

L.: Yes, in the New Testament. The original ten commandments in the Old Testament have been carried over into the New, but Jesus reinterpreted them and gave them the positive element that we have just now observed was missing. Jesus boiled them down to what he called the two great commandments:

“1. Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, with all thy mind, and with all thy strength; and

2. Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”

Consider the first four of the ten commandments, and you will see that they are included in the first new commandment. What it really means is that you must love God with your entire being. If you do that, you certainly will have no other gods, you won't worship graven images, you won't take the Lord's name in vain, and you will honor him by keeping the Sabbath holy.

S.: Yes, I get the idea. Let me do the second. If you love your neighbor - I am assuming that by "neighbor" Jesus meant any person whatsoever, regardless of race, color, creed, or national origin.

L.: That's correct. The parable of the Good Samaritan makes that very point.

S.: Okay. If you love your neighbor, other people, as yourself, you won't kill them, or steal from them, or bear false witness against them, or commit adultery, or covet their possessions. And as for your parents, if you love them, you will honor them. But, more importantly, love is something positive. If I see someone drowning, to love him means I have an obligation to try to save him. I see what you mean by Jesus having reinterpreted the commandments. But wait a minute! I think I have caught you in an inconsistency.

L.: How is that?

S.: You said that, in the Utopia of the New Testament, laws were not necessary, because people would have no inclination to do those things that the laws prohibited. But now you are saying that Jesus took the ten commandments and reinterpreted them into the two great commandments to love God with your entire being and to love your neighbor as yourself.

L.: Yes. So?

S.: So, there are still commandments, only fewer. The New Testament hasn't eliminated the law; it has only narrowed it down. There are still obligations placed on people that may very well be against their inclinations. Loving God and loving other people may be what Jesus taught us to do, and people may do so willingly for that reason, but that doesn't mean they really want to do it. Someone will jump in the river to save a drowning person, because he loves that person, but jumping in the river at that moment might be the last thing he wants to do. He does it because of obedience to the law of love, not because he is inclined to go swimming whenever the occasion to rescue someone arises.

L.: No, obedience to the law of love is uncoerced, by definition. To love God with your whole heart, and your mind, and your soul, means you are loving him willingly, without any reservations. By the same token, if you love your neighbor as yourself, you will do things for the neighbor's benefit, just as you do things for yourself without giving it a second thought. The people of Utopia love God and their neighbors not because they ought to, but just because they do. The reason they love is not that they are obeying the law of love, but because they want to love. It is in their nature to love.

S.: Oh, I think I see it now. In the Utopia of the New Testament, everyone loves everyone else, not because God wants them to, but because of the way they are.

L.: Exactly.

S.: So the word of God, as we have it in the New Testament, is that God's ultimate goal for the world is the kind of Utopia we were talking about at the beginning of this discussion where everyone loves everyone else.

L.: Yes. The mystery is how God expects this to be accomplished when he has chosen, as his instruments for achieving it, human beings who, as we said before, have a built-in characteristic that is just the opposite: self-centeredness.

S.: I agree. In my opinion, since God doesn't show himself to people, or talk to them, and if they're not convinced by the Bible, then I don't see how most people, with their attribute of self-centeredness, can be persuaded to do anything in furtherance of an ideal world where laws are unnecessary, since, for all practical purposes, it appears to be impossible of fulfillment.

L.: Then they must be convinced by some other means that it is not impossible. They must be convinced that such a Utopia is possible and that it can be accomplished by an exercise of their free will. People must learn that, with the physical and mental equipment they have, they are capable of using their free will to eliminate their self-interest and become do-gooders. Although it may be extremely difficult, they must be shown that it can be done and that the human beings who are successful will have attained, through will power, what I believe is the final evolutionary stage of development. When everyone on earth has reached that stage, we will have Utopia here on earth, and God's goal will have been attained.

S.: The final evolutionary stage? You mean that evolution has not yet been completed?

L.: No, I think that the destruction of the self-interest attribute of human beings is the ultimate goal of evolution. Right now we are in the next-to-last evolutionary stage, and to enter into the last requires human beings to rid themselves of their egos, or at least that portion of their egos that has been compelling them to seek their own self-interest rather than the interests of others. When that has been accomplished by everyone, they will all be do-gooders and Utopia will be at hand.

S.: Well then, you are saying that Utopia is the goal of evolution as well as the goal of God.

L.: Yes. Since evolution is the machinery by which God created human beings in the first place, it stands to reason that the machinery which he set in motion at the beginning would have his goal as its goal at the end.




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