18/23- Morality and Religion

There are four features of religion that apply to any person who is accurately described as religious and to any social institution that is worth calling a religion. People who are religious and the organizations they join so as to further and be inculcated with religious feelings are, first of all, god-centered in that they are taken with a sense of awe at the powers that lie “behind the veil”, as Weber would call it. Such people, secondly, may also be taken or not so much taken with a ritualized sense of how to conduct a relationship with supernatural things, whether through sacraments, prayer, or other rituals, such as making a journey to Mecca. Thirdly, religious people and religious institutions may also take the strictures of a moral code as the heart of the religion, as the way God carries on his activities within this world. Some priests and rabbis in mid-Twentieth Century America felt called upon to preach about civil rights. And, finally, religious people can sense their community, whether of fellow believers or even of the civil society beyond that, or of the ethnic group of which they are a member, as itself having a sacred dimension. In that last case, the church is the congregate consciousness of its members and so it is the congregation that makes its members holy.

Now, different religious thinkers give more or less prominence to one or another of these features of religion.  Kierkegaard was interested only in the direct relation of a believer to God, as horror inducing as that might be, and so thought that most churchgoers were religious in name only. Adolf Harnack and other late Nineteenth Century theologians, to the contrary, thought that the history of the church was the unfolding of the will of God, whatever backsliding and progress that might involve. Humankind would have its ends unfold in the course of that history. So it was the history of the institutionalized church that was central to religious life. For their part, Pre-Vatican II Catholics thought that the central feature of the church was that it presided over the sacraments. If it did nothing else but see to it that the sacrifice of Jesus was reenacted over and over again every day at innumerable sites all over the world, that would be enough. And Dostoevski thought a church was needed to enforce morality because nothing else could do it; otherwise, everyone would become Raskolnikov.  

A question about religion that is historical rather than metaphysical is the order in which these features of religion arose. As was suggested in an early essay in this series, the spirit world abounds when nature is fecund, trees and ponds and mountains each having their own spirit or what would become rationalized as each their own nature. It was also suggested that monotheism, as that is a complicated doctrine having to do with how a spirit can be invisible and everywhere, arose among the Hebrews. They carried around scrolls rather than icons in their sacred ark. Ritual, as the anthropologists tell us, is at least what happens when magicians use formulaic expressions to invoke the spirits for good and bad, the spirits everywhere available to a technology of magic.

The sense of the community as holy is not the most modern of these four inventions. People in suburban America may think of their congregations as the true communities to which they belong, a fellowship much in contrast to a citizenship that awards merely an equality of rights that may be grafted onto a nationalistic piety. In fact, the idea and sense of community goes back to the ethnicity of the Hebrews as well as to the sense any tribe has that it is the essential tribe on earth. Morals, on the other hand, which many contemporary people think of as the greatest accomplishment of religion, goes back only so far as what Morton Smith called the revolution of the Sixth Century B.C., when the Greeks created moral philosophy at the same time that “Isaiah” created moral universalism from a religious root, and when, perhaps coincidentally, elsewhere in the world, moral philosophy built itself like a lean-to upon a body of religious sentiment.

A non-historical but equally natural way of approaching religion is to look at each of the four features of religion as a formal property of social life, which means a process that goes on in social life everywhere that social life is recognized to exist as such, which probably means beginning with those higher primates who had sufficient consciousness to engage in free will, but it is an idea applicable only as a metaphor to ants and bees, who can be said to have a social life because they have some analogy to a division of labor and a stratification system without knowing that they do, while people know to whom they are obliged to be deferential whether or not they know to call it a feudal system.

Community can then be ascribed to a pack of apes or to a wandering band of Neanderthals. The members of a pack or a band have emotional ties to one another wrought from their common experiences as members of the pack or band. Ritual, for its part, can be seen as a primitive form of logic in that it is a set of procedures that is supposed to be efficacious at one task or another. A sense of the supernatural can also be seen as a vision, if not an explanation, of how the world makes sense. The other world fills in the lacuna not bridged by explanations available in this world. There is also, by analogy, a balance or imbalance between good and evil as there is a balance between the forces of nature. Morality as a set of principles or adages can also be seen as what Talcott Parsons called, rather barbarously, the “latent pattern maintenance function” in that it helps people rough out the strains social relations by providing customs to live by, even as the “integrative function” of ideas and ideologies provides the set of meanings which, so Parsons believed, every society or community also requires in order to get by.

The historic fact of the matter is that, as the great religious texts show, morality is imported into the world rather than discovered. Morality is invented and imposed because people have to be convinced to obey what is or is to be taken as a command. While, from Aristotle on, philosophers have tried to make morality “natural” by showing how it is reducible to ineluctable human feelings or the inevitable requirement of social relations, in fact it is always a revolution in thinking, the imposition of a new superstructure on behavior as it is. That is certainly the case with Socrates, the first moralist. He reduces morality to the adage of “Know thyself”, which was obviously not something people naturally did, but was supposed to be the way they were supposed to guide themselves, and so Socrates took it to be a subject fit for instruction to the young when, of course, that was not what their parents paid the tutors of their children to hear, preferring their children to be instructed in rhetoric, which is a useful science, in that it is the art of persuasion and, perhaps, the art of eloquence that a prosperous farmer might want his children to acquire if they were to make their way in city life. Socrates is therefore a radical departure from his predecessors who were, indeed, the first scientists, in that they wanted to provide nature with adequate descriptions, an intellectual endeavor not found in the Bible.

The Socratic adage “Know thyself” is what might be called an “imperative adage”, as that is to be contrasted, to borrow Kant’s distinction, from a “prudential adage” such as “A stitch in time saves nine”, which describes a consequence, even though that is not the way prudential adages always work out, in that another metaphor, “We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it”, provides just the opposite wisdom, and so neither of them are scientific laws. Prudential adages merely provide one or another way to sense some description of the objective way the human world works. An imperative adage, like “the heart knows what the heart knows” or “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity” have single words or phrases rather than connections as their content. They put those words forward for contemplation and to serve as regulative ideals. Examine things in the light of these words is the command, even though “command” is not what they do: they only place the focus of consciousness upon them so that they will not be neglected. There is no need in understanding morality for any categorical imperative, and Kant’s categorical imperative is itself an imperative adage and so no more than an instruction to change focus from what is inside oneself to what is going on in the moral world outside oneself.

The rules in the Laws of the Covenant, as those are found in “Exodus”, are not imperative adages. They are transactional laws, and so a form of prudential adage. They go like this: if the transgression x happens, then y is the compensation. They are laws, though really more like “regulations” in that they have no moral force other than they are an alternative to anarchy. No more nor any less is required to correct what had gone wrong. That makes any transgression manageable and so puts it beyond the realm of revenge. Oxen killed in a raid are entitled to such and such compensation; a woman who miscarries earns her husband such and such compensation from the people who caused it. Raids that take place at night have a different schedule of compensations than raids that take place in daylight, presumably because the uncertainties of darkness are likely to lead to more inappropriate violence than the raiders had set out to perpetrate. All of these are laws in that they are categorical statements that applies as if it were a command to every instance for which its categories hold and the only exceptions are those which are stipulated or where long tradition has recognized the exception.

The Ten Commandments are something very different from the Law of the Covenant. They reformulate a set of imperative adages as laws and thereby add the moral aura that can accompany law without that being based just on fear of the consequences, which was true of the Law of the Covenant. The Ten Commandments are imperative adages because they do not stipulate conditions nor do they announce schedules of punishment. Rather, they use the phrase “Thou shalt not” as if that were the initial condition or in place of an initial condition. But the consequence is left hanging, as if what to do about a transgression is an afterthought to the contemplation of the enormity of the transgression itself.

This is accomplished rhetorically by the invention of that phrase “Thou shalt not” as the introduction to every prohibition. The phrase is weighty even though it makes each commandment an imperative adage in that it is pointing to some evil or other as an object of ultimate disdain. The phrase gains its weight from sounding moral rather than prudential. These are not just practical matters that need settling so as to return to some sort of social harmony. Rather, they are affronts not merely to man but, more importantly, to God, whose full authority comes into play with the enunciation of every one of these proscriptions. There is therefore no need, as many commentators do, to separate the commandments that have to do with God from the ones that have to do with social life. It is God’s disdain that makes adultery such a crime, on the very same short list with the requirement not to worship any other God. The authority of morality is bestowed by the verbal orders of God as those were written down by Moses. Nothing less would do, even if there had been previous legal codes that had prudential merit, whether as more humane than customary law or as useful rules of the road. The Ten Commandments are more than speed limits or other kinds of positive law. They are imposed by God upon human life rather than as a description of what is naturally required by social life so that it will result in well functioning societies. There is no reason supplied by the text to read that into them.

The Ten Commandments are quite correctly also understood, however, as an extension of this idea of law found in the Law of the Covenant, once one has absorbed the idea and so forgotten how they are holy rather than just prudential. That is because that singular and most inventive phrase, “Thou shalt not” makes a moral categorical statement, and therefore allows for the generation of exceptions to the category, given that the stipulation of any category, whether of race or class or mathematical set, also allows for the contemplation of exceptions, of how to include and exclude the particular within the general. The Ten Commandments differ only in their subject matter from other systems of categorization, those in the Ten Commandments being categories of forbidden behavior. The presumption is that there are penalties to go along with each forbidden behavior up to and including the death penalty, however curious and intriguing and fresh it is that no penalties are mentioned. As a set of laws, the Ten Commandments does not function just as an imperative adage which admonishes but does not specify behavior but only hopes that the spirit of its sentiment is heeded.

If the laws of the Ten Commandments are not just imperative adages, then when does some event or other become a murder or a robbery or an adultery, and when is it something short of that, either to be placed in some other category or recognized as not subject to any of these categories? “Thou shalt not kill” has long been recognized to have capital punishment and deaths inflicted in wartime as exceptions and to refer to what we would call criminal murder, and so parallel to “Thou shalt not steal”, which also prohibits what we would recognize as criminal activity, but does not bar sharp business practices. All of the moral commandments make sense in a nomadic culture and are radical enough pronouncements for the time. Moses and the leadership of the combined tribes will not abide people killing members of what had been a different tribe before consolidation. The twelve tribes of Israel are no more except for sacramental purposes.

It will no longer be enough, as it is in the Law of the Covenant, to pay compensation as the cost of doing the business of raiding. Rather, this is what can only be called the invention of a moral in that to engage in murder or stealing is to be thought of as an outrage and dealt with in that way rather than as a wound in the social body that has to be healed. So The Ten Commandments is indeed doing something that is nothing less than inventing moral law in that it is investing a statement of a prohibition with all the umph that would ever afterwards become associated with the word “should”. An act is wrong because it is wrong and that means people will feel it as wrong as well as have other people judge such action as reprehensible.

These laws are stated briefly, without their exceptions. Moreover, they seem to be about very different things. It makes sense to add adultery to the list of prohibited activities in that adultery is parallel to murder and stealing in rending the social fabric. But what of “coveting thy neighbor’s wife”? That is a feeling rather than an action, and it therefore makes sense to think of it as referring to a set of practices whereby heads of families find ways of coercing the wives of other family heads to come over to the other side, and so bring their private wealth or children or sheep or whatever. And there are any number of practices which the Ten Commandments do not bar. There is no command not to lie, perhaps because one would destroy social life if one did so and because important instances of lying, as in public debates or trials, are already barred by the prohibition against taking the lord’s name in vain, everyone, in one form or another, stipulating that they speak the truth, as God is their witness, in the public forum.

The important thing about a moral law is that it exists in an abstract and invisible way, and so is in keeping with the idea that the God of Israel is invisible and everywhere. A moral law is true or false and so is like what the Greeks would consider a natural law. It is indifferent to the particular circumstances, which we recognize in the idea that justice is blind; it can be stated in so many words but only in words, and so is different from a morality based on encouraging one or another virtuous emotion or encountering a person who is an appealing moral guide; and it is as if it had been discovered as the inevitable logic of social life even though it is imposed as a set of positive restrictions on behavior and so not something people would ordinarily come to. It takes God to bring these laws into the human sphere and this is one of his great interventions into human history. The Ten Commandments came from on high and not from an assembly of the people. “Exodus” goes out of its way to say that the law was brought down from the mountain while the people were worshipping idols. The law might well have seemed an irrelevance because it was not addressed to a felt need. Why the law rather than, let us say, regulations for the ordering of the tribes? This was God’s agenda, to give as a gift something not asked for. And so people do not create the law; they just find way to realize or enforce it. Law becomes, among other things, and after a while, a regulative ideal and also an operative code and an internalized sense of what is moral.

Moral law is therefore what Kant would much later say is the nature of justice, which is that it is to be distinguished from other emotions, even meritorious emotions, in that it is three things. Justice is a feeling, but it is also an abstract principle, and it is also an enforceable law. Justice has to be all three to be justice. Kant took this to be an analytic definition of the nature of that objective feature of the universe, and it is difficult to quibble with its accuracy as a definition, but one can also treat this definition as the stipulation of the characteristics of a literary form that the Ten Commandments introduces into the world: a candidate for a law is whatever presents itself as a law. It is worded categorically; it is contextless in that it is not given a time or geographical boundary unless that is stipulated; and each of its statements is a commandment in that it is presumably enforceable rather than a mere recommendation of what might be good or prudent conduct or something, like Hammurabi’s Code, which is more a set of regulations, a set of rules for the road. So while Hammurabi’s Code is very sophisticated as law because of the range of matters it covers, from wizards to the inheritance of land, the much briefer Ten Commandments is majestic and original in its invocation of that phrase “Thou shalt not” to install a sense of justice as at the heart of the law.

It hardly needs adding that The Ten Commandments represent such a leap forward in human understanding that it is easy to neglect its defining characteristics and instead treat it as good advice or the consolidation in a terse way of customary usages or as having a functional utility any tribe will discover. It takes a revolution in consciousness to come up with the Ten Commandments and so it can readily enough be attributed to a God who intervenes only with momentous events.

This point is important enough to bear repeating. The causal relation between law and justice is better understood if justice, the concept, is understood as the consequence rather than the cause of the law. The law is an aesthetic creation, a new formation of words, one that had not been there before. This new formation is characterized by its putting customs or proposed customs into propositional form so that they are either true or not and so that, like natural law, they do not brook any but noted or customary exceptions. But these laws are imposed rather than discovered and so find a religious source for their authority, however much later philosophers will try to ground them in a theory of morality or a theory of society. The advantage of looking at the matter in that way is that the nature of law becomes a part of literary studies in that is a kind of a text rather than a matter for philosophers who speculate about the nature of the object reified from the literary form.

The arrival of law, moreover, has a profound impact on religion. Ever afterwards, law acts a a kind of coadjutor of the world, sharing that burden with God. That is because, so powerful is law, God cannot violate it except under very special occasions, such as the Incarnation. That is the case, at any rate, in the Jewish and Christian traditions, where nothing God does is contrary to law, whether natural or social, and so there is no need to be afraid of science or morality. What is taken on faith is the truth of propositions that are neither scientific nor moral, but having to do with supernatural matters. Anyone, not just a believer, can come to understand scientific and moral propositions, even if the Church, because of its moral conscientiousness, can claim to be a bit ahead of things in its assessment of the moral situation. (Whether that is the case is an historical matter.)