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Christianity as Wisdom: The Golden Rule and the Intermediate Path

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[Americans and Europeans] had long been part of a culture in which religion was only a matter of words, exhortations and philosophy, rather than a matter of practical guidance for experiencing directly the truth of the teachings. – Jacob Needleman, Lost Christianity

Jacob Needleman is a well-known Jewish philosopher who, after writing about the infiltration of Eastern religions into American culture, sought to uncover a spiritual “core” of Christianity as effective practice. His concern was to ascertain how one could possibly move from reading and acknowledging the ethical instructions of Jesus to actually and effectively living them out.

My reflections arise in response to an interlocutor’s combative renunciations of the Golden Rule. Typical debates concerning Christianity focus upon whether it is, or can be, vindicated as a factual model of reality through some sort of semi-rigorous protocol, variously identified as proof, logic, or empirical testing. But the emotional hostility that may be, and has been, directed at the Christian faith stems from a more visceral response than mere disappointment that, if you will, a false sum has been added up. This particular interlocutor has expressed her desire to “destroy” a system that supposedly curtails the creativity and happiness of untold billions. Christianity, in a much-recited narrative, is not just off the mark but, in fact, dangerously and destructively so.

Assuming that this person practices what she commends, which is understanding the differences between us through sustained attention, then she surely recognizes that I do not recognize my Christian faith in these condemnations at all. From the inside, I see and have experienced how particular ways of practicing the faith can be destructive and harmful. But, from my own encounters with living saints and my own halting efforts, I also see and have experienced the remarkable capacity for transformation towards the good that has come from within this tradition. In short, I cannot fathom the apparent identification of Christianity as an intrinsically disordered human system. For my part, when my practice is more earnest I am simply a better person.

So whence comes the disconnect? A lazy apologetic holds that a certain harmful Christianity over here, or particular harmful Christians over there, are not or cannot be the genuine article. Then the secular opponent throws out the charge of the “no true Scotsman” fallacy and everyone is taken around the block once more. I’m not interested in that kind of discussion. What I’m aiming for is, I think, more subtle than that.

My interlocutor’s objection to the Golden Rule (GR) can be summed up in the second word of its very name: rule. She sees its potential abuse in the flat reading given to it as a bare command to follow. Given the spare verbiage in which the Golden Rule is presented, it screams out for context and interpretation, for a filling out of its meaning in particular situations. She suggests that a literal, simple reading of the GR ultimately reinforces self-serving aims.

One response can be to say that it’s obvious that any moral aphorism can be distorted when taken to extremes. Or one can note that interpretation is guided by the intent with which one applies the GR. To which she may respond: How do you know when you’ve hit the so-called “extreme”? How do you know the right interpretation?

And I think this hits upon the broader concern with Christianity as an allegedly dangerous force. What I see generating such reaction among secular opponents is the Christian faith as a set of rules or commands, taken “literally” (which often means, in a self-justifying way) and applied in a rather blind and ultimately destructive manner. Christianity is about “doing this” or “avoiding that” because “God said so.”

If all we are given is a set of rules (or, in the manner of the Pirate Code, guidelines) and nothing else, then perhaps they have a point. Being human, what we will do with rules is twist, bend, shape and mold them into that which fits our predilections and imaginations. This is the problem that Needleman points to: Christianity as a “matter of words.”

Why I ultimately don’t follow her critique of the GR is because I take Christianity exactly not to be a matter of words. Prescinding from the “empirical” discussion to which we so often turn, I would say that the heart of Christianity is discipline and practice. If I may word it in a way that will surely be controversial (and sound ironic, perhaps?) to its cultured despisers, I believe that practiced Christianity is a path of seeking and living out wisdom. Specifically, this is a wisdom that calls the practitioner away from self-deception and, consequently, from the harm that such self-deception inevitably imposes upon others.

This is what Needleman writes about when he describes what is “lost” as “intermediate” Christianity. What he means by the intermediate is the experience of religion between two poles. On the one hand, there is the ordinary experience of the religious vision as “high ideals” seemingly unattainable and ineffective for ordinary life. On the other hand, there is the exceptional, much-sought and much-misunderstood rapture of the mystics and visionaries who seem to achieve some sort of special insight or union with God. The real work of practiced Christianity, he writes, is in between. It is the work of coming to truly know oneself and then, from that work, living the ethical vision contained in the teaching. Needleman quotes an Egyptian monk:

Modern people do not understand that the Christian ideals to which half the world attempts to conform comprise a description of the results of a specific inner act and inner inquiry…To experience love for God or my neighbor, even for an instant, is no less a result than mystical experience. To be virtuous is a result. To have faith is a result. Similarly, wisdom and compassion are results. – Father Sylvan

Needleman adds:

Christianity as we know it does not produce Christian results, either in the individual or in the world…[Father Sylvan] is in effect saying that the teachings of Christianity as we know them were not intended to be put into practice without what he calls elsewhere “the accumulation of the force of inner attention.”

In other words, if Christianity is a wisdom tradition and not merely a set of instructions, then one achieves the quality of the teaching that is contained within not through a mental acknowledgment but through a sustained and honest practice (sustained, I believe, by the effulgence of divine mercy). Along the way, there will be the kinds of harmful interpretations that my interlocutor talks about, for it is the nature of wisdom to be frequently misunderstood.

Here’s one way I can sum this up: even were I to follow my secularist friends to their conclusions on empirical grounds, I do not think I could ever share their highly negative interpretations of Christianity. Were I to somehow become an atheist, I would not go around condemning the faith as delusion, as something that “ruins everything” and whatnot. And I think that has a lot to do with the understanding of Christianity that I have prized and sought to live out day by day.

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