So last time I was using Immanuel Kant’s tests of universalizability to determine whether or not the famous 10 commandments really are universal moral laws. Remember that if you want to read the originals go and look up Exodus 20: 1-17 and/or Deuteronomy 5: 4-21. So far we have looked at all 10 laws and tested them accordingly.
So, let’s tabulate. Laws 1, 5, 8, and 9 do turn out to be perfect duties. So you ought always to do the following:
- Do not worship any other gods besides the one true God
- Show proper honor to your parents
- Do not steal
- Do not speak falsely in an official legal setting
Next, laws 3, 4, and 7 turn out to be imperfect duties. So it is morally commendable for you to do the following, even though these can never be rationally or morally obligatory:
- Do not speak the name of God in irreverent language
- Reserve the seventh day of the week for holy activities and direct worship of God
- Do not be sexually unfaithful to your spouse
Finally, laws 2, 6, and 10 are not moral laws at all, and in fact are neither obligatory nor commendable. Now it does not follow that you should do the opposite of these, just that you cannot will these universally, rationally, or morally:
- Do not make any representations of God in any material format
- Do not kill
- Do not greedily desire the wealth, property or possessions of those more fortunate than you
So the 10 commandments turn out to be the four commandments, the three pretty good ideas, and the three very bad rules.
Now at this point the Christian might be screaming at me that of course Kant got it wrong, and since God commanded all ten of these laws then we must simply follow them without question. We must read and believe and accept that these laws are meant to keep us on the right path.
I do not accept that, and I consider myself to be a Christian. My problem is that God did not ordain 10 rules and then give me my reason so that I might blindly follow these rules without thinking. These rules were meant to be understood, they were meant to be wrestled with and ultimately we were supposed to come to a very simple conclusion about them.
These rules are impossible. Even the four perfect duties are not things I am capable of doing without fail, instead I will forever be struggling with sheer crushing weight of these unbearable rules.
But that is exactly the point of Christianity. The law, set out in the Old Testament, is irrational and impossible to follow. It’s not a list of things to do, it’s a thought experiment designed to show you what you can’t do.
Jesus explained it better in his Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 5:17-20 he says “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”
The law cannot be gotten rid of, it has a purpose to serve, and anyone who tries to opt out of following the law has missed the point. The law is your existential burden, it is your weight and your pain. You are not good by following the law, instead the law demands perfection of you.
Does the impossibility of that demand fill you with fear and dread? It should. Christianity has more in common with atheistic existentialism then it does with officially chartered religion. We are meant to discover that life is impossible, that we are doomed to failure, and that all we struggle to achieve is meaningless. You should know that you will fail, and that all you seek will come to ruin and desolation. You should realize that your greatest efforts are wasted and pathetic.
Because only then are you ready to take the leap of faith. Only then are you ready to commit yourself to the eternal folly of believing in Mercy. The entire universe is screaming at us that life is justice and failure. There is no reason to believe in hope, or in redemption. So we believe as do the mad, we believe in that which can’t be by merit of what we know not.
Morality is ultimately rational, but faith is the greatest irrationality there is.
In the rest of his sermon on the Mount Jesus goes out of his way to explain how impossible is the moral task we have set before us. He emphasizes time and time again that perfection, which we know we can’t achieve, is the bare minimum standard.
He explains that redemption is rare, and so we hope, pray, and leap.
In the prologue to Thus Spake Zarathustra Nietzsche the famous atheist writes “Man is something that shall be overcome. What have you done to overcome him?” To which I answer, “I leap!”