Saturday, May 14, 2011


I am not your ordinary believer; in fact, I am not sure that I am a believer. But let’s pretend that I am. So it should not matter to you more than it matters to me whether my deity-above-all is Lord God or Jesus Christ or Someone Else. And it does not matter to me because I think that it does not, or should not, matter to Him (or Her). I do what I do, He does what He does, and I cannot see that what I do can mean more to him than it does to me. If He needs my praise or prayers, He is smaller because more self-centered than any deity worthy of my serious regard and His exalted position. If He cares about me, He cares about me; if not, not. Frankly, I cannot tell one way or the other, and I am not going to spend my time worrying about it.

But I can make a difference, not by doing rite, but by doing right. My big rule: if it helps people, it is good; if it harms them, it is bad; if it both helps and harms, for the most part, I count noses. That basic moral principle makes many moral decisions easy. I have one refinement when I consider the Golden Rule, of which there are two versions. The one is that a person should not do unto others what he would not have others do unto himself. The other is that a person should do unto others what he would have others do unto himself. Both have their place, but I prefer the former to the latter.

The former states a negative; it is not assertive, but it is respectful of others. I experience or anticipate unpleasant things for myself; I can easily imagine that others would experience or anticipate them similarly. This simple act of moral imagination gives me pause if I have any care for others. Still, the negative Golden Rule does not rule out acting to help others. Since I would not want my needs as a human, say, according to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, unmet, so I would not want others’ needs unmet. I do not want to be hungry, sick, naked, unsheltered; I do not want others to be hungry, sick, naked, unsheltered.

The latter is more problematic. The latter states a positive; it is assertive, and it is not respectful of others. It is makes one’s preferences the standard for others and leads one to make choices for, or to coerce, others accordingly. If one likes peanut butter sandwiches, he would oblige another to eat peanut butter sandwiches, even though that person might be fatally allergic to peanut butter. Or one believes in this or that God to be saved, so one would insist that others had better believe in one’s God to be saved. We know what comes of that kind of caring for the souls of others: dead bodies.

So my God does not care what I believe; if he cares at all, he cares what I do. If so, I do not think that he cares whether I observe rituals, but I think that he cares that I do more than write checks to charities. Whatever rituals can do for us, they can do nothing for Him. Whatever salvation there is for us, it does not come from bowing heads, bending knees, saying prayers, or singing psalms; or proselytizing to get others to share our beliefs or rituals. It comes from saying words and doing deeds of compassion.

The guidance on my refrigerator door is not the Ten Commandments or the Lord’s Prayer; it is an eight-word moral code of my own: seek truth, do right, demand justice, pursue peace. Do we always know what is true or right or just or peaceable? Absolutely not—which explains why we must talk with others and listen to one another. Are we able to carry them out on our own, do everything on our own, make it all happen? Absolutely not—which explains why we need each other to work together. Remember: even He did not do it all; He quit after six days, took a break, and left us to finish His work.