The First Commandment

The other day, one of my readers sent me a hilarious note:

Hey, Mark, you may get terrific questions as a Catholic author/speaker, but as a Catholic high school teacher, I get terrific answers. My current favorite:

Q: Name the seven capital/deadly sins.

A. (among the others): Sluttony

I have to say I enjoy this brilliant accidental portmanteau word as a sort of idiot savant moral insight into our culture. It exactly describes countless millions of square miles of what now constitute "Western values" (i.e., those values being proposed to us by the Manufacturers of Culture as a counter-narrative to the gospel and Christian virtues). But though the accidental insight is wonderful, it remains nonetheless accidental. We may be happy when a bad tennis player flails and accidentally wallops one over the net, but we don’t thereby confuse him with a good tennis player. Similarly this student’s poor familiarity with elementary Catholic moral teaching, while luckily insightful, is still the equivalent of throwing her racquet at the ball and accidentally scoring a point.

We need to do better than that in the game of life, and the quickest way to start is to learn something about the Ten Commandments (quick! Can you name all ten?)

One quarter of the Catechism of the Catholic Church is devoted to the moral life and is founded on the revelation given in the Ten Commandments. (The other three quarters are occupied by the Creed, the Seven Sacraments and the Our Father). Of course, to say that the Ten Commandments are “revealed” already raises a problem, which has been pounced on by polemicists like Christopher Hitchens. He argues that it is silly to say the Commandments are revealed because it is silly to say people did not know murder was wrong till Moses told them so on Mt. Sinai. He goes on from there to make the normal red herring argument that God has nothing to do with our knowledge of right and wrong.

He might have a point, if Scripture itself did not record numerous tales of murder and mayhem long before Mt. Sinai which make clear that the wrongness of murder and similar grave sins was, of course, known since the dawn of time (otherwise the story of Cain and Abel, not to mention Moses’ murder of the Egyptian, makes no sense). In other words, it is not news to the authors of Scripture that certain things are knowable by the light of natural law. However, they are not such fools as to instantly conclude that God is therefore dispensable. Only highly advanced people can be that silly.

To get at what I mean, contemplate the well-meaning person who tries to figure out how believers and unbelievers can have a "shared ethic".

Such a person is apparently unaware that we already do. It works like this: God is just, wise, good and loving and creates us all in his image and likeness. Some people admit this and try to be just, wise, good and loving out of love for him. Some people admit this and try to be just, wise, good and loving out of fear of him. Some people do not know this and try to be just, wise, good and loving out of some pagan notion that the gods or karma or the Tao ordain it. Some people do not admit this and try to be just, wise, good and loving out of a muddled notion that they are Just That Sort of Chap. Some people do not admit this and try to be just, wise, good and loving out of a muddled notion that Their Chromosomes speaking by the Holy Spirit of Evolution Command It. Some people do not admit this, say, "Screw trying to be just, wise, good and loving. I don’t have to listen to my chromosomes when they determine my hair color, so why should I listen to them when they say to sacrifice for the good of the species?" and do what they want.

It is not the case that an unbeliever must perforce be immoral. Many choose to do what is right, even though their explanation for how they determine, much less do, what is right is a farrago of nonsense. There is such a thing as eupocrisy , or being better than one’s own ugly philosophy of atheistic materialism. That said, it is absolutely the case that a materialist atheist cannot supply a coherent account of why he is moral, nor even how he knows what good and evil are without smuggling in transcendent categories that are ultimately stolen from natural law (which is ultimately from God) and/or Judeo-Christian revelation. As the real modern atheist, Richard Rorty, pointed out, apart from reliance on God, there is no universally valid answer to moral questions such as, "Why not be cruel?" Saith Rorty:

Anybody who thinks that there are well-grounded theoretical answers to this sort of question . . . is still, in his heart, a theologian or a metaphysician. He believes in an order beyond time and change which both determines the point of human existence and establishes a hierarchy of responsibilities.

It is in order to avoid admitting this fact (even to themselves) that that atheists concoct claptrap about "selfish genes" and other bilge. All this is nothing other than an effort to paper over the fact that atheist morality basically consists of theft of bits and pieces from what God has revealed through nature and revelation. I have no objection to the theft. It’s what keeps atheists in possession of what sanity they have. But theft it remains. A materialist can give absolutely no account of morality because you cannot derive Ought from Is. Anyone who claims you can is practicing sleight of hand and self-deception.

And that brings us back to is why we speak of the Commandments as “revealed”. The Church is perfectly aware that (some) of the commandment encapsulate moral truths knowable by the light of natural reason. But taken as a whole, the effect of the commandments is to root our moral perceptions in supernatural revelation by showing us clearly the source of the moral law: God.

That is why the commandments are ordered the way they are: because the commandments are not primarily about setting up an ethical arrangement for a functioning civil order. They are, rather, for the purpose of calling Israel (and ultimately the whole human race) into a relationship with the Author of creation and the human person. And so the first commandment speaks to Israel, not in the language of philosophy, but in the language of covenant:

I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.

You shall have no other gods before me.

Perhaps the most significant word in this verse is "your." Without it, there is no covenant, for it is in God’s giving himself to us (and we to him) that a covenant happens. For a covenant is a sacred family bond of kinship. "The Lord God" is a remote deity, somewhere up in heaven. He is powerful to be sure, and the artificer of the universe, but still remote. But "the Lord your God," though still awesome and powerful and the Maker of All, is something more: a Father who gives himself to us and who calls us to give ourselves to him unreservedly and with complete devotion, as he has done.

That will matter in considering all the rest of the commandments, because the Ten Commandment reveal the moral law to be, not the product of Darwinian natural selection, nor of an impersonal Tao, nor of mere human origin, but an expression of the Word of God’s love for us: a love which would be fully revealed, not on Sinai, but on Golgotha.

For the next ten weeks, we will take a look at the Ten Commandments in light of the fullness of revelation who is Christ. Stay tuned.

Mark Shea

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Mark P. Shea is a Catholic author, blogger, and speaker.

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