Golden Rules
Rev. Douglas Taylor
November 10, 2013


A story is told of an ancient time when the people lived in an arid desert country. Trees were scares and fruit was sparse. It is said that God wanted to make sure all the people had enough to survive in the difficult landscape. He called upon a prophet and announced to him that the people must restrict themselves to eating only one fruit per day. “Record this in the Holy Book and be it known that to go against this decree is to sin against God and against humanity. This commandment is for all people for all time.”

This commandment was observed faithfully by the people for centuries. Eventually scientists discovered a way to irrigate the land and turn the desert into a bountiful home for grain and livestock. The trees grew plentiful and bent heavy with the lush fruit. But the fruit law was the law of the land, enforced by civil and religious authorities.

Arguments arose about the fruit that was left to rot on the ground because the law forbid a person consuming two fruit. Clergy would devote multiple sermons to upholding God’s commandment and how the righteous were those who obeyed. Many people became disillusioned with the commandment and so disillusioned with all of religion. Others secretly broke the law but felt deeply guilty for doing so. Some went through remarkable layers of logical justification to abide by the letter of the law while in fact breaking the commandment. The vast majority, however, continued to adhere to the one fruit rule and saw themselves as holy simply because they upheld the senseless and outdated custom. (This story is paraphrased from p85-6 of Anthony de Mello’s book Taking Flight.)

The Golden Rule is not senseless or even outdated. But it does arise from an era in which it was most necessary and in its time was the pinnacle of ethics. “Do to others what you would want them to do to you.” (from Luke 6:31) During the past half-century in particular, average people have become acquainted with the confluence of Golden Rules that are found in nearly all the major religions of the world. This is seen as evidence of its importance and global appeal.

Greek philosophers such as Socrates tell us: “Do not do to others what angers you if done to you by others.” The early Vedic tradition of India say: “This is the sum of duty. Do not unto others that which would cause you pain if done to you.” (from Mahabharata 5 1517 from the Vedic tradition of India) Confucius is considered the earliest proponent of this ethic of reciprocity: “Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.”

Buddhism: Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful. (Udanavarga 5:18) Christianity: Do to others what you would want them to do to you. (Luke 6:31) Islam: “None of you [truly] believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself.” (An-Nawawi’s Forty Hadith) Wicca: ‘an ye harm none do as ye will. (The Wiccan Rede)

Clearly these statements have come from a wide spread of cultures and locations. Interestingly the majority of these statements arose at around the same time in the history of civilization. Not that the religions themselves arose at the same time, but these statements arose from within the various religions at around the same time. It is German philosopher Karl Jaspers who called this time period the “axial age” because it was a pivotal time in the spiritual development of humanity. The axial age marks the transition from ritual to ethic. It used to be enough to go through the correct rituals, to enact the mythic story or take on the role of the First Hunter or the Great Mother. It used to be enough to offer up the sacrifice as prescribed in the story. But as humanity matured and more was needed.

I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream! (Amos 5:21-24)

We had to treat each other with respect, with justice. Ethics became important. The axial age demanded inner reflection so people could know their own motives and needs. What would you have done unto you, or not done unto you? This is the first step in understanding the motives and needs of another, in knowing what others would have or not have done unto them.

The Golden Rule served as the pinnacle of ethical behavior in its time. To this day the majority of people still consider it the best possible guide for ethical behavior. Its appeal, however, is not universal and there is a growing movement to critique it. It is not all that new a critique; Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Bertrand Russell have each grappled with its faults.

Jerome Slote is our Worship Associate today, he often brings me a David Seabury reading when he and I sat down to talk about the upcoming service, and this week was a prime example. We eventually selected the Shermer reading, but I can’t resist lifting up an excerpt from Seabury and his personal critique of the Golden Rule.

When I was a child, the women in my home kept me in long curls, starched white dresses, pink ribbons, bright buckled shoes and velvet-banded, delicate straw hats. They punished me when I climbed fences, shinned up posts, got out on roofs, chased cats, wandered in swamps, raced through thickets and shrieked when my tangled curls were combed. They loved white dresses, lace collars, fancy shoes. I was treated by the Golden Rule. (from The Art of Selfishness, p60-1)

Generally the root critique of the Golden Rule is that it limits the ethic to your own wishes. Karl Popper wrote: “The golden rule is a good standard which is further improved by doing unto others, wherever reasonable, as they want to be done by” (in The Open Society and Its Enemies, Vol. 2). This is considered a new Golden Rule or even the Platinum Rule. It clears up the oft-cited sadist/masochist dilemma. We can all breathe easier knowing the Platinum Rule allows the masochist and the sadist to get along.

Unfortunately this is more a play on logic and semantics then true ethics. If I like tea and my neighbor likes coffee, either the platinum or the golden rules could get us where we want to be. I could simply say, I like to be treated to my favorite hot beverage, I am sure my neighbor would as well – thus we need not disparage the Golden Rule, we need only adhere liberally rather than rigidly.

Seabury, considering things from the perspective of the little boy he was, takes issue even with Popper’s Platinum Rule saying it would not have helped for the women in his house to have been treated him as he himself at that age had wished to be treated because that would have left him running around near-naked with no manners and no self-disciple. Seabury suggests using neither your own wishes nor the wishes of the other when considering your actions. He says, “Do unto a small boy according to his basic needs, according to cosmic law, according to the ways of health and sanity.” (p 61) There are situations that a person’s best interests are not served by doing unto them as they would wish or as you would wish for yourself.

Kant, in Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, suggests a similar situational critique of the Rule – Platinum or Golden! A criminal, convicted by due process, may appeal to the judge for release citing the Golden Rule: The judge would not want to be sentenced to life in prison and the criminal also does not want to be sent to prison. Seabury’s suggestion to go beyond Golden or Platinum Rules gives us the ground we need for this situation. We proceed not as you or I would wish for ourselves but in accordance with a greater need.

My point is that the difference between the Golden Rule and the Platinum Rule is a logical semantic difference that is important if you are going to adhere to the rule strictly, literally, and rigidly. And both serve in a significant number of situations, but not in all situations.

Let me shift tack and look back at the earlier note about how all the world’s religions share a version of the Golden Rule. The sentiment behind such an observation is to say, all of the religions are essentially the same. It is to lift up the common ethical root beneath all the different religions. Much like the premise behind the personal ethic of the Golden Rule that says – what I want in life is surely what anyone would want because we are all the same. We are all one human family, we are all children of the same God, customs differ but at heart we are the same.

This is one of those deep truths that can lead us astray if we do not pair it with its complimentary truth that we are all different and our differences matter. Physicist Neils Bohr has said, “There are trivial truths and great truths. The opposite of a trivial truth is plainly false. The opposite of a great truth is also true.” The Golden Rule is based on the recognition of the ‘other’ as sharing one’s own essential humanity.

As civilizations developed, the differences between groups became an obvious and understandable barrier. In some ways the barrier was evolutionarily and culturally important. So as we grew, a rule such as the Golden Rule opened people up to see that we do share certain commonalities in our efforts to live good lives on this earth. It opened us up to see that the ‘other’ might be more like us than we had previously believed. As the pendulum of group dynamics and culture swung, a movement developed in which we see past the barrier of difference, to see our commonality as more true than our differences.

As this idea plays out, the extreme end will claim there are no differences that matter and that all people, all ideas, all religions, all cultures are equal. This is sloppy thinking and devalues and dismisses great swaths of beauty and truth in the world as well as glossing over great evil and abuse.

Yes it is true that we are all one human family; that we are all children of the same God – but that is not what all religions say. That is what I say. The truth of my statement of universality is a tenet of my faith not of all religions. Not all of the Golden Rules agree with each other. Not all people want the same thing. If a man walks into a bar spoiling for a fight, I don’t think I need abide by the Golden Rule and give it to him. If a particular religious edict demands the conversion of all non-believers I don’t think I am under any obligation to support it or to pretend that such an edict is not important to that religion.

Step back from the details and consider the grand purpose of the Golden Rule. God delivered this commandment to the prophets for a reason. Early civilizations evolved this ethic to serve a particular survival need. The sage saw the wisdom of this ethic for the good of the people. Whichever worldview you live in, consider why this ethic arose.

It is basically an ethic of tolerance. It is a call to live and let live, to not treat other people worse than you would wish to be treated. The Golden Rule is meant to establish a minimum level of civility so we down burn the whole human venture to the ground. It calls us to consider the commonalities, our essential humanity and God-given dignity.

It is now time for us to open a new Rule that goes beyond tolerance. We could continue to stretch the Golden Rule into a more positive form and claim it says more than it did when it arose millennia back. We could reach to a new goal of full unity among all people despite the evidence of our differences. I would like to suggest that a next level of ethic is available already in the call to hospitality.

The next step past tolerance is hospitality. Tolerance is a cease-fire with the neighbor, and clearly is still needed in our word. In my Press and Sun guest editorial this week  I suggested Compassion as the guiding ethic for the new era. Perhaps hospitality is a more suitable candidate as it serves as intermediary between tolerance and compassion.

There are a great many people and cultures and religions in this world for us to tolerate. Tolerance is the low bar, the minimum respect afforded based on our shared essential humanity. Compassion, if we are honest with ourselves, is reserved for a higher level of interaction. Compassion assumes a deeper relationship and connection that needs to be built, earned, and worked out. Tolerance lets your neighbor be across the street with the doors between us. Compassion is to set up a room in our house for the ‘other’. Hospitality is in between, the door is open, the stranger becomes a guest but not a roommate.

As with the law of the fruit from the story I shared at the beginning, we can allow our religious ethics to reflect the times in which we live. We can recognize that we do share an essential dignity with all humanity but that our differences are real and do matter. Let us be hospitable to the stranger in our midst that we may learn and grow in spirit together.

In a world without end,
May it be so