The Heart of Christian Ethics, As Best a Buddhist Gal Can Figure
When asked by learned men which of God’s commandments was the highest, Jesus said this:
“’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40)[i]
Although neither of these edicts, to love God and your neighbor, were explicit in the Ten Commandments handed down to Moses, one can see how within these two statements all ten are contained.
Love of God and neighbor serves as a foundation from which to briefly discuss Christian ethics (or morality; the two terms are used interchangeably here). What does it mean to love God? Who is God? What actions and what kind of morality or ethics does that entail? And what does it mean to love your neighbor as yourself? Who is our neighbor? What kind of actions does that call for? Finally, how are love of God and neighbor related? I will try to address all of these issues in this short paper.
Of the Ten Commandments, the first four can be said to concern love for God.
“ Thou shalt have no other gods before me.  That shalt not make unto thee any graven image [idol]…Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them… Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain… Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.’” (Exodus 20:3-8)[ii]
It is clear from this and other biblical passages that love of God means placing nothing higher than God in one’s respect, veneration, faith, trust, or regard. We should love God so that we may become closer to Him, learn and do His will, and ultimately achieve our own happiness (though this is not a proper motivation).
God gives the universe meaning, according to Christian thinkers such as C.S. Lewis. God is the ultimate source of the universe, humanity, moral law, salvation, and goodness. In order to help us find that goodness God 1) gave us conscience, 2) sent us “good dreams” or stories of hope, 3) selected one people to whom He made a particular attempt to reveal Himself, the Jews, and 4) sent Himself, in the form of Jesus Christ, among us that our sins (all sins) might be forgiven. God did all this because He knew that when He gave humans free will, they would muck it all up. But moreover, God did all this because He loves humanity.[iii]
God is perfect and He made humanity in his image. The sin that leads human beings to go wrong is the sin that free will makes possible – selfishness, or putting the self before God. Since there is no happiness or peace apart from God, Lewis shows, trying to put ourselves in the center and find happiness external from God leads to all bad things. [iv]
Gustafson, like Lewis, points to the main “human fault” as putting the wrong things first. For example, idolatry is misplaced trust or confidence in something that cannot provide ultimate fulfillment or salvation (as God can).[v] The remedy is to seek a “theocentric ethic” in how humans order their lives. That is, to place one’s trust in God above all else, to love that which God loves, and to fulfill our duty as human beings to God and each other. “The human fault, then, is our tendency to be turned inward toward ourselves as individuals, or toward our communal interests.” To correct this fault “we are to relate ourselves and all things in a manner appropriate to our, and their relations to God.”[vi]
The last six of the Ten Commandments are the most basic rules concerning the treatment of others. Then encapsulate the most basic love for one’s neighbor.
“Honour thy father and thy mother…Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt not commit adultery. Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor. Thou shalt not covet they neighbor’s house, …wife, …manservant, …maidservant, …ox, …ass, …nor anything that is thy neighbour’s.” (Exodus 20:12-17)[vii]
Therefore, love of one’s neighbor is not just a feeling or emotion, but an action. To love one’s neighbor, one must do (or not do) something.
Human beings are instructed to love one another not just because it will lead to a good and just society, but because God loves us. Therefore, He wants us to love each other. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, for whomsoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16)[viii] In loving each other we will come to know God and in knowing God will come to love one another.
When Jesus told people to love God and love their neighbors, one man asked “Who is my neighbor?” to which Jesus replied with the parable of the Good Samaritan. In this parable a man was beaten, robbed, and left to die on the side of the road. A priest and a Jew passed the man by, but a Samaritan, a rival of the Jews, saw the man and cared for him generously. “’So which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?’ And he said ‘He who showed mercy on him.’ Then Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’” (Luke 10:36-37)[ix] In this context the two neighbors are a stranger and a person in need. Therefore, every person in need is our neighbor. Every stranger is our neighbor.
In his book, Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis starts out with the premise that all people (or “Men”) know that there are the things they do and the things they ought to do.[x] Lewis holds that this “Moral Law” is neither a physical law like gravitation nor the social construct of humanity like good manners. It “must somehow or other be a real thing – a thing that is really there, not made up by ourselves.” This Law is, in effect, another reality “which none of us made, but which we find pressing on us.” Although it is brought to the forefront in human being’s treatment of one another, it was not created by humanity, but rather by God.[xi]
This being the case, we must look to God, through the example of Jesus, to determine what constitutes moral or ethical behavior in our treatment of each other. Jesus had a deep love and respect for human beings, which often manifested in radical ways. He criticized Jewish leaders for abuse of the Law. He spoke of the worth of each and every individual, even the lowest castes of society, tax collectors and prostitutes. He failed to fulfill the role of the Messiah expected by the Jewish people by not leading them into rebellion, but by advocating peace. “For him, all human activity was life in the presence of God, under the direction of God, subject to the judgment of God.” He was uncompromising in his ethic of “obedient love.”[xii]
When Jesus said that the first edict, love God, was “like” the second, love your neighbor, he used the Greek word homoia meaning “of the same nature as.” Therefore, to love God is to love your neighbor and to love your neighbor is to love God. However, the hierarchy remains of first loving God, for it is from God all moral conduct flows. “Only by implementing these first four commandments correctly do believers in God acquire the religious and spiritual strength to accurately execute the last six.”[xiii] Yet the fulfilling the first four commandments and loving God is not enough, as Jesus explains:
“’Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave Me food, I was thirsty and you gave Me drink, I was a stranger and you took Me in, I was naked and you clothed Me, I was sick and you visited Me, I was in prison and you came to Me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink?’… And the king will answer them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’” (Matthew 25:34-40)[xiv]
C.S. Lewis puts the relationship this way:
“I may repeat ‘Do as you would be done by’ till I am black in the face, but I cannot really carry it out till I love my neighbour as myself: and I cannot learn to love my neighbour as myself till I learn to love God: and I cannot learn to love God except by learning to obey Him. … For the longest way round is the shortest way home.” [xv]
In stating that Christians (or all human beings) should love God and love their neighbors as themselves, Jesus was not making a revolutionary statement. Rather, he was combining two older edicts (Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18)[xvi] from different parts of the Old Testament of the Bible and giving them new importance. In so doing, he laid a foundation that Christians who followed him have been building on for two-thousand years. Love of God involves making highest priority in one’s life that which is highest: God. Through love of God, a Christian attempts to do His will as best he or she knows it, which includes loving one’s neighbor as oneself. Jesus modeled a radical kind of love for others that Christians attempt to emulate to this day. For it is through love of fellow human beings, loving those whom God loves, that humans enact their love for Him. In loving one’s neighbor, one comes in closer contact with God. Love, then, is the heart of Christian ethics.
Carroll, Robert, and Prickett, Stephen. The Bible: The Authorized King James Version. Oxford University Press, 2008.
Crook, Roger H. An Introduction to Christian Ethics, Fourth Edition. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2002.
Gustafson, James M. Ethics from a Theocentric Perspective. The University of Chicago Press, 1981.
Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity. New York: The MacMillan Company, 1954.
Locke, Kenneth A. “The Foundations for Ethical Behavior: A Christian Perspective for a Dialogue with Buddhism,” His Lai Journal of Humanistic Buddhism, Vol. 3, 2002, p. 323-332
New Testament. Nashville, Tennessee: Gideons International, 1999.
[i] Gideons, p.44-45
[ii] King James, p.89-90
[iii] Lewis, p. 38-41
[iv] Lewis, p. 38-41
[v] Gustafson, p. 295
[vi] Gustafson, p. 306
[vii] King James, p. 90
[viii] Gideons, p. 171
[ix] Gideons, p. 130
[x] Lewis, p. 3-12
[xi] Lewis, p. 8-16
[xii] Crook, p. 72-79
[xiii] Locke, p. 328
[xiv] Gideons, p. 52
[xv] Lewis, p. 68
[xvi] Locke, p. 328