A high school teacher of mine used to entertain his class by rattling off lists of oxymorons: pretty ugly, jumbo shrimp, constant variable. Sometimes he would take the opportunity to editorialize a little: military intelligence, airplane food, liberal religion. Everybody would smirk and the class would go on. The joke relied on the notion that liberal religion couldn’t exist because liberals are not religious and religious people are definitely not liberal. As if everyone knows there’s an inverse correlation between religiosity and liberalism: the more liberal you are, the less religious … to the vanishing point.
As with most jokes and stereotypes, there’s some truth to it. If you look at any of the traditional markers of religiosity, religious liberals are less religious than the conservative or orthodox. Liberal Jews tend to not keep kosher; liberal Muslims tend to not pray five times a day; liberal Christians have been known to have premarital sex. As religions have liberalized and modernized, communal religious practices have fallen away. Religious fervor has cooled. The logic of this may seem obvious, but there is no necessary correlation between the substance of a person’s theology and the amplitude of her religiosity. We have erroneously forged this correlation.
I thought of this a number of years ago when I was asked to lead an exercise with a group of religious liberals. I had asked them to imagine a community, based on their faith tradition, that was tight-knit, “really religious,” and “really observant.” I asked them to envision what foods members of this hypothetical community would eat, what they would wear, how they would raise their children, and how they would spend their time and money. What practices would be required? What would be prohibited?
Category by category, the response was the same: nothing would be required, nothing prohibited. I challenged them on this point: No foods would be prohibited? Not even foods grown by migrant farm workers for slave wages? Not even foods made through extreme cruelty to animals? Not even foods whose manufacturing pollutes rivers or accelerates climate change? Nothing prohibited? The response they consistently gave was that while people in this community would be inclined to, for example, avoid such foods, there would be no community-wide laws governing their practices. People would opt to do the right thing presumably because they would be good people who always try to do the right thing within reason.
Whether or not good people left to our own devices generally do the right thing is debatable. The world is awash with good people. Religious traditions have developed detailed ethical laws and elaborate technol- ogies for remembering those laws precisely because, even for good people, doing the right thing consistently is hard. We need support and structure and a community around us to give us even a fighting chance. And sometimes doing the right thing “within reason” is not enough; sometimes doing the right thing means going beyond what feels comfortable or reasonable. Doing the right thing may mean acting in counterpoint to what the wider culture deems normal or acceptable. But clearly, to many religious liberals, what we ultimately do with our freedom of choice is of less concern than that we have this freedom. Yes, we value community and social justice and caring for the earth, but freedom is a higher value still.
Our Freedom Fetish
Our love of freedom has become a fetish. The honoring of individual freedom over communal flourishing is a ubiquitous and powerful norm in the United States among both progressives and conservatives, although in different ways. The trend in our culture has been inexorably toward a world of individuals, each doing his own thing. We elevate the self to an almost godlike status. This renders religion, in which the self is sublimated in the service of something larger, unpalatable at best.
One in five of us leave our birth religion, having found it soul-crushingly oppressive, mind-numbingly boring, or both. Increasingly we think of ourselves as “spiritual but not religious.” We no longer rely on religious tradition for answers to life’s big questions. We no longer feel that we need the Ten Commandments — or any commandments — in order to live an ethical life. We don’t like being boxed in, we don’t like being labeled, and we definitely do not like being “commanded.”
But our triumphant world of freedom is failing us. It has not given us the personal fulfillment we seek. We have found ourselves adrift without a clear sense of purpose. Individualism has left us lonely. We spend longer and longer hours — cumulatively, even years — passively gazing at screens. Depression and anxiety are reaching epidemic proportions. “Deaths of despair” — deaths by suicide, opioids, and alcohol — are on the rise. When confronted with loss and suffering, we reach for rituals that once held meaning, only to find them empty, strange, and incongruous with our lives. We resort to “retail therapy.” We have done ourselves a disservice by choosing freedom from religion and going no further millennia. We’ve drifted into the moral and spiritual shallows. When anything goes, it’s hard to actually go deep.
Our lack of spiritual grounding has not only impoverished us individually; it has global consequences. Environmental devastation, economic injustice, and the pervasive violence of our society are made possible by our mass acquiescence to the systems that propel them. Through countless tiny, daily, socially sanctioned acts, we reflexively create and re-create those systems. When we are spiritually vulnerable, we can’t help but participate in them. We can’t even imagine living differently. When we are isolated, communities are fragmented, and we have no shared sense of religious purpose; we lose the will to resist the wrongs we see around us. We feel powerless to do anything about them. We become anesthetized to the suffering in our world and we lack any outside vantage point from which to envision a better one. So we worship “other gods” — wealth, power, the approval of others, and the eternal spectacle served up on our screens — and these other gods gain unbridled power. This is the political moment in which we find ourselves today.
The greatest irony is that the post-religious world has not granted us its promised freedom. While it seems like we can now do “whatever we want,” what we want is often invisibly shaped by powers beyond our awareness. There is always something that guides our aspirations — something for which we are willing to sacrifice. If we do not decide what that “something” is, it will be decided for us by the indifferent forces of the commercial marketplace. An observation on this point often attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson reads:
Truly, the gods we worship write their names on our faces. A person will worship something — have no doubt about that. We may think our tribute is paid in secret in the dark recesses of our hearts—but it will out. That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives, and character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping, we are becoming.
We may feel today that we’ve outgrown the need for the religious strictures of the past. But those very strictures might well have been devised for exactly such a moment as this. Now may be when we need them most. Especially today, we need shared commitments to hold ourselves accountable to history, to the future, to one another, and to something larger than all of us.
We need faith in our collective power to transform the world toward justice — a power authorized and fueled by the ground of being itself. Choose-your-own-adventure spirituality is inadequate to the challenges we face. We need religious practices like the Ten Commandments that are rooted in a deep and multilayered tradition, that are spiritually rich, and that are intentionally insu- lated from modern culture.
Okay, Okay, but Why All the Rules?
Many of us concede that we need to do something to cool the feverish pace of our high-tech lives. We want a greater sense of community and connection. We know that we should try to carve out more “me” time or more time with our families. And perhaps we should give more to charity or do more to work for justice and healing in our world. But we are understandably skeptical about rules. Getting mired in arcane religious protocols seems counterproductive. Since we already reject some of the laws of religious traditions, why should we sub- mit to any religious laws at all? If we should be free to marry someone of our same gender or to have sex before marriage, surely we should be free to do more seemingly trivial things like run an errand on a Sunday or eat a cheeseburger.
When talking about Sabbath rules, for example, here is what some of my congregants tell me: “I do a Sabbath a little bit at a time — an hour here, an hour there. But I don’t want anyone to tell me when to do it.”
“I take time off when I can, but sometimes it’s just not feasible.”
“I prefer to just try to keep a Sabbath vibe — feeling connected with my higher power — all the time, not just once a week.”
These are all ways of claiming that we are in control of our lives, our time, our choices. We are like the alcoholic who says, “I can stop anytime.” But for most of us it’s not that easy. The chronic anxiety with which so many of us live our lives today belies that claim. Our national epidemics of obesity and anorexia, drug addiction, and stress-related disorders in children and adults belie that claim. And our global runaway train of environmental destruction belies that claim. We are not in control.
We underestimate the tremendous, invisible power of our culture — the addictive pull of producing and consuming and the massive pressure to conform to social norms. We underestimate the capacity of the media (social and broadcast) to induce self-loathing — the feeling that we are never good enough. The seemingly perfect, glowing, beautiful families on Facebook and the ingenious ads for the latest shampoo or smartphone steadily feed our insecurities. And when we contemplate a full, committed religious practice, we quail at the social costs we would pay. For many of us, the whispered voices of fear are loud in our ears warning of our world spinning out of control, the threat of inadequacy and failures.
The cycle of producing and consuming is literally addictive and can often be pleasurable, yet it doesn’t begin to exhaust the spectacular range of human experience and depth of meaning available to us. When we revolve forever in its orbit, we’ll never know what we’re missing. And we’ll never know for sure whether we can, in fact, “stop anytime” until we try. If we’re serious about reaching escape velocity, we need to bring some serious counterforce. The Ten Commandments can serve as that counterforce.
Just as secular culture offers freedom from religion’s laws, religious law offers freedom from secular culture’s laws. The question is not, Should we be bound by law or should we be free? The question is, In which law are we most unduly or unhappily bound? And in which freedom are we most truly free?
That the context of the Ten Commandments is so foreign to many of us today is part of what makes them a potent resource. They were written in a very different time in a language that is strange and terse and rich in symbolism and mythic archetypes. They exist outside of our social context (even as they were conceived within a social context of their own). Our hyperconnected world under global capitalism is different from that of nomadic desert economies millennia ago. Life and people are different. Unlike the Hebrew people, who were essentially tribal, we know very few of the people whom we affect. The keeping and breaking of commandments for us takes different forms and has further-reaching impacts. Today we can kill and steal indirectly as well as directly. Today we can make and worship idols collectively without even knowing it. Today we can lie and that lie can change reality.
And yet the human predilections and struggles that the commandments engage are recognizable and resonant to us today. Today’s world is as mythically epic, in its own way, as that of the Exodus. The ultrawealthy are giants more powerful than the ancient Pharaoh of Egypt. Corporate powers play the role of gods who can determine the fate of millions and alter the forces of nature no less dramatically than the ten plagues in Egypt or the parting of the Sea of Reeds. Our time has its own great narratives of oppression and liberation. The Ten Commandments give us an outside vantage point from which to truly see them. When read in this way, the social and political critiques embedded in the text practically jump off the page. And the constraints and disciplines that they require of us become revealed for what they really are: practices of liberation.
This essay has been excerpted from “No Other Gods: The Politics Of The Ten Commandments,” by Ana Levy-Lyons. Excerpt courtesy of Center Street, an imprint of Hachette Book Group
Why The Ten Commandments Are Practices of Liberation