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"I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage."
According to numbers published by the New York Times Magazine (December 7, 1997), 96 percent of Americans said they believed in God; the words "In God We Trust" decorate our money; and a depiction of Moses and the Ten Commandments adorns the courtroom where the Justices of the Supreme Court often pronounce the Ten Commandments unconstitutional when placed on the wall of a schoolroom. Our founding fathers in America acknowledged God as our creator and source of universal, unalienable rights and moral standards. Why do we now appear threatened by that assertion?
Judge Roy S. Moore, the Alabama jurist who is locked in a legal battle to keep a handcrafted replica of the Ten Commandments on his courtroom wall, said he is at the center of a debate about Americans' acknowledgment of God. "Are we still one nation under God? Do we still acknowledge a higher law?" he challenged. (Jewish Times, October 24-30, 1997). It would seem that we suffer from ambivalence about believing in God, acknowledging God as our ultimate authority, and publicly teaching that belief and authority to our children.
Jim Senyszyn, a self-proclaimed atheist, wrote in the Greensboro, North Carolina, Record (November 2, 1997) that "since the Bible's basic cosmological model is monarchical, any rights that do occur are by the sufferance of the monarch," and that "Religious symbols [e.g., displaying the Ten Commandments] intimidate and give false authority." An op-ed column by John Tuouy, appearing in the same newspaper, countered that "Nothing in the Commandments prescribes a Gestapo-like authority to enforce compliance.Human beings have free will whether or not to comply."
Universally, people struggle for freedom from despotic domination to determine their own destiny. Personally, adolescents struggle for freedom from parental power, so they can do what they want, when and how they want. Freedom from external control allows for self-determination, self-expression, self-fulfillment . . . oh, oh, too much "self" . . . opportunity, diversity of opinion and ideas, experimentationclearly a chance to explore the farthest reaches of human individual possibilities. As far as it goes, that is not a bad thing. But should there be limits? How do we judge whether what we are doing is right or wrong? Is all individually desired behavior fair or good for others or society as a wholeand should that even matter? What ultimately makes life purposeful and meaningful?
For many folks, "believers" or "non," the issue of "outside and ultimate authority" is a touchy one. Many people call my program and describe a relationship with God as one in which God loves and comforts them or sometimes does them favors. When I question them further about their sense of obligation to God, there is generally an uncomfortable silence, followed by protestations that churches are manmade and so are the rules, therefore there is no obligation other than their personal preference. When I suggest that the Scriptures clarify God's will for our behaviors, they often dismiss me with arguments like: "The Bible is written by a number of different authors over a long period of time and 'after the facts' and therefore isn't necessarily literally the word of God," to "There are many ways to interpret the passages," to "That was then and this is modern times," and finally, "My situation is different." Yet, many of these same people will turn to the Scriptures in times of pain or challenge. As somebody once said, "There are no atheists in a foxhole."
As Donna, one of my listeners, wrote, "I heard something on TV last night and I thought of you. It was on a new show about a priest called Soul Man. The priest asks an acquaintance if she goes to church. She says, 'No, too many rules.' The priest replies, 'Do not steal, do not murder . . . who can take that kind of pressure?'"
While it is noble for human beings to aspire to freedom, if there is no flip side to that coin it will inevitably collapse in on itself. A Frank and Ernest syndicated cartoon strip (January 14, 1998) depicts Moses holding the tablets and asking God, "This isn't one of those 'Take responsibility for your own actions deals'is it?" The flip side to the freedom coin is responsibility, without which you have the logic given by former Washington State Bar Association president Lowell Halverson, who had sexual affairs with several of his clients whom he was representing in divorce and child-support cases. Asked if his conduct was "inappropriate," Halverson called that a "value-laden word." "What is inappropriate for one person is not for another," he said. "I respect other people's values, but they don't have to be my values." (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 13, 1997).
The oft-quoted line from Dostoevksy's The Brothers Karamazov, "Where there is no God, all is permitted," comes to mind here. There are those who think that adult sexual activity with small children is morally correct; there are those who think that eliminating the weak and ill (Hitler) or the educated (Pol Pot) or the different (Hutus, Serbs, race supremacists) or the dissenting (Stalin or Mao) is correct.
Can the human population survive if it tolerates no standard of values for what is correct? Can we tolerate the concept of absolute values without thinking our freedom has been usurped? Can we find more value, meaning, direction, and gratification from a life with absolute values than without? And whose values will they be?
If the values are not God-derived, they come from fads and favorites (these days, single motherhood by choice is idealized, but moving an owl from its nesting place to make way for construction is real badhuh?), laziness (if you actually admit that something is "wrong" you'd have to give up your comfortable life and do something about it), selfishness (what I want is automatically defined as good), and a personal desire to get away with anything under the protection of nonjudgmentalism (it's my life!).