To read a text in the company of Leon Kass is always to see things one might otherwise not have seen and to be moved to reflect on hard and complicated questions about the meaning of our humanity. His essay on the Decalogue, patiently building a case for its “enduring moral and political significance,” is no exception. One might engage it from many different angles.
But if the reader engaging it is a Christian, as I am, he can hardly help being provoked to thought by two sentences that come fairly late in the essay, when Kass is considering how the command to honor one’s father and mother in particular relates to our more universal obligations:
Unlike a later scriptural teacher, the Lord of the Decalogue does not exhort you to leave your father and your mother and follow me (Matthew 10:34-38). Instead He celebrates the fact that grace comes locally and parochially, into the life each one of us was given to live as well as we can, embedded in the covenantal community into which we have been blessed to be born.
That later scriptural teacher is, of course, Jesus of Nazareth, and it is worth our reflecting on one of the issues Kass here raises, the “vexed” question of the relation between universal and particular obligations in the moral life.
It is surely the case that buried behind the passage from the Gospel of Matthew is the crucial parting of the ways between two groups of Jews who survived the first-century destruction of the Temple—rabbis who created the rabbinic Judaism centered on Torah, and the disciples of Jesus. Both communities were heir to the same history, and both accepted the Scriptures of ancient Israel as authoritative. Thus, when Jesus taught (as in Matthew 22:37-39) that we are to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind, and that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves, he was only teaching what Israel’s Scriptures taught (as in Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18).
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But, of course, if both loves are commanded, there is always the possibility that they may seem to clash. Indeed, the story of the people who covenanted with God at Sinai begins in Genesis 12 when the Lord says to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” For children of Abraham, the call of God may stand in tension with our other commitments and loves, even those of home and kin.
We may respond, of course, by noting that to heed father or mother more than the call of God would not be to honor them as the creatures they are but, rather, to make of them something they are not. Thus, it is possible that we might have to disobey them even while honoring them—even, paradoxically, in order to honor them as creaturely representatives of God’s care. And, though his emphasis is quite different, Kass also recognizes that honoring is not the same as loving or obeying.
If, then, we are considering the “enduring moral and political significance” of the Decalogue, we will have to think, as Kass does, not just about the command to honor father and mother but also, more generally, about the relation between universal and particular loves. The problem is what we can call (using an Augustinian formulation) the right ordering of our loves. How shall we love God with all our heart, soul, and might while also loving those particular neighbors, our parents, whom we are commanded to honor unconditionally?
There are, I believe, roughly three ways of trying to connect universal and particular in our loves. We may build down from universal to particular; we may use the universal to limit and build a fence around the particular; or we may build up from particular to universal. Here I will make the briefest of comment on the first two in order to focus on the third, which is closest to Kass’s own position and is also, in my view, the most adequate.
We might try to begin with a love for God that includes (universally) all whom He loves and build down, specifying some—such as parents—who are to be the particular recipients of a love we would show to all if we could. Such an approach, though it may justify (on the ground of our finitude) a special focus of our love on a limited number of people, is not likely to justify loving them in the way we love father and mother. Alternatively, we might think of the love for God (and all whom He loves) as building a fence around our more particular loves. This prevents us from letting our particular loves and loyalties serve as warrant for doing injustice to those outside the circle of people closest to us. While there is surely something to this approach, it seems to turn love for God into little more than a negative principle that protects against harm.
It is better, I think, to begin where Kass does, with the particular loves that accompany our “embodied existence”—with “the contingency and parochial character” of human life. Building up from those particular loves, we may be formed into people who can love God (and all whom He loves) with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength—becoming members, in Kass’s words, of “a parochial community that bears a universal way.”
Perhaps—or so it seems to me—this is not so different from what that “later scriptural teacher” had in mind when he forbade loving father or mother “more than me” and taught that “whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother.” We will experience these sayings as hard, as calling for a kind of necessary renunciation, only if we have begun with a commitment to particular loves, such as that for father and mother. A universalist having, as Kass puts it, “contempt for the particulars” would be called to no renunciation and would experience no loss in learning to love God.
But, still, the beginning of our loves is not their end. We must build up if we are to take seriously the need to be “a parochial community that bears a universal way.” Particular bonds of love, such as the family bond, are a school in which we learn how to love those closely connected to us and thereby gradually become people more able to draw others—who have no special connection to us—within the scope of our love and loyalty. That is the end of the Abrahamic life: to know and to love all others as children of the one God who calls each of us in particular to Himself.
Gilbert Meilaender, professor of theology at Valparaiso University in Indiana, is the co-editor of the Oxford Handbook of Theological Ethics (2005) and the author of, among other works, The Freedom of a Christian: Grace, Vocation, and the Meaning of our Humanity (2006) and Neither Beast Nor God: The Dignity of the Human Person (2009).