There is something quaint, even archaic, about discussing the Ten Commandments today. "Do people still let their lives be governed by these childish rules?" the sophisticated observer might ask. "Surely we've gotten beyond all that."
In fact, the price of getting beyond "all that" is quite high. It's not just that we have crime and corruption. Every generation has had that. Immorality has always been widespread, even among the children of the light. What is new is that Western society has moved rapidly towards the rejection of any moral standard.
Some see this as liberation. We are becoming autonomous beings, freed from the imposed standards of less enlightened times when religious morality was invented by the powerful to keep the rest of society in its place. We are entering a bright new era when people will be able to indulge their desires without guilt or shame.
My analysis is different. I say traditional moralists from Moses to Buddha were right to see insatiable desire as the primary source of unhappiness and spiritual instability. And I would argue that the glorification of insatiable desire is not a source of liberation, but the highest form of capitalist slavery.
Historian Christopher Lasch has painstakingly traced the story of how, since the 18th century, capitalist thinkers have increasingly seen insatiable desire not as a vice, but as a virtue which is necessary to driving the engines of economic expansion (see The True and Only Heaven).
Traditional virtues like thrift and self-denial are now perceived as vices because they lead to economic stagnation. They are seen as miserly, as qualities of the shrivelled-up person unable to enjoy the fruits of this life. The capitalist economy is impeded by such virtues, but thrives on avid consumers who know no limits to their desire.
To be sure, this is not the experience of the small businessperson who can only succeed through endless hours of work and rigorous self-denial. An advanced capitalist economy, however, needs shops and family farms far less than it needs millions of consumers armed with credit cards.
This transformation of unrestrained desire from vice to virtue has serious consequences. Moral codes only get in the way of desire. We need laws to ensure we don't fall into anarchy. But the prevailing ideology holds that no one should be under the illusion that these laws are anything but arbitrary limits to ensure the economy does not fall into disarray. Desire is the only real moral absolute. So if an unwanted pregnancy results from the indulgence of desire, why not terminate it? Or, if attending church is not fun, or at least pleasurable, then why bother?
Where nothing is forbidden it is because nothing is sacred. And where nothing is sacred except personal desire, every person is lost at sea. Unleashing insatiable appetites still leads to corruption and decay. This corruption is not only objective -- it leads to immoral behaviour -- it is also existential. We feel the loss of sacred meaning because we are created precisely to live for the sacred.
Often, living for the sacred means denying our desires. It means accepting moral limits. It also means accepting the challenges to our pride and complacency which come from taking a sacred moral code seriously.
The Jewish people were God's chosen people not because God let them do whatever they wanted or let them lord it over other nations, but because God called them to live by a demanding set of ethical requirements. He gave them the Ten Commandments not because he wanted them to shrivel up, but because he wanted them to blossom. The Ten Commandments held some things sacred and thus called some actions forbidden.
The commandments called the Jews to an heroic way of life. They were not called to be consumers and their religion was not meant to be a security blanket. Their faith in God meant they were challenged more than comforted.
The Ten Commandments are not a form of repression left over from a less enlightened era. They are still valid today. They call those of us who live in post-modern society to leave behind our complacent consumerism which is ultimately dehumanizing. They call us to live by sacred high ideals which stretch us beyond what is comfortable. They are a call to self-sacrifice in the name of that which is most fully human.
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