Some moments of real intellectual breakthrough come when I find myself thinking something that surprises me.
I am forced to analyze the surprising idea to work out why I was thinking it. Whether the concept turns out to be right, wrong or complicated, I understand better my own instincts and assumptions as a result.
One such instance happened last week in an Evangelical Theological Society panel session in Atlanta.
One of the other panelists, David Gushee, closed an impressive impromptu peroration with an appeal to the “golden rule” – “Do unto others as you would have them do to you.”
I realized that I was thinking that this principle was wrong.
Doubting the golden rule, of course, is one of those ethical positions that you are really not supposed to entertain. If there is a universal ethic, it is this.
Jesus says it, identifying it with the core teaching of the Mosaic law. “Do to others what you want them to do to you. This is the meaning of the law of Moses and the teaching of the prophets” (Matthew 7:12).
So, I thought a bit about why I was doubting it, or at least Gushee’s application of it.
My analysis: So stated, the “golden rule” assumes a level of moral awareness that I am sure is not universal, and am not sure is at all common.
If our instincts about what we would like others to do to us are bad instincts, the golden rule offers bad advice.
More commonly, I suspect, our desires are extremely conflicted, and so the golden rule offers no meaningful guidance at all.
I rarely watch movies on planes, but on the way to Atlanta, I watched the recent biopic about Amy Winehouse, which intersperses clips of her astonishing musical performances with the story of her life spiraling out of control, finally to her tragic death.
The film portrays her essentially as a victim, thrown into impossible contexts by decisions made by her partner, manager or father.
The sympathetic characters were female friends from childhood, who tried to help her.
In the middle of a drugs binge, friends would encourage her to get clean, while her partner would be encouraging her to try something even stronger.
Who was doing the thing she wanted to be done to her?
The answer is profoundly ambiguous: straightforwardly, she wanted to be high; no doubt there was a part of her that wanted to be clean.
According to the portrayal in the film, what she actually needed – whether she ever wanted it or not – was to get out of the celebrity spotlight because she was unable to cope with it and was using drugs to deal with that inability.
“Do to others what you want them to do to you” is not a straightforward piece of advice here.
Now, it would be possible to suggest that, because of her relative youth and her addiction issues, Winehouse was considerably less rational than is normal for human beings. I suspect, however, that this is false.
I reflect on my own pastoral experience, and supremely on my own life: There are questions I desperately don’t want people to ask me, while at the same time I know that it would do me good to face those same questions.
What do I want them to do to me? I don’t know, so I don’t know what I should do to others, if I am following the golden rule.
More, I remember moments of genuine intervention, such as when my fellow leaders at a previous church banned me from preaching for several months because they had decided I was neglecting family relationships too much in my desire to serve that fellowship.
Did I want them to step into my life like that? No. Am I now grateful they did? Yes. Do I hope I would have the courage – and love – to do what they did to someone like me in future, despite her not wanting the intervention at all? Absolutely.
At that point, what I wanted my colleagues to do to me was – I can now see – basically destructive. This seems to me to be a common position for human beings to be in.
The golden rule, then, fails because of a defect in moral intuition on my part. My “wants” are – routinely – sufficiently ill-directed that to impose them on others would be actively cruel.
Augustine is said to have written, “Love God, and do what you like.” The point being, of course, that if you truly love God, what you like to do will be the right thing.
The advice is profoundly right but dangerous because most of us love God rather imperfectly, and so like to do at least some things that are expressions of hatred of God and ourselves.
When we have learned to want as we should, the golden rule will teach us well how to act toward others.
Until we reach that point, listening hard to Moses and the prophets (and, now, apostles) remains an important, necessary, check on our wayward desires.
Stephen Holmes is a Baptist minister, presently employed as senior lecturer in Theology at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. A version of this article first appeared on his blog and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @SteveRHolmes.