Tuesday, 11 March 2008

Karen Armstrong and the Golden Rule

My father was a keen amateur gardener. He kept an immaculate plot at the back of the house in which he grew many of the vegetables we ate through the year - a necessity in the 1950's when some food was still rationed after the war and what there was proved expensive to most working-class familes. One of his ambitions was that at least one of his four sons would show a similar enthusiasm. He was to be disappointed and continued to dig and hoe, plant and sow very much alone.

My cousin lived just three doors away, he was a number of years older than me and I remember that he was very good to me in my growing up years. He was a rebel and fun to be with and I liked being around his house. He collected outdoor enthusiasms the way others collected stamps: hunting, shooting, fishing etc. and I often went along. Since his fathers death, his garden was overgrown and one day he decided that this was going to be his next project. Of course, he invited me along to help and, of course, I went - gladly.

I remember it was a very hot summer (weren't they always?) and I got stuck into some pretty rough digging, my lack of skill more than made up for by my enthusiasm. As I leaned on my spade for a breather, sweat pouring from me, I looked up to see my father, just three gardens away, looking back at me. It was only a look and then he was back at his work, but the look said it all.

Now what do you think that look said? Do you think it said, "I wanted one of my sons to take up gardening and, joy of joys, there's Michael getting stuck into some serious horticulture"?

I will tell you what it said. It said, "You can't turn a clod in my garden but you can dig someone else's. What kind of sons do I have?"

What does this have to do with Karen Armstrong? Well, Karen Armstrong is an historian who specialises in the history of religions. I have her two-part biography, very interesting, and several of her popular academic works and I find her work informative and interesting and her scholarship impressive. She has been working for some years with an organisation called the Alliance of Civilisations out of the UN and she can be seen speaking a little about that work and about the Golden Rule that forms the basis of her world-view here.

The Golden Rule of course, is that we should treat others as we would wish to be treated and Karen helpfully points out that it forms a common thread through all the major religions. Of course, it is usually stated in negative terms, i.e. don't treat others in a way you would not want to be treated, indeed she expresses it in this form on the film. It was Jesus who gave us the positive form of the rule in Matthew's gospel, putting the onus on us to do something rather than avoid doing something (7:12 cf).

In using the rule as she does she makes the same cardinal error everyone makes who comes from her perspective, i.e. she thinks it is about a principle when it is really about a person. In Matthew's gospel Jesus links the so-called Golden Rule to God by saying that it sums up the Law and the Prophets, the Law of God and the teachings of God's Prophets. Keeping the Golden Rule without any regard to God is like picking up a spade and digging someone else's garden three doors away when your own father's garden needs digging. Looks of approval do not meet the eyes of those who keep the rule without acknowledging the ruler.

One day we will stand before him to give an account of ourselves and on that day there will be two kinds of people, those who trusted in the person of Jesus - and those who didn't. Later in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said:

"Not everyone who says to me 'Lord, Lord' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?' Then I will tell them plainly, 'I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!" (vv.21-23)

Perhaps some will say, "Lord, Lord, we sat on counsels at the UN and applied the Golden Rule!"

But it is not about a principle, it is about a person.

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