Commandments 1-3

Looking back from the Great Fifty Days of Easter, we should recall moments in which our Lenten worship had us recount the Decalogue, meaning “the Ten Laws” or “Ten Commandments.” The Book of Common Prayer (BCP) enumerates them in two prominent places (Rite I pp. 317-318; Rite II p. 350) and explains them in the Catechism (pages 847-848). Why go to such great trouble to remind God’s people of first principles? As we shall see in an exploration of the first three commandments, human nature has not changed since Moses returned with the tablets and a clear link exists between us and the Israelites. The Divine wisdom of the commandments reveals our innate need to reorient our lives to the Lord’s purposes by repenting and returning to the very wellspring of our existence.

The BCP relates that “…[t]he Ten Commandments are the laws give to Moses and the people of Israel…” and thereby reconnects us to Holy Scripture’s accounts in Exodus 20:1-17 and Deuteronomy 5:1-22. The first commandment states “…I am the Lord thy God who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage…[t]hou shalt have none other gods but me…” (BCP Rite I, p. 317), or, in contemporary language “…[h]ear the commandments of God to his people…I am the Lord your God who brought you out of bondage…[y]ou shall have no other gods but me…” (BCP Rite II, p. 350). The second commandment declares “…[t]hou shalt not make to thyself any graven image, nor the likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or in the earth beneath, or in the water under the earth; thou shalt not bow down to them, nor worship them…” (BCP Rite I, p. 318), or, in the modern idiom “…[y]ou shall not make for yourself any idol…” (BCP Rite II, p. 350). We pause here to make two salient observations. First, the BCP adopts the construction found in Exodus of splitting the injunctions against other gods and idol worship. Second, while the Rite II prose provides clarity to the commandments for our 21st century ears, the Rite I language exhibits a richness of expression that clearly links to the Biblical source. Finally, for our purposes today, the third commandment proclaims “…[t]hou shalt not take the Name of the Lord thy God in vain…” (BCP Rite I, p. 318), or, in today’s parlance “…[y]ou shall not invoke with malice the Name of the Lord your God…” (BCP Rite II, p. 350). The Catechism nicely summarizes that the first part of the Decalogue teaches us “…our duty to God…” then transitions to lessons on “…our duty to our neighbors…” in the second part. Thus, the covenant relationship between God and God’s people relentlessly radiates outwards to others, with some scholars suggesting the best way to understand it as one coherent Word that propagates in the world.  

To me, the post modern relevance of the first three commandments is readily evident by asking ourselves a series of questions related to spiritual practice as well as discipline. Do we have other “gods” in our lives? Unfortunately, the obvious answer seems to be yes when we examine the time, energy, thought, money, and devotion spent on career, entertainment, socializing, and acquisition. More pointedly, does our everyday schedule reflect that the Creator is the God of our daily lives? The first commandment places a call on us to “…[t]o love and obey God and to bring others to know him…” that should be self evident in our thoughts, words, and deeds (BCP p. 847). Next, do we make or create idols, or, more to the point, what do we idolize that is not God? Again, we need hardly rack our brains to realize that secular success, achievement, fame, fortune, and popularity attendant to business, sports, media, and cliques preoccupies us to the point of personal distraction and social anomie. One will not find a better spiritual redirection than the second commandment’s call “…[t]o put nothing in the place of God…” (BCP p. 847). Finally, besides acknowledgement that profane use of God’s name is reprehensible and never warranted, we might ask ourselves when have we maliciously invoked the Lord or vainly used the Creator? For instance, when have we conflated self purpose for Divine purpose, or bargained as well as bartered with God, or made a promise that went unfulfilled? In our consumer world, it is far too easy to fall into such a transactional misappropriation of life’s gifts when the third commandment would have us instead “…show God respect in thought, word, and deed…” (BCP p. 847). The BCP eloquently reinforces the commandments’ usefulness as recollecting that “…[s]ince we do not fully obey them, we see more clearly our sin and our need for redemption…” (p. 848). These self reflections show that the hubris of our self centeredness and the illusion of our own control enslave us when, in stark contrast, God promises God’s people perfect freedom.

Rather than despair, the first three commandments predispose us to remember this grace at the core of God’s covenant. Christ’s self sacrificing life serves as the model and the touchstone for utter devotion to God, complete attunement to God’s will, and appropriate invocation of God’s name as well as Kingdom. William Temple, Anglican exemplar and Archbishop of Canterbury 1942-1944, suggests getting retuned to God through “…bringing of the inner life under the control of the Holy Spirit by the perpetual discipline which brings us back, day by day, to the remembrance and companionship of Jesus Christ…” (Christian Faith and Life, page 101). Put to practice in everyday lives, this could mean taking the first three commandments seriously in several possible ways. Keeping the Daily Offices in either the full or shorter form “Daily Devotions for Families and Individuals” (pp. 136 – 144) or simply reading the Daily Office Lectionary promises to re-order our time and bring God to the forefront of our family, work, or leisure hours. Studying the Scriptures, or Bible devotionals, or dedicated prayer that incorporates the lives of the saints helps us to see the Godly alternatives posed by Holy lives to the cultural heroes and false gods propped up by the world. All of us could also do a better job intently listening for God’s purpose through contemplation and silence that stills our willfulness then opens us to the movement of the Holy Spirit. Taking the time as well as effort to show care and regard for others, no matter how different from you, represents prayer in action and recognizes the Divine imprint of Christ in your fellow brothers and sisters. In such a Way, Temple says “…life and worship build one another up into a complete dedication, and you give yourself utterly to His service…” (Christian Faith and Life, page 120). In our over programmed, over-hyped, and over-scheduled world, the spiritual habit of making this space as well as time for God is the very disposition demanded of us as God’s people.   

 Christopher Rodgers is a postulant and a junior at Virginia Theological Seminary

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Why Are There Other Religions by The Rev. Jacob Bottom

A music that resembled

Some earlier music

That men are born remembering.

-C.S. Lewis, “Vowels and Sirens”, Poems

 

Religion, the expression of devotion to transcendent beings, is ancient; perhaps too ancient to know its actual origin. Anthropologists and historians disagree not only in their varied conclusions about why religion exists but also in their varied methods of achieving said conclusions. Furthermore, the term “religion” encapsulates different things to different scholars, especially when compared to more ancient authors. One thing is for sure, human devotion to the transcendent has been around for a long time and will be around for a long time to come. In light of this, I want to suggest that other religions exist because the created world is not a mechanism ticking away like some forgotten antique toy. Rather, it is an interwoven reality of spiritual and physical forces (or beings) that humans are able to perceive, sometimes manipulate, and directly experience.

Religion resides in the deepest parts of human history, society and culture. Even in those places where it seems to have the lost its strength, the witness of its former hold on everyday life is irrefutable. The witness of totem poles and zoomorphic cave paintings, while possibly derived from someone’s “cleverly devised tales”, may actually attest to a true encounter with the supernatural. Whether that encounter is with the LORD or with another lesser spirit remains for another discussion. However, what seems evident is that the result of one such perceived encounter with the supernatural (e.g. Tribal shamans interacting with spirits, Muhammad receiving revelations in the cave, or Buddha achieving nirvana) tends to generate some type of ritual; a repeated action or series of actions to both remember and discern significance from the supernatural encounter.

Perhaps other religions exist because humanity, at certain points in history, has come into contact with the supernatural, and subsequently created the means (religion/ritual) to both remember the encounter and discern the significance of it. Indeed, there is something that strikes a chord in our souls when we experience an ancient ceremony devoted to the transcendent. Like “some earlier music that men are born remembering”, there is within us, as humans, a lingering connection to the divine. This is, I think, what makes other religions so compelling to people. Regardless of the full truth of the religion, the devotion itself speaks to something deeply woven into the foundation of humanity. For Christians, that something is the image of the living God.  

From a Christian perspective, we believe that the supernatural exists and interacts directly in our everyday lives. As an example, we believe that we who have been baptized receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, who guides and governs us every day. We also believe that a system or network of fallen angels, under the leadership of Lucifer, upholds “this world” and works tirelessly to mislead the ignorant and derail the faithful. If these things are true, it means that the physical and spiritual realms of creation interact with each other so integrally it often happens without much notice. My suggestion is that other religions developed out of instances when humans did notice that interaction between the spiritual and physical world. In this understanding one could affirm that supernatural beings have manifested themselves in the natural plane, have had interactions with people at a point in time, and as a consequence caused new religions to sprout.

The C.S. Lewis quote comes from his book Poems from a work titled “Vowels and Sirens.” The Sirens were three mythological creatures at sea, whose angelic voices lured sailors to their deaths. Lewis describes the affect of the Sirens, saying, “Nothing of solace [for our Hero], for lovers’ longings they breathed. Of vanished knowledge was their intemperate song.” Lewis writes that the song of the Sirens sang the sweet melody “of a vanished knowledge…a music resembling some earlier music that men are born remembering.” Men followed the song of the Sirens because it spoke so deeply to something inside of them they rushed to their deaths with passion and zeal. The sound of lovers’ longing and vanished knowledge compelled them and they willed to give up everything to find the source of it. Religion, based on actual encounters with the transcendent, sings that same sweet melody that compels people to give themselves to it.

Other religions exist because there is a supernatural element to creation and sometimes humans encounter that element. The encounter transcends normal human experience and leaves a sense of awe and wonder, which can generate devotion. Devotion to the transcendent is not wrong in and of itself as long as it is directed towards the one true God, who Himself has interacted with humanity. The experience touches something deeply woven into the human soul, a muddled memory perhaps, of a time when humanity was once in an unbroken relationship with God. Rituals grow from these experiences and religions come into existence. The image of God within humanity is still so powerfully felt that encounters with lesser spirits, who still transcend our day-to-day experience, promises to take people back to that song we were born remembering.

The Rev. Jacob Bottom is a Curate at St. David of Wales in Denton

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