My friend Tony Schmidt posted about something I don't normally deal with, because it's outside my métier: the concept of following of the Commandments.
... we should be asking ourselves in everything we do this question… Is this an act of love? Makes sense, doesn’t it? I mean, if Jesus asked us to love one another, then perhaps we could do little wrong if we ask ourselves whether or not the actions we are about to take are those out of love ...
Tony is an Episcopalian Christian; the closest spiritual path I could say I'm affiliated with is Zen Buddhism. But the way he talks about the issue reminds me that with many matters of spirit, most of the differences are just the way the discussion is framed.
Much of why I have long found organized religion problematic is not because of what it is about but how it is about it. It becomes, all too easily, about following a set of rules, instead of coming to any kind of inner understanding about things with the rules providing a framework for awakening such understanding. The highest form of faith is never blind, and that goes for an atheist like me, too. Living well is not just about filling out a checklist of Spiritual Things To Do.
One of the things about Machado de Assis's Epitaph of a Small Winner that is clearer to me now is how the book is about the dangers of living to simply fulfill a minimum obligation of existence. The narrator, Braz Cubas, chooses quite deliberately to do nothing with his life but show up on time and look respectable. For this non-effort he is rewarded with a comfortable time on earth, with no particular suffering — but no particular joy, either. Society being the engine of inertia that it is ("Ruling's an affair of sitting, not hitting," said Huxley in Brave New World), we have a whole passel of rewards set aside for people who rock no boats. Braz Cubas filled out his checklist and died having left nothing to the world — in fact, in the last chapter of the book, he enumerates all that he did not leave behind, including (in his mind, a net win) no progeny also condemned to serve out a lifetime of existence as well.
Following rules is easy, and that may be why some people are drawn to dogmas in place of a more dynamic engagement with the spiritual. It absolves them of the responsibility of thinking — let alone caring — about the real significance of what they do. All you have to do is show up on time and follow the rules, and then you can enjoy the privilege of calling yourself, or being called, a "good person." The "gentle fire" — a term used in some Buddhist disciplines for the spirit that holds together a group — becomes mere hot air, and the spiritual activity that is meant to imbue one with strength and provide empowerment turns into a mere crutch.
Every belief system puts an emphasis on doing the right thing to engender harmony between people. Buddhism has rules to promote such harmony, much as any belief system or practice path does, but they are intended as starting points rather than destinations. Motives matter. "Don't kill, steal, or lie" are good rules not because some deity says so, but because the people who follow those rules tend not to get up in each other's snouts.
What's more, knowing why the rules exist is even more important, because there may come times when the rules do not tell you the whole story. You may have to bend or break those rules in one context so that they can be preserved in a greater one — that you might have to kill one man to save a million others. But doing this does not absolve you of the consequences, either individually or collectively. It is just as stupid to engage in a dogmatic defiance of the rules as it is to be dogmatically loyal to them, or defensive of them. (Hence all those stories about Zen masters getting enlightenment, running around laughing like potheads, and then settling back down again: they eventually understand an enlightened jerk is still being a jerk to the rest of the world.)
If God is love — if everything divine in our world is a product of the enacted love we have for it, and not just some free-floating conceit about same (something Thomas Merton came back to a great deal) — then the highest form of love for God is doing the right thing, in the right place, at the right time, to the right people. You cannot do that thoughtlessly — or, for that matter, heartlessly.