One frequent objection to Christianity and to the authority of Christ is that Christ was unoriginal. Some argue that the teachings of Christianity comprise stitched-together parts of other religions. No doubt from season to season we’ll hear the accusations that Christianity was born of pagan ideas and rituals. But an enduring objection is that Christianity’s moral teachings are not as special as we like to think.
The Golden Rule is a prime and important example. The contemporary form of the rule is, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Some nonbelievers denounce Christianity by saying that the Golden Rule has been preached in the texts of several religions and is not unique to Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount.
Some put it this way: “Christianity is not superior to other religions, because the Golden Rule laid out by Jesus is the same or similar to other religious texts.” Others might even perceive Christianity to be somewhat boastful of the Golden Rule, because they think Christians treat it as a universal moral law.
In any case, it’s an attempt to undermine Judea-Christian values and, ultimately, the teachings and personhood of Christ. We know that our Faith is not superior for the reason that it helps us act better, but there’s an important lesson in the Golden Rule, and it’s worth our examination and defense.
What is the Golden Rule?
First, it’s important to ensure we understand what we’re talking about. The Golden Rule is a maxim of the law of reciprocity that essentially holds people ought to treat others how they themselves want to be treated. It is not the same as the “law of attraction,” which holds that focus on positive or negative thoughts will bring forth positive or negative experiences respectively. It is also not the same as the reciprocal altruism of do ut des¸ or “I give that you might give.”
The law of attraction is nonsense—simply thinking something will happen cannot cause it to happen; and the Golden Rule is different from the Roman do ut des because the latter is behavior directed at an outcome. The Golden Rule is a unilateral moral commitment to the well being of others. Understanding this is extremely important.
Why is the rule “golden”? Gold is a historical standard for the measurement of value—usually the highest standard available—for currency and trade. We’ve heard the term “gold standard,” which expresses the value at which a currency could be exchanged, equal to the current value of gold. The saying became a colloquialism as the “gold standard” became obsolete after the Great Depression of the 1930s. The Golden Rule is applied to a variety of disciplines and sciences including philanthropy, sociology, psychology, and even economics. So it’s not applicable only to religion.
Nonetheless, everyone understands the universal value of gold as a highest measurement of a thing. We have gold ribbons, gold medals, gold trophies, other gold achievements, and we call a civilization’s “golden age” that period it enjoys its best peace and prosperity. Where morality is concerned, there is a chief law of nature that directs interactions of persons. We know this as the Golden Rule.
The phrase “Golden Rule” is not found in Scripture. The biblical Golden Rule comes from the sayings of the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew when Jesus says, “So whatever you wish that men do to you, do so to them; for this is the law of the prophets” (Matt. 7:12).
There are two formulations of the Golden Rule: positive and negative. The positive form is “One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself.” The negative form is “One should not treat others in ways that one would not like to be treated.”
As we see, the positive form directs people to act a specific way, while the negative prohibits people from acting a specific way. One emphasizes positivity, the other denounces negativity.
What’s the difference?
The charge is that positive rules (“Do this”) are better than negative rules (“Don’t do this”). In reality, we need both. Children shouldn’t only be told “Don’t electrocute yourself” (negative). They should also be told “Put this plug in the outlet” (positive). Good parents must balance the two.
Warnings are the best way to communicate evils or situations that involve peril without pointing out the consequences. Again, small children will not understand when an adult says, “Don’t put your hand on the stove, you’ll burn yourself and it will hurt really bad. Instead, make sure the stove it turned off and has cooled down.” Rather, to ensure we simplify rules against things that provoke natural pain and consequence, we issue a negative order: “Never put your hands on a hot oven” or just “Don’t touch that.” Parents must decide when their child can understand all rudiments of behavior-induced pain, or just convincing their kid to never do a specific thing that causes harm.
Similarly, when man was in the beginning stages of understanding the laws God had “written on their heart” (Rom. 2:15), he was beginning to understand God himself. But he was not yet capable of fully comprehending the law of God, which is not about what not to do but more about how to love.
Is it a universal moral law?
Still, many people think that Christians believe we don’t need the other rules of organized religion, since the Golden Rule sums up everything about how to live. Can the Golden Rule be applied universally to every moral action? The fact is, it can’t. And it shouldn’t be read and applied so straightforwardly.
If someone wants to harm himself, should he be allowed to harm others? Of course not. Therefore, this rule definitely does not apply to masochists. Some people cannot forgive themselves, but every Christian has an obligation to forgive others (see Matthew 6:14-15). In this way, too, the law does not apply in a literal sense.
The law does not apply to every moral action possible, because it would void the responsibility of personal sin and give precedence to moral relativity. Emmanuel Kant objected to the use of the Golden Rule, because it clearly does not apply to civil justice. He argued that a sentenced prisoner would be able to use the rule against a judge who would not desire imprisonment.
Of course, this doesn’t work. Legal systems must practice judgment and justice, and simply because someone does not want to face the consequences of his actions is not a compelling reason to absolve a just punishment.
Perhaps people who are convinced of the universality of the Golden Rule derive this from Jesus’ concluding words in Matthew 7:12: “For this is the law of the prophets.” It’s important to point out that Jesus said later in Matthew’s Gospel that law of the prophets depends on two other commandments:
But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they came together. And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question, to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.This is the great and first commandment.And a second is like it, you shall love your neighbor as yourself.On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets” (Matt. 22:34-40).
While some might see this as a contradiction of Jesus’ prior statement on the Mount, we should see this as clarification. These two sayings of Jesus are not opposed; the latter elucidates the former. What Jesus is conveying is that a full and proper appreciation for the prophets and law teaches us that our ultimate law is love.
Similar golden rules, positive and negative, have been recorded in other religions to include pagans, ancient Egyptians, Taoism, and more (see sidebar, p. x). Is there trouble in this? Absolutely not. This affirms the very words of the Bible and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which tell us that God’s law is universal. Paul tells the Romans:
When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them (Rom. 2:14-15).
And the Catechism, quoting Gaudium et Spes, puts it this way:
In the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose upon himself, but which holds him to obedience. Always summoning him to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience when necessary speaks to his heart: do this, shun that. For man has in his heart a law written by God; to obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged (16).
We shouldn’t be worried when we find the fullness of our religion in the texts of other religions. I love the simplicity of C.S. Lewis’s words: “The golden rule of the New Testament (Do as you would be done by) is a summing up of what everyone, at bottom, had always known to be right” (Mere Christianity).
So what’s the bottom line?
We should see a connection between gold and religious civilizations. It is interesting to remind ourselves that of all the precious metals on the periodic table of elements (available to consumers), gold is the heaviest but not the rarest. It is found and mined on every continent, and nearly every society has mined the predication of the Golden Rule and placed high value on it.
This shouldn’t alarm the Christian. The value of Christianity is not novelty. The value of Christianity is a paradox of unique universality. God draws all people to himself (see John 12:32). The Catechism says:
The desire for God is written in the human heart, because man is created by God and for God; and God never ceases to draw man to himself. Only in God will he find the truth and happiness he never stops searching for (CCC 7).
The fact that this special piece of moral instruction is not particular to Christianity should come as great comfort and encouragement to us, because it enables Christians to capitalize on a universal demand for morality. Every person believes—even if tacitly—that there is a difference between right and wrong; that morality, in some measurement or application, exists and must be observed.
This is a colossal benefit when approaching people of other religions. Nostra Aetate compels us with these words:
The Church, therefore, exhorts her sons, that through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions, carried out with prudence and love and in witness to the Christian faith and life, they recognize, preserve and promote the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values found among these men (2).
We can do harm with the rule, though. When we use the rule superficially, it becomes selfish and irrelevant. This is why we must always remember that the rule does not infer the Roman do ut des. The Golden Rule is not about getting from giving. We have a responsibility to use the Golden Rule in the service of others, not ourselves. It is about doing what is good for the sake of doing good, without condition. We shouldn’t give charitably just to build up tax exemptions; we should give because it is loving.
Christianity does not claim to be the first religion to use the Golden Rule, but it is fair to say that Christians have a superior appreciation of it. Not because we don’t use it to preach what not to do by using its positive form, but because it is a rule that examines man’s true and universal desire for God.
As a start, Jesus tells us to do what we want others to do to us (see Matthew 7:12). He then instructs that loving God in the first commandment is a fulfillment of this rule, because sincerely loving God compels us to love our neighbor as ourselves (see Matthew 22:37-40). He then gives us our consummate commandment: to love others as he loves us (John 13:34). For this exact reason, Jesus tells us, “If anyone says, ‘I love God’ and hates his brother, he is a liar” (John 4:20).
Christians don’t believe the Golden Rule is about general morality, but in the full context of revelation, it is a means of morality pointing to the personhood of Christ, who is God, who is love. The Golden Rule and the law are really about love (see sidebar p. x), which is the sum of the entire prophets and gospel message.