Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Two tablets - Ten commandments

As a materialist of little faith, one of the doubts that assail me is this: how much does our secular rights-based society depend, not just historically, but perhaps in more fundamental, indefinable ways, on the Christian past out of which it grew? Is it possible that the rights we guard so jealously can, given the right circumstances, be swept away because they lack divine sanction? Or as Thomas Jefferson put it,

Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God? That they are not violated but with his wrath?

This is the topic of The God that Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, by Robert Royal, reviewed here by David Klinghoffer. If you are interested in this topic, which I think we are going to hear a lot more about, the article is well worth a look. Klinghoffer adds his tuppence at the end with an interpretation of the medium used for the Ten Commandments that I had never heard and that bears directly on the doubts I mentioned above.

In fact, Royal's argument that the quality of religious belief — not its popularity — is central to the maintenance of ordered liberty goes back to the Ten Commandments, inscribed on two tablets at Sinai.

The use of two tablets was deliberate, and recognizing this fact is crucial to understanding the Decalogue. As far back as the second century C.E., in the rabbinic text Mechilta, Jewish tradition has taught that the mirror symmetry — five commandments on one tablet, five on the other — show how theological ideas influence a society's success in other fields of endeavor.

The first five statements concern man's relationship with God. The second five deal with his relationship with other people, and thus with the extent to which his way of life is civilized and humane. According to rabbinic tradition, the nation that accomplishes the first five stands a better chance of living up to the second.

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