8th Commandment living

/ 12 April 2019

This is an even older piece from The Concord, back in 2009. We were doing a series on the 10 Commandments, and I was asked to write about the 8th.

Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.

What does this mean?

Answer: We should fear and love God that we may not deceitfully belie, betray, slander, or defame our neighbor, but defend them, [think and] speak well of them and put the best construction on everything. (This is from Luther’s Small Catechism)

Much has been written about the first seven commandments in this journal, and a good case can be made that each of the 10 commandments is hard to keep. But as I’ve been thinking about the 8th commandment, I think it might hold the dubious distinction of being the one commandment that academic life actually encourages us to break.

Where else are there incentives to take apart someone’s argument, and lift up only the most problematic shards of meaning to view?

Where else are you invited so strongly to practice a “hermeneutics of suspicion”?

Where else does it matter not so much how congruent your argument is in relation to your life, but how consistent it is philosophically? I confess to some frustration at Luther Seminary. Far too often our goal of practicing critical reflection has become, instead, the practice of critical competition.

Have you ever heard someone express a kind of self-satisfied arrogance at their superior grasp of an idea, and in doing so rule everyone who disagrees with them outside of their small circle of truth?

Such games may make for interesting intellectual competition, but they surely do not proclaim the Good News very effectively. And far from seeking to “put the best construction on” a differing theological position, such articulations actually move us in the opposite direction.

I’ve listened to far too many people share their confusion and pain over the years, wondering whether they are Lutheran precisely because they fear that “being Lutheran” means participating in a narrow rendering of a specific form of Christian belief. I am not Lutheran, but even I can see that this is not a way of being Lutheran that bears much congruence with Luther’s small catechism and his attempts in that text to support people living the commandments.

I believe that being a good learner means being able to explain clearly the specific position you’re arguing with so well that an advocate for that position would recognize it.

If you’re not doing so, you are breaking the 8th commandment.

Perhaps you are someone who believes deeply that the texts of the Bible are permeated with misogyny and that, since words matter, God must never be referred to in worship using male pronouns or male roles. Can you gracefully make an argument for praying “Our Father who art in heaven”?

Perhaps you are someone who believes deeply that being justified through grace by faith alone means that there is literally nothing you can do actively to participate in God’s creation in the world. Can you step outside of that position long enough to make the case for how and why Christians must participate in advocacy against war and poverty?

Perhaps you are someone who believes scripture supports ordaining gay people, but can you make a thoughtful case for how the Bible condemns homosexuality?

These are only a few of the differences of belief that exist amongst us here at Luther, there are many, many more. Rather than entering into a competition for narrowing truth through doubt, why not venture into the practice of “believing” for a change?

I like the way one of my colleagues has framed an assignment in a class. This colleague asks that students “befriend” an argument, find ways into it so that they can explain its internal logic and meaning, before trying to critique it. Such a practice doesn’t mean you can’t or won’t finally come to a clear statement of belief that will contradict someone else’s, but it does mean that you won’t attempt a critique until you’re certain that you fully understand the other person’s position, and that you do so from a stance of respect.

I’m a Roman Catholic layperson. For the last couple of decades my church has been riveted by arguments over the ordination of women, the most effective route to ending abortion and how to handle sexual abuse by priests. In the midst of some of the most contentious of such discussions, Cardinal Bernardin helped to articulate a set of principles for dialogue. These principles have proven, time and time again, to be crucial in helping God’s people to find their way in community. One of the principles Bernardin articulated bears a striking resemblance to Martin Luther’s annotation of the 8th commandment. Luther wrote that we should “put the best construction on everything” and Cardinal Bernardin’s 5th principle was “we should put the best possible construction on differing positions…”

If you’ve ever tried to practice this kind of approach, you will know that it is not easy. Indeed I think that part of why we so often fail to engage in this kind of behavior is that we feel threatened, we worry that we might “go over to other side” in some way, we might actually risk transforming our own understanding.

But of course that is what learning is.

In the midst of my own such fears, it has helped me to remember something that Paul wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians: “when I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” (1 Cor 2:1-2, NRSV) Surely such faith can help us venture into real dialogue with difference? Surely we can risk “knowing nothing” in pursuit of what might just be deeper and richer knowing of God, who is at one and the same time Creator, Savior and Holy Spirit?

Any time I notice myself getting defensive about something I believe, I try to pause, take a deep breath, and wonder if there is a way that I can believe what the other person is arguing for. In other words, rather than only applying a hermeneutics of suspicion, I also work towards the practice of a hermeneutics of generosity.

I suppose some of you might be worrying that this kind of practice has to lead to ignorance, or at least naïve acceptance of false belief, or relativism? It is at moments like these when I confess to enjoying one of the many dialectics alive amongst us at Luther Seminary. While it’s true that we often find ourselves caught up in the anger and hurt of critical competition, of refusing to really hear someone else’s argument, we are also invited into the expansive practice of what Mark Noll has called “Lutheran irony.”

As Mark Edwards writes: This “Lutheran irony,” according to Noll, is the sense that precisely when Christians mount their most valiant public efforts for God, they run the greatest risk of substituting their righteousness for the righteousness of Christ, and thereby subverting justification by faith. …”

You might also be interested in a similar set that has been put out by the ELCA “Talking together about tough social issues,” available online.

This political insight has a rough analogue in the intellectual realm. Lutherans by their theology and tradition are inclined (or at least should be inclined) to suspect that precisely where Christians are certain that God depends on their holding the line on an intellectual matter, there they may be in most danger of substituting their truth for God’s.

This humble and ironic grasp seems to me well attuned to the discipline of “putting the best construction” on someone else’s position. The next time someone argues for a position you’re certain has to be wrong, why not take a few minutes to try and see it as believable, even truth-full? Surely Christian faith is big enough, deep enough, strong enough, to sustain such an attempt? The 8th commandment invites us in academic community into just such ventures.