Leonard Felder: The Ten Challenges (The First Challenge)

The attempted reconstruction of the absolute dictates commonly associated as the Ten Commandments to procedurally based orientations as the Ten Challenges begins with "a request from God whether we believe in and want to be partners with the Infinite One". Immediately Felder establishes a dichotomy between the "skeptical" Freud, drawing from a rather bombastic quote from "The Future of An Illusion" and the "curious" Jung and James. It is a rather unfair start as Freud updated his thoughts on the matter a few years later in "Civilization and Its Discontents", especially with an exploration of the 'oceanic feeling'. Although he considered it resulting from an infantile pre-ego experiences, he accepted its existence and potentially its value (he claimed that he had no experience of it himself).

More usefully is the bringing together of multiple religious sources in search of a unity and in traditional representations of God, especially in the Judeo-Christian tradition (the "harsh, judgmental, and angry old man with a long white beard") that requires a new reflection. Of course, removing this ideal would be contrary to some people in this tradition (the "image and likeness" clause of Genesis 1:26 and 1:27). As far as the Ten Challenges are meant to be an eclectic reconsideration individual reflection of the divine is worthy; however the author must surely be aware that to a fundmentalist and literalist orientation such a reconsideration would be unacceptable.

The first commandment, or challenge, used by Felder is a re-examination of Exodus 20:2 (incorrectly referenced as Exodus 20:1). Whilst not stated it is here that we receive evidence Talmadic commandments, rather than the Philonic or Augustinian divisions. This is particularly important for what constitutes the first commandment, for the first "commandment" in the Talmadic division is not a commandment as such, but rather an statement. In the Philonic and Augustinian tradition it doesn't count as a commandment at all!

This said, the retranslation is presented as follows: "I am the One who is and will always be, your God, who can bring you out of a narrow way of seeing things, out your enslavement and worries". 'Egypt' in particular is literally translated from a geographical place to a restrictive state of being. A request is made to consider what one's reaction would be, whilst in the desert like Moses hearing such words, ranging from "is this some sort of magic trick?" to "I'm curious to know more". The author doesn't suggest the prospect of self-analysis under the circumstances - "I have a lot on my mind, I'm out in the desert, I'm probably delirious with worry and heatstroke.. but at least my subconscious has confidence and I'm listening to my conscience."

The author raises the problem of theodicy, a very common challenge to theists from a confident active atheist community and frankly, does not offer much of a solution. Talking to "your friends, clergy members or a counselor" is not an answer, except in the sense that it shares awareness that there is a serious logical problem in the assertions of omniscience, omnipotence and omnibenevolence, and issue that has been explored thoroughly by theologians and philosophers, with a not insignificant or surprising contribution from twentieth century Jewish theologians. Some have contrived metaphysical systems which avoid the problem (Leibniz, Kant), others have limited God, others have blamed humans (Calvin) or even claimed that the experience is character-building (Irenaeus).

The author does not address these options as such, but instead partially handballs the problem by recommended a range of religious self-help books, before taking a direct quote from one: God is not responsible for misfortune; that is bad luck, bad people, or inflexible natural laws, but God can be there to help overcoming the anguish. Expressed in this manner, the impersonal God becomes equivalent with deism or, applying Occam's Razor, naturalistic pantheism, whereas on the other hand the personal or relational God becomes internalised, much like Socrates' daimon. The association with developing a sense of wonder with the natural universe as an impersonal God, whereas developing the internal sense as a relational God, does satisfy two of the three pragmatic boundaries - the objective world, and the subjective world. It is the intersubjective that is explored next.

Felder's suggestion by advocating that one finds a inner presence "deep within your own being" is actually a God that that has little association with concepts of omniscience, omnipotence, and omnibenevolence, but rather it is an inspiration to open one's eyes, harness one's power, and do what is right. Whilst the specific cited examples of spiritual connection may appear a little contrived, the overall advocacy to take action on one's spiritual motivation, especially in the sense of moral action has verty strong resonance (Tikkun Olam etc). Both in the reference to James I 2:14, " What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds?" must be expanded to 2:18 "Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds" and, better still, contrasted with Titus 1:16 "They claim to know God, but by their actions they deny him. They are detestable, disobedient and unfit for doing anything good".

The suggestion that there is a modest positive correlation between religious community membership and several health factors must of course be taken with caution given the enormous variety of religious communities. Also, differentation must be made between membership of religious communities and other communities for example - would membership in a sporting club bring such benefits for example? A political organisation? A cultural exchange? Ultimately however the author returns to a core proposal of discovering within one's self and to take time in discerning the internal force: "Choose carefully - the spark of divine light you carry inside needs to be shared in order for the world to improve".

Review for The New Seminary