Leonard Felder: The Ten Challenges (The Third Challenge)

The historical Third Commandment is a point where the Talmadic and Philonic divisions meet, "Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain." (Exodus 20:7); according to the Augustinian division this is the Second Commandment. Historically, as Felder points out, this has taught to children as to not swear or curse. Further examples are used, which are a more mature application, that one should not make promises or condemnations ("I swear to God", "Damn you") with Divine invocations unless they are treated with appropriate seriousness - after all, this is the Divine and inner core of a person that is being put on the line here. It would have been appropriate here to also mention the historical and Biblical link between testify (attest, testament, contest etc) and testes.

The reinterpretation and reconstruction used by Felder is fourfold. The first has already been mentioned, but the wider implication is simply not to make promises that you can't or have no intention of keeping. The second is a rather clever elaboration of avoiding self-righteousness in differences of opinion, as such an attitude does betray the deep convictions (or prejudices) within a person. The third, an elaboration of the second, is to avoid "hurtful words", and thus an appeal to recognise that others too are equal in spirit. The final reconstruction, logically following from the third, is not to take others for granted.

Even when stripped of the Divine invocations, people do make promises that they genuinely can't keep. Felder explores the main reasons for this, the two most common being as an overstatement of their own (moral, cognitive) abilities to gain social appeal, position etc, and one that arises from a genuine desire to help, when a person over commits. The first case is, in many ways more difficult to resolve, at it requires the person themselves to be honest about who they are and to realise that avenue is more likely to generate long-term respect and commitment more than a short-term appeal. In the second case, a more realistic approach to time management and prioritisation is required by the individual. The internal appeal - that in doing so they are preventing themselves from breaching the "third challenge" can be used legitimately as an moral motivation. No matter how good the cause may seem, more damage is done by failing to keep the promise.

The second interpretation, against being self-righteous and rigid, involves (not explicitly stated) reference back to the first challenge. Strongly held opinions are often expressed in the same manner, but individuals must need to realise that these expressions arise from either deeply considered convictions or deeply ingrained prejudices, and even a combination of both. Surely one would prefer to be motivated by the former, rather than the latter, but this can only be achieved by having one's prejudices examined (however difficult this may be), hence the recommendation against rigidity. Indeed, convictions are only generated by the engagement with the inner Divine presence and with the same in others, as expressed by their dialogue. Thus when one does not accept dialogue with others and when they self-righteously express prejudices they are refusing to engage in the relational association with the inner Divine and are therefore treating it in vain.

Elaborating further on this in the third interpretation, a challenge to one's deeply ingrained prejudices and a rigidity in discussing them can lead to anger. Felder is very much opposed to anger as a response, and especially marks out the use of "hurtful words... using God's name as a weapon to get back at someone" and rejects, with modest empirical basis, that anger outbursts can have negative health effects and uses this as a basis to reject Freudian derived anger therapy. Whilst there is no doubt that anger directed at individuals (e.g., the passive-aggressive behaviour illustrated in the example) simply generated more ill-will between people, Felder has misinterpreted Freudian anger therapy (e.g., primal scream therapy), which is not directed at individuals at all but rather is an undirected physical emotional release mechanism used to alleviate the effects of unconscious childhood traumas and does have positive empirical results from several studies.

Secondly, Felder's suggestion of curbing anger to "healthy ways of letting off steam", to include "therapy, meditation and counseling", forgets the motivational force of anger ("Anger is an energy", as John Lydon sang) that arises from deeply considered convictions. Conviction-based anger is very rarely directed at individuals themselves, for individuals are very rarely consciously wicked, but rather ignorant and apathetic (a position shared at the very least by Socrates, Siddh?rtha Gautama, and Jesus). Conviction based anger is directed towards ideas, systems, institutions and laws which the subject realises are hurtful towards others. One should not counsel away their motivational anger derived from conviction, as it must be remembered that convictions come the dialogue with the inner Divine presence. Not making use of this anger is in fact an inverted breach of the third challenge.

The fourth interpretation notes the importance of relationships, and appeals that one should take others for granted because they are in a relationship with us. Examples are provided of such behaviour, and the use of Divine invocations is given as an example of mistreating that relationship - after all, if God is omniscient and omnipotent then an invocation can occur at any time, no matter how trivial. Felder suggests instead that we should treat words like we really mean them, and that they should be expressed with care. Likewise people and relationships should also be taken with similar consideration. However there is an unstated option which Felder has not elaborated on which could make this interpretation of the third challenge even stronger. If the Divine presence exists in everyone, which it surely must, the careless use of words and the mistreatment of relationships is actually an affront to that Divine presence itself, both that within the other person but also to the core of one's self.

Overall, the reinterpretation of the third commandment includes both a mature examination of the literal expression and a clever reconstruction that is elaborated in three parts. However, the text as presented is disappointing as it doesn't seem to push the principle that it first elucidated to its (admittedly quite radical) conclusion. By not doing so it the strength of the argument is reduced from what could have been a genuinely Divine consideration to a rather "nice" spiritualism that is common in affluent developed countries.

Review for The New Seminary