These are the two great commandments:
- Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.
- Love your neighbor as yourself.
They are referenced in Matthew 22:34-40, seen below, and Mark 12:28-31.
34 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35 and one of I them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37 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.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” [Emphasis mine]Matthew 22:34-40, New Revised Standard Version
To me, the first commandment addresses spirituality. “God” is a specific view of that concept. The second—a version of the Golden Rule—addresses human laws and ethics. I’ll mostly refer to it as the Golden Rule from this point forward.
Jesus said these two commandments are foundational to all others, which is why they have become known as the “great” commandments. A recent discussion in Bible Study triggered me to ponder the following:
- Are the Two Great Commandments universal?
- Are both required for humans to live meaningful, purposeful lives?
- Does spirituality require gods or ”higher powers”?
What If We Followed Only the Second Commandment?
In the discussion I mentioned above, I asked this question (paraphrased because I don’t remember exactly what I said):
If you eliminate the first commandment, leaving only the second, is that a sufficient foundation upon which to build a moral and ethical life?
There was a long silence, broken finally by the pastor, who said: “Yes”.
As an agnostic who leans heavily towards atheism, i.e., an agnostic atheist, I obviously think it’s quite possible to live a life where you love and care for yourself and others without the need for gods. I’m perfectly willing to accept the Golden Rule as both foundational and universal.
But is the Golden Rule sufficient? Do we need spirituality as well?
What is Spirituality?
People have had a lot to say about spirituality. For example:
Spirituality is the broad concept of a belief in something beyond the self. It may involve religious traditions centering on the belief in a higher power, but it can also involve a holistic belief in an individual connection to others and to the world as a whole.Elizabeth Scott, PhD, What is Spirituality
Love: Ah, Reason, says Love, you will always see with one eye only, you and all those who are nurtured by your doctrine. For the man is indeed one-eyed who sees the things which are before his eyes yet does not know what they are; and this is the case with you. [Emphasis mine]Marguerite Porete, The Mirror of Simple Souls
I am a point of awareness, a circle of consciousness, in the midst of a series of circles. One circle is that which we call “the body.” It is a universe itself, full of millions of little living creatures living their own “separate” but dependent lives. . . . But all of these “circles” are not really separate—they are all mutually dependent upon each other. . . .[Emphasis mine]Jack D. Forbes, A World Ruled by Cannibals: The Wetiko Disease ofAggression, Violence, and Imperialism
Apprehend God in all things, for God is in all things. Every single creature is full of God and is a book about God. Every creature is a word of God. If I spent enough time with the tiniest creature—even a caterpillar—I would never have to prepare a sermon. So full of God is every creature.” [Emphasis mine]Meister Eckhart, from What is Creation Spirituality: An Introduction, Rev. Dr. Sid Hall
Spirituality is not religion. It is a path for us to generate happiness, understanding, and love, so we can live deeply each moment of our life.The Life Story of Thich Nhat Hanh, Plum Village
Because The Artist’s Way is, in essence, a spiritual path, initiated and practiced through creativity, this book uses the word God. This may be volatile for some of you—conjuring old, unworkable, unpleasant, or simply unbelievable ideas about God as you were raised to understand “him.” Please be open-minded. [Emphasis mine]The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron
I could keep going, but I’ll just offer this definition of spirituality:
What I mean by creative energy is this: Suppose you descended to the deepest part of the ocean and spent an hour anchored to just one spot. You would encounter an incredibly diverse, astonishing, and even alien world. And that’s just one tiny spot, on one planet, in one solar system, of one insignificant galaxy, among billions. In other words, the universe is tremendously awe-inspiring in the richness of its continuously unfolding complexities. That’s the creative energy of the universe.
You may have noticed that there is no mention of gods. This definition does not require gods or other higher powers.
I make no assumption that the universe has consciousness or intelligence. But if it does, it is not in any way that we can fully understand (at least in this life). Could the universe be “God” or have been created by one? Sure. However, at this time, I feel no compelling reason to believe that.
The main point of this definition is the following:
Everything is connected.
Exactly what the nature of that connection might be is something that I’m discovering. I expect I’ll never completely grasp it.
Do We Need Spirituality?
As social animals, we need connection to others. Spirituality is meant to address very deep connections that go to the essence of what is sometimes referred to as “our true selves”. Do we need spirituality? As surprising as it may be to some, coming from an agnostic atheist, I think we do. That’s because by our nature we are spiritual.
Are Gods Necessary for Spirituality?
“Higher powers” such as gods are often coupled with spirituality. But for me, what is crucial is the sense of creative connection and not so much whether there are higher powers. I find that to be unimportant.
I’m going to restate the two commandments like this:
- Embrace the creative energy within that connects you to all.
- Love your neighbor as yourself.
Feel free to substitute the original First Commandment if you like. Now, back to those three questions I asked at the top::
- Are the Two Great Commandments universal? As modified, yes.
- Are both required for humans to live meaningful, purposeful lives? Yes.
- Does spirituality require a belief in gods or ”higher powers”? No.
Oh, by the way, here is a modification of the Golden Rule to think about:
- What is Spirituality?
- What is Creation Spirituality: An Introduction
- The Life Story of Thich Nhat Hanh, Plum Village
- The Artist’s Way
- Why a 14th-century mystic appeals to today’s ‘spiritual but not religious’ Americans
- Jack D. Forbes, Indigenous Americans: Spirituality and Ecos
- Marguerite Porete, The Mirror of Simple Souls
- Why I am An Agnostic Theist, Rabbi Geoffrey A. Mitelman
Brother Stan, You are indeed a profound thinker and provoker of thoughts…and that’s a very honest and good thing, I believe. I concur with you and the Pastor in the affirmation of the “2nd Great Commandent’s” sufficiency. At the same time I am grateful for the experiences in my life that led me to an awareness and belief that the universal connection that is within all persons and all creation is an divine illuminating light that enables us to embrace and share love and compassion. This Love is the greatest energy and force and is what some call God. It is ‘No ka oi’ I believe. May this connecting Force continue to be with you:-). Aloha, Greg
You very well could be correct. Interestingly, I “concluded” that both commandments are fundamental but I see the first commandment more generically as spiritual and not necessarily connected to gods.