Apres moi le deluge

Laws and codes of conduct in a faithless age

And he gave to Moses, when he had finished speaking with him on Mount Sinai, the two tablets of the testimony, tablets of stone, written with the finger of God.
Exodus 31:18

What is a law? A law is the authoritative say on what is right.

We have “laws of nature” like gravity, in that it is a scientific principle that is as close to truth as science can get. Laws of nature can be examined and explained by scientists but nature is the authority that established the law. Nobody “discovered” gravity. We existed and functioned in gravitational pulls before we could begin to understand the science.

In our civic realm, we have “civic laws”. These laws are by definition not universal and evolve and change over time. But still they must be given by a recognized authority. In our society, it requires an elected body with jurisdiction to create a civic law. If I decide that all of the houses in my county should have latex windows, I can’t just impose this law, no matter how good of an idea it might be. I need to follow the laborious democratic process of running for office, winning, and passing the new civic law.

There is a new emerging set of laws that govern the vast space of public life that exists on the internet. These laws are set down in long, legal documents that nobody reads and are called things like “Terms of Service” and “Codes of Conduct”. For about twenty years, these laws existed and were exercised in obscurity until suddenly in the last five years, they’ve been thrust into the center of our public life as both sides in the culture war attempt to weaponize them against their enemies. Largely this set of laws, while protecting their corporate originators from liability, has only demonstrated how inadequate and inconsistent they are for guiding the users of these vast platforms towards moral behavior. Terms like “hate speech” have proven to be paper tigers when nobody has a moral framework to even define the proper attributes of love and hate. And that brings up one more kind of law that is the most fundamental: Devine law.

Devine law is the foundation of all other law. Devine law is summed up in the Ten Commandments, ten simple laws that are foundational for Judaism and Christianity and all of western morality. These laws can be divided into categories of “Duties towards God” and “Duties towards neighbor”. Jesus summarized these laws as loving God with all your heart and loving your neighbor as yourself. Even from a purely secular perspective, the endurance of this law is remarkable and seems to also confer some evolutionary advantage for societies who adopt it.

Today, much of divine law has been dismantled by the institutions of our culture. The duties towards God have been rejected by elites, confused by inter-religious debates, and increasingly ignored by the lower classes. The laws concerning marriage have been flagged as oppressive by the sexual revolution. Murder, lying and theft (thankfully) remain bad things today but coveting might actually be the engine of our economy. Even the laws we do keep, we don’t keep out of a reverence towards God as a law-giver but out of a fear of the chaos and destruction that would break out if we disowned them. Even the most secular among us affirms, “Thou shalt not murder” not out of piety but because they know that there are stronger men out there ready to shove a knife in their gut if they weren’t restrained by the law. If 2020 taught us anything it’s that chaos is sitting right at our elbow.

We currently stand in a twilight with the fading Judeo-Christian moral code at our back and an emerging landscape before us. But what does this new landscape look like? Is it a utopian paradise, built on science and reason?

Or… something else?

There is a side of me that is very sympathetic towards the neo-atheist critique of Devine law. In our primitive state the only way we could establish necessary moral codes was to appeal to a big, invisible lawgiver, but in our modern age we can replace the superstition of the lawgiver with science and reason. We can build a moral, happy society without the religious nonsense that created so much oppression and pain for our ancestors. The whole world will look like Sweden! This seemed much more plausible twenty years ago than it does today.

One of the most intriguing little bits of culture that I’ve noticed recently are these “in this house, we believe” yard signs. These non-sequitur, vapid phrases are hardly more than hashtags and will certainly not be the study of scholars in ages to come. But what fascinates me about them is how much this is like an embryonic creed or table of laws. If creeds and laws were so oppressive, why, when we finally were escaping their captivity, do we immediately invent new creeds and laws?

Another recent example is the explosion of the “Me Too” movement after decades of relentless sex-positivity. It seemed that the sexual revolution and its rejection of religious sexual codes pulled many of those those caught in its tide into an abusive nightmare rather than a sensual paradise.

There is more that I could point to: rising deaths of despair, ballooning mental health issues, falling life expectancy, the opioid crisis, declining marriages, cratering birthrates—all deeply worrying symptoms of a deeper illness. More and more our society looks like the hedonist who was so enviable in their twenties and so pathetic in their forties. And what happens when our lawless society truly enters old age?

This reveals the naive optimism at the heart of the secular agenda. They failed to realize how much of our enlightenment rests on divine law. They didn’t grapple with what would come if they smashed the stone tablets. And it’s hardly surprising as many of the neo-atheists were scientists, brilliant in their own fields, but clearly out of their depth when it came to the subjects they were approaching.

However, Nietzsche is one of the few atheist thinkers who clearly saw what would come when God left the west. The passage from “The Madman” in Thus Spoke Zarathustra perfectly captures the pending future:

The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. ‘Where is God?’ he cried; I’ll tell you! We have killed him — you and I! We are all his murderers. But how did we do this? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Where is it moving to now? Where are we moving to? Away from all suns? Are we not continually falling? And backwards, sidewards, forwards, in all directions? Is there still an up and a down? Aren’t we straying as though through an infinite nothing? Isn’t empty space breathing at us? Hasn’t it got colder? Isn’t night and more night coming again and again? Don’t lanterns have to be lit in the morning? Do we still hear nothing of the noise of the grave­diggers who are burying God? Do we still smell nothing of the divine decomposition? — Gods, too, decompose! God is dead! God remains dead!

Nietzsche recognized that only the strongest would be able to endure a world where the Devine vanished. All the things we love about our liberal society: tolerance, plurality, individual rights—these rest on the foundation of Devine Law. These holy laws were our shelter against a cruel and fierce universe and they will vanish with the lawgiver. We will all be swept away when this tide truly comes, except for the very strongest beasts among us who can rise above the flood. Black lives, LGBT lives, intersectionality of all kinds won’t matter in the deluge. Strength will be everything.

This is devastating news and I don’t think we can bear it. When our liberal society sees the coming flood there will be a frantic attempt to piece the stone tablets back together. I think that’s what’s starting to happen with the haphazard codes of conduct that suddenly all of these platforms are trying to write. I think that it’s the unconscious impulse behind these yard creeds. I think that it’s fueling the desperate land rush to accumulate legal rights for every imaginable sort of identity. We increasingly sense that the time is coming when we’ll need strong protection otherwise we will be trampled.

But this protection is a ruse without a Devine lawgiver. The Ten Commandments were written by the hand of God, not a Silicon Valley lawyer. We need God, who is a protector of those who keep his laws and judge to those who break them. The laws that don’t rest on Devine law will vanish in a cloud of dust, leaving those who are depending on them defenseless.

What do we do if we can’t abide the Nietzschian future? We need to lean into these impulses behind the codes of conduct, the yard signs and “Me Too”. These are LARPs of something that exists in strength in our religious roots. I’m amazed at how many former Atheists I’ve found in a wide-eyed, scared-straight posture reexamining religion. For the religious of us, we need to passionately hold to the Devine law as our own law. This is no time to indulge our own devices and desires. This is no time to point the finger or exacerbate political divisions. This is the time to rigorously order our own lives by the Devine standard: In our duties towards God and our duties towards our neighbor. It is time to embrace those who want the shelter of the Devine law.

We will say with the Psalmist, “Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day.” or we will say, “Apres moi le deluge.”

There is no third option.