Everyday, students, readers, and listeners send me dozens of questions, and I try to answer as many as I can, but I usually decline requests for religious direction, as I do not consider myself to be the prototype of the most directed person in these questions. Nevertheless, there is a rule of biblical interpretation – and thus also of religious morality – that stems from the very nature of language, one which no sane person can disagree with, though many deny it in practice without knowing it.
I did not learn this rule from anybody else and likely I was not the first one to discover it. After wandering in the minds of believers through the millennia, it ended up popping up in mine, spontaneously, a certain morning, after I had prayed for months to Our Lord Jesus Christ that He would make His words more intelligible to a jackass like me. So I have my reasons to believe that He, Himself, without my noticing it, programmed my brain to accept it. To saints, prophets and illuminated souls, God speaks in a loud voice or in dreams. But donkeys and cranks of my kind can only learn in a state of deep sleep, when we rest totally unconscious and defenseless in the arms of the Lord, as little ones, and for some moments, without any merit on our part, we enjoy a privilege reserved to them. I have followed this rule for years and infallibly it makes things ever more clear to me, be it in deciphering passages of the Bible, be it in the resolution of the perplexities of life. Moreover, the rule is so natural and obvious that only those who did not perceive it fail to follow it.
As it usually happens with the simplest truths, that which is perceived in an intuitive and mute instant requires some logical refinement in order to be exposed in words. To facilitate the explanation I make here a distinction between “norms” and “principles” – distantly inspired by the one made by Kant and Max Scheller between material and formal ethics, but without subscribing to their respective moral philosophies. Every moral system is made up of both norms and principles. Specific norms command or forbid some kind of concrete conduct: do not kill; do not steal; help orphans and widows, etc. When the order is not expressed by a concrete imperative, but by an abstract relationship of proportionality, as in an equation of the type a/b = x/y, then it is not dealing with a particular conduct, but rather with a principle that must be observed in all conducts, in all situations of life. In order to be obeyed, specific norms require distinctions and exemptions, which, based upon their general typological formulation, wisely adapt them to the particular situation of the moment. Of course, “thou shalt not kill”, but whoever refuses to do it in war or in the defense of a threatened innocent may have to face the guilt of exposing others to death, by omission. Certainly “thou shalt not steal”, but who has the right not to steal when the only means of getting a wounded person to the hospital is the car that an unknown owner left with the keys in the ignition? “Thou shalt not bear false witness”, but this does not mean that you are forced to tell the truth when a robber asks you where your boss keeps the money, or when a truculent commissar of the people asks you where your village hid its harvest. Having absolute typological validity, norms enjoy an eminently relative application: relative to the situation, to the intentions, to the character of those involved, to the interference of highly complex cultural, psychological and psychopathological factors, etc. Even though they are permanent in their general obligatory-ness, they require a particular interpretation which is different in each case and circumstance. Many times good people do evil not because they consciously wish to break the moral rule, but because they err in its particular interpretation.
For this very reason, God did not provide us only with rules of conduct, but also with the general principles that must guide their interpretation. These principles, because they are as formal as equations and do not refer to any concrete situation, have an absolute and unconditional validity in all situations and work as a touchstone to assess the interpretation we give to concrete norms. In the Ten Commandments this distinction is clear. When someone asks Him what is the needed to enter into heaven, Jesus answers: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart and with thy whole soul and with thy whole mind. Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” The Ten Commandments are therefore made up of two principles and eight rules. The principles are the keys that determine the meaning of the rules in each case. If someone commits adultery, he breaks a rule, but if you throw him to public execration in the streets, instead of pardoning him and counseling him privately, as you would hope it would be done unto you, you sin much more than the adulterer, because you violate a principle. God forgives adulterers, liars, thieves, and even murderers, but he does not forgive one who does not forgive. I may be wrong, but I suspect that in hell there are fewer adulterers than virtuous spouses who have denied them forgiveness.
Throughout the Bible one finds many secondary formal principles, derived from the first ones. They are authentic treasure maps to the tormented soul which, in the complexities of existence, wishes to do right but does not know what is right. One of these principles – one that is most often forgotten, in my estimation – was enunciated by St. Paul, the Apostle: “Test everything; retain what is good.” I do not tire of meditating upon this sentence, and the depth I find in it could fill many books, if I were capable of writing them.
Consider this. St. Paul, throughout his letters, enunciated several rules of conduct, more detailed than those contained in the Ten Commandments. If you read these rules, you already know what is good or bad, according to the teaching of the Apostle. Whence then the need to “test”? The very distinction between principles and rules implicitly contains the answer. For you to avoid bad conduct it is not enough to know that typologically, i.e. generically, it falls under the classification of “bad”. Human conduct is not guided by abstractions, but by the direct and sensitive perception of situations. It is necessary for you to “see” with your own eyes good and evil. Human beings do not learn only by hearsay – even if the Word heard is God’s: we learn by experience, by the slow, laborious, and painful distinction between good and evil not in general simple definitions, but in hallucinatingly complex and ambiguous situations of real life. The symbol of bread in the Eucharist means the moral, practical virtues, while the wine means the spiritual ones, of a purely inner order. “By the sweat of your face shall you get bread to eat” means exactly this: the little good that may be found in us comes mixed with evil, and will have to be separated from it little by little, through experience, through trial and error, as in a long alchemic decantation. God can, of course, preserve you from committing this or that sin by an act of Grace, but He is not obliged to do so and even less is He bound to immunize you beforehand against all possible sin. Moreover, what greater Grace can you receive from God than His promise to justify errors as soon as in the path of experience they are frankly admitted as such?
If the Apostle distinguishes between the experience and its selective conclusion, he presupposes that not everything that will be tested will be good, but that everything must be tested in light of learning and of good, not out of the vulgar wish to try it just for trying, neither out of a forged and artificial doubt. Plato said that “the truth you know is the truth you obey.” As soon as you have clearly seen that some conduct is bad you have to avoid it by all means. Until then, you have a certain margin of justified error, as an inherent requirement to the very notion of learning, with the condition that you confess the error as soon as you notice it as such and that you do not insist upon it after that. When you have discovered what is good, do not let go of it for all the money in the world.
I, who am dumb and worthless, and on top of that also careless and lazy, have seen a very tiny piece of good, one that compared to my illustrious self is about the size of infinity. I saw it thanks to the Pauline counsel. It is from there that the stable and serious part of my soul comes from, a minute part, but much better than the whole of it, which I hope to improve little by little to the last day, as other pieces of good shine through here and there in the obscurities of my mind. Certainly, I proceed by steps. I am patient and tolerant with myself while amidst confusion and doubt, but as soon as I see things clearly, I do not cut my wretched self any slack. In an instant I shift from the tenderness of caresses to the rigor of the ferule.
I do not know another method and I do not recommend this one to those who know a better one. To the others, I say with the Apostle: test everything.