Temple of the Holy Spirit: Reflection on the Relevance of the Ten Commandments in Modern Life

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(A version of this came out in the National University of Singapore's Candle on Campus publication in September 2000.)

IN the muddled age of cyberhackers and post-globalization, the Ten Commandments are not only still relevant. They have taken on a greater importance, not least because people's actions could have far-reaching effects over a greater number than at any previous time (just think of the Love virus). As barriers between individuals, groups and even countries tumble, the need arises for basic moral standards to regulate closer and more protracted dealings. Though the brave, new world is anarchic, people everywhere still cling to a desire for order and invoke moral norms. Never mind if they disagree about the nitty-gritty of those norms. Many dream of becoming NASDAQ millionaires overnight with smart business ideas, but will not hesitate to raise a ruckus over cybersquatters who freeload on their success.

Despite the din of hate chat rooms, the commandment "Thou shall not kill" booms down broadband wires. Certain authorities, even in professedly liberal societies, are upholding the commandment in all its ramifications. A French judge, for instance, recently ordered technology experts to block French on-line users from a Yahoo! auction site that hawks Nazi and other racist paraphernalia. Freedom of expression, the judge has recognized, must have limits.

The prickly "Thou shall not commit adultery" has not been abolished. New technologies present more occasions to transgress this command, but they cannot silence the conscience. The Saudi Arabian government has blocked another Website, this time one that peddles porn. The same precept has moved family groups to develop and to spread on-line filters for the protection of the young from insidious sites. Most tellingly, Clinton has shown himself to be not immune to his conscience's prodding by admitting his "terrible mistake" with a certain White House intern at an evangelical ministers' powwow in Illinois.


Humanity, according to C.S. Lewis, is haunted by the idea of doing what is right. In Mere Christianity, Lewis says people always appeal to some standard of behavior. When they disobey that standard, they defend their actions by conjuring up an excuse for violating it. What they appeal to is a law of of right and wrong that is written in people's hearts. Reason commends the proposition that that law is summed up in the moral code as promulgated to Israel in Horeb (Deut 5: 2).That moral code admonishes people to do what is right no matter how dangerous or difficult that may be. This Natural Law is hard: "It is as hard as nails" (Mere Christianity 23).

The Ten Commandments enumerate the requirements of the love of God and love of neighbor. The first three are about love of God, and the other seven love of neighbor. Our Lord summed them up in two commandments. It is rather apt that the Ten Commandments were themselves given on two tablets (St. Augustine Sermon 33, 2,2: PL 38, 208). It can be argued that greater transparency and the free exchange of information safeguard the Ten Commandments. How is that possible? New forms of technology spread the knowledge of the divinely revealed moral code as held principally by followers of the three great revealed religions. What people see in the Ten Commandments are norms for checking the excesses of the new, anarchic world order.

The Ten Commandments have a pragmatic aspect. These are laws that unite God's people as a social unit even as they codify the offences that threaten to unravel those social ties. Implicit in them are the values that define God's people such as piety toward God and one's parents.

Since the time of St. Augustine, the teaching of the Ten Commandments has been part of the instruction of initiates to the church. The various catechisms of the Church have also explained Christian morality by following the order of the Ten Commandments. The Council of Trent first taught and the Second Vatican Council later confirmed that the justified man is bound to keep the precepts: "The bishops, successors of the apostles, receive from the Lord ... the mission of teaching all peoples, and of preachign the Gospel to every creature, so that all men may attain salvation through faith, Baptism and the observance of the Commanments" (LG 24).


Inextricable from God’s covenant with His followers, the Ten Commandments remain binding after the passing of millennia and the rise of lifestyles that deviate from them. These commandments were compelling for the rich, young man to whom Jesus gave the evangelical counsels. They remain so for the NUS student who seeks a vocation. These commandments, after all, lie at the core of moral and social life. It may no longer be modish to strut in long, woollen tunics as in Mosaic times, but it is still not justifiable to utter God’s name in vain – in celluloid or in real life.

The Ten Commandments have pragmatic and mystical dimensions. God’s laws unite His people even as those laws enshrine the core values that define them as a people. Violating those laws ruptures the ties among God’s people as well as between them and God. The Ten Commandments are a resounding call to fidelity to others as well as the Other who is God. The precepts are God's guidelines for a "life freed from the slavery of sin" and a "path of life" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, Deut 30:16). Adherence to them is a small act of gratitude for undeserved divine favor. The catchism looks at the commandments as central to revelation: "The decalogue is pronounced by God in the midst of a theophany ("The Lord spoke with you face to face at the mountain, out of the midst of the fire." ([Deut 5:4]). They belong to God's revelation of Himself and His glory. The gift of the Commandments is the gift of God Himself and His holy will. In making His will known, God reveals Himself to His people.

The catechism affirms that people have been put in this world to love and serve their Father God. The world may have shrunk much and people have greatly realized their potentials in this generation. But they are still expected to fulfill a fundamental responsibility toward God. Following the Ten Commandments, time-tested and divinely ordained guideposts, is one sure way of carrying out that responsibility.

People shouting at the world over megaphones; Size=240 pixels wide

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