We were always taught that ‘love thy neighbour as thyself’ is the golden rule, but then I read in your website that what we call our self is usually just our ego, so it couldn’t be a guide to loving our neighbour. Doesn’t this mean that the golden rule isn’t much of a rule? Are you setting aside the Gospel and trying to do better than it? That would surprise me and I can't figure it out, so I thought I'd just ask you. Thanks for your website…. John G.
The so-called Golden Rule is not the Gospel. Just google it and you will see how often it occurs in pre-Christian literature. It occurred, long before the time of Jesus, in the Old Testament (Leviticus 19:18), as well as in a host of other ancient texts. When Jesus was asked (in Mt 22:39) which was the greatest commandment of the Law he quoted two passages from the Old Testament in reply, and one of them was Leviticus 19:18. He was just answering a question about the Law of Moses. But when he spoke from himself he didn’t say ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’; he said “Love one another as I have loved you” (Jn 13:34). There is a world of difference between the way Jesus loves you and the way someone else might love you. With all the good will in the world, when someone else loves you the chances are that their ego is involved in it to a greater or lesser extent – often to a huge extent. Our self-love is not a reliable guide to how we should love others. There are people from whom I would run a mile if they threatened to love me as they love themselves. The bottom line is that the ego doesn’t know how to love. It is an excellent strategist, but it doesn’t know how to love. It knows how to fish: someone puts a bit of love on a hook and casts out; then someone else takes the bait and is captured. The ego is all hooks, but real love has no hooks.
The love we see in Jesus is of a different order: it is unlimited and unconditional. The gospel writers had to find a special word for it: agapè. The New Testament teaching is that by the grace of Christ working in us, we too are capable of this kind of love: love that is uncontaminated by our own confusion and neediness.
One of the greatest tragedies of Christian spirituality is that through the centuries the ego has not been seen with sufficient sustained clarity. The saints and mystics have lived beyond its grip, but we have been content to admire them rather than study how our own egos are strangling us. We cannot imitate them just by attempting to do the things they did. We can only imitate them by working (with God’s grace) to free ourselves from the prison of our own egos. The world-wide interest in meditation in our own time is bringing this topic to centre stage, and this is a great blessing. The development of meditation practices may turn out in time to be the greatest blessing of our age. It is the key that is enabling Christians to unlock the treasures of Christian spirituality.
We can get glimpses of our true nature when we systematically unmask the ego and unravel its stories. The ego is the ‘life’ we have to lose if we are to gain life. “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Mt 10:39). The life we find is the life “hidden with Christ in God” (Col 3:3). We could call this our ‘Christ-nature’ or our ‘Christ-mind’.
This is a real life, not an imagined or remembered one. It is always in the present moment, whereas the ego’s life is always shaped by the past. The ego is my past, my story, how I describe myself in order to remain unchanged by the present (or changed only according to my own formula). My true life is not what I look at or see in myself; it is where I look from. My true life looks through the eyes of Christ.
So, briefly, John, this is not about setting aside the Gospel and trying to do better, as you put it. It is a key that opens up the meaning of many obscure passages in the Gospel and allows its paradoxes to recover their fresh and practical meaning.
If it helps, you can look at another question about the ego on this page: ‘Between Ourselves’, 2009.