Even those of us who are not interested in architecture of structural engineering generally are as fond as those of us who are in constructing massive and complicated towers of the rhetorical variety. Sadly, though, despite our best efforts, our rhetorical towers often most closely resemble the leaning tower of Pisa, and for the same reason that tower has failed to fulfill its designed purpose despite the effort and cost it took to build it. Therefore today I would like to examine a matter of considerable importance in the field of foundation engineering, as it relates to our lives and conversation and conduct in dealing with the materials of our discourse rather than wood and stone and steel.
Foundation engineering is a subject I wish I knew better myself from a structural point of view, only having dealt with it slightly in the course of my studies as it related specifically to the design of concrete foundations or in geotechnical engineering and the analysis of soil types or in calculations of seismic loading on buildings with specific types of foundations in structural system dynamics. When it comes to rhetoric, I see often that foundation engineering, as it relates to our conduct in general, is unjustly neglected by people and often has tragic results. We cannot see the foundation beneath the feet of our belief systems, and we are often not given to question the worldview and assumptions on which our actions and conduct springs. We regularly, probably even daily, make assumptions about other people. I know I tend to be fairly intuitive in inferring where others come from, while recognizing that these inferences (whether valid or not) may need to be corrected based on future information.
But not everyone recognizes the tentative nature of the foundation on which we build judgments of other people. It is very frustrating to deal with people who have mistaken foundational worldviews and who consider themselves possessed of particular insight when they are not, especially when they have other people backing them up in their biased and mistaken judgments. Having dealt with this injustice many times, I tend to react fiercely to such faulty towers being erected against me, and I vigorously and ferociously tear them down, as we have been commanded to do as Christians, fighting against evil in high places and arguments that cast themselves against the ways of God, regardless of the titles and positions of those who do it. It is a difficult balance, and I will not pretend to do it well, between my sincere wish for the repentance of those who traffic in slander and falsehoods against me, between my abhorrence and hatred of such slander myself and my ferocious effort in tearing it down with the weapons of truth and love, and in the need to respect offices even if the people who often hold those offices are corrupt and dishonorable.
There is another balance here as well that must be recognized. There is a balance between building up structures based on a strong foundation of truth and destroying those towers that are based on foundations of error. All too often in life we find that the towers we build are usually built on a mixture of truth and error, and that the towers of others are built on a different mixture of truth and error, and so we lean one direction or the other based on our own biases or the specific nature of our faulty foundations. Sadly, we may often lean one way in a way that we know to be unbalanced in order to try to right a different unbalance in our larger institutions, trying to balance the whole system by deliberately being unbalanced ourselves, rather than providing others a model of the right and proper balance that is built on the proper foundation, which for a believer in God can only be on Christ–his teaching and practice, his example and his doctrine. So let us attempt to do so at least briefly.
All of the laws and teachings and prophecies of the Bible, of which people take a great interest, rest on two foundational principles. The first, which is enshrined in the Shema in Deuteronomy 6:4, states that we are to love God with all our heart, all our mind, all our strength, and all our being. So, how does the Eternal tell us to love Him? He tells us that He needs to be first in our lives–that we are to have no other ‘gods’ before Him. He tells us that we are not to attempt to limit Him to our own physical understanding, by creating ‘images’ of Him that limit Him to our own frame of reference–we are to always remember that His thoughts and ways and plans are far above our own, to the point where we cannot grasp or comprehend either His greatness, His wisdom, or His love. He tells us that we are not to take His name in vain, that we are not to insult his reputation, take His name or power lightly, or to bring His reputation into disrepute by acting in such a way that people see our conduct and dishonor the God we claim to follow. He tells us that we are to rest from our labors when God commands on His Sabbaths and that we are to give rest to others–rest from work, rest to the land, freedom from debts and slavery–to the outside world as well, treating others with grace as God has been gracious to us. And He also tells us that we are to honor authorities, parents, rulers, religious leaders–because we learn how to honor God by honoring others, as fallible and flawed as they may be.
And the second foundational principle is like it: you shall love others as yourself, taken from the core of the Torah in Leviticus 19:18. And how does God tell us to love others as ourselves? We are to recognize that we are all created in the image and likeness of our heavenly father, and an attack on any human being is an attack on the God who made us. We are to be loyal to our covenantal obligations, recognizing that God will bring judgment on those who betray those bound to them by covenant. We are to respect the blessings that God gives to others, to not steal from them by oppressing them and failing to pay them what they deserve or trying to redistribute their property. We are to deal honestly and faithfully and sincerely in our relationships with others, showing ourselves a model of integrity and truth to all, not merely to those whom we agree with. We are also to avoid coveting what God has given to others, knowing that God gives blessings and gifts to all for His own purposes, and to be content with what we have and striving to fulfill what God has put us on this earth to do. And these obligations are given for all people, not merely those we like or agree with.
It is easy to say these things, but it is hard to do them. There are so many ways that we can go wrong and build faulty towers of thought and practice on faulty foundations. At every step we can err to the right and to the left rather than keeping the even foundation that we need for a stable and godly life. Perhaps it is most important to recognize the immensity of the task that is asked of us if we seek to follow God, which ought to give us a sense of well-earned humility about ourselves, and a gracious and charitable view of others. For example, we can afford to neglect none of the weighty matters of justice, mercy, and faith, and all of us are prone to be stronger in some areas than others and be accordingly imbalanced if left to our own devices and the whims of our own hearts. And these foundations are at the base not only of our “church” life, but at the basis of our economic and political worldviews as well as our basic approach to dealing with others. Because our worldview, our attitude towards our obligations toward God and man, is at the basis of all of our behavior, it is vital that we reflect upon questions about how consistent we are in viewing others as worthy of love and respect. We all have a lot of work to do, and as we tear down the false towers of others, we ought to show concern for the foundation of our own belief and practice as well, so that it is not found wanting either.