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The spiritual goal of Self-Reg is to enable every child, teen and adult to sense a higher truth. Something above and beyond social mores. To know the difference between good and evil. To feel the momentous weight of morality for the wellbeing of our own and future generations. To hear the cries of a child before they stop crying completely because no one ever came to their aid. To be bound to care for the wellbeing of every member of the community, including the stranger. To abhor the possibility that anyone should go hungry or homeless or friendless.

Back when I was a student at Oxford, I met up with one of my old UofT professors at a London pub. He half-jokingly accused me of being like a Hebrew prophet. (I had a scraggly beard at the time, which may have added to the effect.) I was taken aback, even slightly offended. The fact that I still remember every detail of this episode tells you something about the nerve that he touched.

I was also intrigued, to the point where I went back to read the second major division in Tanach, the Prophets (Nevi’im). I definitely didn’t want to be seen as a Jeremiah, berating society for its false worship of Mammon and Narcissus. (Although that was certainly true of my father.) Yet I could see myself in the mold of Amos, crying out for the restoration of a Just Society. And here I am, having just finished a book sub-titled “Self-Reg for a Just Society.” So maybe my prof had recognized something in me that I hadn’t yet come to terms with myself.

But that was not his point. I must have been railing about the decline in morality. I still am. With one big difference. We‘ve now gone past the point of moral decline and are well into moral collapse. If ever there were a time when the words of the prophets ring true it is now:

    There is strife, and conflict abounds.
Therefore the law is paralyzed,
    and justice never prevails.
The wicked hem in the righteous,
    so that justice is perverted (Habakkuk 1). 

And like Habakkuk I ask myself Why: not as a lament, but as a profoundly important matter for Self-Reg to address. 

The irony in all this was that I was studying moral philosophy at Oxford at the time — and hating every minute of it! I couldn’t bear the thought putting so much effort into refuting the claims of moral relativists. I thought at the time, I still think, that moral relativism is a contradiction in terms.

There are those who argue that different cultures can ascribe to different “moralities” in the way that Mesopotamia had a (slightly) different legal code than the Israelites. Or that moral norms are nothing more than social conventions. I tried to convince my tutor – unsuccessfully, I might add – that this view transgresses the bounds of logical grammar – and morality! 

Moral truths are absolute, universal, and sempiternal. They are like the axioms in Euclidean geometry. What makes an axiom indubitably true? Is it because of the way our minds work? Could beings from another planet be capable of doubting whether a straight line can always be drawn between two points? (Or beings from our own planet that believe in the possibility of “alternative facts”?)

That is like asking, “Could beings from another planet play a form of chess in which the bishop jumps over pawns as well as move diagonally?” To be sure, a different culture could play a game that was very similar to chess. But Xiangqi is not “chess” with fewer pawns and a river in the middle of the board. It is a different game.

The same point applies to morality. The Ten Commandments are the axioms. To be sure, there are precursors of the Decalogue in earlier cultures, similar not just in tone but even in content. But these laws are not axioms, they are the edicts of a ruler. Hammurabi states at the outset of his famous Code (1755-1750 BC) that he is the sole author of these laws. But “the sanction of morality is divine, not social, and for this reason morality is absolute and not relative.” (1)

But how do we know that the Ten Commandments are divine? The answer is straightforward. It was due to a very special kind of experience shared by the 604,000 Israelites gathered at Mt. Sinai. Together they saw fire within a cloud, heard thunderclaps, felt the ground shaking. 

Our problem today is, what happens to morality when its tie to theophany is severed? Spinoza was the first to argue that you cannot ground morality in revelation. To which the rabbis replied: without revelation, then what? But then, revelation is a very subtle concept.

Archimedes had one when he was lying in his bath: the sudden blazing insight into the law of buoyancy. Instead of shouting “Eureka” when they heard the Ten Commandments, the Israelites cried out: na’aseh ve-nishma, “we will do, and we will hear.” The emphasis on hearing at Exodus 24:7 is the key to understanding the nature of morality.

The Biblical view creates a real problem for a culture that has long since abandoned the belief that God manifests Himself in sensible form. But what if theophany belongs to a different order of experience than ordinary sense-perception? What if whoever wrote the Torah (was it Ezra who was the Redactor?) resorted to poetic tropes to convey a moment of blinding illumination? What he describes is the mystical time and place at which the Israelites heard the voice of God. This point is spelled out at the beginning of Exodus 20 and is repeated even more emphatically at Deuteronomy 5.

It was hearing the voice of God that led the Israelites to bind themselves to the moral Covenant. Hearing in the sense of striving to understand, internalizing, reflecting, and most important of all, being transformed. In Hesiod’s words, to “hear the divine voice of the muses” is to be inspired, transported, exhilarated.

To hear the voice of God is to sense a higher truth, something above and beyond social mores. It is to know the difference between good and evil. To feel the momentous weight of morality for the wellbeing of our own and future generations. To hear the cries of a child before they stop crying completely because no one ever came to their aid. To be bound to care for the wellbeing of every member of the community, including the stranger. To abhor the possibility that anyone should go hungry or homeless or friendless. 

To hear the voice of God is to have a vision of the type of society that morality affords. To feel wonder at the sight of nature. To hear the cries of all living creatures. To regard yourself as a guardian of the earth rather someone entitled to despoil it. To see all humans as equal, with the same right to happiness and self-determination. To grasp that freedom is being able to choose, psychologically as well as politically. To understand that one is free only if all are free. 

All this and so much more is what it means to hear the “still small voice” (1 Kings 19). To grasp that the laws of morality apply to all. This point is conveyed through the story of Cain and Abel, who represent the brotherhood of humanity. Homicide is ipso facto fratricide. Cain can perceive but, as a pagan, cannot hear the voice of God. Yet his action was patently evil and for that reason he must bear responsibility. His penalty is exile, to be a pariah.

Ezekiel tells us exactly what happens to a society that no longer hears the still small voice. Sodom was destroyed — it implodes — because it had become Unjust. “She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things.” (Ezekiel 16: 49-50)

The question of what happens to a society that does not hear the voice of God is not the same as the question of what happens to a society that does not believe in God. The difference between these two questions is that between anomie and atheism. But morality is not about belief; it is about experiencing the spiritual growth that homeostasis — personal and social — affords. And that is precisely where Self-Reg comes in.

Insofar as the Biblical view of morality is grounded in the Covenant, it was natural to place great emphasis on self-control. One must choose to be faithful to the Covenant and then have the willpower to stand by one’s choice. But what if the individual or society is caught in Red Brain, and so unable to choose? Unable to hear the still small voice? 

Now is not a time for railing, it is a time for restoring. That will be our theme for this year’s annual Summer Symposium. It is not prophets that are needed; it is Self-Reggers. An army of them.

There were several aspects of the Cuban revolution that I found inspiring. Operación Milagro. Educa a tu Hijo. The polyclinics. But most of all, the Literacy Brigades. Young people were sent to every part of the country to teach reading and writing. I want us to launch something similar at SRSS 2024. Brigades that teach Self-Reg literacy in every corner of the world.

Only thus will it become possible to restore morality.

 (1) Nahum M. Sarna (1966). Understanding Genesis, p.217

Join us at our annual Summer Symposium this July in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada. Or bring out your hammock and bury your nose in one of Stuart’s great reads. Check out his catalogue of great books HERE.

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