In Search of Common Ground: The Role of a Global Ethic in Inter-Religious Dialogue

July 1, 2008

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In October 2007, a group of 138 Muslim clerics and scholars issued a 29-page open letter to Christian leaders entitled "A Common Word Between Us". The letter asserts that Muslims and Christians together constitute a majority (58 percent) of the world's population; therefore, world peace requires peace between them. It further identifies moral and religious beliefs that the two traditions, and Judaism as well, have in common and invites Christians to join Muslims in a sustained dialogue with the goal of proclaiming a 'common word' between them.

Many Christian leaders who received the letter greeted it warmly, though there have been some dissenting voices. Observers consider the open letter to represent a significant accomplishment since it was signed by representatives of virtually every segment of the Muslim world.

The Common Word letter is not the first attempt to stake out common moral ground between religious traditions bedeviled by mutual animosity. But it was welcomed by its recipients for its recognition, in a climate of inter-religious friction, of the ethical commonalities Islam shares with the other Abrahamic religions.

Of course, the letter is only an invitation to dialogue; actually achieving a productive dialogue is a different matter. How is dialogue of this kind done properly? And how, if at all, can such a dialogue contribute to international peace and stability?

An obvious approach to dialogue between adversarial groups is to search for similarities. But in matters of religion, that can be an elusive, if not quixotic, undertaking. Without the means to distinguish between spurious and genuine parallels, dialogue can quickly go astray. Some claim that religious traditions are derived from a single primordial source, and that therefore they are fundamentally homogenous despite their distinctive symbolisms. Others hold that religious traditions are essentially resistant to comparison, given their cultural, linguistic and metaphysical differences. Yet others, more modestly, suggest that religions are in essential agreement about basic ethical norms, even though they may conflict theologically and metaphysically. One of the most notable contemporary examples of this position is the Global Ethic project of Catholic theologian Hans Küng.

Beginning in 1990, Küng has sought to identify the components of a common morality shared by world religious traditions. Described in this way, the Global Ethic may appear to be a blueprint for a global religion. But Küng's undertaking assumes the stubborn particularity of religious traditions and consequently aims at coexistence among religions, not their harmonization. Moreover, the Global Ethic is not an exclusively religious affair: Küng believes it can and should be embraced by secular people as well. It is, in the broadest sense, a political/ethical enterprise as well as a religious one.

The Global Ethic is motivated by two convictions: first, that inter-religious understanding is a sine qua non for peace among nation-states. Religion exerts a powerful yet ambiguous influence on politics. It can consecrate selfishness, demonize adversaries, create or aggravate conflict. But it also contain resources for promoting understanding and tolerance. Second, Küng believes that common ethical standards are essential in an era of globalized economics. As an economic phenomenon, globalization is often dramatically disruptive for communities and local economies, and shared norms can help prevent human well-being from being wholly trumped by economic considerations.

Küng launched the Global Ethic project in 1990 in a programmatic book, Global Responsibility. Shortly after it appeared, Küng served as the principal drafter of the Declaration of the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1993. Consisting of four basic principles and four directives, the Declaration summarizes the core elements of the Global Ethic: respect for the 'humanity' of persons, non-violence, just economics, tolerance, truthfulness and gender and racial equality.

In subsequent writings, Küng applied these principles to various spheres of activity. For example, in A Global Ethic for Global Politics and Economics (1998), he describes the implications of the Global Ethic for politics and business. He attacks realpolitik notions of national interest and theories of international relations that lack a normative dimension. In his view, economics and business are properly concerned with profit-oriented self-interest, but they cannot and should not be exclusively concerned with those goals. In general, Küng advocates a middle way between moral rigorism and unprincipled self-concern; he also emphasizes the need for a balance between rights and responsibilities.

Küng finds the elements of such an ethic deeply embedded in historical religious traditions. He claims that there is a remarkable ethical consistency among the major religions regarding respect for life, repudiation of violence, truthfulness and honesty in daily affairs. Those traditions manifest an abiding concern for human well-being and for what Küng terms "elementary humanness." Its basic imperatives consist of prohibitions against killing, lying, stealing, sexual exploitation, and affirmatively, the obligation of children to respect parents, and for parents to love their children. Küng acknowledges that these are minimal, ground-floor principles; nonetheless, they reflect a broadly shared consensus about important areas of human life. Its minimalism is a reflection of its universalism. Given the pluralism of human culture, to expect a detailed moral code common to all would be unrealistic, to say the least.

How does Küng arrive at the norms he holds up as universal? They are developed through engagement with what he describes as the three great river systems of religion: the Abrahamic group of religions with its prophetic emphasis, the Indian with its mystical orientation, and the Asian with its concern for the cultivation of wisdom. Engagement with each of these river systems means for Küng the in-depth study of the history and expressions of each religion—its scriptures, practices, symbols, doctrines and theologies, illuminated through personal interaction with the religion's own adherents. Küng likens this kind of engagement to diplomatic negotiations. It has nothing to do with the polite exchange of breezy platitudes.

This may sound more rhetorical than realistic, but it is backed up by Küng's own work. Beginning with his comparison of Christianity and other major religious traditions, Christianity and World Religions (1987), and continuing through his studies of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, Küng demonstrates how religious boundaries can be crossed responsibly and profitably. Not that everyone must engage in such exhaustive investigative, analytical work on their own: Küng's publications, as well as those of others (such as Keith Ward, Huston Smith, and Masao Abe) provide windows into various traditions and thereby enable non-specialists also to enter, in some capacity or other, unfamiliar religious territory.

Observers have leveled several criticisms at the Global Ethic project. Two recurrent ones are that it is abstract and minimalist. It is allegedly abstract in that its contents are so general that they essentially amount to hortatory injunctions without concrete applicability. While the Global Ethic indeed has its hortatory uses, its norms are no less useful than any other first-order ethical norms. Such norms are inescapably general in formulation, and their interpretation and application necessarily vary depending on specific circumstances—cultural, historical, factual—and on different kinds of moral reasoning.

As for the complaint that the Global Ethic is inevitably minimalist and therefore of little utility, this equates comprehensiveness with worthiness. It overlooks the intrinsic value of consensus, limited though it may be. The fact that certain ethical issues—genetic experimentation and abortion, to name two—remain unaddressed by the Global Ethic hardly invalidates the effort as a whole. The endorsement of its principles by representatives from all major religions—obtained, no doubt, at the cost of generality and the avoidance of any mention of God—endows it with certain precedential significance.

Others have asked whether the contents of the Global Ethic are culturally relative. John Hick has expressed doubt whether there are, in fact, any 'global' ethics beyond very basic norms such as the principle of benevolence found in the Golden Rule and its analogues. He asks whether the host of second-order principles others have derived from the 1993 Declaration of the Parliament of World Religions—legal equality, democratic political rights, right to property and so forth—are not so inescapably tied to western presuppositions that they do not translate well (or at all) into other cultural settings.

This criticism seems legitimate—to an extent. The principles of the Declaration, with their pronounced concern for individual rights and responsibilities, clearly reflect their provenance in western, liberal society. But the principles are not a closed set; they can and should be refined. Hick himself proposes the African notion of ubuthu (roughly, connectedness) as an additional principle. There are undoubtedly others.

Serious though these questions are, they do not necessarily compel the conclusion that the articulation of a Global Ethic is futile. Inter-religious dialogue of some kind or other is a moral necessity, not simply an entertaining diversion for professional religionists. Küng declares: "No peace among the nations without peace among the religions; no peace among the religions without dialogue among the religions."

This is not to say that Küng's version of the Global Ethic supplies the definitive recipe for inter-religious dialogue. But his belief in the value of informed engagement among religious traditions has much to recommend it. Some representatives of religions reject his approach as too westernized and rational. While it is undeniably western and rational in flavor, that need not be disqualifying. Küng is not attempting to distill the contents of religious traditions into alien concepts and force them into uncongenial categories; he is seeking to create basic conceptual terms for communication. There are certainly other ways to achieve that, but it needs to be done in one way or another.

Some observers have registered more practical reservations about the Global Ethic. One is that the project lacks popular appeal and accessibility. This seems justified. Küng's institutional platform, the Global Ethic Foundation of Tuebingen, Germany, has little visibility in this country or elsewhere outside of Europe. Many if not most of its publications are in German. For example, the foundation has developed education materials on the Global Ethic for use in schools—but they are only available in German. This offering could easily be expanded with reasonable effort and expense.

The activities of the foundation could also be expanded to include participants beyond the political and religious elites it has engaged so far. Alliances could be formed with like-minded organizations such as inter-faith councils and professional societies. The scope of the foundation's activities could be broadened to include more grass-roots activities, educational and otherwise, such as local inter-faith meetings.

More substantively, the Global Ethic could also be further developed in connection with specific fields of knowledge and activity. For example, it could serve as a resource in law and jurisprudence for the elaboration of norms of customary international law, and for the further development of cosmopolitan theories of law and citizenship. It could also be a reference point for voluntary codes of conduct and other compliance efforts being developed in connection with the expanding fields of business ethics and corporate governance.

The Global Ethic could be useful as a platform, in addition to established governmental channels, for international dialogue. In 1950, Reinhold Niebuhr wrote: "It will be very important to achieve minimal common conviction on standards of justice and to establish degrees of tolerance between disparate cultures which do not now exist. It may perhaps be even more important simply to encourage every possible mode of communication between cultures in order that a common social and cultural tissue may slowly develop." Niebuhr's recommendation is as relevant today as it was then.

Perhaps the Global Ethic could be one of the elements of the dialogue invited by the Common Word letter. That dialogue will not resolve the complex conflicts between the West and segments of the Muslim world. But, if honest, substantive and informed, it could help to dispel deep-rooted prejudices. It could demonstrate, in some modest way, to the ability of religion to connect, not only to divide.

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