Reflections on "A Global Ethic"

By Sarah Belle Doughterty

[The author attended the sessions of The Assembly of Religious and Spiritual Leaders at The Art Institute of Chicago, September 2, 3, & 4, as an Assistant to Grace F. Knoche -- Ed.]

What positive contributions can religion make to humanity's present and future? Participants at the 1993 Parliament of the World's Religions emphasized respect for other traditions, the oneness of humanity, and a desire to curb religious excesses and abuses, particularly those that allow religion to be used as a rationalization for violence, selfishness, and fanaticism. Presenters also addressed issues defined by the Parliament's organizers: the ecological, social, and economic problems collectively called the global problematique.

In this context the Parliament scheduled an Assembly of Religious and Spiritual Leaders to examine and sign, if they wished, a document organizers had commissioned -- "A Global Ethic" (Drafted by Dr. Hans Kung in line with ideas expressed in his book Projekt Weltethos; English translation, Global Responsibility: In Search of a New World Ethic, 1991). Declaring that there can be "no new global order without a new global ethic," it condemns humanity's current abuses and affirms a "common set of core values" found in world religious teachings. It then proposes a worldwide, "irrevocable, unconditional norm for all areas of life, for families and communities, for races, nations, and religions" which all persons with ethical convictions, religious or not, should agree upon.

To this end "A Global Ethic" sets forth the fundamental demand that every human being be treated humanely, and lists four "irrevocable directives": commitments to a culture of nonviolence and respect for life; of solidarity and a just economic order; of tolerance and a life of truthfulness; and of equal rights and partnership between men and women. Under each directive it details many particular applications, such as: "armament is a mistaken path; disarmament is the commandment of the times"; "no one has the right to use her or his possessions without concern for the needs of society and Earth"; "wherever those ruling threaten to repress those ruled, wherever institutions threaten persons, and wherever might oppresses right, we are obligated to resist -- whenever possible nonviolently"; and "artists, writers, and scientists . . . are not exempt from general ethical standards and must serve the truth." It then calls for a transformation of consciousness in the area of ethics, and for professional and religious groups to formulate very specific codes of ethics addressing the situations in their fields.

Although regretting that they were allowed no input into the text at the Assembly, the majority attending agreed that "A Global Ethic" was acceptable as a first step toward solving current problems and creating religious unity. Commitment to this set of commandments and their many social and economic specifics, its supporters hope, will change human behavior and "introduce a better global order."

Not all participants agreed, however. A number were disturbed by the unrepresentative composition of the Assembly and by the rigid, undemocratic process chosen for considering the document. While Assembly members were asked to discuss the document in committees for several hours, organizers permitted no changes to be made in its text, presentation, or status (Drafted by Dr. Hans Kung in line with ideas expressed in his book Projekt Weltethos; English translation, Global Responsibility: In Search of a New World Ethic, 1991). Others felt that insufficient time was allowed for plenary discussion, and that their concerns were not given a hearing. Some objected to the coercive, inflexible language and many detailed applications, and would have preferred a simpler statement of spiritual principles presented as guidelines. Several did not see the imposition of uniform ethical and sociopolitical standards by religious bodies as the answer to humanity's problems: world religions already mandate such rules, and the result in too many cases is lip-service, hypocrisy, judgment by appearances, self-righteousness, and weakened self-reliance. One participant remarked that reissuing commandments from existing religions was oriented to the past rather than the future, and therefore was unlikely to have much meaning to the mass of people today, especially the young.

In contrast to the dogmatic tone of the global document, various Parliament presentations approached the issues on a more fundamental level. For instance, Metropolitan Paulos Gregorios of the Syrian Orthodox Church maintained that religion and religious leaders would have insignificant impact on human life and world affairs until a new worldview emerges: the spiritual and unmanifest must first take center stage from the material and economic in human thought. This will happen when people in many fields acknowledge the unmanifest as the basis of the manifest. In another presentation, Western Sufi leader Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan urged his listeners to cast aside dependence on outer forms, standards, habits, and commonplace assumptions in order to discover their true identity. He implied that the awakened move away from being defined by others and by social norms as they move toward their essential selfhood.

Here it is well to ask what the basis of ethical standards is. Are they divine commandments, revelation, or a social contract of human convenience? Do they depend on religious or social authority? Theosophically, ethics are a human expression of the realities underlying the cosmos. When we live in accordance with cosmic habits or laws, harmony results. When we act contrary to universal processes, we create conflict and disharmony which are reflected back on us and our surroundings. Ethics are those principles of human behavior that lead to our living in harmony with the source of the material world and with all other beings. Because we are one in essence with the spiritual source of all, ethics ultimately derive from the core of our own being.

Can ethics in this sense be enforced by a group mandating or forbidding specific behavior for everyone? We may wonder also whether leading a spiritual life is the same as conforming to a particular religious ethic, or whether it arises from a growing individual identification with the transcendent reality underlying the observable world. "A Global Ethic" recognizes that "Earth cannot be changed for the better unless we achieve a transformation in the consciousness of individuals and in public life"; yet the tendency in such projects is to forget that all people are directly connected with the divine, not just a favored few experts, leaders, and sages.

A more basic problem with the document's approach lies in the fact that, while such strictures may affect outward behavior, they seek to suppress the symptoms of human problems rather than to correct their causes. The fundamental causes of unethical behavior are ignorance, selfishness, greed, anger, envy -- the negative, misdirected side of human nature. Finding ways to transform these qualities is an issue spiritual teachers have grappled with for millennia. While the document acknowledges this aspect, as far as recognizing that religions can provide a "change in the inner orientation, the whole mentality, the 'hearts' of people," the emphasis reflects Kung's view that "the one world in which we live has a chance of survival only if there is no longer any room in it for spheres of differing, contradictory and even antagonistic ethics (Global Responsibility, p. 138)."

Complicating the picture, most of us are creatures of habit who seek to avoid the burden of independent thought and responsibility for our actions. Millions prefer to be told what is right and wrong, good and evil, proper and forbidden, and then seek to impose on everyone else the code they have chosen. There is little understanding of the causes behind individual differences in character and choice of spiritual path. In pandering to this indolence, ignorance, and desire for conformity, many religions do indeed become the "opiate of the people" and a means by which the few control the many.

How can we solve the tremendous problems facing our globe, problems rooted in an imperfectly developed human nature? Proposing "a fundamental consensus on binding values, irrevocable standards, and personal attitudes" in support of detailed socioeconomic reforms reflects both a focus on effects and the attitude of some that global problems have reached a crisis necessitating top-down implementation of measures which sweep aside the individual's innate right to his own unique spiritual vision and path. Though some objectionable forms of behavior might lessen, this strategy will fail in its larger goals -- because to improve human behavior we must first address its origins in human hearts and minds by transmuting human consciousness from within.

The most vital contribution of religion to solving world problems is precisely in opening individuals to a spiritually-based sympathy for all. By inspiring people to identify with that which transcends ordinary self-awareness and physical reality, it reawakens us to that inner reality which is the unseen cause of material conditions. Personal awareness of the transcendent leads to love for it, and this naturally results in positive thought and behavior. Such love is a far stronger force in transforming human nature than fear or even the prospect of achieving long-term personal or global benefits. Exploring ways of sparking the divine aspect of individuals into activity, and of eliciting a spiritual response to human problems from the widest possible number of people, seem a more fruitful field for interfaith discussion than trying to establish "irrevocable, unconditional ethical norms" globally.

Undeniably it is time for world religions to take further steps toward cooperation and greater usefulness to humanity, but these steps should be in the right direction. Will we deal with the causes of human problems or merely with their effects? Will we emphasize the individual spiritual attainment of all human beings, or seek to impose dicta? Along one course lies human evolution and inner freedom; along the other, the danger of increasing religious dogmatism and spiritual and social totalitarianism. It is up to each of us to look within ourselves in order to determine what our contribution to improving global conditions should be.

(From Sunrise magazine, October/November 1993. Copyright © 1993 by theosophical University Press.)

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