An Emerging New World Ethic

Hans Küng
Global Responsibility: In Search of a New World Ethic
Crossroad, 1991

There can be no ongoing human society without a world ethic for the nations.
There can be no peace among the nations without peace among the religions.
There can be no peace among the religions without dialogue between the religions.

It certainly is clear that Küng is a self-critical and apologetic theologian.  That’s fine, and much better than an unself-critical theologian. This book’s theme is stated above, but what he is basically calling for is a coalition of believers and non-believers who put human fulfillment at the top of their ethical agenda.  In this way, though, he reminds me of something from Rosemary Ruether—the criterion for determining one’s response to Scripture should be:  does this promote the well-being of women?  If it doesn’t, she averred, then one can say that it is not normative.

Of course, well over 200 years after Voltaire, this sounds obvious, banal, and a bit belated.  Nevertheless, I think this is what different religions are catching up to (at last):  Hence liberation theology is all about promoting, not theology as Sobrino and Gutierrez put it, but liberation, the liberation of the humanum from desperate oppression and the countless indignities forced upon masses of people everyday by the system of injustice (now conceded to be much more than the capitalist system, though that is a still obvious major system).   Likewise, Israel Shahak’s work which, although he himself is now out of the sphere of explicit religiosity (and into, I would critically say, modernity, and not yet able, like Richard Falk, to see the good religion can offer beside the ritualistic intonation done by so many secular Jews [even C.P. Otero] of the value of the  prophets), has a prophetic character because he, too, is concerned with the protection of the humanum, given his critique of Jewish tradition.  Hence, Nhat Hanh’s engagement of Buddhism with society and his reformulation of the ancient five precepts that,  I think,  serve well as a concrete example of the basic orientation, a set of ethical guidelines (which can be found in other traditions, what Nhat Hanh  calls the “jewels” of each tradition), which faces up to the real world of social (not just private) suffering.  The task is to find ways, as he writes in Living Buddha, Living Christ, and For a Future to be Possible not to make dogmatic assertions, but to renew, re-novate the religious traditions of the West to make them pertinent to living in today’s [postmodern] society and to provide guidance and inspiration for living a fully human life.  Also, in the global context today, such precepts can lay the foundation for a dissident civic virtue that has as its sovereignty not that of the militarized state, but that of a future society (Bloch’s principle of hope).

So, HK argues that religion (shades of Does God Exist?) can provide the basis for rational trust in the Supreme reality (the unconditioned) and hence undergird ethics; he argues further that religions must be able to promote (with self-criticism) the humanum and cease violating their own canonical texts and betraying their own holy figures with violence towards the Other; and he argues that real dialogue must take place between religions.  While this is fine and ambitious as far as it goes, he says next to nothing that I can recall about the need for dialogue within religious tradition, to wit, specifically in the social context of culture wars between — OK it’s a bit simplistically schematic — the liberals and conservatives.  Or is there the implication in HK’s thought that by adopting an inside and outside perspective one can even appreciate the truth of one’s own co-religionist from whom one is estranged (HK from the Pope, obviously).

HK addresses concerns that are the center of my disenchantment with Z Magazine, which can’t countenance the positive dimension of religion(s); they are stuck, as Casanova would explain, in the lop-sided Enlightenment critique of religion which they liken to today’s fundamentalism.  Obviously, religion can be a force for much evil, but so has it been a force for meaning, solidarity, justice.  Am I becoming a thoughtless apologist?

He also reminds me of Tracy’s work, especially on religion’s ambiguity, its two faces, from Pat Robertson to Dan Berrigan.  I am also challenged by his 4th ecumenical strategy — the need for steadfastness and openness — as I think so many of the religious figures to whom I am attracted embodied these traits, yet I have tended toward the second strategy of leveling down differences (Eknath Easwaran does this explicitly, ignoring that there are prophetic, mystical, and wisdom traditions, which are not the same).  And I am challenged to take seriously his  call for research into the basics, the paradigms of the religious traditions, which is why the book would be good to include in an intro to World Religions at Webster University.  

Actually, as I think about it, I could use this book as an introduction to  his book, Christianity, in the Theological Foundations course.  And thus, I can  push the envelope to see how using the dissident Küng goes over at SLU, just up the street from the Lindell cathedral.

Journal, 1.29.1999

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